It’s one of the grimmest ironies of war in Iraq: the advance of IS two years ago terrified foreign governments, but the steady retreat of the same jihadist group now makes diplomats nervous about what’s next.
The IS setback is real. Tikrit, Ramadi, Baiji, Fallujah, all key cities swept up in that original IS conquest have been recaptured by the anti-IS coalition, which is now preparing to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city, possibly by year’s end.
The jihadists try to make up for defeats in both Iraq and Syria by calling for more attacks in the West and spawning IS affiliates in Africa, but they’ve lost over half their Iraqi territory in the past year, which robs them of critical oil and tax revenues and makes recruiting more difficult.
The martial tide runs against the jihadists, but their decline hardly inspires euphoria among their enemies. Instead, diplomats are flying to international conferences to try to find a formula that might prevent a shattered Iraq from falling into new wars once the IS threat is gone.
There are no signs that quest for a fix is going well.
“The moment there is what you might call victory against IS, then you are up against all the problems that caused this crisis in the first place,” Yezid Sayid, senior analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told the Washington Post recently.
The core problem is Iraq has never had a true democratic consensus behind a central government. Its severe fault lines between religious, tribal and cultural groups, dangerous even before the traumatic US invasion, have only grown more toxic in the 13 years of warfare since.
Rolling back IS doesn’t guarantee the government in Baghdad can forge a fragile unity. Competing armed forces will likely move in quickly to claim turf in their own interests.
A single war-weary division
Iraq has only one good army formation, the 10,000 counter-insurgency troops of the Golden Division that led the recent battles that drove IS back. The rest of the army is weak and still reforming under coalition guidance. A single war-weary division can’t hold all the land it frees from IS.
Instead, the recaptured land is seized by a dizzying array of forces that include several competing Shia militias, Sunni local protection units, some Iraq army units, Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga and various smaller tribal armies.
The Shia forces, some dominated by proxy units controlled by Iran, are pushing into what used to be Sunni-held areas — an obvious potential cause of a new civil war.
“These groups are not united or cohesive … and once IS is defeated, there could be an internal Shia battle for primacy,” Ned Parker, Baghdad bureau chief for Reuters, recently told the US Council on Foreign Relations. “The idea that the state currently controls the territory of Iraq has been exposed as an illusion.”
Shia against Shia, Shia against Sunnis, all against Kurds — the thought of Iraq soon facing new cyclones of internecine wars troubles foreign governments who’ve invested heavily on the ground as part of the anti-IS coalition.
Canada’s complicated role
Few have more to worry about than the Trudeau government. Canada put a major effort into the training and partial equipping of Peshmerga, which many Kurds see as their independent army of the future.
Our military aid was meant to protect the Kurds in northeastern Iraq from IS slaughter, but the Peshmerga proved to be skilled fighters who’ve not only pushed the jihadists back, they’ve spread their own control well beyond their original Kurdish heartland. The Kurdistan Regional Government has expanded its total territory by 50%.
It’s not land the Kurds plan to give back, nor is it land others will easily concede to them. The Kurds are anxious to claim the oil fields they’ve long thought to be rightfully theirs, but above all, they want full separation from Iraq.
Their president, Masoud Barzani, has insisted that Kurdistan’s new borders have been “drawn in blood” and, according to news reports, he vows they won’t relinquish this territory.
Those are fighting words for Shia militias who’ve denounced any breakup of Iraq. The Baghdad government has vowed to reassert its authority over all Kurdish-controlled areas.
If IS continues to degrade at its current pace, a conflict over Kurdish succession could find Ottawa scrambling to withdraw military trainers and medical staff. It would be an embarrassing pullout at best and one likely bitterly resented by Kurds.
Canada was always clear it doesn’t want Kurds to secede, but the government can hardly claim surprise if the force it helped mobilize decides to go all out for independence.
“There is an irony in that we and others are investing in the Peshmerga and are actually aiding a separatist army,” Martin Bell, Middle East expert and formerly one of Canada’s most experienced ambassadors to the region, said earlier this year. “But at this point, there’s no alternative to that.”
Canada is already struggling to appear properly neutral. When Canadian soldiers wore Kurd insignia on their battle dress, Baghdad and some others in the coalition complained they were sporting separatist symbols.
The links to the Kurds also put Canadian officers working with the Iraq government in Baghdad in the delicate position of assisting two groups that could be future opponents of each other. The senior Canadian officer there, Brigadier General Greg Smith, has said, “We’re enabling both sides.”
“As for the longer political solution,” he told the Toronto Star this summer, “that is very much an Iraqi democratic problem.”
Canadian military missions abroad are renowned — and sometimes lampooned — for their always sunny optimism, but our mission could become an increasingly hard sell as factions use all means other than democratic ones to boost their power as IS declines.
Meetings of foreign backers of Iraq, including Canada, convened in Washington last month to concentrate on the post-IS recovery effort, but the players emerged with no clear sense of what democratic options would even look like.
Some diplomats may remember the Duke of Wellington’s words on war: “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”
Another relevant rule of war for Canada: they’re always easier to get into than get out of. That’s especially true after you’ve bonded on the ground with people as resilient as the Kurds, who may yet face a life-and-death struggle.
[Brian Stewart is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He also sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada.]
[This is an excerpt from a CBC article, which can be found at http://bit.ly/2bbo1RC]