With the battle for Mosul reaching its conclusion Iraq opens a new page in its recent history. While ISIS still controls three main areas, namely the city of Tal Afar, part of the Iraq-Syria border and the city and surroundings of Hawija, the group has indeed been almost defeated – at least as a semi-conventional force. While it may still take months for these remaining pockets to be cleared, the capture of Mosul marks the decline of the “Caliphate” as we know it. Yet, we assess this does not mean that levels of violence and instability will decrease in Iraq, and in fact there is a non-negligible risk that these levels will increase over the coming months if not years due to two main factors.
Firstly, ISIS is likely to continue repositioning itself in areas that are “liberated” and go back to previous asymmetric tactics in a bid to maintain its presence and survive. The group will likely enter a phase of “aggressive hibernation” during which it will stop holding territories but will focus on high-scale attacks in a bid to maintain its influence and prevent the stabilization of Iraq. This has already been highlighted by the group’s ability to continue carrying out attacks in cities that were captured by the Iraqi months ago, such Ramadi, or Tikrit, or by its persistent ability to stage attacks in Baghdad. Rather than move all of its resources to Syria, in a bid to delay the inevitable capture of Raqqah and the rest of the group’s remaining cities in Syria, we assess the group will rather revert to clandestine activities, and while the pace of attacks may initially decrease, the ISIS network will remain intact.
This “survival tactic” is likely geared toward exploiting the future conflicts and rivalry that will affect the country, and eventually recreating the factors that led to the rise of the “Caliphate”. Indeed, as ISIS collapses in Iraq, the rivalries between the various groups and nations currently fighting the jihadists will increase as the very reason that made them de facto allies disappears. The holding of a referendum on Kurdish independence, as well as attempts by Iran to undermine US influence in the country and revert to previous anti-American operations will add to the pile of problems that Baghdad will face. We assess there are three key issues that will be of critical importance to the future of Iraq and whether ISIS will indeed be able to “return” in a form or another. The first one is Washington’s ability and willingness to stay in Iraq and increase the current military and civil resources devoted to the country. The White House will have to send a clear signal to the various actors in Iraq that it is willing to commit to a long term presence in Iraq to convince the Kurds and the Sunnis to give the current Iraqi government a chance. Should it fall short of giving such a signal, Iraq’s minorities will likely assess that they have no choice but separation or autonomy from a government that will likely increasingly be influenced by Iran. And while Washington will be busy debating whether to increase or decrease the current American contingent in Iraq, Tehran will on the other hand strive to convince the new US Administration of the cost of such a presence by reverting to previous tactics and supporting a low-level Shiite insurgency against US forces. The second element comes from the Shiite majority itself within Iraq. While some of the Shiite political leaders are known to be largely tied to Iran, other voices such as Ayatollah al-Sistani and to a lesser extent prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have offered more independent opinions. Whether pro-Iranian or more independent voices will prevail will likely have a great influence on ISIS’s ability to survive during its “aggressive hibernation”.
Finally, the Sunnis ability to reorganize themselves as a political force, while dependent on many external factors including the two previous cited issues, will also play a key role in the future of Iraq. While the Abadi government and the current parliament includes various Sunni politicians, the Sunni minority in Iraq has yet to find a clear set of leaders that in turn would be able to defend their interests in what promises to be a rough period for Sunnis in Iraq. Beyond the fact that a weaker Sunni representation will mean a greater sense of marginalization and thus play in the hands of ISIS, it will also encourage other countries such as Turkey to position themselves as the “defenders of the Sunnis”. By doing so, foreign backers would another layer of tensions to the existing sectarian rivalries, and a broader involvement of foreign nations on the side of Sunnis would further justify Iran’s own involvement. In that sense, whether Sunnis will be able to voice their concerns and have a say in the political landscape will be just as critical.
 Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani is the leading spiritual figure for Shiites in Iraq