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Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm
Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm
The Killing of Former President Saleh Could Worsen Yemen’s War
The Killing of Former President Saleh Could Worsen Yemen’s War

Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm

The Islamic State’s defeat is looming, and with it a host of diverse challenges overshadow Iraq’s future, ranging from outright confrontation between Erbil and Baghdad to the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of myriad armed groups previously involved in the anti-ISIS campaign. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support the Erbil government to exit the current political crisis and encourage security sector reform in Iraq as a whole.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Third Update.

With the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) drawing near, Iraq faces dramatic new challenges. On 16 October, Iraqi federal forces marched onto Kirkuk, helped by a deal with one of the Kurdish parties, and retook the city and Kirkuk’s oil fields. The action was prompted by a referendum on Kurdish independence staged by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on 25 September within its territory and in areas disputed with Baghdad. The “yes” vote was overwhelming, and thus held out the threat of eventual secession. In its aftermath, the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi saw the need to reassert Iraqi sovereignty over the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, ahead of (still unscheduled) legislative elections next year. This is because of an intra-Shiite competition that has been unfolding in Baghdad, involving military and political factions with longstanding ties to Iran that were empowered by the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish-Arab standoff and the intra-Shiite rivalry intersect and reinforce each other.

The involvement of a plethora of armed groups in the fight against ISIS, alongside state agencies that respond to different chains of command, has created a hyper-militarised environment that further undermines Iraq’s already weak legal framework. Political actors jockeying for power in the post-ISIS environment may be tempted to exploit this fragmentation and to expand their leverage by pushing toward further escalation. To prevent a collapse of Iraq’s post-2003 political system, substantial reforms are required. The EU can play a key role in such an effort. While the anti-ISIS campaign operated primarily on the military level and was largely conducted in the framework of the U.S.-led coalition, the next steps involve areas where the EU has strong expertise and capacities, namely reconstruction and security sector reform.

A messy governing and security framework

Despite its military achievements, the anti-ISIS campaign has had the unintended effect of arming and training security forces that operate outside formal institutions in both Iraq and the Kurdistan region. Western countries’ largely unconditional military support and lack of a common and clear political roadmap for the post-ISIS period have not helped. The control that various militarised groups exercise over parts of the country challenges Baghdad’s authority and sovereignty. Without conditionality, reconstruction aid to ravaged areas may be hijacked by the militias that control them, further entrenching their rule, with adverse effects for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and governance.

Baghdad-Erbil: From standstill to standoff to violence

The Kurdish independence referendum raised the Kurds’ expectations of statehood while severely damaging relations between Erbil and Baghdad. It led Baghdad to shift from a lukewarm-cooperative to an openly confrontational approach as a way to show resolve in defending Iraq’s territorial integrity. Abadi felt he could move to regain control of the disputed territories because he realised he had the support of both Iran and Turkey (an ally of the KRG until the referendum), as well as the U.S. All three were angered by Barzani’s rejection of their repeated requests that he agree to delay the referendum. The challenge now will be to return to political talks about the future of the disputed territories; settling the internal-boundary question will be critical to bringing long-term stability to these troubled areas.

A blocked political system

Political tensions and institutional weakness will remain endemic as long as Iraq fails to reduce corruption and refresh a leadership that has ruled since 2003. To shore up declining popular support, leaders engage in confrontational rhetoric and strategies, exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tension and inviting external interference. This stands as the largest obstacle to addressing outstanding issues, such as the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad, the Sunnis’ crisis of representation, and the broken trust in Iraq’s legal framework, institutions and formal politics. In particular among young Iraqis, this adds to the urge to either join armed groups or leave the country altogether. (See Crisis Group MENA Report N°169, Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000”, 8 August 2016)

An EU role in reshaping the post-ISIS period

At its June 2017 Foreign Affairs Council the EU reiterated its commitment to support Iraq during the post-ISIS period. Beyond responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis, the EU should seek to tailor this support in ways that help address the underlying causes of the current political malaise, notably the corruption and dysfunction of the Baghdad government, the corruption and succession quarrel within the Kurdistan regional government, the crisis of Sunni representation, and the Baghdad-Erbil standoff. Through its upcoming EU Strategy for engagement with Iraq and subsequent action, the EU should pursue:

Humanitarian and reconstruction aid as part of a political strategy: EU assistance should be guided by the overarching political goal to transform a militia-dominated environment into more effective governance by state institutions. To this end, aid and reconstruction should aim to break local communities’ security and financial dependence on the various militia leaderships that emerged from the anti-ISIS campaign. Local governance institutions linked to and funded by the central state or the Kurdistan regional government should be partners of first choice. Strengthening those institutions may also make it possible to integrate local armed factions (of Sunnis as well as minority groups) into the local police and other security forces, thus breaking Shiite militias’ monopoly over security, which has fuelled resentment and could reignite support for jihadists who are currently lying low. In the disputed territories, EU reconstruction assistance could be conditioned upon acceptance by both Erbil and Baghdad of a renewed UN-led process (see below) to resolve the questions of these territories’ status and the sharing of revenues generated from the oil extracted there. The way forward should include a return to a shared security mechanism between Erbil’s peshmerga ministry and Baghdad’s defence ministry in the most sensitive areas.

Reorganisation of the security sector: In the post-ISIS phase, the EU should assist Iraq and the Kurdistan region in integrating chains of command and bringing the range of formal and informal armed groups under the purview of the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga ministry. Through its new Advisory Mission for security sector reform (EUAM), the EU can contribute its member states’ extensive experience in this field to enhance efforts by other international actors (NATO, UNDP) to help the federal government and Kurdistan Regional Government reorganise their respective security forces. In particular, the duties and purview of various security bodies (Counter-terrorism Forces, Iraqi Army, National Police, Kurdish peshmerga forces and Kurdish Asayesh security police), as well as the status of new outfits such as the Shiite militias, need to be defined.

Leadership regeneration: Post-ISIS stabilisation also hinges on a renewal of the political leadership in Baghdad and Erbil by committing both capitals to free, fair and timely elections. Thanks to its established network in civil society organisations, the EU can encourage the participation of new political actors by engaging in leadership training for members of informal, non-violent protest movements, who have challenged the political elite in the recent past, and identify new youth-led civil society groups and volunteer organisations – even if they have emerged under the umbrella of, or enjoy ties to, the Shiite militias – and facilitate their integration into local governance institutions and established political parties.

Iraq’s Territorial Integrity. The EU should use its diplomatic and economic weight to help revive negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil over the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) question. Settling the endemic instability in these areas is crucial to both sides regardless of the ultimate disposition of Kurdistan. Talks should be led by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) based on its important but still unused 2009 study and proposals on that subject. To this end it should work to refocus UNAMI’s mandate (through a Security Council resolution). This is also an issue that Turkey, a support of the earlier UNAMI effort, has found of great interest and would almost certainly wish to engage Erbil on.

 

Huthi rebel fighters inspect the damage after a reported air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition targeted the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 5 December 2017. Mohammed Huwais/AFP

The Killing of Former President Saleh Could Worsen Yemen’s War

The dramatic collapse of the Huthi-Saleh alliance is likely to prolong Yemen’s war and the suffering of its people. After killing former President Saleh, the Huthis, viewed by their enemies in Riyadh as Iranian proxies, are firmly in control of the capital. Neither they, nor the Saudis, are in a mood for compromise.

What exactly happened and what led up to this sudden twist in Yemen's devastating war?

On 4 December, Huthi fighters killed Yemen’s former president and their erstwhile ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His violent death and the military defeat of his loyalists in Sanaa were the culmination of months of growing tensions between Saleh’s General People’s Congress party (GPC) and the Huthis. Before coming to blows, the Huthi-Saleh alliance had fought the Saudi-led coalition, which is backing the internationally recognised government of Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to a stalemate. After nearly three years of war, including a punishing air campaign and a policy of economic strangulation, they still controlled the north, where the majority of Yemen’s population lives. It came at a high human cost: Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with seven million on the brink of famine, over three million internally displaced and an expected one million cases of cholera by the end of the year.

The Huthis and Saleh had a history of distrust and violence, fighting six rounds of conflict between 2004 and 2009. As partners against the Saudi-led coalition, they fought over positions in the government, accused each other of corruption and engaged in an off-and-on again war of words in the media. Overtime, the Huthis consolidated control over the military-security apparatus, but the exact balance of power in the tribes and loyalties within some military units were unclear. By August 2017, when Saleh staged a rally in Sanaa to celebrate the GPC’s 35th anniversary, the Huthis suspected he was planning to turn against them with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To his followers’ disappointment, Saleh failed to act, but four months later he did, a decision that would cost him his life and confirm the Huthis’ military superiority.

The trigger for the violence was a 29 November clash between Saleh fighters and Huthi loyalists over control of the Saleh Mosque, a major landmark in the capital that was built and opened by Saleh a decade ago. Local mediation failed to cool tensions and on 2 December, Saleh lit a match by calling his followers to take up arms against the Huthis. He also announced his willingness to “turn a new page” with the Saudi-led coalition, a statement that confirmed his treachery to the Huthis and played poorly with some of his base, who oppose the Huthis but Saudi military actions in Yemen even more.

For a brief moment, it looked like Saleh could win. The GPC and Saudi-led coalition media outlets reported victories in Sanaa, saying that Saleh’s Republican Guard forces had taken over the airport, strategic military bases and government buildings. But their euphoria was short-lived. On 3 December, the Huthis responded militarily and by 4 December a short, bloody battle on the streets of the capital had turned the tables on Saleh’s forces. Critically, the tribes around Sanaa failed to come to Saleh’s defense. Most remained neutral, allowing Huthi reinforcements to enter the city. While Saleh and his party enjoyed a great deal of popular support and sympathy, this did not translate into a hard-power advantage.

What has been local players’ reaction to his death?

The most common reaction is shock. Saleh has been part of Yemen’s ruling structure since he became president in 1978. He was known as a wily political survivor, hated by some and loved by others. Many had been calling on him to leave political life since the political uprising against him in 2011, but his violent death and the lack of any clear leadership for his party will likely complicate the conflict.

For the GPC, Saleh’s death and his forces’ military defeat in Sanaa are devastating political and military blows. Saleh’s son and former Republican Guard Commander Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh is in exile. His nephew and former Special Forces Commander Tareq Saleh was also killed in Sanaa. The party had already suffered a series of defections in the popular uprising against his rule in 2011, and it is very possible that it will fragment even further. During the current war, some prominent members supported the Hadi government, although most stayed with Saleh. With Saleh gone, some may join Hadi’s side, while many in Sanaa will support the Huthis, mainly from a mix of fear, lack of better options and common hostility to the Saudi air campaign.

For the Huthis, his death is viewed as a victory. Many in the group had long wanted revenge for the death of their leader, Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Huthi, at the hands of President Saleh’s forces in 2004. Equally important, they see it as a justified response to Saleh’s about-face against them.

Does this alter Yemen’s local balance of power?

For the moment, the Huthis are the winners and it is possible that they will continue to consolidate military and political control of the north. They have defeated their only real competitor on the ground and in doing so have intimidated those who may want to oppose them in the future. But there also are important risks for them. Killing Saleh, his family members and high-ranking party members, plus continued Huthi raids on homes and detention of GPC officials suspected of taking up arms against them, is feeding future cycles of revenge.

The Huthis are aware of the political risks of alienating the GPC even further and are publicly making a distinction between Saleh supporters who took up arms against them and the rest of the party, whom they say they will not hold responsible for recent events and still consider brothers. But statements cannot undo actions. The majority of the GPC is afraid and deeply resentful, creating a situation in which the Huthis may increasingly have to rely on force and intimidation to maintain control.

There is a chance that the military balance in the north could still shift – albeit a small one. Some are pinning their hopes on Saleh’s son Ahmed who vowed revenge for this father’s death. The UAE kept him under “soft” house arrest in Abu Dhabi during the war to have him available as back-up, a kind of wild card, for a moment like this. While he is influential within the old Republican Guard, the most recent events demonstrated these forces’ weakness and disarray. Opposing the Huthis militarily would require some reconstitution of these troops, support from the tribes around Sanaa and cooperation between Ahmed Ali and his bitter enemy, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the vice president under Hadi, who commands forces in Marib.

Thus far, and despite media bluster from Hadi calling for troops to march on Sanaa or for Yemenis to rise up against the Huthis, there is little indication that troops are prepared for such action. Instead, the coalition has intensified its air campaign in Sanaa, something that will not dislodge the Huthis and works to their advantage by increasing anti-Saudi sentiment.

How does the splintering of the Huthi-Saleh alliance affect the regional actors engaged in the war and the prospects for peace?

It is difficult to see how this result plays to the advantage of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Their policy of trying to split the Huthi-Saleh alliance has backfired dramatically, resulting in a Huthi military victory. As Crisis Group warned in a September 2017 briefing, the result of a clash between the two sides would be unlikely to redound in Saudi’s favor. More likely, it would produce a Huthi win or a protracted fight in the north.

If Saudi Arabia wanted to support a negotiated end to the war, the prospects for doing so now have become bleaker. The Huthis have said they are ready to talk, but their substantive demands will no doubt be even more out of line with what Saudi Arabia and their Yemeni allies are willing to accept. It is difficult to see Saudi Arabia encouraging compromise and negotiation at this stage now that the Huthis are clearly in charge.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE may try to find a silver lining in recent events. From their perspective, without the cover of Saleh’s GPC and the veneer of nationalism that came with it, the Huthis will be exposed as the narrow, sectarian Iranian project that the coalition and their Yemeni allies accuse them of being. To some extent, they are right that the GPC provided important political cover and the appearance of political inclusion. But the narrowing of political support for the Huthis will not necessarily trigger the popular uprising that the coalition hopes to incite.

In fact, absent a clear military advantage for the anti-Huthi side or an end to the war and a return to politics, populations in the north are now far less likely to oppose the Huthis, lest they face the same fate as Saleh. Over time, opposition to the Huthis may well rise, especially if they fail to govern adequately, but this does not guarantee revolt. Also, the split with Saleh’s GPC does not erase widespread and deep popular resentment toward the Hadi government and the coalition for a brutal air campaign and economic blockade that are killing the country. As long as these policies continue, the Huthis will have the opportunity to stand behind the banner of nationalism and defending Yemen.

Iran once again stands to gain. While the Huthi-Saleh fighting was an internal power struggle not of Iran’s making, Tehran will benefit if the Huthis succeed in consolidating their control of the north, including the capital. Politically isolated, the Huthis are allies but not puppets of Iran. There is increasing evidence of Iranian military support to the Huthis, including for their missile program. The 4 November rocket attack on Riyadh’s international airport shows the significance of this capability. The Huthis have threatened the UAE as well, claiming to have launched missiles in its direction.  Iran’s relatively low-cost investment is paying off in spades, bogging Saudi Arabia down in a war that is unwinnable, costly and damaging to its reputation.

What can be done to advance the cause of peace in Yemen now?

At the moment, the prospects for peace are slim to none. That said, the need for a political solution is ever more urgent. Yemen is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but following the 4 November missile strike on Riyadh, the situation deteriorated dramatically as the Saudi-led coalition shut off all access points to Huthi-controlled areas. Then, just as they started easing up on the blockade, fighting broke out in Sanaa between Saleh and the Huthis, and this once again curbed even humanitarian flights into the country.

Regardless of the course of the war, all ports of entry should be fully opened to humanitarian and commercial goods, including Hodeida port and Sanaa airport, which has been closed to commercial fights since August 2016. Saudi Arabia already had signalled that doing so will require additional security checks, but will be even more insistent now to address the coalition’s concerns about weapons shipments to the Huthis.

At the political level, recent developments should confirm that the current military approach toward the Huthis is failing and that new thinking is needed. Attempting to shift the military dynamics against them would require significant ground troops and cohesiveness on the anti-Huthi side that has been absent thus far. Most importantly, if attempted, it would come at an extraordinary human cost.

Yemen’s war is going from bad to worse. Instead of watching the next chapter unfold, the UN Security Council should pass a resolution calling on all sides to agree to a ceasefire and political negotiations. This will require compromises from all sides. While this may be unappealing to the coalition and the anti-Huthi bloc, a return to politics, not a continuation of the war, is arguably the best way to counter-balance the Huthis. It is certainly the only way to avoid famine, the spread of cholera and further economic devastation – and the long-term instability that these will cause.