In terms of an endgame, experts see ISIS eventually losing control over its territory and the Kurds potentially coming out as big winners.
ISIS’s military defeats by the Iraqi government, Shia militias, and Kurdish fighters have convinced most experts that the group can’t hold on to its territory forever. ”The Islamic State ... will lose its battle to hold territory in Iraq,” Douglas Ollivant, the National Security Council director for Iraq from 2008 to 2009 and current managing partner at Mantid International, wrote at War on the Rocks in February. “The outcome in Iraq is now clear to most serious analysts.”
In the months or years it takes for Iraq to roll back ISIS, however, the people living under its rule will suffer: both under ISIS’s tyrannical, theocratic legal rules, as well as economically.
”The regions [ISIS controls] are not viable entities,” Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and expert on Iraqi politics, says. “Anbar [an insurgent-contested Sunni province] is totally dependent; over 95 percent of their money comes from Baghdad … Nineveh [another insurgent-contested province containing Mosul] is going to suffer a complete economic collapse.” So the Sunnis who live in these provinces and elsewhere “will suffer more from this than anyone,” Sowell concludes.
Except, perhaps, Iraqi minority groups. After ISIS took Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, in August 2014, the town of 50,000 found its access to food, power, and water restricted, and some Christians were given the “choice” to convert to Islam or be killed.
The Yazidis, another minority group, are also being brutalized by ISIS’s advance. The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority with about 600,000 adherents worldwide. The largest concentration by far is in northern Iraq, where ISIS made significant inroads in 2014 — including into a heavily Yazidi town called Sinjar. ISIS captured Sinjar on August 3, sending most of its 200,000 residents on the road for fear of being killed by ISIS fighters who are massacring Yazidis for their faith. In fleeing ISIS, between 10,000 and 40,000 Yazidis from Sinjar and nearby environs took refuge on Mount Sinjar, an adjacent mountain. The Yazidis who were trapped on the mountain had no regular access to water, sticking them between thirst and ISIS’s guns. Kurdish troops liberated Mount Sinjar in December 2014 and the town of Sinjar in November 2015.
The Kurds had been on the brink of insolvency due to a dispute with the central Iraqi government over oil exports, but now they’ve de facto annexed Kirkuk, a major oil city. They can export freely to Turkey and make lots of cash. “This crisis is a lifeline for the Kurds,” Sowell said in June 2014. If they manage to hold on to Kirkuk after the war, that could still end up being true despite their heavy engagement in direct combat with ISIS forces.
As for the Shias, they “will suffer, but not as much” as the Sunnis, Sowell says. Aside from front-line troops, much of the Shia population has been free from threat from ISIS, as Shias mainly live in the country’s south, far from ISIS’s operational reach.