Post-ISIS Antagonists and the Looming Struggle

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No amount of money, reconstruction, or reconciliation will undo the cumulative effects of decades of collective war in Iraq and Syria. Once this conclusion is accepted, it is productive to define what the current insurgency evolves from and may become. To provide a baseline of understanding, an insurgency can be defined as an “insurrection against an existing government, usually one's own, by a group not recognized as having the status of a belligerent.” The next generation of belligerents will give a sense of unpleasant familiarity to those they face as they redefine ways and means to unchanged ends. This article will explore the vague future for insurgencies in the region and attempt to add clarity to what the insurgencies that may rise from the ashes of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) could look like. This article will also prescribe ways the Iraqi government, local governments in western Iraq and eastern Syria, and the international community, can mitigate the drivers of these insurgencies.  


Despite the dire situation Iraq found itself in over the summer of 2014 with an overwhelming sectarian divide, collapsing Iraqi security forces, and an unstoppable ISIS army heading for Baghdad, Iraq is now on a marked path to recovery through assistance received from the international community. The Iraqi military is unrecognizable compared to the shell of a force it was in 2014 and continues to make noticeable improvements in capabilities, capacity, and leadership.[1] Even during the constitutional crisis of the Kurdish referendum, the Iraqi military showed restraint, and continued to coordinate with Peshmerga counterparts in the fight against ISIS. The military has also proven itself capable of providing security and allowing civilians to return, recover, and rebuild their communities.

Shia militias in Iraq (Karim Kadim/AP)

Like an alternate universe with familiar antagonists, the Syrian landscape was cursed with a similar fate—the impending occupation by ISIS. Through a medley of actors, motivations, and benefactors, several groups under the mantle of the Syrian Democratic Forces joined together and, with support from coalition forces, have largely driven ISIS out of Syria, the heart of their self-proclaimed caliphate. Closely following these successive wins, the establishment of local civil councils and internal security forces provided a collaborative tool to the various international humanitarian assistance and stabilization assistance organizations providing security and assistance.

The figure below is a graphical representation of the actors involved in the pending insurgencies in Iraq and Syria: ISIS, Sahwa 2.0, and Shia Militia Groups. Two of them fail to qualify as insurgencies in the truest sense of the definition but all three can be perceived as malign actors who attempt to manipulate the Government of Iraq or liberated Syrian communities for their own benefit. The insurgencies that will eventually materialize will influence, or be influenced, by the entities on the chart. The colors highlight assumptions on how these entities affect the environment, either positively or negatively (judged in terms of U.S. interests), which is annotated on the graphic. It is important for the Government of Iraq and the members of the coalition to understand  the drivers of these insurgencies, where they promulgate, and ways to mitigate them or minimize their influence.

Linkages Between Positive and Negative Influencers


The most obvious of the insurgencies is already forming. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is consolidating his remaining forces in the Al Anbar area. Unlike past insurgencies, his organization will find little quarter with Al Anbar tribes who have endured the subjugation of non-indigenous insurgencies for almost fifteen years. ISIS will be marginalized to the desert while they attempt to develop footholds in the Sunni communities stretching from Al Qaim along the Euphrates to Baghdad and up in Mosul. To be clear, ISIS will remain a threat by conducting high profile attacks and fomenting their extremist message in the virtual realm, but they will never reclaim their former prominence. The leadership in Al Anbar have twice thrown their lot in with a losing proposition and will not make that mistake again. Their resolve against extremism bolstered by a strengthened Iraqi military and international coalition support will keep ISIS in a degraded state.[2]

The saving grace for ISIS is the perpetual power vacuum that persists South of Dayr az Zawr and East of the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Syria and western Al Anbar. Sunnis, especially those living in the rural areas of western Al Anbar and southeastern Syria, are historically isolated and mistrusted by their respective governments. These areas have remained untamed through the reigns of subsequent empires including the Romans, Sasanians, Ottomans, the French and British Mandate, and even the Hussein and Assad regimes. Hafez Al Assad, and his son to a lesser extent, were able to co-opt the tribes by securing natural resources through profit sharing, access to water, land distribution, allowing for smuggling, administration, and military jobs. Saddam had similar methods of co-opting the Sunni tribes however, with a lack of natural resources in western Anbar, his methods were more stick than carrot.

As the Syrian civil war raged, these Sunni tribes were without their historical  benefactor, the Assad Regime. Because they lacked external support, resided on the cross-roads of the East and West, and sat on vast natural resources they were lucrative targets for progressive insurgencies and terrorist organizations. Wedged between the confluence of the Khabur and Euphrates River are three tribes that have submitted, or at least coalesced, to working with insurgents to include Al Qaeda. The Al Boujamil and portions of the Al Bakir tribes cooperated with Al Qaeda, Nusrah Front, and ISIS at different levels, even providing weapons and resupply points for their fighters. Although it can be concluded that a good portion of tribal members did not willingly support the likes of ISIS and its predecessors, it can equally be concluded that there is residual capacity that future insurgencies can rely upon throughout this region.

Euphrates River Valley tribes that historically supported ISIS, Nusrah Front, and/or al Qaeda.

This point applies to Sunni tribal areas on both sides of the border. The difficulties became more acute during the rise of ISIS when tribal leaders and tribal enclaves were wiped out during ISIS’ determined subjugation of the area. To make matters worse, infrastructure significantly decayed under ISIS mismanagement, and was further destroyed during the continuous coalition bombing. The resulting fractured communities with non-existent infrastructure, are in no shape to rebuild themselves or properly defend against an external threat. Although there is no popular support for the next version of ISIS, there is no mechanism to deny terrorists resumption of coercion in these areas.


Sunni communities need a protector, and neither the Alawite Assad Regime or the Shia dominated Iraqi Government have the strength or the inclination to project into ungoverned spaces to affect a positive change. Although humanitarian and stabilization assistance will trickle into these areas, it will not counterbalance the decades of neglect endured by these communities. At the same time, their security will be threatened by lingering Shia militia groups or pro-regime forces who are protecting their benefactors’ interests while an ISIS insurgency festers in the desert.

In an attempt to protect Sunni tribal members, tribal leaders will coalesce within communities to assemble security forces that can protect their people, reminiscent of the Sahwa movement during the Surge from 2006 to 2008.[3] Sunni leaders will argue that these militias fill a critical security gap and, on the Iraqi side, will attempt to maintain a cooperative relationship with Baghdad while highlighting the shortcomings of the government and the military. Although defensive in nature, these militias will create friction with the Iraqi military and specifically with Shia militia groups or pro-regime forces on the fringes of their areas. As they strengthen, they will present an increasing obstacle to ISIS’ ability to expand into communities. Tangentially, they will also inhibit Iran’s ability to maintain and strengthen their “Shia crescent” reaching from Iran into Lebanon. The fragile relationship between Sunni leaders and the Iraqi government, coupled with the increasing friction posed by an encroaching ISIS and lingering Shia militia presence, will further alienate Sunni communities from the governments that are supposed to support them.


The insurgencies described in this article develop through a cause and effect cycle; the ISIS insurgency causes the Sahwa which in turn develops the irreconcilable Shia militias. To be sure, there are elements of Shia militias which fit squarely in the malign actor category. Portions of these militias are returning home while others are further conforming to the authority of the Iraqi military. Prime Minster Abadi and senior Iraqi military leaders are enacting plans that will, for the most part, incorporate them into the military to mitigate the  threat they pose to the Iraqi government or the international coalition. As this happens, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force will ensure it retains elements that can freely work outside the confines of the military and continue to execute the bidding of its Iranian masters. As these units bifurcate, the most loyal to Iran and most dangerous to the international coalition will be retained in these new organizations, likely maintaining the same names such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Sayed al-Shuhada, and Harakat al Nujaba. Although not an “insurgency” in its truest sense, they will be used to attack coalition forces, subvert Sunni communities, and maintain dominance over Shia communities.[4]


Although this article portends a seemingly intractable problem, there is cause for hope in the Iraqi military, government, and international coalitions’ current initiatives and future plans. The solutions presented are not new; however, they are fundamental to ensuring long-term stability in those areas recently liberated from ISIS. The challenge is to maintain a cohesive coalition, inter-agency, and inter-governmental focus on these solutions over the long term.

Security. The Iraqi military is accomplishing their clear and hold missions throughout Iraq. It is crucial that the government and military formalize a plan to re-tool their forces for future challenges. A professional border guard force is critical to denying or at least minimizing cross-border malign activity by Iran, ISIS, and other nefarious organizations. A focus on intelligence, sustainment, and counter-terrorism training is key throughout Iraq’s military and police forces. Concurrently, continued training of military combat units is fundamental to maintaining readiness and professionalism. It is important to maintain the international coalition so that this monumental task of a continued coalition advise and assist mission can be shared with partner nations. Daily coalition interaction with the Iraqi military must strive to instill confidence and an ethical code into every aspect of the Iraqi formations.

The recovering communities in Syria need the same focused attention, but do not have the luxury of a supportive central government. They will each create their own fledgling local security forces that require training, weapons, equipment, supplies, infrastructure, and advise and assist oversight. Crossing the border from Iraq to Syria does not change the fundamental requirements of security. These needs must be presented to international coalition policy makers for action.

Humanitarian Assistance vs Stabilization Assistance. In the fall of 2017 the UN announced the the 2018 financing of humanitarian and stabilization requirements for Iraq. Based on international monetary donations and pledges, it is reasonable to conclude that humanitarian requirements for Iraq and Syria have been and will continue to be filled adequately for the foreseeable future. The challenge is appropriately fulfilling stabilization needs in Syrian areas liberated from ISIS due to diplomatic complexities between some donors, to include the UN, Turkey, and the Assad regime. It is critical that the U.S. Departments of Defense and State message to coalition partners that stabilizing and repairing critical infrastructure is paramount for these recovering communities. Without this reassurance, it will be difficult to entice internally displaced civilians back to their homes and ensure these towns and cities become self-sufficient with the ability to grow. Participating nations have to be realistic about the timeline, be honest with partners about the required obligations, and tireless in their commitment to ensure success. Only then can it be ensured that the next generation of insurgents will not propagate from the ruins of a failed reconstruction plan.

Participants in the 2017 Arab League Summit, (Raad Adayleh/AP)

Reconciliation. The UN is heading an effort in Iraq to locally reconcile suspected ISIS collaborators and family members back into their tribes and communities. This grass roots initiative is bearing fruit, however the same initiative must be pursued in earnest at the national level. Historically, Sunni communities throughout Iraq have been shunned politically and financially. A sustained dialogue must be cultivated between Sunni leaders, the Iraqi military, and the Iraqi government. Regional partners like King Abdullah, who presided over the 2017 Arab League Summit, or Saudi Arabia, which has recently strengthened ties with Iraq, are prime contenders to serve as interlocutors between the Sunnis and the Shia-dominated government. Only substantive national reconciliation will reintegrate the beleaguered Sunnis back into the political, cultural, and economic mainstream of Iraq.  


While future insurgencies may be inevitable, they can be marginalized. It is incumbent upon the international coalition to commit to a sustained presence in Iraq and the freed areas of Syria for years to come. This presence must include substantive improvements to security forces, reconstruction of decimated communities, and reconciliation of Sunni populations at the national level. This effort may take up to a decade, if not longer, the United States must leverage members of the coalition to the greatest extent possible, and policy makers must be made aware of the sobering timeline and costs required.

Luke T. Calhoun is an officer in the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] The Iraqi Military is unrecognizable compared to the shell of a force it was in 2014 and continues to make noticeable improvements in capabilities, capacity, and leadership. This transformation was evident in their struggle against ISIS in Ramadi, a city with a pre-conflict population of 800,000. Although a deadly competition for control of Ramadi, the capitol of the Al Anbar Governate, existed from November 2014 to May 2015, the decisive battle occurred on May 14th, 2015. On that day, armored bulldozers and ten explosive laden Humvees along with roughly 100 ISIS fighters assaulted key government and military positions in the government held areas of Ramadi. The ensuing battle over the next three days resulted in the death of over 500 civilians and military personnel; the flight of the 8th Iraqi Army Division, special operations, police, and government personnel; and tens of thousands of civilians. This exodus left behind over 100 wheeled military vehicles, dozens of tracked vehicles which included U.S. provided M1A1 main battle tanks. Fast forward to September 27th, 2017, a day that ISIS attempted to replicate its success from 2015 with disappointing results. After detonating car bombs on two key bridges outside Ramadi to deny access by reinforcements, ISIS attacked Iraqi Security Forces and police with roughly 80 fighters. Within 10 hours, Iraqi Security Forces, along with quickly marshaled reinforcements, completely repulsed the ISIS attack, killing most of the attackers. Additionally, Iraqi-based intelligence identified 6 car bombs speeding toward Ramadi from the west that were ultimately destroyed by Iraqi aircraft. The entire operation was coordinated by Iraqi leadership with minimal coalition support and one of many examples of the significant improvements throughout their security forces. See, for example, Sisk, “ISIS Captures Hundreds of US Vehicles and Tanks in Ramadi from Iraqis,”; Wikipedia, “Battle of Ramadi, 2014-2015”,; Daesh Daily, “Ramadi”,

[2] The optimism expressed for Al Anbar can also be gleaned from the improved relationship between government and national leadership. Al Anbar’s new Governor, Mohammed al Halbusi, is a young face in Iraqi politics who transcends sectarian divisiveness. He is connected both to Baghdad political circles but also well respected among the Anbar tribal sheikhs. Halbusi has a close relationship with Prime Minister Abadi and openly supports him for another term in May 2018. Conversely, PM Abadi has pledged $3.5 million toward the reconstruction effort in Al Anbar, reflective of his concern for the province when he invested $100 million in Ramadi and Falluja in 2015. These funds, along with the $892 million provided to Iraq by the international community in 2017 alone, will further solidify cooperation between Anbar and Baghdad while alienating remaining ISIS influencers in the region. Governor Halbusi is similarly confronting the security concerns of his government as he is the reconstruction effort, publicly thanking Shia Militias for their participation in the defeat of ISIS, but politely asking them to leave his government as they are becoming an increasing friction point with the local population. Governor Halbusi is representative of the developing reconciliation between disaffected Sunni communities and a more conciliatory Shia national government which further alienates ISIS remnants and removes their primary selling point as the “protector” of the isolated Sunni land surrounded by a threatening Shia majority. See, for example,, “Iraq allocates $3.5 million for Anbar rehabilitation”,; Al-Monitor, “Anbar governor thanks PMUs, tells them to get out”,; USAID, “USG Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq Dashboard”, 1 FEB 2018

[3] Tribal leaders, or Sheikhs, hold a venerable position in tribal history and culture. They are inextricably linked to many facets of their tribal member’s lives to include tribal judgements, mediation, economic opportunity, and marriages. They also have the responsibility for protecting their tribal members and avenging the wrongs that have been perpetrated against them. These wrongs, usually played out as blood feuds, or al-tha’r, commonly results in avenging the death of someone who falls under the Sheikhs protection. In a more aggregate and external sense, tribal leaders are bound to mobilize tribal forces to defend their members from an external threat. This mobilization slowly developed during Al Qaeda’s rise in Al Anbar soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Several Sunni tribes began to conflict with Al Qaeda as a result of their heavy-handedness to tribal members who did not submit to their wishes. The height of this resistance was in 2005 when several tribes in the Ramadi area coalesced around Abd al-Sattar al-Rishawi (Abu Risha) who led the "al-Anbar Salvation Council" which championed the defense of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda. It is this commitment to tribal code that will defend Sunni communities, with the help of the Iraqi Security Forces, against a resurgent ISIS threat. See, for example, Council on Foreign Relations, “ Iraq: The Role of Tribes,”; Patricio Asfura-Heim, “No Security Without Us”: Tribes and Tribalism in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, CNA Analysis and Solutions, June 2014; Middle East Policy Council, Iraq's Tribal "Sahwa": Its Rise and Fall,

[4] There has been much discussion among Iraqi leadership, and Coalition partners, as to the future of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). There is no question they were instrumental in saving Iraq from the scourge of ISIS and acting as a bulwark against its resurgence. On the Iraqi street they are routinely referred to as al-Hashed al-Shabie al-Moqadas, “The Sacred Popular Mobilization Forces.” The acronym “PMF” over-generalizes the composite group of over twenty distinct organizations that reflect gradients of compliance to the GoI and commitment to Iraq or another entity, primarily Iran. The four groups who represent the greatest threat to both the Coalition, the GoI, and the Iraq populace are Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Sayed al-Shuhada, and Harakat al Nujaba. Although each have a slightly different history and lineage, there are fundamental similarities which irrevocably identify them as an “insurgent” force in Iraq. Each group, from their inception into today, have been funded, supplied, trained, and at times led, by the Iranian regime. They all routinely receive orders and guidance from the IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani. Each organization listed above has a history of attacking U.S. Forces, U.S. citizens, or ISF in the recent past. Their leadership have all sworn to and continue to promote the ideal of wilayat al-faqih, “guardianship of the jurists.” This pledge is the cornerstone of their allegiance and solidifies their chain of command to Iran, not to Iraq. Finally, all these organizations are currently participating in the Syrian conflict under the direction of the Syrian Regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, and IRGC-Quds Force in direct conflict with the orders of PM Abadi and the ISF whose chain of command they fall under. Throughout their entire history they have demonstrated an allegiance to Iran and a hatred of U.S. influence in the region, this mantra will preclude them from ever submitting fully to ISF control or the will of the GoI. See

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