Yesterday I posted about Kenneth Pollack’s valuable Iraq Military Situation Report that appeared June 14 on the website of the Brookings Institution where he’s a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy . He explains the gains of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (or Syria, or the Levant) have been relatively easy because they were in primarily Sunni territories. But now, with ISIS stalled outside Baghdad, between Shia resistance increased on its own territory and help from Iran and the United States, he foresees a stalemate leading to a war of attrition.
Among other insights in the report that may be new to you as they were me was that Sunni militants, as exemplified by Isis, as a subhead of his report reads, “are Militias First and Foremost, Terrorists only a Distant Second.”
Here as well, Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists like to refer to the Sunni militants as terrorists. Too often, so too do American officials. Without getting into arcane and useless debates about what constitutes a “terrorist,” as a practical matter it is a mistake to think of these groups as being principally a bunch of terrorists.
The problem there is that that implies that what these guys mostly want to do is to blow up buildings or planes elsewhere around the world, and particularly American buildings and planes.
… Somewhere down the road, they probably will begin to mount terrorist attacks against other countries from their secure areas in Iraq and Syria.
Then, what’s motivating them?
They are looking to conquer territory.
Yes, conquering is still a thing. Ye olde Islamic Caliphate. Furthermore, Pollack writes:
… this is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging [a] civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) … They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics.
Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign.
Why is it crucial to make clear that they’re not primarily terrorists? Pollack:
That is important because defining the Sunni militants as terrorists implies that they need to be attacked immediately and directly by the United States. Seeing them [as] a sectarian militia waging a civil war, puts the emphasis on where it needs to be: finding an integrated political-military solution to the internal Iraqi problems that sparked the civil war. And that is a set of problems that is unlikely to be solved by immediate, direct American attacks on the Sunni militants.
Indeed, he writes:
. . . such attacks could easily make the situation worse.