Stabilizing Iraq With and Without the Islamic State


The military campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has generated much-needed attention to “day-after” scenarios.  This includes security arrangements for Mosul city and governance structures that address competing territorial claims by diverse ethnic and religious groups in Ninewa province.  Even if Mosul is relatively secured, ISIL remnants will likely go underground, re-integrate into cities and outlying areas, and wage guerilla warfare to destabilize the Iraqi state.  Underlying these threats are ISIL’s root causes — namely Sunni Arab grievances — and the potential for another iteration of this jihadist movement to emerge in the future.  To thwart this outcome, some analysts, media, and officials have proposed different ethno-sectarian solutions such as creating regions based on sects and ethnicity, arming “the Sunnis” and “the Kurds,” and finding ways for “deeply skeptical Sunni territories to support a Shi’ite dominated government.”

These solutions are faulty. As a recent research trip to Iraq confirmed to me, while ethno-sectarianism persists in Iraq, its influence on post-ISIL stabilization should not be overdetermined.  Important shifts have occurred in Iraqi politics and society since the ISIL onslaught in Mosul in June 2014, rendering state partition along ethnic and sectarian lines even less likely today than a decade ago.  Instead, the Iraqi state has broken down into hyper-fragmented entities with their own militias, all of which seek recognition, economic benefits, self-rule, and self-protection within the Iraqi state. ISIL’s consequences include demographic shifts, re-ordering of internal boundaries, and pacts and divisions within and across communities.  Any successful plan to stabilize Iraq must address these developments. At minimum, both policy and plans should enhance Iraqi sovereignty and focus on local governance and security arrangements in official territorial units, rather than particular ethnic and sectarian group interests.

State Break-Down, not Break-Up

The key political challenge in former ISIL safe havens is determining authority and control over territories and resources.  Although these tensions precede the ISIL onslaught, particularly in northern Iraq’s “disputed territories,” they have become far more complicated in the hyper-fragmented Iraqi state.  Delineating internal boundaries is an issue not only between Baghdad and Erbil, but one that now involves a multitude of sub-state actors and their militias.  Groups are also divided from within.  Some are affiliated with Baghdad, others are tied to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and   still   others   oppose   both — with  no  real agreement on how to administer territories.   Some of these groups are also acting as proxies for external actors — namely Iran and Turkey — which seek to maintain zones of influence inside a weak Iraqi state.

Source: Australian government

These hyper-localized dynamics enhance the potential for conflict, particularly in disputed territories. Violence has already erupted in former ISIL safe havens in northern Iraq between different local militias: namely Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Sunni Arab tribes, Kurdish Peshmerga, and other local militia forces.  Tensions also exist at a societal level, where distrust and hatred between some communities is palpable.  In one locality in the Kurdistan Region, Sunni Arabs refuse to go to the same hospitals as Yezidis, while Yezidis will not send their children to school with Arabs.

Communal tensions coincide with Sunni Arab political grievances.  Most continue to feel marginalized, particularly given their post-ISIL conditions.  More than 3.2 million Sunni Arabs have become internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the past two years. Their homes are destroyed. Their villages, towns, and fields are wastelands.  Although one third (over one million) have returned to their homes with support from the Iraqi government, United Nations, and local officials, most have not due to ongoing security threats — IEDs, unexploded ordnance, Iranian-backed PMFs, and lack of services.  The 1.4 million IDPs living in the Kurdistan Region for over two years cannot fully integrate, while others in disputed territories are being “transferred” to different localities to prevent their permanent settlement. These challenges will continue as tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs flee their homes in Mosul. They are creating or reinforcing a sense of disfranchisement that has the potential to become a source for al-Qaeda and ISIL recruitment, just as it has done in the past.

Still, opportunities to stabilize Iraq have emerged, at least in the short and mid-term.

The recent reset in Baghdad-Erbil relations is not only based on shared aims to defeat ISIL and U.S. influence but also economic and political expediency. Some important factors include the drop in world oil price and serious financial crises, Kurdish power struggles, attempts to leverage Turkey, and an unviable Kurdish independence project.  This is why, instead of calling a referendum for Kurdish statehood, Iraqi Kurdish leader Mas’ud Barzani returned to Baghdad in September 2016 as part of a KRG delegation, affirmed that the Iraqi government was the Kurdistan Region’s “strategic depth”, and has attempted to negotiate KRG oil exports with Baghdad once again.  Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi will also likely continue attempts to negotiate with Erbil (in fits and starts), particularly as Baghdad seeks to increase oil exports from Kirkuk and the northern corridor – which is under the de-facto control of the KRG.

Pacts have developed between some Sunni Arab groups and Baghdad that were unthinkable two years ago.  In contrast to 2014, whereby nearly all Sunni Arabs reacted against a highly sectarian Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, tens of thousands of Sunni Arab forces have mobilized alongside the Iraqi Security Forces, elite counter-terrorism forces, PMFs, and Peshmerga to fight ISIL.  Sunni Arab political grievances also differ across and within territories, based on distinct issues and changing incentive structures.  For instance, although Sunni Arabs adamantly reject Iranian-backed PMFs and want to be treated as equal citizens, their main criticisms are government weakness, corruption, and failure to provide services, jobs, and security.  These criticisms are not necessarily sectarian and are being made by most Iraqis as part of an ongoing reform movement.  Sunni Arabs emphasize that they are not against Shi’ite communities (some Sunni Arab tribes also have Shi’ite members) but government officials who encourage sectarianism.  Some local Sunni Arab leaders would accept Iraqi Army, federal police forces, or Kurdish Peshmerga in their localities, alongside local police, while others would not.

Part of these shifts can be attributed to the ravages of ISIL.  Although ISIL has brutally targeted Shi’ites, Yezidis, Christians, and other minorities, it has also waged war against and repressed Sunni Arabs.  Unlike in 2014, many Sunni Arabs that initially welcomed or tacitly supported ISIL have turned against the group, particularly after it resorted to extreme violence. Those with family members who were with ISIL, either tacitly or actively, are being accused and held accountable  by fellow Sunni Arabs.   Revenge killings are occurring within and between Sunni Arab tribes, as well as between urban Sunni Arab militias inside Mosul.

These dynamics are unfolding in a hyper-fragmented Iraqi state, whereby political entities or leaders are scrambling to ascertain authority, secure territories, and balance local power by negotiating deals with external patrons — Iran or Turkey — as well as different local power brokers.  Deals have already developed between the Iraqi government, some Sunni Arab tribal leaders and different Kurdish officials in distinct localities. They are based on economically and politically expedient needs; opening trade routes, enhancing investment and business, and securing internal boundaries.  These arrangements are essential given the KRG’s expansive territorial gains that have increased its operating costs and security requirements during a time of deep financial constraints.  They also provide provincial and local leaders with access to resources and security that the Iraqi government cannot offer — at least for now.

One problem is that these de-facto arrangements may work at a provincial level, but they can undermine official state interests and institutions.  For instance, Ma’sud Barzani and some Sunni Arabs, including former Ninawa governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, — influenced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — jointly seek to divide Ninawa into several new provinces . The Iraqi parliament, however, opposes this plan and recently passed a law affirming that the borders of Ninawa and other territories would not be changed until Mosul city is liberated, and then only by local populations in a referendum.  This reaction coincides with large-scale opposition across Iraq — from nearly all Arabs and most Kurds — to Turkish President Erdogan’s efforts to militarily engage in the Mosul campaign.

Consequently, the Iraqi government will be pressed not only to integrate Sunni Arabs into the state and make them feel that they are equal citizens but to provide security, jobs, and services across hyper-fragmented localities.    It must do so while communal distrust is salient, regional states are challenging Iraqi sovereignty, populations are demanding a strong and effective federal government, but one also limited in its powers,and with Baghdad beset in its own political turmoil and economic crises.  One way to set the stage for stability is to encourage pacts between local authorities and Baghdad based on joint extraction (and security) within existing provincial and regional (KRG) structures.

Indeed, transactional pacts will not necessarily remove local patronage and smuggling networks or resolve deep-rooted disputed over territories. They also have political trade-offs.  Greater complexity and decentralization will likely increase political entropy across Iraq, particularly if the lines of authority between provincial, regional, and state authorities remain unclear or contested. Still, as long as the Iraqi state is weak, hyper-fragmented, and financially stressed, these arrangements may help create conditions for the necessary devolution of authority, shared governance, zones of stability, and economic reconstruction. They can help integrate some de-facto authorities, including local militias that have developed over the past two years, into official state institutions, and as part of provincial administrations or the KRG.

Policy Recommendations:

These dynamics and trends have implications for U.S. policy.  Washington should recognize the highly localized challenges of stabilizing post-ISIL Iraq and the limitations and opportunities to affect long-term outcomes.  Rather than attempting to resolve all of Iraq’s challenges or fix the Iraqi state by reinforcing identity politics, the United States should assist the Iraqi government in creating zones of stability that can contain ISIL and mitigate its resurgence in former jihadist safe havens.  Where can the U.S. government start?

Reinforce Iraqi state capabilities and sovereignty. The United States should continue to emphasize Iraq’s territorial integrity, state sovereignty, and existing provincial boundaries per the 2005 Iraqi constitution.  Any de-facto territorial changes made during the anti-ISIL campaign should be considered unofficial until recognized by the Iraqi government. Focus should be on strengthening state institutions, to include security and power-sharing arrangements with provincial administrations and the KRG. All military and training support, including to the KRG, should continue to be channeled through and be approved by federal authorities in Baghdad.

Contain ISIL and enhance border security. Counter-terrorism support to the Iraqi government should continue. It needs to include training of the Iraq Security Forces and Peshmerga, enhanced border security and security procedures at checkpoints in towns and cities, and support for the integration local militias, including some PMFs, into the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga. The United States should also assist the Iraqi government in negotiating border security in northern Iraq with Turkey and the KRG.  The Iraqi government should be pressed to disband, weaken, or isolate Iranian-backed militias through deals with local leaders.

Train Local Police.  The United States should assist the Iraqi government in training local police forces alongside federal police.  Particular attention should be given to disputed territories and developing and enhancing local police forces in provinces populated by Sunni Arabs and minority groups.

Humanitarian aid and reconstruction. The United States should continue to provide financial and technical support to U.N. and Iraqi government efforts to resettle IDPs and reconstruct former ISIL safe-havens.  International organizations and neutral third party actors should work with the Iraqi government and local officials to help implement reconciliation efforts at national and local levels.

Approaching Iraq’s post-ISIL stabilization challenges from an ethno-sectarian lens not only ignores complex political realities on the ground, but it threatens to reverse important political and societal shifts that have emerged in Iraq over the past two years.  The hyper-localized nature of Iraq’s security challenges also suggests that post-ISIL stabilization is politically rooted and will differ across provinces based on distinct demographics, territories, and local economies.  This effort should commence today, alongside current military operations, and not after ISIL is considered to be defeated.


Denise Natali is a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University where she specializes on regional energy politics, Middle East politics and the Kurdish issue. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. She can be reached on Twitter at @DnataliDC.

Image: KurdishStruggle, Flickr