Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm
Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

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.


A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, on 6 July 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts. Two analytical concepts – conflict clusters and concentric circles – can help policymakers disentangle the region’s conflicts, provide greater clarity in diagnosis and accompany a simple principle that should underpin all approaches: first, do no harm.

Overview: A New Way of Looking at MENA Conflicts

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events, occurring at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions, compound the problem. Widening and increasingly intersecting conflicts are having a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and its people. As a result, what happens in the region is no longer confined to it: radiating crises have started to infect relations between regional and global powers, forcing policymakers in world capitals to respond in pursuit of their nations’ strategic interests. The challenge is to untangle the knot of conflicts analytically: to understand how various historical strands have interacted to create the bewildering composite of conflict drivers and actors that pose myriad threats to local, regional and even global stability and then to articulate policy responses that chart paths toward de-escalation and, eventually, more sustainable arrangements for states’ and communities’ peaceful coexistence. Most importantly, they should not make matters worse.

Grasping the roots and primary characteristics of the region’s swift-changing complexion requires a new way of looking at it. We can no longer simply study conflicts in isolation, such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. This remains important, but we need to add new dimensions: how a single conflict has yielded secondary conflicts to form conflict “clusters”; how conflicts within a cluster have started to bleed into conflicts in another cluster; and how individual conflicts in the MENA region have broadened to suck in, first, regional powers and, then, global actors as a result of power and security vacuums created in the chaos of war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, which dates from Western powers’ decision a century ago to support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East (first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration), has sprung the confines of the territory known as Israel and Palestine to cover new terrain, in particular Lebanon, and sprout new conflict actors, such as Hizbollah. Today, Hizbollah participates in the Syrian civil war, which has roots outside the Israel-Arab conflict, and is allied with Iran, whose ascendancy in the region following the failed 2011 popular uprisings has provoked destabilising responses from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially in Yemen. Meanwhile, these same states are projecting influence in North Africa to prevail in what was originally a separate struggle between competing political expressions of Sunni Islamism, involving the Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, the suppurating Syrian and Yemeni wars have infected global powers such as Russia and the U.S., who are deploying their tremendous weight on behalf of one side but are so far unable to do so decisively and forge durable settlements.

Policy responses directed toward individual events in individual conflicts – say, the Libyan migrant crisis, or the rise of jihadists in Syria –may end up doing more harm than good. Not only because such policies tend to be rushed and overly securitised, but also because they ignore the deeper drivers behind these individual events, thereby aggravating them. External military support of certain Kurdish parties in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a good example: it boosted Kurdish hopes of outside support for their longstanding aspiration for greater autonomy, even independence. They chose to become outside powers’ willing proxies to advance their own agendas. This, in turn, gave rise to new and additional crises instead of lowering regional tensions.

A new methodology is needed to address these post-2011 conflicts through both analysis and policy. The risk of pursuing policies that do further harm has increased, especially as conflicts of different origins metastasise and intersect, creating a new generation of non-state conflict actors and drawing in both regional and global powers. I propose two analytical concepts to help bring greater clarity, one new, the other old: conflict clusters and concentric circles. I then explore how these interact with external interventions of various sorts.

Instead of policy prescriptions for individual conflicts, I place the perplexing array of intersecting MENA conflicts and conflict actors in a framework that elucidates what motivates these actors and what drives their conflicts. And I will suggest a set of principles that should undergird any approach by global and regional powers toward these conflicts, based on the need to contain the current situation without making matters worse. This study is based on years of field research in the MENA region by me and my colleagues at the International Crisis Group.[fn]All references to “interviews” concern interviews done by either me or my Crisis Group colleagues.Hide Footnote

Joost Hiltermann, the lead contributor to this paper, would like to thank the following for providing essential background research: Crisis Group consultants Dimitar Bechev, Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, and Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg; also, many thanks are due to Crisis Group’s entire MENA team for providing insights and data, and for reviewing the results, for which the lead contributor remains wholly and solely responsible.

To read the full 47-page text, please open the PDF.