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Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm
Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm
CrisisWatch 2018 June Trends & July Alerts
CrisisWatch 2018 June Trends & July Alerts

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.

 

Commentary

CrisisWatch 2018 June Trends & July Alerts

The latest edition of Crisis Group’s monthly conflict tracker highlights dangers of escalating conflict in Yemen, Syria and Somaliland. CrisisWatch also notes improved relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, South Sudan’s leaders, Macedonia and Greece, as well as diplomatic engagement between North Korea and the U.S.

In June, Yemeni forces backed by the United Arab Emirates accelerated their offensive to take the Huthi-held city of Hodeida. A fleeting opportunity exists to find a mediated settlement and avoid prolonged urban warfare. In Syria, pro-government forces intensified efforts to retake territory in the south west, risking worse violence in July, while in Libya, new fighting over oil facilities aggravated tensions. The conflict between Somalia’s Puntland and Somaliland spread, and looks set to escalate; attacks linked to Nigeria’s farmer-herder conflict left over 200 dead; and radical Islamists in Mozambique stepped up attacks. The month saw heightened political rivalry in Tunisia, and election-related violence in Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. High-level engagement between North Korea and the U.S. paved the way for a diplomatic process, and Macedonia and Greece reached an agreement on their name dispute. Opportunities to advance peace opened up in Africa with Ethiopia and Eritrea taking tentative steps to address their border dispute, and South Sudan’s warring leaders signing an initial framework agreement.

In Yemen, forces backed by the United Arab Emirates stepped up their offensive to take the port city of Hodeida from Huthi rebels, pushing up to the city’s southern suburbs. As we explained, mediation efforts led by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths toward a solution that safeguards all sides’ vital interests could – with strong international pressure on the warring parties – produce a settlement for the city, and serve as a basis for talks on a way out of the wider conflict. But if the belligerents continue to reject his proposals, a battle for Hodeida – home to 600,000 – would likely have devastating humanitarian consequences.

In Syria, pro-government forces – backed by Russian air power – ramped up their campaign to retake territory toward the Jordanian border, raising the risk of further escalation in July. Fighting again rocked Libya’s oil industry. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s east-based Libyan National Army was forced to cede and then retook oil export terminals at Sidra and Ras Lanuf. Its announcement that oil sales from areas under its control would go through the east-based National Oil Corporation, unrecognised internationally, further aggravated political tensions and risks deepening the country’s economic woes.

A feud between Tunisia’s prime minister, Youssef Chahed, and President Essebsi intensified, with Chahed firing the interior minister, Essebsi’s ally. Ahead of the 2019 presidential election, the rivalry is polarising the political field and could hamper much needed legislative reform.

Fighting between Somaliland and Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region over contested territory spread from Tukaraq – where both sides continued to beef up their positions – to Las Anod, capital of the disputed Sool area. Incendiary rhetoric from both sides bodes ill. To stave off war, the UN – backed by Somalia and Ethiopia – should renew its mediation to broker a ceasefire, ensure both sides commit to withdraw troops, allow in humanitarian aid and launch talks aimed at a long-term settlement.

In Mozambique’s neglected and predominantly Muslim far north, Islamist militants, active since October, stepped up the rate of attacks, raiding some seven villages and killing at least 39 people. Ahead of Zimbabwe’s elections in July, an explosion at a rally for President Mnangagwa killed two and raised concerns for security around the vote. In Nigeria, attacks linked to the conflict between herding and farming communities took a yet more horrifying toll; over 200 are thought to have been killed in attacks and reprisals over five days in Plateau state.

Violence erupted in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands province as protesters, angry about a failed court challenge to the 2017 provincial election result, set fire to an aeroplane and official buildings in the provincial capital, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency and deploy troops.

A historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump on 12 June produced a vague statement including a reaffirmation by Pyongyang of its commitment to work toward “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula. As Crisis Group wrote, the summit represented a shift from a confrontational track to a diplomatic one, but needs to be followed by the hard work of hammering out a path toward denuclearisation. Later in the month, U.S. officials were quoted saying that Pyongyang has been stepping up production of enriched uranium at secret sites.

Macedonia and Greece signed a historic agreement resolving their decades-long dispute over Macedonia’s official name, now to be the Republic of North Macedonia. The deal, which still needs to be ratified in the face of opposition in both countries, unblocks Greek opposition to Macedonia joining the European Union and NATO.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, hostile since the 1998-2000 border war, began to thaw. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy’s pledge to cede contested territory and initial talks opened the door to greater neighbourliness and regional stability. In another boon for the region, South Sudan’s warring leaders, President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, signed an initial framework agreement to enact a ceasefire, work toward a new transitional government and, with Sudan, secure the oil fields. We welcomed this best, and only, hope for a breakthrough and urged other African leaders to lend it cautious support.

Go to CrisisWatch.

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