As Iraqi forces continue to mop up the last remnants of Daesh from west Mosul, it is worth remembering that the jihadist group continues to maintain a significant presence in five other Iraqi provinces. The retaking of Mosul may inflict a symbolic blow to Daesh’s bogus caliphate but it falls far short of eradicating the group on Iraqi soil.
In fact, for Iraq, the liberation of Mosul may prove to be a pyrrhic victory in so far as the causes of Daesh’s emergence in the first place have been left entirely untreated. More worrying still, further aggravation is just around the corner, in the shape of a Kurdish independence referendum. Furthermore, the proliferation of Shia-led militias does not bode well for the restoration of relative stability in Sunni-majority areas.
The wider geopolitical picture creates ample space for Daesh and its allies. The continuation of the Syrian conflict, potentially at an inter-state level between Iran and the United States, will create multiple layers of instability which Daesh is adept at exploiting.
Broadly speaking, the emergence of Daesh can be traced to three causes. First and foremost, the US-led invasion of Iraq in March/April 2003, and the subsequent hollowing out and in some cases disbandment of longstanding national institutions (principally the Iraqi army), created a massive political and security vacuum which has yet to be filled.
The new Iraqi armed forces have been built on American operational and cultural concepts and as such they are not fit for purpose in terms of serving Iraqi needs. This failure was highlighted dramatically in June 2014 when the Iraqi army melted away in the face of Daesh’s sweeping advance in north-western Iraq. By the same token, the Iraqi armed forces would not have been able to retake occupied cities such as Fallujah, Tikrit and Mosul without extensive US and, in some cases, Iranian help.
Second, Daesh is a response to creeping sectarianism in new Iraqi institutions, particularly in the security sector. Iraq may not be an overtly sectarian state, but the fact that many of the security forces bear Shia imagery (for instance flags emblazoned with Shia slogans) speaks to the reality on the ground. More broadly, in addition to the overt Anglo-American occupation, many Arab Sunnis bemoaned a “hidden” and deeper Iranian occupation spearheaded by Tehran’s Iraqi Shia allies.
Third, the spread of Daesh is related to a leadership deficit in the Arab Sunni community. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, much of the leadership either fled the country or became implacable foes of the new Iraqi establishment. A minority was co-opted by the new Iraqi regime to provide a convenient veneer of inclusivity. Following the departure of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki in August 2014, his successor Haider Al-Abadi took some initial steps to alleviate Arab Sunni marginalisation, but three years on these efforts have not developed into cohesive and sustainable policies.
Beyond these causal factors, the eradication of Daesh will prove extremely difficult as the group is much more deeply integrated into the fabric of tribal Arab Sunni society than is commonly appreciated. In essence Daesh is a group with deep local connectivity and extensive global appeal.
Daesh was born in the distorted political and sectarian landscape of post-Baathist Iraq. Its origin lies in the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq founded by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. A successor organisation, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) which was formally declared in October 2006, created the nucleus of Daesh’s “caliphate” in so far as ISI set down a blueprint of governance accompanied by credible administrative and political outreach structures in the rural tribal areas of Anbar and Salahuddin provinces.
Following the military defeat of ISI, spearheaded by a US “surge” in autumn 2007 coupled with the co-option of leading tribal figures in Anbar province, the group quickly re-emerged once conditions proved favourable. There is every reason to believe that this unfortunate pattern will be repeated, especially as aggravating features are about to come to the fore.
The Kurdish quest for independence will not only weaken the central government in Baghdad, but equally importantly it will also further disenfranchise Arab Sunnis, particularly those communities living in so-called “disputed” areas. As the operation to retake Mosul has shown, the Erbil-based Kurdish administration has adopted a land grab policy as part of a broader strategy to set down the boundaries of a potential independent state.
At the sectarian level, the struggle against Daesh has been accompanied by the strengthening of Shia-led militias now formally organised as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). The PMU – and their political backers in Baghdad – increasingly form a parallel state in Iraq which is even more aligned with Iran than the official political establishment. The potential for further sectarian aggravation is enormous as the PMU have established a formidable presence in every sensitive Arab Sunni area, including the remotest corners.
In the final analysis, the repercussions of the US-led invasion of Iraq will continue to reverberate for decades to come. Mosul may be on the threshold of full liberation, but the next round of conflict is just around the corner.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.