May 28, 2015

CNAS Press Note: The United States Must Expand Influence with Sunni Arab Tribes

By Nicholas Heras

In response to vigorous debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq following ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi, Middle East Research Associate Nicholas Heras has written a new Press Note arguing that the United States should expand its influence with Sunni Arab tribes.

The full Press Note is below:

To defeat ISIS, the United States must expand its lines of influence into the Sunni Arab tribal population of eastern Syria and actively support nascent, local tribal insurgencies against ISIS in the Syrian-Iraqi border region.

ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq without being simultaneously defeated in Syria. Its significant territorial possessions in eastern Syria's Deir al-Zor and al-Hasakah governorate provide it with the vital ability to actively resupply and reinforce its battlefronts in both countries as needed. Further, tribal confederations that span both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border, such as the Aqaidat, Baggara, Shammar, Dulaim, and Jabbour, will view the impact of political developments in Iraq and Syria on the Sunni community to make determinations on whether to continue to provide a social foundation for ISIS rule. 

However, in spite of its strong effort to install itself as the state authority with a monopoly of violence in eastern Syria, ISIS faces resistance. Local tribes, such as the Al-Sha'ytat of the Syrian-Iraqi border region of Abu Kamal in Deir al-Zor, have risen in open revolt against ISIS, although these revolts have been brutally suppressed. Angered by ISIS' rule, hardened rebel fighters from local tribal groups including Al-Sha'ytat have formed the "White Shroud Brigade" network, which is waging a cautious, irregular warfare campaign against ISIS. 

In the near term, U.S. and regional partners should seriously explore the feasibility of utilizing the White Shroud Brigade network. In particular, the United States should determine if the network can orient its operations to target and harass ISIS' supply and communication lines between Syria and Iraq and facilitate the transfer of arms, financial, and humanitarian assistance to local tribal groups, such as the al-Shaytat, that have shown the courage to risk displacement and massacre to combat ISIS. Using these lines, the United States and its regional partners can encourage and sustain support for rebellions against ISIS rule in eastern Syria. They should also vet and incorporate several brigades of fighters drawn from the Syria-Iraq border regions to participate in the train-and-equip program. The goal of this effort would be to build out a beachhead of liberated territory in the Syria-Iraq border region where trained and equipped fighters from the region can be reinserted to support revolts against ISIS by local tribal groups as well as a coherent, networked, and momentum-building armed opposition campaign that can be sustained against ISIS' key lines of resupply and reinforcement between Syria and Iraq.

Mr. Heras is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9409.

  • Nicholas Heras

    Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. He is also a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Found...