Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 2 minutes

Iraq: The Battle to Come

As an eight-month battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is coming to an end in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City, a parallel battle to defeat its fighters in the Syrian town of Raqqa is gathering force. But further battles await: downstream along the Euphrates in Deir al-Zour, in the vast desert that spans the Iraq–Syria border, and in a large chunk of territory west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. To members of the US-led coalition and to Western audiences, this has been a necessary military campaign, directed at a jihadist group whose brutal methods and ambition to carry out attacks in western capitals pose an intolerable threat.

To local people, the picture is decidedly different. ISIS’s military defeat, which Western officials believe will come sometime later this year or early next, will hardly put an end to the conflicts that gave rise to the group. For much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s. The deeper conflicts here—between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves—will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.

When ISIS conquered Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab areas three years ago, it faced off with Kurdish forces along a frontline that ran through the middle of what one might call the borderlands between Arab Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital, and Kurdish Iraq, which is governed from Erbil in the north. Kurdish leaders claim that significant parts of these so-called disputed territories are “Kurdistani,” by which they mean that even if the local population is not majority-Kurdish, it nevertheless should be incorporated into the Kurdish region—and thus into a desired future Kurdish state. Many local Arabs, on the other hand, insist that these areas are inalienably Iraqi and must remain under Baghdad’s authority.

The problem of the disputed territories was recognized in the post-2003 Iraqi constitution, which laid out a plan for resolving their status. That never came to pass. Then, ISIS’s arrival provided Kurdish leaders with what they thought was an opportunity to settle the matter in their favor, having gained considerable territory in the fight against the jihadist group. But this has only inflamed tensions further.

Kurdish leaders rightly see ISIS as the result of an ideological marriage between Arab chauvinists and Islamist radicals, both equally intolerant of the ethnic and religious “other,” with the religious strand currently dominant. But many Kurds fail to appreciate that among Sunni Arabs in northern Iraq, ISIS also draws on anger over Kurdish actions in the disputed territories, especially around Mosul and in Kirkuk. With the central government weak, many of these local Arabs appear to accept the protection of just about any political group that will keep the Kurds away, even if that group is ISIS.

It is important to remember that ISIS began in Iraq and that the majority of its leadership and followers are Iraqi (even if it was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian); it has been able to attract foreign elements mainly because of its willingness to fight the Syrian regime and its pledge to establish a caliphate. ISIS’s military defeat may take care of the foreign component, but surviving Iraqi followers, deeply enmeshed in the local population through family and tribal ties, will pose a long-term challenge, including in the disputed territories.

Read the full article at The New York Review of Books.

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