Skip to main content

REF 2021 - Research Excellence Framework

The Wake of Islamic State: Shaping UK Foreign and Military Policy in Iraq

3 mins to read

Share this:

The University of Exeter’s research has helped to inform the UK Government’s approach to contain and eliminate Islamic State threat.

Researchers at the University of Exeter are leading figures on Iraq, with their input sought by Her Majesty’s Government, the EU, the Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the UN.

Founded in 1999, Islamic State (IS) is a militant group and terrorist organisation based in Syria and Iraq.

Professor Gareth Stansfield has built understanding of IS’s foundations and how it proved to be resilient, in order to prevent permissive environments from re-emerging.

The research introduced the idea that ‘IS’ is a distinctly Iraqi organisation with its roots in the province of Nineveh and the city of Mosul, and with a strong link to the former Ba’th regime. It also highlighted the deep roots of Sunni discontent in Iraq, which provided an environment for IS to grow.

This work helped to explained how the various incarnations of ISIS survived the US military, the Iraqi government, and Sunni tribal fighters before its re-emergence in 2014.

The researchers at the University of Exeter helped to influence policies aimed at preventing security gaps in post-IS Iraq. They made specific proposals to UK policy actors in the wake of the rapid ascendency of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014.

These comprised five key recommendations:

  • Consideration of a Sunni Arab force countering Islamic state
  • Strategies that broke Sunni Arab support for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
  • Support for a Non-Islamic State Sunni Arab Haven
  • Focus on liberation of Mosul or Kobani in Syria
  • Training of friendly forces in Mosul or Kobani

Contributions from the university addressed ‘knowledge blindness’, improving understanding of the ‘a tangled mix of politics, culture, history, religion and deep-rooted tribal affiliations’ in Iraq. It ensured personnel were equipped to understand the region’s complexity enabling better decision making, which is usually tough for the length of a standard 6-12-month deployment.

Further research on the security sector reform of the Kurdish Regional ‘peshmerga forces’ addressed the inadequacies of peshmerga structure, doctrine, and performance in the light of the advances made by IS.

Authoring a Political Economy Analysis, Prof Stansfield informed a fundamental re-shaping of UK policy. This was also released to international partners such as the United States and helped to make significant progress in developing a more affordable, capable and accountable Peshmerga.

The University of Exeter research has influenced action in two distinct and important areas. Firstly, building understanding of IS’s foundations and how it proved to be resilient, in order to prevent permissive environments from re-emerging. Secondly, by influencing policy aimed at preventing security gaps in post-IS Iraq especially with regard to the reform of the critical Peshmerga forces.

Meet our researchers

Professor Gareth Stansfield

Professor of Middle East Politics and the Al-Qasimi Chair of Arab Gulf Studies

View profile