Evaluation of 2017: Iraq Changed by ISIS

On November 21, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi explained that ISIS was militarily over in Iraq with the recapture of Rawa, a village of the Anbar province. Thus, in the process that started with the capture of Mosul by ISIS in June 2014, the military struggle lasting for about three and a half years came to an end. Whereas Iraq remained in defensive position in the face of ISIS during the first year of the fight, meaning the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015, operational and attack positions were taken afterwards with the formation of international coalition led by the US against ISIS in August 2015 and the recovery of the Iraqi security forces. Despite the earlier recapture of several territories from ISIS, it has been seen that as the international coalition was established, systematic and steady progress has been made against ISIS. However, some occasional incompatibilities and lack of coordination between Al-Hashd al-Shaabi and the Iraqi security forces brought about troubles in the fight against the terrorist organization. This situation clearly manifested itself in the Mosul and Talafar operations, and the Mosul operation, which was planned to be completed by the end of 2016, was terminated only in June 2017. With the complete withdrawal of ISIS from Mosul, the central government of Iraq, which has fully taken over the psychological superiority, has left no place under the control of ISIS. Nevertheless, the traces of the terrorist organization and the changes that it has brought about in Iraq are felt in every field from economics to politics, demographic structure to social problems.


Humanitarian Impact: Perhaps the greatest change that ISIS has made was upon people. While the war against it caused more than 60 thousand people to lose their lives in 3,5 years, there has been major demographic changes where ISIS was effective. Even though the military struggle is over, the United Nations has announced that there are more than 2,9 million refugees and 1,4 million temporary settlers. In this sense, more than 4,3 million people were forced to shift their places. Difficulties in providing public services, such as electricity, water, and health, as well as the troublesomeness and slowness of the restructuring efforts in the places liberated back from ISIS do not make it possible for them to return. What is more, ISIS has left a deep impression upon social sociology. In particular, it would not be wrong to say that it has destroyed the social trust in horizontal and vertical manners. More precisely, while the distinctions between ethnic and religious groups have sharpened, the gap between society and the state has steadily increased. It would be right to state that there have emerged some question marks even in the minds of the Shiites, main founders of the government in Iraq, against the decision-making mechanism. Indeed, the distance between the state and the clergymen who have a great significance for the Shiites that constitute the majority of the Iraqi population has also extended.


Change in Security Perception and Security System: The security perception and system in Iraq have been changed by ISIS as well. Especially, the "balance of terror" that has emerged with ISIS does not appear as a phenomenon that can be easily removed from social memory in the country. The organization has raised the “bar of violence tendency” in the country. The methods, forms of action and instruments it used and absence of limitation to determine a target group have changed the "nature of war" in Iraq and even wiped out the "war morality" which is conceptually discussed in the literature. It is even better to say that ISIS has now created a spiral of violence that cannot be expressed by the word "terror". Besides, its existence in Iraq has also shifted the security system in the country. With the presence of ISIS, terrorist organizations such as non-state actors and the PKK tried to take their seats in the field, and they were even legitimized with the pretext of fighting ISIS. By the reestablishment and activation under the roof of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi of Shiite militia groups founded due to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's fatwah, a security system that replaced the military force of the state and in which Al-Hashd al-Shaabi has the power to resort to the legitimate use of force has emerged. Moreover, the presence of the international coalition against ISIS has opened the gates of Iraqi lands to foreigners again, no matter whether it is with the permission of the Iraqi government or not. For, more than 60 countries have joined the coalition. In addition, Iran has started to operate military on the Iraqi soil. In fact, by means of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi and Shiite militia groups, it has taken third countries such as Syria under its control and carried out operations there. It is seen that the non-state armed actors have turned into parallel or alternative structures to state mechanism by the fact that Al-Hashd al-Shaabi was legitimized by a law within this system and became an official force of the state. On the other hand, the terrorist organization PKK made efforts to establish new bases and legitimize itself in Iraq, mainly in Sinjar and Kirkuk, under the pretext of fighting ISIS. The Iraqi government could not react effectively to the change in the security system as its weak position and the struggle against ISIS prevented it from opening another fronts. This situation seems to be one of the most troublesome issues for the Iraqi government in the coming period.


Political Influence: The existence of ISIS and the assumption that the Sunni people support it has made the Sunnis be blamed, and forced them to remain silent and abstain in the political process. On the other hand, it emerged during a process where Shiite political discourse had increased in Iraq. The fact that Al-Hashd al-Shaabi which is principally based on Shiite identity even though there are members from different ethnic and religious groups in it has become the executive power in the struggle against ISIS has prompted the sectarian identity to come to the forefront even in the societies, such as the Turkmens, where the ethnic identity is behind the sectarian identity. However, it was seen that ISIS developed itself through gaining ground upon sectarian identities and benefited from tensions, power gap, and lack of trust. For this reason, especially in the last period, we have an image where central politics has come into prominence. Therefore, this might be the reason why the only effect that ISIS is said to have left on the society is that a remarkable mass has started to express itself politically in a way to put an emphasis on the unity and integrity of Iraq and to oppose sectarianism and radical discourses. As a matter of fact, Ammar Al-Hakim, whose father is also an Ayatollah and who pursued a serious sectarian line earlier, left the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and founded the National Wisdom Movement and explained the party principles with liberal, secular and nationalist discourses. The increase in political parties or movements that resort to central political rhetoric (far from radical discourses) before the general elections scheduled to be held on May 12, 2018 will bring about the positive change that Iraq needs. On the other side, ISIS has also changed the political and administrative balance in Iraq. Especially in the process of recapture of some lands from ISIS, the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has found an opportunity to expand its borders. Already expanding the territories it did unlawfully and illegally have control of since 2003, KRG took advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi central government and first captured Kirkuk, and then tried to consolidate its power over the lands liberated from ISIS. This has deteriorated the balance between the KRG and the central government of Iraq and increased the tension between these two actors. In fact, benefiting from the weakness of the Iraqi central government and the regional crises which have been internationalized, KRG President Masoud Barzani has pushed the KRG into the independence referendum process. As a matter of fact, Masoud Barzani, who carried out the referendum on September 25, 2017 despite the reaction he received from almost all countries except Israel, took the wrongest step for both KRG and his personal political life. As the referendum exacerbated distinctions in Kurdish domestic politics, it fueled the tension between Erbil and Baghdad. However, the potential independence of KRG formed an international and regional consensus and even brought together Turkey and Iraq that had problematic relations, and let them build relations of alliance. With the participation of Iran in this alliance, KRG has been isolated both at regional and international levels. Moving forward the steps it took, the Iraqi central government allied with the PUK, rival of Masoud Barzani’s KDP, and launched an operation against the Peshmerga in order to regain all of the territories that the KRG had retained outside its constitutional rights after 2003 and finalized it with success in a period of time lasting for less than 15 hours. KRG lost its gain for 14 years in a split second. While this operation strengthened the hand of the Iraqi central government and weakened the autonomy in the KRG, an atmosphere emerged that is likely to let the central government reinforce its power in Iraq where a federal administrative system prevails. In the wake of the referendum, however, the balance in the internal politics of the KRG was destroyed and a number of massive protests were made against the KRG government. In this sense, it would not be wrong to say that the ISIS presence and its aftermath in Iraq have led to a subsequent change in Iraqi political structure.


Economic and geographical impact: The Iraqi government spent more than $ 100 billion on its fight against ISIS which lasted for about 3.5 years. This figure almost corresponds to an annual budget of Iraq. In 2014, the year which marks the end of Nouri al-Maliki's prime ministerial period, a deficit of about $ 64 billion was observed in the Iraqi budget before the intervention of ISIS. When this deficit and $ 100 billion that is spent for the fight against ISIS are considered, there exists a serious economic burden for the Iraqi government. This economic burden proves to be even greater when the restructuring efforts, necessary because of the damage caused by the war, are taken into consideration as well. Estimated figures suggest that more than $ 100 billion is needed to rebuild Iraq. 96 percent of Iraq’s income generates from energy sources, mainly oil. However, due to the war against ISIS in Iraq, the oil infrastructure has also been seriously damaged. Only by the end of 2017 did the country manage to keep up with the performance it displayed just before the struggle against the terrorist organization. Nevertheless, with a view to increasing energy-related incomes, investments in energy and infrastructure works are required. For this reason, it would not be wrong to say that Iraq has entered into a serious economic downturn. Although the Iraqi government has imposed some measures on public expenditures (such as reducing the number of vehicles that are used and that of personal security guards) and on salaries in order to iron out economic troubles, these measures do not have the quality to solve Iraq's economic problems. In the meantime, Iraq does not seem to be able to overcome these problems alone. As a matter of fact, the "Iraq Donor Conference" is planned to be held in Kuwait on 8-12 February 2018 under the leadership of the United Nations and the World Bank. Thus, international support will be sought in the reconstruction process of Iraq. Besides, one of the crucial impacts of the ISIS has been on the Iraqi geography. Due to the fight against it, many settlements have been destroyed and damaged. What is more, some settlements have been completely removed from the map. That is why the demographic balance in settlements has changed in accordance with the geography. It is possible to mention the fact that there is a remarkable population that could not come back, and when the timing of the return of these people is also considered, there exists a serious change in the region from the north of Baghdad to Dohuk.

As a result, it is reasonable to say that the existence of ISIS and the process of fighting it have affected Iraq.  Although this effect will produce different results in the short term, Iraq will be a stage for new and different developments in the short, medium and long terms. As of today, ISIS is militarily losing the areas it has controlled in Iraq, but it is still effective in ideological, political, social, intellectual, emotional, economic fields. For this reason, it seems that it will take a long time to restore the balance in Iraq where ISIS has been effective in every field. Considering the local and general elections in Iraq, especially in the upcoming period, it is worth mentioning that the situation that will emerge after the elections as well as the alliance, cooperation and dissolutions in the election process will be quite effective for the future of Iraq. In this respect, the reconciliation, provision of peace, social renewal and the implementation of development programs in Iraq, the settlement of the balance between Erbil and Baghdad through political consensus on constitutional base and that the government to be formed in the post-election period be inclusive and steady will facilitate the solutions of the problems in Iraq. At this point, when the influence of ISIS in Iraq is examined at domestic and international levels, the support for all the processes in Iraq by both regional countries and international powers will be very important for the future of Iraq.