University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Aysegul Keskin Zeren

As the war against ISIS unfolds, acknowledging the conditions and events that paved the way for ISIS is crucial for rethinking strategy. As a result of a decade of instability in Iraq and more than three years of civil war in Syria, ISIS had fertile grounds and a strong support base to gain power in a wide stretch of territory in the regions. The ability of ISIS to gain significant popular support in Iraq particularly reveals how the policy of de-Ba`thification aided the rise of this extremist group.


The official de-Ba`thification process was initiated by the first two orders of the Coalition Provisional Authority in April 2003. The targets of these orders were high-level Ba`th party officials, Ba`thist leadership in public institutions, and entities that symbolized the Saddam Hussein era such as the Iraqi Army.

During the implementation of the de-Ba`thification procedures, U.S. officials made a major mistake by labeling the Ba`th party as exclusively Sunni. Even though many Sunnis were represented in the party’s upper ranks and the leadership structures of the military and security services, the Ba`th party had a significant number of Shi`i, Christian, and Kurdish members. Tribal connections and loyalty to Saddam Hussein were more important than any ethnic/religious/sectarian affiliation.

The ill-informed decisions of American policy makers created a great opportunity for émigrés (mainly Shi`i) to manipulate the U.S. narrative by enhancing the perception that decreased Sunni representation in the government would equal decreased Ba`thist influence on the system. Yet throwing teachers, professors, doctors, engineers, scientists and those experienced in running day-to-day functions of Iraq out onto the street paralyzed the Iraqi government machine. Moreover, leaving experienced and armed military personnel unemployed led to a massive security gap.

After the administration of de-Ba`thification was transferred to the Iraqis, it was used to promulgate sectarian agendas and satisfy personal political gains. It became the campaign catchphrase for Shi`i parties since being harsh on Ba`thists brought more votes. Especially after the official withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq, the government of Nuri al-Maliki extended the scope of de-Ba`thification and specifically targeted Sunnis.

Throughout the last decade, de-Ba`thification instilled a thinking that became more dangerous than Ba`thism and left the country in a never-ending purgatory. Its arbitrary implementation under the control of politicized, vengeful, and corrupt institutions resulted in structural violence against Sunnis.


Today, the majority of former Ba`thists and Sunnis support ISIS. This collaboration does not necessarily mean that they are fighting for the same goal or share the same ideology. Therefore, it is very important to understand the dynamics of this relationship.

First, the Sunni tribes fighting alongside ISIS do not fight for the establishment of an Islamic state. Their enemy is the Shi`i government in Baghdad, and they will continue to fight until the government becomes truly inclusive. Al-Abadi’s government is more inclusive than Al-Maliki’s, but key ministries such as the interior ministry are still under the control of Shi`is. Second, it is not correct to assume that ISIS represents legitimate (de-Ba`thified) Sunni interests just because some Sunni tribes and former Ba`th officials are in coalition with ISIS. This is not only a wrong generalization but also an act of insult against the Sunni tribes, such as Al-Bu Nimr, which have suffered and sacrificed in the fight against ISIS.


The US-led military strikes have not provided tangible success in Iraq and Syria. Despite the airstrikes, ISIS has taken over control of much of Anbar province. The Syrian border city Kobani is still under ISIS attack. Furthermore, the airstrikes are worsening the already excruciating refugee crisis in the region.

The new Iraqi government and international actors should see the loose coalition between the Sunnis (and former Ba’athists) and ISIS as an opportunity. There should be strategic negotiations with the Sunni tribes, but these negotiations will require extensive trust-building and creative-thinking. If the U.S. government leads these negotiations, it has to be cautious in order to avoid the repetition of past mistakes. The reintegration of Sunnis into public life and collaboration with them in the war against ISIS is vital for long-term success.

Aysegul Keskin Zeren is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Conflict Analysis and Transformation at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.