Managing the legacy of ISIS in Iraq and Syria

10th Jun 2021 by Jacob Eriksson

Managing the legacy of ISIS in Iraq and Syria

This essay is part of a SEPAD report reflecting on the Middle East in 2050.

Despite the triumphalism of former US President Donald Trump and former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, ISIS has not been comprehensively defeated in Iraq and Syria. Although no longer a coherent, territorial entity spanning both countries, ISIS has reverted to its insurgent roots and continues to constitute a significant threat to civilians and local authorities. In order to defeat ISIS, the current militarised counter-insurgency campaign needs to be complemented by support for sustainable political solutions. However, as has been evident in previous stages of the war against ISIS, the multiple conflicting interests of local and international actors in both Iraq and Syria complicate this pursuit. A successful strategy must address localised needs, yet simultaneously also acknowledge the trans-national nature of conflict dynamics.

 In Iraq, a combination of cross-sectarian rejection of ISIS, war fatigue in Sunni-majority areas (Coles & Nabhan, 2018), and what Fanar Haddad (2019) has described as the waning political relevance of the Sunni-Shia divide are causes for optimism. However, this should not be misconstrued as an unquestioning acceptance of the post-2003 political settlement. The government has yet to address the root causes of ISIS such as Sunni disenfranchisement, perceived injustice, insecurity, and poor governance (Mabon & Royle, 2017; Wicken, 2013), with militants able to exploit continuing security vacuums across northern and western provinces. Rather, it has adopted an overly militarized and punitive approach at the expense of peacebuilding activities geared towards institutional reform, accountability, and rebuilding social relations.

The security landscape remains highly fractured, with a combination of Iraqi Security Forces and militia of the Hashd al-Shaabi continuing to operate in formerly ISIS-held territories. There is often significant mistrust among residents toward the latter groups, particularly the powerful pro-Iranian Hashd such as the Badr Organisation and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq. Not only are these considered external forces, but due to predatory economic and security practices, a lack of discipline, and an absence of accountability, they have been likened to a mafia (Author interviews, 2018a & 2018b). Certain Sunni tribal militia have been included within the ranks of the Hashd, but Inna Rudolf (2020) argues that this cooperative relationship remains transactional, highly conditional, and potentially temporary.

Moreover, pro-Iranian Hashd formations and Iraqi Security Forces have been implicated in numerous war crimes against Sunni civilians (Human Rights Watch, 2015a, 2015b & 2017; Amnesty International, 2016 & 2017) without any justice or accountability. Prosecutions have focused exclusively on ISIS members who are tried under counter-terrorism law (No. 13), a statute which criminalises membership of a group but does not adequately distinguish between specific crimes committed. Such a limited approach risks recreating the negative effects of previous transitional justice processes such as de-Ba’athification by creating a sense of collective punishment among the Sunni population and feeding into the victimisation narrative of extremist groups (Author interview, 2018d; Revkin, 2018).

In addition to a lack of equitable justice, there has also been a lack of socially focused reconciliation activity to repair Iraq’s social fabric, with reconciliation considered primarily a political issue. A summary of the Implementation and Follow-up National Reconciliation Committee strategy (IFNRC, 2018) articulates its vision in terms of agreeing the distribution of wealth and state power, with all citizens entitled to justice, equality, and parity. However, there are few specifics as to how this goal is to be reached, which processes are integral, and how they are to be managed, specifically how to improve grassroots social relations and build trust following the war against ISIS. While the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is providing technical assistance and supporting socially focused initiatives such as Local Peace Committees (LPCs), Iraqi and international peacebuilders alike have been critical of such initiatives, arguing that the purpose, procedures, and outcomes of the LPCs were not clear (Author interviews, 2018a, 2018c & 2018e). Due to the lack of a coherent strategy that links the grassroots and national levels, such well-intentioned initiatives have limited efficacy and may in fact further harm public trust by failing to manage and meet expectations.

Iraq’s approach to peacebuilding has thus been characterised by a top-down approach focused on the narrow interests of the political elite rather than inclusive, participatory, bottom-up activities. This has been further illustrated by the October 2020 agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad on governance and reconstruction in Sinjar, which appears to have been guided primarily by geopolitical rather than local concerns, with little meaningful local input (Hassan & Khaddour, 2021; Mako, 2021; Porter, 2021). The deal pledged to remove external armed groups from the area, including those affiliated with the PKK, an actor of specific concern to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), their Turkish allies, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi. After coming to the defence of the Yazidi community against ISIS, PKK elements enjoy local support among some in Sinjar and have embedded in the community. Pro-Iranian Hashd groups, meanwhile, continue to be present in pursuit of their own interests and implementation has been slow, with little progress on the creation of a new local security force pledged as part of the deal. 

The geopolitics of the Sinjar case also highlight the wider impact and relevance to Iraq of the ongoing Syrian conflict (al-Khoei, 2016), where the evolution of the north-eastern theatre has provided opportunities for ISIS to regroup. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) played a central role in the territorial defeat of ISIS, but have since had to contend with the partial withdrawal of their US sponsors, the Turkish invasion of Rojava, and the return of the Assad regime to SDF-held areas. ISIS has continued to take advantage of this fluid battlefield and a lack of effective authority in eastern Syria. Conflicts persist between the SDF and local Arab tribes opposed to Kurdish authority, while the porous border between Iraq and Syria continues to allow for the traffic of ISIS personnel and resources (Kittleson, 2020 & 2021). 

The Global Coalition Against ISIS face unenviable choices. In Iraq, attacks by pro-Iranian Hashd against Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) personnel will likely continue as Iran seeks to evict US forces, but withdrawal would be highly damaging to Iraqi security capabilities and allow ISIS to further strengthen. It may also heighten tensions between Shia political leaders, many of whom support a withdrawal, and Sunni and Kurdish leaders who do not (Soufan, 2020). In Syria, the Trump administration squandered significant leverage by withdrawing without a negotiated agreement among the conflicting parties, and damaged relations with their SDF partners. Unwilling to engage in concerted diplomacy to stabilise the north-east, it is now doubtful whether the US has the credibility to do so. In short, it is difficult for Western actors to have a lasting positive impact, but simultaneously clear that their withdrawal would have a negative impact.

In light of this, there are three concluding questions that require further reflection. First, although militarised counter-insurgency is a necessary component, it can only ever be a means to accomplish political goals. Recent history of Western intervention in Iraq in particular shows that there are clear limits to what external powers can accomplish and the suitability of externally mandated goals to the local context. What is the relationship between the political goals of CJTF-OIR and its partners in Iraq and Syria? Are they compatible? Second, this piece has argued for more locally rooted peacebuilding activities in response to community desires for accountability and reform, but how can these be effectively supported in the absence of requisite political will on the part of relevant Iraqi and Syrian authorities? Finally, a third related question: what are the potential consequences of engaging directly with and empowering alternative local actors in the absence of the state?

These considerations should be central to a broader trans-national peacebuilding strategy that focuses on local dialogue and diplomacy, not just militarised counter-insurgency. Moreover, they highlight the need to think not just about the quality of peace but the future nature of the post-war states of Iraq and Syria, and crucially what the relationship is between the two. If we fail to acknowledge or address this interdependence, there is a heightened risk of both a continued short-term resurgence of militancy and active conflict, and perpetuating the underlying conditions that create conflict. Such outcomes that necessitate further long-term international military commitments are not in anyone’s interest.