In recent days, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi issued a statement claiming victory in the (realistically still-ongoing) battle against the Islamic State in Northern Iraq. Abadi’s statement came after Iraqi Security Forces recaptured the site of the recently-destroyed al Nuri mosque; the site of Abu Bakr al Baghadi’s 2014 Caliphate proclamation that was razed by retreating Islamic State fighters in mid-June. Despite Abaidi’s claim, along with recent reports surrounding the death of Baghdadi and the general retreat of the geographical Islamic State across the Levant region, victory in Iraq may spell the beginning of the country’s unraveling.
The recent destruction of the al Nuri mosque highlights many of Iraq’s deep-set problems, which are currently being overlooked in favour of the looming threat posed by IS, and will require urgent solutions following the battlefield defeat of the Caliphate. Video imagery has surfaced reportedly showing Shi’a troops celebrating the destruction of the important Sunni religious site, and divisions between rival sectarian blocs are likely to severely damage the integrity of post-Caliphate Iraq. Reconciliation between the two major ethno-sectarian blocs will be difficult to achieve given the brutal nature of the conflict so far, coupled with domestic political rivalries that are exacerbated by the wider struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Following victory declarations, Iraq will almost certainly see widespread revenge killings and drawn out conflict between the Sunni tribes of Northern Iraq and Shi’a militias controlling liberated IS towns.
Internationally, the US-led coalition has stated that international forces will remain in Iraq after IS is defeated on the battlefield to prevent a resurgence of Sunni militancy. However, this will almost certainly be perceived as an occupying force both by Iranian-sponsored Shi’a forces across Iraq and by Sunni groups in the country’s North, and will likely be met with continued militancy across the country.
While the territorial defeat of IS will continue to be seen as “victory”, and will be seized upon by regional leaders for political point-scoring (as seen by Abadi’s regular donning of Iraqi military uniforms during the northern campaign), the reality is that the group is simply likely to revert to a traditional insurgency, which will exploit and thus exacerbate Iraq’s ethno-sectarian tensions.
Further complicating the matter is the divisive issue of Kurdish independence. While this has already been de facto achieved, a formal declaration is now all but certain to emerge following the collapse of the Caliphate; a feat that will be achieved thanks in part to the heavy role played by the Kurdish Peshmerga in the conflict. The Kurdistan Regional Government has announced that it will hold a referendum on the topic of independence in September of this year, which will controversially include non-homogeneous territories beyond traditionally Kurdish lands that have been captured in the fight against IS. These contentious areas are recognised as part of Federal Iraq, but have been under Kurdish control since 2014 when IS’ initial expansion was reversed in Iraq’s Northeast by the Peshmerga. These areas include oil-rich provinces such as Kirkuk, meaning that Erbil now controls significant hydrocarbons infrastructure and reserves claimed historically by Baghdad.
The damage to the agricultural “breadbasket” of northern Iraq and eastern Syria will have profound long-term consequences
While the referendum will be legally non-binding, and senior Kurdish officials have outright stated that a ‘yes’ vote would not mean an automatic declaration of independence, a positive result would significantly strengthen the Kurds’ position in self-determination negotiations. Although Erbil has repeatedly emphasised that they will seek a mutually beneficial partnership with Baghdad, a result supporting Kurdish independence would increase existing tensions and the risk of military conflict over the issue. This will also likely cause regional ripples; Turkey, Syria and Iran have previously expressed their own opposition to Kurdish independence, fearing it may encourage similar movements from their own restive Kurdish populations. Should the coming referendum result show support for independence, Ankara, Damascus and Tehran will almost certainly view the development as negative and may make moves to isolate Erbil. Turkey, which has traditionally been supportive of Erbil’s status as an autonomous part of Federal Iraq, would likely change course and seek to isolate a fully-independent Kurdish government by restricting or banning the export of oil from Kurdistan through Turkey’s territory, dramatically restricting Erbil’s revenue-generating abilities and limiting export options.
Domestically for Iraq, former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is also generating problems in the post-Caliphate political landscape, most likely as part of his ambitious pre-election manoeuvring ahead of 2018. Maliki appears at this stage to be plotting a return to power despite widespread unpopularity and a limited depth of political support. Ahead of the 2018 elections, influential Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr is also likely to call for continued protests over stalled electoral reform, which in turn will continue to disrupt Baghdad.
Economically, the nation also remains in ruins. Even if the shattered hydrocarbons infrastructure of Iraq is rebuilt, low oil prices will continue to keep Baghdad in a state of financial collapse. A mass return to civilian life by demobilising fighters will also add to unemployment concerns, especially in Iraq’s South where large numbers of Shi’a militiamen have been called up to join the battle in the North. This will place significant pressure on Baghdad, and will simultaneously risk reconciliation efforts while providing ample recruitment opportunities for militant groups looking to exploit the fragile post-conflict environment. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the presence of large numbers of unemployed working-age men in areas such as Southern Iraq is also likely to exacerbate the problem by dissuading foreign investment as hydrocarbons companies remain wary of the risks surrounding violent local job-demand protest activity following similar experiences in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.
The anti-IS battle in the fertile Euphrates and Tigris regions throughout this past winter planting season has also resulted in a sharp drop in agricultural output this year, which will bring major humanitarian consequences alongside economic troubles. The damage to the agricultural “breadbasket” of northern Iraq and eastern Syria will have profound long-term consequences on the population of the region, and will cause increased regional migration, which in turn will bring further urban and inter-ethnic instability to a country already heavily burdened by conflict refugees.
Beyond Iraq, the Islamic State is unlikely to cease its campaign of global terror. In reality, the group made the conscious decision (as demonstrated by the changing attitudes to terrorism in Europe over several issues of Dabiq magazine) to morph from a territorially-focused militant movement to a more traditional cellular terrorist organisation specifically because of the looming defeat it now faces in the Levant. By transitioning from a would-be physical Caliphate with formal hierarchical structure to a more ideologically-focused terror “brand” inspiring attacks globally, the group has achieved a level of resilience that was unlikely to survive conventional conflict. While attempts to establish second-generation Caliphates in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia have seen mixed results, these regions lack the historical significance to Islamism of the Levant and as such are unlikely to be seen as more than local security issues.
The result of all of these factors is clear; the defeat of the Islamic State on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, while a relief for the liberated civilian populations trapped under the group’s barbaric rule, is not the end of the region’s problems. At this stage it appears more likely that the end of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will also see the start of the unraveling of Iraq as it currently lies on the modern map.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently focuses on MENA-region geopolitical and security analysis.
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Photo credit: U.S. DoD/Sgt. Cody Quinn, CJTF – OIR PA