Joost Hiltermann is the Middle East & North Africa Program Director of the International Crisis Group and the author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja. (December 2017)


Iraq: The Battle to Come

Members of Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and the media standing before the ruins of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul, June 29, 2017

ISIS’s military defeat, which Western officials believe will come sometime later this year or early next, will hardly put an end to the conflicts that gave rise to the group. For much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s. The deeper conflicts here will only escalate.

The Kurds: A Divided Future?

The long-term aspirations of the Kurds are oddly similar to those of the jihadists they are fighting: both seem equally intent on erasing the old borders of the post-Ottoman order. When I drew this somewhat audacious parallel in conversation with a PYD official in northern Syria during a visit in March, he flashed a bright smile and said: “Daesh threw the first bomb. We will reap the result.”

Why Belgium?

Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Molenbeek Saint Jean was heavily policed, Brussels, Belgium, November 16, 2015

The Belgian intelligence services are monitoring roughly one thousand “potentially dangerous” individuals; 130 of them have been in Syria or Iraq and returned to Belgium. Notably, upwards of 80 percent of them are of Belgian-Moroccan origin, including several of the Brussels and Paris attackers.


A Likely Story

In late June, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report on the April 4, 2017, nerve gas attack on the central Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, a civilian area under rebel control in which there was no fighting at the time. An estimated one hundred …

Bahrain Burning

Hassan Mushayma, leader of the banned opposition group al-Haq, at a protest in the Pearl Roundabout, Manama, Bahrain, after his return from exile in London, February 26, 2011
In mid-March, a violent government campaign to put down a month-long popular revolt turned Bahrain into an island of terror. Images of security forces firing on unarmed protesters chanting “peaceful, peaceful” went around the world via YouTube and other media. Today Bahrain has largely receded from the news, emerging only …

Waiting for Baghdad

The Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr giving a speech in Najaf during his first public appearance in Iraq after four years in exile in the Iranian city of Qom, January 8, 2011. Pictured on the banner behind him are his father-in-law, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, founder of the Islamic Dawa Party, and his father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. These two men are seen as the spiritual forebears of the Sadrist movement that Moqtada al-Sadr heads.
As the flames of protest leap from North Africa to the far reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, many Iraqis are feeling that history may have dealt them a poor hand. Having failed to bring down a weakened Saddam Hussein in a mass uprising in 1991, they now see that regimes …

Iraq: The Impasse

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting with Iyad Allawi, the head of the al-Iraqiya alliance, Baghdad, June 29, 2010
It is easy to underestimate how much fear can obstruct a society’s recovery from horrific violence or repression, or both; and fear now dominates Iraq as its leaders try to make a new start after decades of a ruthless tyranny, its violent removal, and the chaotic aftermath.


Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran

A Kurdish fighter in the Sinjar mountains, Iraq, November 18, 2015

How will Trump respond to the conflict in Syria and neighboring countries: through confrontation or containment? If the latter, the way forward will be through a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict—one that would have to include not only Russia but also Iran and, the Syrian regime itself, and, on the other side, Turkey and Syrian insurgents. At the same time, the US and its allies would need to persuade Turkey and the PKK to resume peace talks. Both these goals seem distressingly far-off. But if Trump decides on confrontation, then the region is likely to lose what little stability it has left.

Jordan: How Close to Danger?

Jordanian soldiers attend the funeral of Jordanian Captain Rashed Zyoud, who was killed during a raid in Irbid conducted by the Jordanian security forces on Islamic State militants, Zarqa, Jordan, March 2, 2016

Jordanian officials appear to be far less worried about the refugees than about the growing extremism the Syrian war has been feeding. Jordan is the third-largest contributor of fighters to ISIS after Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic State’s violent strain of Salafism is starting to invade Jordan’s tribal culture.

Iraq: The Clerics and the Militias

Members of an Iraqi Shiite militia joining Iraqi forces trying to retake Baiji from ISIS, June 9, 2015

In June 2014, after the fall of Mosul to ISIS and the collapse of the Iraqi army, Iraq’s most senior Shia religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a general call-up to the Shia masses to step in. Now, the country is increasingly run by an amalgam of Shia armed militias, many of them equipped and supervised by Iran.

Kurdish Independence: Harder Than It Looks

Street vendors on a bridge over the Khasa River, Kirkuk, Iraq, March 5, 2013

For Iraqi Kurds, the jihadist blitz through northwestern Iraq has offered an opportunity to take possession of areas they’ve long claimed as theirs and push for independence. At the heart of these “disputed areas” is the strategic city of Kirkuk, which the highly motivated Kurdish Peshmerga took over in mid-June. But the Kurds’ sudden gains may not be a panacea.