Suffering May Not Be Over for Iraqis 'Liberated' From ISIS

Iraqi people leave their homes in Fallujah town due to conflicts between ISIS and security forces on 30 May 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

As the Iraqi army backed by the US-led international coalition embarks on an offensive to liberate Fallujah from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), reports are starting to come out about the campaign's military successes. The leader of ISIS in Fallujah has been reportedly killed by coalition airstrikes, while the town of Karma, north of Falluja city, has been cleared not just from ISIS fighters but also from its residents.

But 'victory' against ISIS in Iraq is not a simple case of eradicating the organization militarily. Examining the social and political dimensions of the anti-ISIS offensive reveals that 'victory' is likely to be short term as long as the drivers that led to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq in the first place continue to be reproduced.

A key driver behind the embrace of ISIS in Iraq is the sense of grievance held by the Sunni community against the Shia-dominated government, which many Sunnis view as pro-Iranian and as having discriminated against them, whether under the leadership of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki or current prime minister Haider al-Abadi.

The government's blessing of the involvement of Shia militias in the fight against ISIS has further confirmed its bias in the eyes of Sunnis. Although Sunni militias are reported to have taken part in the Fallujah offensive, their role has been overshadowed by that of Iranian-backed Shia militias who are documented to have previously engaged in attacks against Sunni civilians.

For those Sunnis in Falluja who back ISIS, the involvement of Shia militias will drive them even closer to ISIS. While for those residents of Falluja who do not support ISIS, being liberated from it at the hands of Shia militias is a case of removing one tyrant to be replaced by another.

High cost of liberation

The cost of this liberation is high not only politically but also materially and socially. Judging by the method used to liberate Karma, the military offensive in Fallujah appears to follow a similar pattern to that previously used to liberate Kobani in northern Syria from ISIS. This method is based on heavy aerial bombing clearing the way for ground forces to advance into new territories.

But the collateral damage in those two cases has been immense, with both towns seeing large scale damage to their infrastructures. Applying this method to liberate the whole of Fallujah means a level of destruction that will require years of reconstruction to restore the city to its former self. Not only will this mean a loss of livelihood for the residents of Fallujah, the displacement of civilians will also have a significant demographic impact on Iraq.

Thousands of Sunni civilians have already either fled or are about to flee Falluja in the wake of the anti-ISIS offensive. A key question is where will those internally displaced people go? It is likely that they will find themselves in Shia-dominated areas, where because of the existing tension regarding the role of Shia militias, sectarian clashes become a possible scenario.

So while ISIS might be eventually weakened in Iraq militarily, thousands of Sunnis are finding themselves losing their livelihoods, being internally displaced, at the mercy of militias loyal to Iran, and with a government that they regard as a continuation of its predecessor. Back in 2013, many Iraqi Sunnis had pledged allegiance to ISIS because they sought revenge against a government that they saw as being pro-Iranian and as posing a threat to their livelihoods.

Fertile ground for terror groups

As things stand, the near future in Iraq appears to replicate the conditions of the not-so-distant past. As long as those social and political drivers continue to exist, terrorist organizations will find in Iraq fertile ground for recruitment.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tried but failed to win the trust of Iraq's Sunnis, who continue to see him as another version of Maliki. And while involving Sunni militias in the fight against ISIS has been a way for the Iraqi army to show that its campaign is backed by Iraqis from all backgrounds, the fact remains that the Fallujah offensive is not one in which Shia and Sunni Iraqis are fighting hand in hand. If anything, the involvement of militias sheds light on the weakness of the Iraqi army as a national institution.

The glaring gap in the campaign against ISIS is a national agenda for Iraq. Iran's patronage of Shia militias as well as of the Iraqi government and the persisting sense of Sunni grievances against the Iraqi state do not bear good news for Iraq's prospects of stability. As long as there is no strategy to address Iraq's social and political problems alongside a strategy to restore the Iraqi army's credibility, the rush to celebrate military 'victory' against ISIS will be overcome by the emergence of other ISIS-like forces in the country in the long term.

Lina Khatib is head of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme at Chatham House.

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