July 2017

By James Le Grice

This article is a contribution from our UK network partner firm Four Communications based in London.

After ISIS, it’s back to the old battles

Nearly three years to the day that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared his caliphate in Mosul, the Iraqi flag flies again over Iraq’s second largest city. The hard-fought battle is the biggest victory yet over ISIS, and with the group losing ground in Syria, the end is approaching for Baghdadi’s caliphate. So too is the end approaching for the unlikely alliances fighting against it.

In ISIS, old enemies found a common opponent; yet the causes of their differences have only increased during the war. As the threat of ISIS wanes, these legacy conflicts will rise back to the surface heralding major changes to the regional balance of power.

The Shia Jihad

The greatest challenge comes from Iranian-sponsored Shia jihadists who have gained unprecedented power in the war against ISIS. The Iraqi and Syrian governments grew reliant on them to reclaim territory from ISIS, and as a result a ‘Shia Crescent’ is forming creating a land bridge from Iran to the Israeli border via northern Iraq and Syria.

Shia militias are a historic cause of instability in Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran created various paramilitary groups to export its revolution to Iraq through subversion and terrorist activity. The involvement of these militias in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein is partly responsible for the uprising’s failure. Fearing revenge killings and tyranny under militia rule, Iraqis in Sunni heartlands such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul rallied behind Saddam as the lesser of two evils.

Many of their fears came true post 2003, as the lines blurred between extremist Shia militias and a government dominated by moderate Shia Islamists. The pattern of 1991 repeated itself in the exact same places, as al Qaeda and later ISIS gathered reluctant support amongst Sunnis as the perceived lesser evil.

Sunni apprehensions are best exemplified in the career of Hadi al Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigades, the most prominent of Iraq’s Shia militias. After Saddam’s overthrow, his militia ran death squads which killed thousands of Sunnis and Amiri became internationally notorious his signature method of killing: execution by power drill. Rather than bringing Amiri before a war crimes tribunal, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki made him Minister for Transport, a role he allegedly used to help Iran transport weapons into Syria. He has grown even more powerful under current Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, who placed him in charge of anti ISIS military operations in Diyala Province. Indeed, Abadi has increased the power of all the Shia militias, legalising them as extensions of the state and entitling them to public funding.

In Syria, where the regime has been a long-time supporter of Iran’s proxy militias, the patron has become the client. The Assad regime is being propped up on the ground by Hezbollah and a variety of Shia militias organised by Iran’s Quds Force. Iran has recruited militiamen from as far away as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, creating demographic changes in Syria to shore up its power base.

While these militias are supporting Assad, their outlook is distinctly religious. They have come to defend the Shia shrine of Sayeda Zeinab in Damascus, and to defend Islam from what Iranian propaganda claims is an American/Israeli/Saudi plot to divide and weaken the ‘Islamic resistance’ through ISIS and other Salafists.

In both Syria and Iraq, the Shia militias have been accused of sectarian cleansing and mass killings during the war on ISIS. It is unlikely that they will be disarmed or brought to justice after the war, raising the risk of Sunnis in both countries continuing to turn to Salafist groups for protection.


The war on ISIS has made the prospect of an independent Kurdish state more tangible than ever before. Iraqi Kurds were always closest to achieving this, having enjoyed autonomy for some time. However the borders of the Kurdistan region remain contentious, and exclude a number of mixed Kurdish and Arab settlements on their periphery. The war against ISIS created an opportunity to expand the borders as Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of ISIS’ 2014 blitzkrieg.

Most notably, the Kurds seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a traditionally Kurdish city that has long been the subject of contention between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad. The Kurds have no intention of handing it back once ISIS is fully defeated.

Knowing that the time was right to consolidate these gains, the Kurdistan Region’s President Masoud Barzani has called for an independence referendum on 25th September. This will allow him to seek international recognition of Kurdistan within its new borders.

In Syria, the collapse of regime authority in Kurdish majority areas has enabled a quasi-independent Kurdistan to take shape. The Rojava ‘republic’ set up by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the radical Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is a bold experiment in direct democracy, gender equality and religious freedom.

Rojava gained global attention when its forces won the first major victory in the war against ISIS, driving the group from Kobani, near the Turkish border. Backed by US support, the Syrian Kurds have gone on to reclaim further territory from ISIS in northern Syria, cutting off the group’s key supply routes and consolidating the Kurdish majority areas of Syria.

This has not sat well with Turkey, which considers Rojava’s YPG forces to be terrorists and a greater threat to its security than ISIS. Rojava’s rise prompted Turkish military intervention in Syria, nominally to fight ISIS, but largely to thwart the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its southern border. The Turkish army, and the Syrian groups it supports, have had numerous small-scale clashes with the YPG. Once their common enemy in ISIS is defeated, these clashes could escalate dramatically.

The Syrian Democratic Revolution

The war on ISIS has provided the Assad regime with a convenient distraction from the country’s democratic revolution. Assad’s line from the beginning was that he was fighting ‘terrorists’ and early on he released hundreds of jihadists from prison to ensure he’d get the fight he wanted.

The rise of ISIS led Western powers to soften their rhetoric on Assad stepping down, and the regime and its Russian supporters have continued to crush moderate rebel forces under the banner of ‘fighting ISIS’. The democratic movement has suffered severe losses at the hands of the regime and Islamists alike, but it is not defeated.

The US-led coalition has continued to support the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces as its ground force against ISIS in Syria. However, the question now is how far the US is willing to go to support these forces after ISIS’ defeat. Recent confrontations between Syrian planes threatening US-backed groups and the US air force are testing this. Assad is gambling that the US is unwilling to risk a major confrontation to protect them, and that is a safe bet. Supporting the revolution against Assad now means challenging Russia and that has changed the calculus. Putin’s bid to become a prominent Middle East power broker is looking set to pay off.

For these reasons, it’s vital that Western policy makers have a clear vision for the post-ISIS Iraq and Syria, acknowledging the resources and potential sacrifices necessary to achieve it. Iran’s Shia jihad at the least will fuel continued sectarian conflict, providing a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamists, potentially with tacit backing from rival powers. At worst, it will create a dynamic in which a hardline anti-Western force is powerful enough to dictate the future of both Iraq and Syria. An independent Kurdistan in Syria and/or Iraq would place the West in an awkward position of having to choose between allies, and would have domino effects in Turkey and Iran where Kurdish nationalists have renewed their armed insurgencies. If the Syrian democratic movement is abandoned, the West will effectively confirm Syria as a Russian sphere of influence, though continued support for the movement could prove far too costly.

In the fight against ISIS, it has been all too easy to put these issues aside, but as fractious alliances of convenience break down it will soon be decision time.