The Islamic State conflict: Why the Caliphate will survive in Iraq


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The advance of Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish peshmerga towards Mosul to recapture the Iraq's second largest city from Islamic State is creating a new phase of dangerous change in the geopolitical and strategic balance of the Middle East. The presence of U.S and Russia and the context of regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran with many strategic connections to Israel and Turkey has raised the importance of the borderlands situated between Syria and Iraq greatly. Mosul, geographically a tiny battleground, is a dangerous fault-lines in the war for the Greater Middle East. 

After the rise of Caliphate as a driving political player for the Sunni-Salafi community in June, 2014 and the consequential struggle to recapture the Iraqi cities which fell under the control of Islamic State (IS) jihādists, the government of Baghdad is now facing several problems that undermines the existence of Iraq as a nation state. Numerous questions have arisen about how the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will manage the future of Mosul after the fall of IS. The Iraqi parliament is divided between the lead-government Dawaa party and the ultra-nationalist faction of Muqtada al-Sadr regarding the future of the nation. On the one hand the Iraqi government support the continued dominance of the Sh'ia with strong links to Tehran with the support of the U.S and Russia. On the other hand Muqtada al-Sadr and Alī al-Husaynī al-Sīstānī are endeavouring for a strong centralised state which respects the confessional distribution of the nation and one which is independent from international interference (particularly from Iran and U.S). In the last three years, this intra-Shi’a dispute has been an ideological struggle on the future political structure of Iraq. This dispute, largely due to the growth of IS, has been frozen by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Last November, the Iraqi parliament legalised the presence of sectarian militias (like Badr Forces and the most recent Hashd Al-Shaabi) in the national army. Once again, this raised questions about the sectarian fault-lines in Iraq and created grave doubts about the will and capacity of Baghdad to include the Sunni community in the Iraqi political/democratic process. The major obstacle in the construction of common political ground remains the presence of Shi'a militias, many of which are strongly connected to Tehran, paramilitary groups who are following an agenda which does not consider safeguarding a nation state that protects the Sunni minority. 

Geopolitics has considerable influence on this. Arguably, the main goal of Tehran and its patrons in Iraq appears to be creating a "Shi'a belt" which connects Tehran, through to Baghdad, onto Damascus and extending to Beirut as part of extending Iran’s interests in a major regional struggle with Saudi Arabia and others powers in area. In addition to this, Baghdad’s government faces renewed tensions with the Kurdish Regional Government attempting to achieve its independence in northern Iraq. An unstable situation such as this will undermine any military success against IS, its jihādists and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The war against IS has greatly exacerbated the divisions already present in the three major sectarian and ethnic groups which dominate the country’s population. These divisions were long apparent during the occupation of Iraq and were left unresolved by U.S and British politicians and soldiers in the wake of their withdrawal. While IS have given these competing groups a common enemy, victory over the Islamic State could create a situation where these temporary alliances will breakdown and lead to further instability in every Sunni majority area across Iraq and perhaps even extend into cross-border conflict. 

The success of the Caliphate project in Iraq, unlike Syria, had been possible because of the grievances and fear of both Islamist and secular Sunnis and various tribal groups. These grievances were fanned by the former government of Nouri al-Malaki, whose sectarian policies and alienation of the Sunni community gave IS, formerly Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, an opportunity to regroup and re-establish itself after the Obama administration completed the U.S withdrawal in 2011. This situation proved fruitful as the interests of the Salafi jihādist movement converged with those of ex-Baathist soldiers and intelligence units which had served under Saddam Hussein. This alliance allowed IS to conquer and form local ties with numerous tribal groups and establish legitimacy in the areas surrounding Mosul and Fallujah (Al-Anbar province) and other Sunni-dominated cities. 

Without long-term political resolutions, it inevitably becomes difficult to crush IS’s insurgency because of the pragmatic politics of IS which combined traditional tribal power and puritanical jihādist ideology with military strategy of the former regime of Saddam. 

For Islamic State’s leadership, military defeat while unavoidable in Mosul will be not decisive for the existence of the group and the Caliphate. Their project’s hopes will only evaporate if the Sunni population is drawn into a fair political process and if the loyalty of the Sunni tribes is broken. This scenario will drive the organisation underground and even in these circumstances, the region's insecurity coupled with IS's terrorist operations will not prevent deadly bombing which have become the organisation's signature. Without any agreement between Shi'a, Kurd and Sunni on the future of the territories recaptured from Islamic State, the group could once again re-emerge as a champion of the Sunnis. This could lead to a new phase in the brutal battle between IS and the numerous factions fiercely fighting for the new Iraq. Such a phase will be more disorganised and fragmented and, therefore, much more difficult to contain.

Nino Orto