While the Islamic State (IS) is losing the last few square kilometers of what was at some point the Caliphate, the group, yet weakened as a proto-state, is not defeated and still poses a significant threat to the stability of Iraq and Syria, especially considering the political and economic volatility of both countries. While humanitarian organizations have not been, until now, directly targeted (except for the kidnappings of humanitarian workers in Syria), aid operations remain affected by the insecurity generated from the Islamic State guerrilla warfare in Iraq (and increasingly so in Syria).
On February 6, addressing representatives of the 79-members US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, US President Donald Trump declared that the coalition had already liberated “virtually” all of the territory IS previously held in Syria and Iraq and said a formal announcement is likely to come, “probably next week”. These statements follow the decision of President Trump to order the withdrawal of American troops from Syria (and from Afghanistan), decision which will, in the coming months, trigger significant changes in Syrian conflict dynamics. The central justification for President Trump’s demand that the United States evacuates its military presence from Syria, is that IS has been defeated, Trump claiming that the impending victory allows for an effective US withdrawal by the end of April.
The declarations of the US President almost coincided with the announcement by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of the last phase of their military operation against IS in their last remaining pocket along the Euphrates River in northeastern Baghouz villages, with the support of the coalition. If it is correct to say that we are observing the disaparition of the Caliphate as created and imposed by IS after a series of lightning conquests of large stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria – at its height, millions lived under IS’ black and white flag – however, it is wrong to say that the group has been defeated, especially in Iraq.
Statements on the defeat of IS have been contradicted by multiple parties and actors in the so-called Coalition, including US General Joseph L. Votel, the head of US Central Command, who declared in a report to the Senate Armed Services Committee “If the major actors and their proxies become embroiled in a competition for influence in Syria, this may create space for ISIS remnants or other terrorist groups to reform or reconstitute.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel also stated recently that “the so-called Islamic State has been luckily driven out of its territory but this unfortunately doesn’t mean that Islamic State has disappeared. It is transforming into an asymmetrical warfare force. And this, of course, is a threat.”
Moreover, statements on IS defeat are contradicted by the situation on the ground, especially in Iraq where the government declared a final victory on IS end 2017.
The threat of Islamic State in Iraq
Based on available data (see https://www.acleddata.com/), fighters, cells or sympathizers of IS have been involved (as the originator/perpetrator or as a target of military/security operations) in almost 2000 security incidents between 1 January 2018 and 31 January 2019, with a relatively stable level of attacks and incidents across this timeframe.
Pushed out of Mosul, IS elements have regrouped in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahaddin, and parts of Anbar – territory they know well. From the city of Hawija to the westernmost town of Tal Afar, these elements are mounting ambushes against Iraqi security forces in attacks the scale of which has not been seen in years. It is interesting to compare the current areas of attacks by IS elements with their areas of operations and control until December 2018; IS appears to be entrenched in the same areas where the group has grown from and from where it conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria.
As the Iraqi Government will continue to be confronted with a high level of popular discontent, institutional weaknesses, deep political divisions, as well as protests over a lack of services, high unemployment, and political corruption, IS will look at exploiting this situation to reinforce its base and recruit local fighters. In parts of Mosul, reconquered in 2017 by government forces after a long and costly campaign, the ominous black-and-white ISIS flag has flown again in recent months, causing panic and fear in villages around. Moreover, credible threats have also forced Iraqi authorities to relocate prisoners to prevent their escape in the event of an attack like the prison breakouts the group has managed to pull off in the past.
Today, the group is further evolving. It has adapted to the antipathy found among the millions forced to flee their homes or chafing under the yoke of Shia militia rule, certain of the Islamic State’s inevitable return. Mosul, for instance, is exactly where IS wants it to be, filled with popular resentment that will gradually push locals back into the group’s orbit without its active intervention. IS puts its resources into a campaign at the village level, in rural areas where security is non-existent at night – and that is paying off. Through 2018, dozens of village chiefs have been killed across northern Iraq in assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings. At least thirteen have been killed since December 2018, including four in Mosul. The assassins travel in small groups under the cover of darkness and know exactly which houses to target.
According to local sources, around Kirkuk and in Hawija, some 700 fighters have regrouped to abduct Kurds and Arabs for ransom and target power lines and oil trucks, as well as police units defending critical infrastructure. In recent months, scores of houses belonging to military and militia (mostly Shia militias) officers and locals who connect villages to state authorities have been burned down. Improvised explosive devices are also back as a daily feature across the north of the country, with hundreds recorded over the course of 2018. And as the militants increase their bomb-making capacity, major roads littered with explosive devices have already become “no go” zones for many international organizations.
As recently stated by the Soufan Center, “the West is focused on absolute military defeat, based on experiences fighting nation-states; with the Islamic State, it is about mitigation, not destruction. IS never saw the caliphate in Iraq and Syria as the only representation of its power. The establishment of the caliphate may represent the apex of its achievement, but IS and its adherents have always assumed a long-term view of their quest to establish a permanent state ruled by sharia law”, and this permanent quest will most probably continue in Iraq where the organizations had and still has its roots.
Perspective and impact on humanitarian organizations
The radical group probably realizes that controlling new territory is not sustainable in the short term but it will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability, and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq in the long term. IS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq (and those remaining in Syria long ago started to cross into Iraq, thus reinforcing the group), maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses. The group will very likely continue to pursue attacks against Iraqi security forces and against the Shia militias, which influence in Baghdad and control on ground directly contribute to push Sunni youth into the hands of IS.
Looking at the challenges the Iraqi security sector is facing and the tensions with the Shia militias, which have greatly contributed to the “defeat” of IS, there is little prospect for a decrease of IS’ activities, but on the contrary a perspective of more space and opportunities being given to the group to expand its influence and, on the long term, potentially its control.
Driven by institutional funding being focused on supporting communities, infrastructure and governance in areas which have been retaken from IS, international humanitarian organizations have significantly increased their presence in all areas previously under control of the radical group. Some organizations even operate only in these areas which create a dis-balance with other regions, especially southern Iraq which has been completely ignored by donors, except the limited emergency response in Basra late 2018, and the Kurdish autonomous region where is currently observed a significant decrease in funding from international donors (despite most international organizations being based in Erbil).
Humanitarian organizations consequently face the risk of creating more gaps between the different communities, those receiving assistance and those who are excluded, thus stigmatizing vulnerable populations which are perceived as having suffered less from IS invasion and rule. Such situation can only reinforce the rhetoric used by IS to recruit within already marginalized Sunni communities. It can also directly affect the perception of impartiality that international humanitarian organization are supposed to implement across their operations based on internationally recognized humanitarian principle. On the longer term, the concentration of humanitarian actors in specific areas and their perception by certain communities might transform into direct targeting of these agency, especially those carrying a strong western profile. In the short term, humanitarian assistance will remain constrained by the volatile security situation generated by IS presence in large parts of central, west and northern Iraq. Roadside IEDs, bombings, attack of military and security checkpoints or convoys, harassment of civilian populations are all incidents affected access to populations in need and delaying the delivery of planned assistance programs. It will continue to push international organizations towards more implementation of strong security protocols and hardware security, potentially to the detriment of their interactions with local populations and ultimately to the delivery of much needed assistance.