Small Wars Journal

After ISIL: The Conflict Following the War

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 8:26pm

After ISIL: The Conflict Following the War

Brandon Whitehead


The Middle East has long been a breeding ground for insurgencies and terrorist organizations alike.  Groups and organizations spanning from the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, Lebanese Hezbollah, Taliban, and nearly an infinite list of splinter organizations have had disputes over everything from religion to territory for years and will likely continue to do so.  Most recently, the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) or the Arabic acronym of Da’ish), has burst on scene and made lasting impacts on Iraq, Syria, and throughout the greater Levant.

In June 2014, ISIL seemingly came out of nowhere and has now grown to become a major force in the Middle East, more specifically in Iraq and Syria.  The organization became especially prominent following its lightning-swift military advance over northern Iraq, where it encountered an abysmally low level of government resistance (Terrill 2014).  With that being said, ISIL’s hold on the region has recently been on the decline with territorial losses mounting in key areas along the Euphrates River Valley, the Tigris River Valley, and Northern Syria, with current operations threatening their capitals in both Raqqah and Mosul.  Up to this point in time, the predominance of research and analysis has been carried out to figure out how to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State.  Governments of the 50+ Coalition nations from around the world that are participating in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE have seemingly put an infinite amount of time, money, and effort in the overall strategy of how to beat ISIL…which is, if you follow the news, still a plan very much so in the works.

This paper, however, will not attempt to highlight ways in which Coalition forces can further degrade and defeat ISIL, as there has been an abundance of data published on the subject.  This paper will attempt to provide insight into a topic most have not yet thoroughly considered…what happens after ISIL is gone?  This paper will explore the challenging situations presented after the war on ISIL is over, specifically between the Government of Iraq (GOI) and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).  These decisions made after ISIL is dispelled from Iraq will have lasting effects on more than Iraq; they will drastically impact the entirety of the Middle East.

Literature Review

As previously stated, there has been a plethora of literature published concerning how to deal with ISIL in terms of what the Coalition and United States should do in order to degrade and defeat the extremist group.  With that being said, there has surprisingly been very little data on what the aftermath of the war will look like.  While there are likely numerous causes behind this, the lack of research and analysis can likely be attributed to two main reasons: 1. Most efforts were (and still are) solely directed at discovering how to defeat ISIL.  2. No one ever thought the war would turn as quickly as it did.  ISIL, to the astonishment and delight of many, has been losing territory recently at a rapid pace.  While Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and Federal Police (FEDPOL) isolate and penetrate Mosul (ISIL’s capital in Iraq), Syrian Opposition, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Regime (along with help from Russia) are putting increasing pressure on Raqqah (the proclaimed capital of ISIL’s so-called Caliphate).  The complexities of the situation regarding the degradation/defeat of ISIL lye with the fact that there are so many different players involved…all of which have their own reasons for joining the fight.  These players, in addition to the ones previously mentioned include but are not limited to: Iranian-backed Shia Militia Groups, Turkey, multiple other Coalition partners, and most importantly, the Kurds [composed of the Peshmerga, Kongra Gel (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG)].

While the successes in both Iraq and Syria can be mostly attributed to the Kurds, it is important to know that in the very beginning of ISIL’s movement throughout Iraq, the Kurds did nothing but watch from the sidelines.  During ISIL’s initial siege, rumors spread that the Kurdish leadership had agreed with ISIS not to unleash the Peshmerga, the de-facto army of the Kurds, as long as ISIS fighters stayed out of areas the Kurds considered their homeland (Khan, 2014).  Short-lived, the truce was quickly collapsed as ISIL committed atrocities in Sinjar with plans on making moves against Erbil.  From that point on, the Peshmerga would lead the fight against ISIL in Iraq, while the YPG (Syrian Kurds) would defend their territories in northern Syria.  This particular situation is the driving force behind this research project; it begs the question: What do you do with the Kurds?

While the Kurds’ successes have certainly paved the way for the continued operations against ISIL, they have also brought a couple of sensitive issues up as well.  Some Kurds believe they should retake all of this land (McDiarmid, 2016).  By “this land”, McDiarmid is referring to the large swaths of land recovered on Iraq’s eastern border encompassing key cities like Kirkuk, Erbil, Bashiqa, and now…Mosul.  If you really think about it, it only makes sense.  The Kurds stepped in when the Government of Iraq was in dire need of assistance to keep the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant from pushing further south to Baghdad.  What is GOI going to do in return…take back all of the land the Kurds fought to save?  Most believe that is not very likely to happen.  In fact, Kurdistan's president, Massoud Barzani, recently stated they had no intention on handing over reclaimed territories back to the Government of Iraq; these territories, coincidently enough, line up with the Kurds’ “line in the sand” in terms of carving out what they claim to be Kurdistan’s boundaries...the same boundaries they have claimed to be rightfully theirs for centuries.

As a result, there are many questions that must be addressed.  “What would an independent Kurdistan look like?  Is independence what Kurds seek?  If Iraqi Kurdistan seceded from Iraq, what would this mean for Kurds outside of its borders?  What would happen to the rest of Iraq?” (Klein, 2009)  Before attempting to answer any of these questions, it is important to have a firm understanding of the Kurdish people and the trials and tribulations they have experienced for many years.  The name “Kurdistan” has a long and curious history, but it did not become politicized or contentious until the 20th Century, particularly after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of new states that incorporated Kurdistan – understood as the “land of the Kurds” – in their new borders (Klein, 2009).  Kurds are, in fact, an ethnically diverse group of people that identify first with being Kurdish, then second to that of which country they are from (i.e. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey).  However, at the end of the day, the longing for an independent state persists among Kurds, and many Kurds insist on independence as a distant possibility or long-term goal (Saeedpour, 2005).  This “longing for independence” is perhaps the biggest problem to solve in terms of the post-ISIL situation in Iraq/Syria.  With that being said, the Kurds are only one piece of the puzzle in terms of concerns that Baghdad has to seriously consider when the war on ISIL is over.

Neighboring countries also present a formidable threat as well because they bring inherent complexities into the mix with the already heightened Kurdish tensions.  As Tibon astutely points out, the solution offered here will not please everyone.  Turkey will fear the establishment of a Kurdish state on its border.  Iran will resist the decrease of its net influence in Iraq.  Israel and Jordan will also surely have concerns about the rise of a new Sunni state on their borders (Tibon, 2016).  Although all players have very similar desires in terms of what becomes of ISIL…they simply want them defeated and out of the pictures.  However, they all have extremely different factors driving them to make decisions specifically beneficial to themselves long after ISIL is gone.  While countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are only focused on maintaining border security and concentrating the predominance of their efforts on ensuring safety and order within their countries borders, other countries like Russia, Syria, Iran and now Turkey have additional ulterior motives that are influencing their strategic decision making processes.

Tensions with Turkey are now closing in on an all time high as Baghdad sees a Turkish incursion in northern Iraq as more and more likely.  With Turkish personnel, radars, and weapon systems currently staged at their borders, it seems to be not a question of if, but when Turkey will make its move into Iraq.  One of the main reason’s Turkey has a dog in this fight, is due to their desired expansion of the “Turkish sphere of influence”.  Much like Jordan, Turkey is intent on maintaining border security in attempts to keep the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.  With that being said, in the Turkish government’s eyes, they must maintain a “security bubble” to ensure they are keeping their borders safe and secure…unfortunately for Iraq, this security bubble happens to extend into Iraqi territory.  This leads into their next dilemma…the Kurds.  The interesting portion of Turkey’s situation is whom they support and whom they do not.  On one hand, Turkey will gladly work with the Peshmerga in Iraq; on the other, they will actively target the PKK in Turkey and the YPG in Syria, as they have deemed them to be terrorist groups.  This is yet another aspect that has convoluted the fight against ISIL, because the United States actively trains and equips the YPG in northern Syria. 

Another elephant in the room here is Iran.  Iran has more to fight for in regards to this war than most people think, as they have long battled Kurdish uprisings in their own country.  In fact, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), considered the "ultimate modern Kurdish political party," established the "Republic of Kurdistan," (also referred to by historians as the "Republic of Mahabad," since Mahabad was chosen as the capital) in a section of Iranian Kurdistan (Hevian, 2013).  This independence, however, was short-lived as the Ayatollah declared a “holy war” against them.  Iran’s involvement in Iraq is a multi-pronged strategy.  Inserting themselves deeper into the GOI provides them with more and more influence in the government, therefore providing them the ability to sway decisions that would affect their country as well.  This not only ensures they can quell any potential Kurdish uprising that may spill over into Iran, but more importantly, they can influence GOI to reduce Iraqi dependence on the United States and other Coalition partners, effectively giving them more of a buffer zone to their borders.  With that being said, increased Iranian influence in Iraq creates yet another problem for GOI in that it only furthers the sectarian divide that is already responsible for ripping the country apart to begin with.

The third major player in these post-ISIL considerations in terms of neighboring countries is nation of Syria.  Syria brings to the table the most unknown aspects/factors, as it is by far the most unstable, corrupt, violent nation in the greater Middle East at this time.  Between the Assad Regime barrel-bombing civilian hospitals, the seemingly endless list of oppositionist groups, terrorist organizations, and outside influence (i.e. Russia, Iran, Lebanon) in the area, it is as close of an example of the “wild west” there is at this present time.  Surprisingly enough, defeating ISIL is not the number one priority for the Assad Regime at this time.  The predominance of their efforts is actually geared toward defeating the Syrian Oppositionist Groups currently attempting to overthrow them.  This lack of synchronization and corroboration between countries in this region are one of the main reasons why ISIl is still in this fight.  Additionally, effective operations by ISF, PMF, Peshmerga, and the efforts of the Coalition are simply pushing ISIL troops, equipment, and support across the border to Syria, only to be pushed back into Iraq again down in the areas of its western deserts.  Without a cohesive plan to incorporate all necessary parties in their attempts to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State, Baghdad is simply wasting their time. 

Throughout all of the available literature on the above topics reviewed, one message has remained very clear: Baghdad will have to make some very difficult decisions while the entire world is watching.  Between dealing with the power vacuum left after ISIL’s retreat/defeat, dealing with the sectarian divide that has plagued the country for years, the increasingly fragile situation with the Kurdish population, and the response from its neighbors, a new conflict could come just as quickly as the last war had left.


The most logical methodology for this research was that of the case study.  While personally gathering data by conducting interviews with local nationals from different sects of Islam and/or different occupations would have been ideal, that means is quite impossible given the current circumstances (i.e. lack of both access and ability).  Taking that into consideration, there was an abundance of data already published on the history behind the problems caused by the emergence of ISIL and the corresponding actions from all other previously mentioned players.  A case study method enabled the cross-examination of data collected/published by people with different backgrounds and opinions on the matter, further enabling a holistic approach to getting the truth data needed to make a proper assessment on both current events and future plans.

One major hurdle throughout the entirety of the analysis portion of this research project was to overcome the biases inherent to that of a military member…especially to that of a military member currently deployed in support of operations in the area of study.  Understanding this, constant thought was given to each aspect of this paper in order to ensure the data was collected/ reflected appropriately.  Another difficulty discovered during the research portion of this project is the depth that is required to fully understand the problem at hand.  The driving forces behind the issues presented throughout this study are incredibly complex and convoluted; the limitation presented here was that of the lack of the time necessary to truly become a subject matter expert in this realm.  With that being said, there were numerous articles, interviews, journals, and blogs out there that reflected outlooks and opinions of the previously identified target sets of this research, which certainly provided an invaluable perspective to this project.  One example of this was the document titled “Kurdish Hopes, Kurdish Fears”, which was a public survey of Kurdish opinions on this topic. 

Overall, these varied perspectives enabled the ability to gain an honest, un-biased understanding of the ground truth data, ultimately leading to an assessment on the previously discussed problem set.  While this was a textbook case study research project, the incorporation of different types of documents from personnel with varied backgrounds enabled the ability to broaden the scope of the research, ultimately leading to a more conclusive, well-rounded final assessment.

Analysis and Findings

Although the situation that the Government of Iraq currently faces is extremely complex, the solution(s) may prove to be much more simple.  As mentioned earlier in this paper, the purpose of this research had multiple purposes: 1) To highlight the existing problems regarding what happens in Iraq after ISIL is degraded/defeated. 2) To provide a couple of different approaches that would be effective in solving this problem-set. 3) To provide assessments that would ultimately prevent the war-torn nation from falling deeper into another conflict within their country's boundaries.

One of the most important areas that Iraq must address is the sectarian divide that is ripping their country apart.  For years, the Shia majority have maintained rule over the Sunni majority, leaving the majority of the population with little to no say in the government.  The Government of Iraq has to make some sort of concession here; there are too many examples in history to show how and why this will never work in the end.  With that being said, the Sunnis are not necessarily making this an easy option, as they have not provided much of an option recently.  Pollack states that most Shiite leaders have actually shrugged off calls for compromise with the Sunnis by claiming that they have no strong, legitimate Sunni partner to bargain with.  Yet the government isn't doing enough to help unify them. Despite Baghdad's claims to the contrary, there has been little outreach to the Sunni tribes (Pollack, 2015).  Bringing in Sunni leadership into key political positions would go a long way in terms of closing the sectarian divide.  At the end of the day, people just want to be heard and feel like they have a voice in matters they care about.

Involving Sunni leadership within the Government of Iraq would also assist them in closing the ethnic gap in Iraq.  Gurses weighs in further on this topic as he points out that disadvantaged ethnic minorities who have resorted to arms to redress these grievances often start from a position of weakness.  As a result, ethnic insurgents will utilize all available resources from within their domestic support base (Gurses, 2015).  Aside from preventing ethnic insurgents or allowing groups like ISIL to gain power/momentum, concessions by GOI would be a solid first step in the right direction to preventing an all out war with the Kurds.  As Khan points out, “a breakaway Kurdistan would prove disastrous for the rest of Iraq, creating the potential for a new conflict between Arabs and Kurds and encouraging the Sunnis to carve out their own homeland” (Khan, 2014).  As mentioned earlier, there are currently zero plans for the KRG to “give back” any Iraqi territory that the Peshmerga took from the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant…a political reform needs to take place in order to prevent what would effectively be a civil war breaking out due to the fact that the Kurds make up a huge portion of the population of Iraq.

With all of that said, there were a couple difficulties in regards to coming to solid conclusions for the findings in this research project.  All of the power and influence for these critical decisions lay within a corrupt system…a political system that is well aware of actions and their impacts but has chose not to correct them.  It almost seems futile to point out such seemingly obvious decisions that could have such a drastic, positive impact on the region because we have seen throughout history that the “right” actions will never be taken.  One key limitation of attempting to assess this situation is the fact that our (American) society simply cannot understand the depth of the grievances between different ethnicities and cultures in that area of the world.  Because the core of their problems revolve around religion, these issues are something so deep that nothing the United States or any other outside agency could ever provide anything (i.e. money, materials, democracy, etc.) to stop the fighting or force them to come to an understanding.


As the war on ISIL slowly comes to an end, the rest of the world will be watching and waiting to see what happens to Iraq once its all said and done.  If Iraq continues along the same path of excluding the majority of its population from having any sort of say in the government…the country will fail due to a sectarian divide that will continue to promote ethnic radicals from waging jihad against them.  If Iraq does not attempt to make any concessions with the KRG or the Kurdish people in general, the country will fail due to the inevitable civil war will ensue over lands taken during the fight against ISIL.  As Khan points out, an Iraq in three parts is in no one's interest, but that eventuality can be avoided.  Political reform in Baghdad, something the Kurds have been demanding for years, would take the steam out of the Kurdish independence movement.  The United States can play a central role in that process, using its clout with the Kurds, particularly now after intervening against the Islamic State, to force a political solution (Khan, 2014). 

Overall, there are a number of different avenues or approaches the Government of Iraq could pursue in attempts to prevent further war and chaos from destroying their country.  Although the chances of success for any one of these particular methods of chance are impossible to accurately predict, one thing is for certain…if Iraq continues to conduct business as they have in the past, their country, and their people will only continue to suffer.

The opinions offered here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. Department of Defense.


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Categories: Islamic State - ISIS - IS

About the Author(s)

Captain Brandon B. Whitehead, U.S. Air Force, is the Chief of Intelligence, 66th Rescue Squadron.


Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 3:15am

Kyle Orton‏
Verified account
 @KyleWOrton Apr 22
In some areas of #Iraq, the Islamic State is already showing signs of recovery. …
"the use of demographically inappropriate forces to cleanse local areas that has meant IS’s military losses are not political losses"

Hassan Hassan حسن‏
Verified account
Abdullah Muhaysini: some types of guerrilla war have already returned; hit & run & "nikaya" battles  Syria_insurgency

Four Towns deal shows the power of extremists on all sides in the Fertile Crescent, particularly #Iran. 
v @hxhassan

Hassan Hassan حسن‏
Verified account
 @hxhassan Apr 21

Yup! I called this long ago:

US official: ISIS has moved its capital 140 km S to Deir al Zour ahead of Raqqa battle. 2 months ago ISIS set up govt bureaucracy in Mayadin

Actually Hasssan called this development over a year ago...and largely ignored.

This depicts the core problem with academic type articles...before they are released...ground events pass them at autobahn speeds....

Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 3:17am

While the article is interesting there seems to be a major hole in the research....

If we take the following paragraph as the key statement of the article then I must ask the simple question why was the author not reading the postings on the Syrian blog thread for the last two years...?

Literature Review
As previously stated, there has been a plethora of literature published concerning how to deal with ISIL in terms of what the Coalition and United States should do in order to degrade and defeat the extremist group.  With that being said, there has surprisingly been very little data on what the aftermath of the war will look like.  While there are likely numerous causes behind this, the lack of research and analysis can likely be attributed to two main reasons: 1. Most efforts were (and still are) solely directed at discovering how to defeat ISIL.  2. No one ever thought the war would turn as quickly as it did.  ISIL, to the astonishment and delight of many, has been losing territory recently at a rapid pace.

I have posted articles written by four ME SMEs who I believe really do "see and understand" Syria...ME..Kurds..IS and AQ...and who have written some very interesting articles concerning "the day after IS".....yet largely overlooked by US MSM and US academia.

Why is that? Because their articles reflect that IS is not basically going to disappear any time soon...which is not what people want to hear...

Even in the list of footnoted literature there is not a single reference to any article written by:

1. Charles Lister
2. Hassan Hassan
3. Kye Orton
4. Michale Weiss...was deeply involved,but moved on to The Daily Beast and now is at CNN.

BTW...there is not a single article footnoted from the West Point CTC...probably one of the most overlooked academic research centers on AQ/AQI/IS going...why are they important because they conduct research supported by DOMEX....

A lot of SWC articles are largely academic and approach a subject in an academic fashion....instead of looking at the problem from the "ground reality" of actual ongoing events....and then tying it back to academic either a deny or confirm process.....instead when the article finally comes out it is basically outdated by events on the ground.

While the article reads well...the IS train "of what will be the day after" has long left the train station and IS is making the projected moves that these four writers above have stated they would do...