Chaos could be the reward of victory over ISIS in Iraq: Brian Stewart

It’s one of the grimmest ironies of war in Iraq: The advance of ISIS two years ago terrified foreign governments, but the steady retreat of the same jihadist group now makes diplomats nervous about what’s next.

Search is on for formula to prevent a shattered Iraq from falling into new wars once ISIS threat is gone

Iraqi soldiers raise an Iraqi flag on the ruins of a building near the provincial council headquarters in Ramadi during the offensive that freed the city from nearly a year of ISIS rule. (Osama Sami/Associated Press)

It's one of the grimmest ironies of war in Iraq: the advance of ISIS two years ago terrified foreign governments, but the steady retreat of the same jihadist group now makes diplomats nervous about what's next.   

The ISIS setback is real. Tikrit, Ramadi, Baiji, Fallujah, all key cities swept up in that original ISIS conquest have been recaptured by the anti-ISIS coalition, which is now preparing to retake Mosul, the country's second largest city, possibly by year's end. 

The jihadists try to make up for defeats in both Iraq and Syria by calling for more attacks in the West and spawning ISIS affiliates in Africa, but they've lost over half their Iraqi territory in the past year, which robs them of critical oil and tax revenues and makes recruiting more difficult.

The martial tide runs against the jihadists, but their decline hardly inspires euphoria among their enemies. Instead, diplomats are flying to international conferences to try to find a formula that might prevent a shattered Iraq from falling into new wars once the ISIS threat is gone.

There are no signs that quest for a fix is going well.

"The moment there is what you might call victory against ISIS, then you are up against all the problems that caused this crisis in the first place," Yezid Sayid, senior analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told the Washington Post recently.
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an ISIS weapons factory in Fallujah. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

The core problem is Iraq has never had a true democratic consensus behind a central government. Its severe fault lines between religious, tribal and cultural groups, dangerous even before the traumatic U.S. invasion, have only grown more toxic in the 13 years of warfare since.   

Rolling back ISIS doesn't guarantee the government in Baghdad can forge a fragile unity. Competing armed forces will likely move in quickly to claim turf in their own interests.   

Who's to stop them?

A single war-weary division

Iraq has only one good army formation, the 10,000 counter-insurgency troops of the Golden Division that led the recent battles that drove ISIS back. The rest of the army is weak and still reforming under coalition guidance. A single war-weary division can't hold all the land it frees from ISIS. 

Instead, the recaptured land is seized by a dizzying array of forces that include several competing Shia militias, Sunni local protection units, some Iraq army units, Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga and various smaller tribal armies.

The Shia forces, some dominated by proxy units controlled by Iran, are pushing into what used to be Sunni-held areas — an obvious potential cause of a new civil war.

"These groups are not united or cohesive … and once ISIS is defeated, there could be an internal Shia battle for primacy," Ned Parker, Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters, recently told the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. "The idea that the state currently controls the territory of Iraq has been exposed as an illusion."

Shia against Shia, Shia against Sunnis, all against Kurds — the thought of Iraq soon facing new cyclones of internecine wars troubles foreign governments who've invested heavily on the ground as part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

Canada's complicated role

Few have more to worry about than the Trudeau government. Canada put a major effort into the training and partial equipping of Peshmerga, which many Kurds see as their independent army of the future. 

Our military aid was meant to protect the Kurds in northeastern Iraq from ISIS slaughter, but the Peshmerga proved to be skilled fighters who've not only pushed the jihadists back, they've spread their own control well beyond their original Kurdish heartland. The Kurdistan Regional Government has expanded its total territory by 50 per cent.

It's not land the Kurds plan to give back, nor is it land others will easily concede to them. The Kurds are anxious to claim the oil fields they've long thought to be rightfully theirs, but above all, they want full separation from Iraq.
The Peshmerga have proven to be a formidable fighting force. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

Their president, Masoud Barzani, has insisted that Kurdistan's new borders have been "drawn in blood" and, according to news reports, he vows they won't relinquish this territory. 

Those are fighting words for Shia militias who've denounced any breakup of Iraq. The Baghdad government has vowed to reassert its authority over all Kurdish-controlled areas.

If ISIS continues to degrade at its current pace, a conflict over Kurdish succession could find Ottawa scrambling to withdraw military trainers and medical staff. It would be an embarrassing pullout at best and one likely bitterly resented by Kurds.
Foreign leaders like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be faced with some difficult decisions if the coalition in Iraq manages to defeat ISIS but chaos follows. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada was always clear it doesn't want Kurds to secede, but the government can hardly claim surprise if the force it helped mobilize decides to go all out for independence. 

"There is an irony in that we and others are investing in the Peshmerga and are actually aiding a separatist army," Michael Bell, Middle East expert and formerly one of Canada's most experienced ambassadors to the region, said earlier this year. "But at this point, there's no alternative to that."

Canada is already struggling to appear properly neutral. When Canadian soldiers wore Kurd insignia on their battle dress, Baghdad and some others in the coalition complained they were sporting separatist symbols.
Peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against ISIS militants on the front line in Khazir back in 2014. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

The links to the Kurds also put Canadian officers working with the Iraq government in Baghdad in the delicate position of assisting two groups that could be future opponents of each other. The senior Canadian officer there, Brig.-Gen. Greg Smith, has said, "We're enabling both sides."

"As for the longer political solution," he told the Toronto Star this summer, "that is very much an Iraqi democratic problem."

Tough sell

Canadian military missions abroad are renowned — and sometimes lampooned — for their always sunny optimism, but our mission could become an increasingly hard sell as factions use all means other than democratic ones to boost their power as ISIS declines. 

Meetings of foreign backers of Iraq, including Canada, convened in Washington last month to concentrate on the post-ISIS recovery effort, but the players emerged with no clear sense of what democratic options would even look like.    

Some diplomats may remember the Duke of Wellington's words on war: "Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won." 

Another relevant rule of war for Canada: they're always easier to get into than get out of. That's especially true after you've bonded on the ground with people as resilient as the Kurds, who may yet face a life-and-death struggle.    


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.