Post-ISIS States: IRAQ May-December, 2018 – Report

Dr. Gina Lennox | Kurdish Lobby Australia – Ekurd.net

General Observations

ISIS and Islamist Militancy

ISIS is one of many symptoms of the broken contract between autocratic governments and their people. To contextualise the ISIS threat, between 2012 and 2017, ISIS was responsible for less than 30 percent of terrorist attacks in Iraq and Syria, i.e. ISIS is one of many threats, but in 2014 came to be considered a primary threat because it was attracting thousands of foreign fighters and rapidly taking control of territory that traversed the Syria – Iraq border. ISIS has since lost most of its territory but remains capable of counteroffensives (e.g. in Suweida and Deir Ezzor in Syria) and insurgencies (e.g. in Baghdad and the disputed territories of Iraq).

Many observers question why it is taking so long to defeat the remaining pockets of ISIS, suggesting that it is in US interests for ISIS to survive. The counterarguments are that ISIS has more freedom of movement between territories controlled by different forces; ISIS sympathisers and relatives, including those in high positions, enable ISIS to operate within or outside Sunni Arab administrative and tribal structures; the remaining ISIS fighters are hard-core and use all means, including human shields, tunnels, fog and sandstorms to counterattack; the US-led coalition attempts to minimize civilian casualties and the majority of SDF fighting in Deir Ezzor are poorly trained local Sunni Arabs. Possibly all and more factors have some validity, but unless there are changes to the political and economic status quo, ISIS or an offshoot has enough economic, military, political and social networks to remain a threat for years to come.

The West has ‘Middle East fatigue’, yet what is happening in the Middle East impacts Europe, Africa and Asia, North America and Australia. Of 41,970 foreign ISIS ‘members and affiliates’, 20 percent have returned to their countries of origin. In eastern Syria, 900 ISIS fighters, 550 ISIS women and 1,200 ISIS children from 44 countries are held in prisons or camps.

The Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Council has asked these countries to take them back, but most countries are reluctant to do so because of challenges in identifying, prosecuting, deradicalising and reintegrating them and fearing that prisons will become recruitment centres. Instead, Human Rights Watch claims to have evidence that the US has transferred at least five foreign ISIS fighters, including an Australian national, Ahmed Merhi, from northern Syria to Iraq, where they will likely face torture, a summary trial and execution.

The ISIS threat is also generational: 25 percent of all foreign ISIS-affiliated individuals are women and minors. In Iraq, ISIS wives are being executed without evidence they committed a crime, other than to marry a member of ISIS. Many thousands of children have been brainwashed by ISIS and other extremists, with ISIS children living in camps and orphanages, or fending for themselves after their ISIS parents have been killed, imprisoned, or if their Yezidi mother 1 is forced to abandon them.

But ISIS is not the only group that aspires to a Sunni Arab caliphate, given Islamism has replaced socialism and pan-Arabism as a geopolitical tool. Many non-state militias have the same aspiration, among them between 44,000 and 71,000 radicalised militants, including 20,000 foreigners, in northern Syria, some influenced by Saudi Wahhabism and others under the influence of Turkey, which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. All these militants, along with their families, face the prospect of doing Turkey’s bidding, and/or surviving the wrath of Assad’s dictatorship. Competing with them is a third group – the tens of thousands of pro regime Shia militants in Syria, foreigners among them, some of whom are being given land in former opposition strongholds.

Such large numbers of disparate non-state militias in Syria and Iraq that answer to individual commanders that aspire to power, and that frequently fight each other, along with the officially recognised, autonomous Hashd al-Shaabi (Shia militia) force in Iraq that nominally answers to a National Security Council, and its mentor, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that answers to Iran’s supreme leader, pose significant threats to national and regional stability and transformations.

Greater Kurdistan map, Kurdish claims territory 1919-1945

Greater Kurdistan map, Kurdish claims territory 1919-1945

The United States, Russia and China in the Middle East The overt policies of the United States (US) and Russia, and to a lesser extent, China, have emboldened autocracies in the region. The Obama administration did not challenge the Assad regime’s violence with concerted action and was slow to react to the threat of ISIS. The Trump administration’s transactional approach – employing a heavy-handed use of sanctions and confrontational rhetoric for perceived foes, and mostly unconditional support for perceived allies in the Middle East (but not Europe), even if these allies are corrupt, autocratic, and/or threaten US interests, as does Turkey – does not appear to be part of a multilateral strategic framework. Instead, current US policy appears unilateral and reactive, and until 2018, too focused on the military defeat of ISIS.

This has led Russia, Turkey and Iran to expand their footprints and co-ordinate. With the US redefining its goals in 2018 to include the withdrawal of the IRGC and its foreign proxies in Syria and Iraq, the US and its willing allies (that will likely include Australia) have committed to an indefinite military presence. This presence is being challenged in eastern Syria because it foils Russia’s oil agreements with Assad, and relies on Syrian Kurdish forces, which Turkey sees as a threat. In Iraq, the US and allied presence is being challenged by IRGC backed military commanders and parliamentarians. These challenges to the US and its allies, in combination with the expansion of Sunni and Shia militarism, increases the potential for more conflict, which many suspect is the US’ underlying intention.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have taken advantage of the vacuum in US strategic leadership. Russia has expanded its military, economic and diplomatic footprint from Libya to India, via Europe. In Syria, Russia has hijacked political negotiations so that the UN does Russia’s bidding, for example, in working on Russia’s constitutional

committee, only to be told by the Assad regime that UN input is unwelcome. In November, Russia proposed that the US give Iran sanction relief in return for Iran withdrawing the IRGC Quds force and its foreign proxies from Syria. This transaction differs from the US’ transactional approach because it is multilateral and focused, but the US rejected it. Russia is expanding its oil and gas interests in Iraq and Iran, and intends to do so in Syria. Russia is further enhancing Turkey as an oil and gas conduit to Europe, and sells armaments to all four countries, with the sale of its S400 missile defence system to Turkey undermining NATO. In all its undertakings, Russia is gaining political leverage.

In 2016, China became the largest direct investor in the Middle East ($30 billion compared to US’ $7 billion), and in 2017, the largest exporter to Turkey. China even has a consulate in Erbil and since 2009 Chinese state-owned oil companies like Sinopec have purchased Western oil companies operating in the KRI. China would like Turkey and the Middle East to be part of its One Belt One Road initiative related to the development of infrastructure, trade and energy projects. Unlike many countries, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States can afford the Chinese government loans on offer, which come without upfront political demands.

One US response to the expansion of Russian and Chinese investment is to interest Gulf States and the US private sector to invest in Iraq and Syria, the latter encouraged by the establishment of the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) in October. The IDFC will allow more flexible lending practices and doubles the existing lending ceiling to $60 billion for private investors, yet unless there is an internationally supported framework, private sector involvement could increase state nepotism, corruption and violence.

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