With the Iraqi government’s symbolic victory in Mosul, it is most likely we are watching the dusk of ISIL in its present form. We can already identify the difficulties faced by the government and the people of Iraq after it is gone. Those are in two types: domestic and diplomatic.
The first and most obvious is the problem of sectarian division in the country. Despite appearances, the units participating in the assault on ISIL are not a unitary force, but rather the Iraqi national army and several militias formed essentially along religious lines, mainly between sunni and shia. Iraq, like other countries in the Islamic world with important religious minorities, is generally home to tensions between communities. At the time of Saddam Hussein, those tensions were buried under a regime that was more or less repressive for all, and they became more apparent after 2003 when the government of Nouri Al-Maliki (who is Shia) was accused of favouring the Shia majority over minorities. Now IS is a common enemy for all Iraqis, and so there is a clear danger of renewed sectarian conflict after it is defeated.
The same goes for territorial division, namely the Kurdish problem. Here again the Kurds and the government in Baghdad are grouped against Al-Baghdadi’s men but their respective ambitions once they are defeated might diverge into a war of secession, especially sensitive considering the crimes committed by the government against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988.
Lastly, after the group is crushed on the ground, many of its soldiers will re-join Iraqi society. Inevitably, this will lead to tremendous suspicion between neighbours within Iraqi society, as happens after any civil war, especially since the military defeat of IS does not mean the end of terrorist acts by them.
On the diplomatic front, several problems are foreseeable. There is the ambiguous role of Turkey helping ISIL at first. Having IS control Kurdish territory was a way to prevent an independent Kurdistan right across the border from Turkey. Besides, it is the only country neighbouring IS that could have plausibly let ISIL’s oil transit through its territory. Iran produces its own and is a bitter enemy of IS, as is Syria. This leaves Turkey, who is also a rival of Iran and Arab governments for power in the region.
Secondly, it is not clear how Iraq will be able to square its alliance with Iran, which has been thoroughly engaged in the fight at their side, with their friendship with the United States, which has sponsored its government since it put it in place in 2003. Though there has been a slight détente between America and Iran since the 2015 nuclear deal, Trump’s presidency promises a renewal of tensions, with his hostility to the deal and his amity for Israel. If Baghdad chooses America, they will anger neighbouring regimes (Iran, Syria and therefore Russia); if they choose to side with Iran, they will once again become a country not aligned with the West, which would draw to them the hostility of the world’s superpower, as well as the region’s mightiest country, Israel, whose influence in Washington was one of the main drivers of the invasion of Iraq in the first place.
Bow Group International Affairs Research Fellow