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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.

 

Yemen’s Multiplying Conflicts

A Huthi suspension of hostilities in Yemen and an apparently positive Saudi Arabian response offer a chance to avoid regional conflagration. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 - Third Update for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage inclusive dialogue between the warring factions, which can lead to intra-Yemeni negotiations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 - Third Update.

As 2020 approaches, Yemen confronts two acute security challenges: avoiding further entanglement in the wider regional conflict between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran, and preventing a war within a war among anti-Huthi forces. On 14 September, the Huthis claimed responsibility for an attack on Saudi oil facilities that temporarily cut off nearly 50 per cent of the country’s oil production capacity. Riyadh, Washington and several European governments accused Iran of the attack, and the Huthis’ claim has tied the group more closely to Tehran in the eyes of its opponents.

While the conflict could turn into a true proxy war or trigger a wider regional confrontation, there is still a chance to avoid such outcomes. Signs are tentative but promising. A week after the Aramco attacks, the Huthis unilaterally suspended cross-border attacks into the Kingdom and called for the Saudis to freeze airstrikes in exchange. Riyadh has reportedly responded positively, limiting but not entirely halting its aerial campaign in Yemen. The fragile arrangement needs to be preserved and built upon.

As Yemen’s war intersects with and fuels regional tensions, it is also becoming more internally complex and harder to resolve.

As Yemen’s war intersects with and fuels regional tensions, it is also becoming more internally complex and harder to resolve. An August 2019 takeover of the internationally-recognised government’s temporary capital of Aden by separatist forces aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Saudi Arabia’s main coalition partner – could set off a larger battle between UAE- and Saudi-aligned components of Yemen’s anti-Huthi bloc for control of the country’s southern governorates.  Here too, there has been progress toward an understanding, but it is far from done.

International actors, including the EU, need to move quickly to turn the fragile de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis into an agreement that ultimately yields a ceasefire and restarts UN-led negotiations among Yemeni political groups to end the war. Continued diplomatic support is also needed to reconcile opposing forces within the anti-Huthi camp. A deal between the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and separatist southern forces, in particular, would offer an opportunity to update the UN peace process for Yemen and make negotiations more inclusive.

Recommendations for the EU and its member states include:

  • Support EU-wide and French initiatives to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the U.S., and between Saudi Arabia and Iran; push local and regional parties to the Yemen war toward a political settlement.
     
  • Coordinate diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Huthis to reach a de-escalation agreement that includes a halt to cross-border attacks, which in turn could enable a return to UN-led intra-Yemeni talks.
     
  • Advocate for broadening the UN-led peace process to include Yemeni actors beyond the Huthis and Hadi government, both in official negotiations and in informal Track II meetings.
     
  • Work with the office of the UN special envoy to coordinate all EU-sponsored Track II initiatives, especially those related to the south and women’s participation in the peace process, so that these talks better inform UN-led negotiations. To do this, the EU could fund a coordinator role within the envoy’s office.
     
  • Swiftly deliver technical assistance and staffing support to the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UMMHA) to which the EU and its member states have already committed, and increase support to the mission.

Preventing further escalation in the region

Huthi claims of responsibility for the 14 September Aramco attack threatened to drag Yemen deeper into the regional power struggle between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Although the Trump administration decided against a military response and there have been signs of potential Iranian-Saudi engagement, the situation remains fragile. Another major attack of this kind, attributed to Tehran or its allies, could raise again the threat of retaliatory measures, with consequences throughout the region, including in Yemen.

In the eyes of Iran’s regional and international rivals, by claiming the Aramco attack the Huthis signalled their complicity with Tehran in its regional power struggle against Saudi Arabia and broader struggle with the U.S. Some Huthi officials seem to see a major regional war involving the U.S. and Iran as inevitable, and argue it would benefit them, as it would divert Riyadh’s attention from its southern neighbour. Others want to avoid such an outcome and have offered de-escalatory measures.  

On 20 September, the Huthis announced a unilateral suspension of cross-border attacks against Saudi territory. The move offered an opportunity for direct Saudi-Huthi talks and mutual de-escalation. Although Saudi officials remain sceptical of the Huthis’ intentions, wary that they might use a pause to replenish and reposition their forces, they have signalled both publicly and privately an interest in testing the proposition. The Saudis reportedly reduced airstrikes in response. Huthi hardliners mirror Saudi scepticism and question the logic of the move. Any resumption of Huthi strikes on Saudi territory – notably a successful attack on critical infrastructure or one that results in civilian casualties — could spark a broader conflagration, especially if any of the victims were American. Such a resumption would be hard to avoid if the two sides fail to reach agreement not only on cross-border strikes but also on easing Saudi-led coalition restrictions on access to Huthi-controlled territories, particularly limitations on fuel imports.

Yemen’s multiplying internal conflicts

Yemen now hosts multiple overlapping internal conflicts driven by three central belligerents: the Huthis in the north west, the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transition Council (STC) in the south and Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces, whose main hub is Marib in the north east. Both the STC and government-aligned forces are battling the Huthis, but the two nominal allies are also fighting each other, reflecting deepening divisions between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. On 10 August, UAE-trained and -equipped forces affiliated with the STC seized control of Aden, the Hadi government’s interim capital, in what the government described as a UAE-backed coup. After Saudi-aligned government forces mounted a counter-attack, UAE airstrikes stopped them in their tracks. In an escalating war of words, the UAE claimed it had targeted “terrorists”, while the government asked the UN to intervene against what it described as a direct assault on its sovereignty by a foreign power. 

The power struggle between the STC and the government could ignite another war within Yemen’s civil war, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides.

Left unresolved, the power struggle between the STC and the government could ignite another war within Yemen’s civil war, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides. In September, the Saudis stepped in to mediate between the Yemeni sides, gathering the parties in Jeddah. But tensions remain high, and both STC- and government-backed forces are reportedly preparing for another round of fighting over oil-rich Shabwa governorate. Tensions are also high in neighbouring Hadramout between the government and the UAE-backed governor, Faraj al-Bahsani, who remained neutral during the August battle for Aden.

There are some grounds for optimism. At proximity talks in Jeddah, Riyadh proposed forming a technocratic government with a prime minister acceptable to both sides. Also under discussion is an STC quota in the government’s negotiating team that would participate in future UN-mediated talks with the Huthis. If agreed, this would be an important step toward greater inclusiveness in the peace process, potentially paving the way toward a more credible and durable political settlement. Any deal to end the war will require buy-in not just from the Hadi government and the Huthis, but also from the STC and other Yemeni groups, such as Islah (the country’s main Sunni Islamist party), the former ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party and non-STC affiliated southern groups.

A Role for the EU and its member states

Ending the Yemen war is increasingly urgent given both its dramatic humanitarian costs and regional tensions. EU member states are already involved in direct mediation efforts with Iran, including through EU and E4 (France, Germany, Italy and the UK) consultations and individual initiatives, such as France’s direct diplomacy with Tehran and Washington. The EU and member states should build on these efforts to strengthen the UN-led political process to end the Yemen war. In that context, the EU and its member states should advocate for a clear de-escalation plan between the Huthis and Saudi Arabia, which in turn would facilitate starting intra-Yemeni negotiations.

The EU and member states are well-placed to advocate a more inclusive [...] political dialogue.

The EU and member states are well-placed to advocate a more inclusive (and therefore more credible) political dialogue. EU institutions and member states have sponsored Track II dialogues among Yemeni groups on a range of local and national issues since the beginning of the war. A core criticism of these initiatives is that they are not sufficiently linked to formal UN efforts. In cooperation with the UN special envoy’s office, the EU and member states could help ensure findings from Track II meetings on the south and women’s participation in the political process, as well as on tribal and local perspectives, feed into UN-led negotiations, and that Track II exercises are informed by the UN envoy’s approach.

The EU and member states, which have direct channels with Riyadh, are in a strong position to press the Hadi government and Saudi-led coalition to broaden participation in the official peace talks by diversifying the government negotiating team to make it more representative of the anti-Huthi bloc. The EU and member states should also use their channels with the Huthis to press for greater inclusivity on their part, including by women. The European External Action Service should also continue to meet with and channel perspectives from groups not involved in the UN-led process to the UN envoy, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The 2018 Stockholm Agreement, and particularly the agreement to demilitarise the port city of Hodeida, can be either a stepping-stone toward a more comprehensive peace process or, should it remain stalled, a stumbling block. EU member states have offered technical and staffing assistance to the UN Mission to Support the Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA), the UN body set up to oversee the agreement through technical assistance and personnel secondment. But they have delivered little to date. UNMHA remains severely understaffed, in part because of delays in personnel transfers.  EU member states should promptly fulfil their commitments in this regard.