ISIS on the Run-What Is next for Iraq?
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is on the brink of total defeat.
As of early July, Kurdish forces are beginning to push into Raqqa, the “capital” of ISIS’s caliph. The Kurds have managed to encircle the city, cutting off the 3000-4000 ISIS fighters within the city. Hundreds of previously ISIS held hamlets surrounding Raqqa have fallen to the Kurdish push. This rapid offensive left the Kurds just 5 kilometers away from Raqqa in February. This, combined with the Syrian government attacking ISIS south of Raqqa, leaves virtually no chance for ISIS to hold onto the city. Furthermore, the US military is assisting the Kurds, providing military advisors and special forces to the battle-hardened Kurdish warriors.
Meanwhile, ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, is rumored to be dead. Russian and Syrian media claimed Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike in June, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (an independent, credible source) claims to have “confirmed information” that Baghdadi is dead. While rumors of Baghdadi’s death have often occurred in the past, the fact that the Pentagon “cannot disprove the claim”, combined with the Syrian Observatory’s claims have made this particular rumor highly credible, and possibly true. An ISIS leader in Hawija even declared himself supreme leader, suggesting that at least if Baghdadi is not dead, there is severe turmoil and misinformation within ISIS ranks.
To the east, in Mosul, Iraqi forces have declared victory over ISIS. The eight month long, bloody offensive displaced nearly 900,000 civilians and potentially killed thousands of people. While skirmishes between ISIS and Iraqi forces remains in the Old City, Mosul has been related, as confirmed by a statement from President Trump himself.
Defeat in Mosul has major implications for ISIS Mosul was ISIS’s largest population center, home to around 1.5 million people. Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate in Mosul, after ISIS forces swept through huge parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. ISIS’s recruitment flow from foreign countries has plummeted, dropping from 1,500 people a month to just 200 a month.
The fight against ISIS will continue to be long, hard, and bloody. However, with Raqqa on the verge of falling to the Kurds, and Mosul liberated, there is no doubt that ISIS is on the path to the dustbin of history. With foreign recruitment slowing to a trickle, ISIS is rapidly running out of manpower to fight on, and ISIS presence in Afghanistan has dropped significantly following joint US-Afghan efforts.
The question is now turning to the fate of Iraq and Syria after ISIS is defeated. As in Syria, there are legitimate arguments for Iraq to be broken up. For reference, Iraq is at the forefront of the Shia-Sunni battleground, as it is roughly 55% Shia to 40% Sunni. Therefore, it is not surprising that Iraq imploded in such a way as it did in 2014-and it will not be surprising if it happens in the future. Iraq also has two competing ethnic groups-Kurds, who comprise roughly 20% of the population, and Arabs, who are roughly 75% of the population and dominate Iraq as a whole. The Kurds, on the other hand, are the largest ethnic group without a state, and given the Kurdish role in defeating ISIS, will likely expect some form of autonomy in return.
Iraq could be broken up in a number of ways, all of them with significant drawbacks. For example, Iraq could be broken up into a Shia state in the east (bordering Iran), a Kurdish state in the north, and a Sunni Arab state in the west. However, nation on nation conflict could occur, and the Shia state (which would end up being backed by Iran) would likely dominate the two smaller Sunni states. Additionally, Turkey would not be pleased to see a Kurdish state on its southern border, and Turkey is an extremely valuable ally. Another possible solution would be to have two states: a Sunni and Shia state, and grant the Kurds regional autonomy. Therefore, the balance of power in Iraq would be more even, and the Kurds would not officially be a nation, but would have autonomy. The possibility of nation on nation war is still possible, and the two states would certainly become part of the Iran-Saudi proxy conflict. Nevertheless, this could be the best solution in Iraq, and the border between the two states could be demilitarized to avoid war. I have drawn up a map below to illustrate.
ISIS’s reign of terror is rapidly coming to an end, but we cannot repeat the same mistakes we made previously in Iraq. Leaving a power vacuum will not end well. There must be some sort of post-war Iraqi plan, and breaking up Iraq is the best option in a sea of bad options.