What was once uncertain is now an ever-crystallising reality: ISIS is experiencing its final days in Iraq. Ever since the group lost its Iraqi capital of Mosul in mid-2017, it has been collapsing rapidly across Iraq. The group has since lost its other urban centres such as Tal Afar and Hawija and is now confined to the town of al-Qaim along the border with Syria.
With the end of ISIS in Iraq the issue of answering what comes next becomes evermore important. Much of the rise of ISIS in Iraq was facilitated by the political polarisation and vacuum in the country following the 2011 elections. The Sunni blocs suffered from lack of leadership, the Shia blocs suffered from brutal infighting and the Kurdish blocs found it difficult to reconcile their external ambitions with their internal differences. In a sense, the emergence of ISIS provided an impetus for unity, but did not solve these issues. With the fall of ISIS, the political situation is back to where it began, but Iraq is a far more volatile place.
The proliferation of militias represents one of the most serious challenges to post-ISIS stability. Many of the militias operating under the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) rose up in response to the ISIS threat, and their actions may have saved Iraq from total collapse. However, many of these groups have their individual political ambitions. While units such as Liwa Ali al-Akhbar, Abbas Fighting Division and Imam Ali Combat Division have agreed that they would stand down once ISIS in Iraq has been defeated, others such as the Badr Organisation have signalled they may parlay their military achievements into politics.
The postponement of the parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2018 and the formation of an emergency government headed by Haider al-Abadi is another concern. It highlights the chronic inability of the country’s political parties to form a political majority or build alliances with other parties.
The Kurdish Independence ambitions highlight another such polarised issue. The referendum, which took place in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) despite resistance from Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Washington, ended up exposing the deep schisms between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Meanwhile, the issue of reconstruction remains a pressing concern. Many of Mosul’s Sunni-majority cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul have been devastated by ISIS and the war to liberate these parts. Although reconstruction efforts in Mosul seem to be picking up, they have lagged in other cities. The slow pace of reconstruction could end up depleting the good will Baghdad has gained among many of Iraq’s Sunnis over the course of the liberation efforts.
And amidst all these developments, it should be remembered that ISIS still remains a threat. It is commonly accepted that the group will hide into the population and start rebuilding itself, looking for a new opportunity to return. Indeed, it has already done so in the past, back in the days it was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group’s defeat in 2008 did not prevent it from returning in 2014. It thrives on political polarisation, governmental vacuum and societal chaos.
The end of the war against ISIS in Iraq is certainly an occasion for celebration. And it can herald the dawn of a new, better and more peaceful Iraq. But now is not the time to become complacent and allow political rivalries to obstruct the greater threat.