Mosul, Iraq is known as the city of two springs, with autumn days that are as fine as those ahead of summer. This fall, those days could turn even finer.
Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S.-led coalition, are preparing for an assault on Islamic State’s most significant stronghold in Iraq. Barring a reversal of policy in Baghdad or Washington, it is almost certain that the military campaign will succeed. What’s uncertain is the cost of that success.
The immediate priority will be to protect the city’s 1.5 million-plus civilians and prevent criminal gangs from establishing themselves as the alternative to IS, which has held the city since 2014.
Decisions made now, especially in determining whether the Iraqi government, or sectarian and ethnic armed groups will be able to hold Mosul and provide security, will decide the fate of Iraq’s second city – and the rest of the country.
Mosul is one of the most prominent urban and historical centers of Iraq. In close proximity to Syria and Turkey, it is a valuable prize for the various armed groups trying to win it back from IS.
Once the battle reaches the outskirts of Mosul and progresses towards the city center, all eyes will be on the competing forces as they try to impose their control. How the city will be governed – from the treatment of prisoners to how quickly the displaced are resettled – will determine whether Mosul’s citizens can trust the new leaders of their city.
In the aftermath of IS occupation, these groups will want to translate their military gains into political control. Armed to the teeth, they will try to take power by force if Baghdad isn’t able to take control.
Politicians and warlords have already used the need to dislodge IS as a way to force their own agendas. The urgency to push out IS in 2014 led to the establishment of the “Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU),” a group of militia forces that were seen as a “short-term” fix to support the military and now claims to be an integral part of Iraq’s security apparatus, refusing to be disbanded or brought into the Iraqi army.
Today, leaders of some of the Iranian-backed militias under the umbrella of the PMU insist it be accepted as the equivalent of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – playing both a political and military role that undermines Iraqi institutions such as the army and Ministry of Interior.
Adding to the mix, leaders of the Kurdish forces, the peshmarga, have insisted that they retain control of any land they take from IS, even if the land was not originally under the control of the Kurdish regional government. Political operatives with Sunni Arab, Christian Arab and Yezidi backgrounds are now also trying to build up their own forces to fight IS and win a seat at the table.
Turkey is involved, too, largely because of its increasing efforts to influence northern Iraq and support Sunnis battling Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
These dynamics indicate that the battle will have multiple actors, with interests beyond defeating IS. Leaders of sectarian and ethnic groups are making divisions worse.
This storm can be avoided if all parties should sound judgment.
The United States continues to have significant leverage in Iraq, from leading the anti-IS coalition providing air cover for Iraqi forces, to bringing together countries to support the Iraqi government. In Washington, D.C. in July, 24 countries pledged $2 billion to reconstruct parts of Iraq that have been liberated from IS. The decision to funnel these funds through the United Nations Development Programme shows the continued lack of trust in the Iraqi government’s ability to oversee such efforts – and to guard them from the widespread corruption in the country.
This vital funding and support will be wasted if Iraq’s politicians don’t work together to stabilize the country. Just as momentum was building for the campaign to liberate Mosul, Baghdad’s political circles fell into lower depths of crisis as high-level politicians traded accusations of corruption. Ministerial positions are left unfilled as political parties fight over privileges and patronage rights.
The United States and key European countries can exercise their influence by withholding military and economic aid unless Iraq’s government and politicians cooperate.
Mosul can be seen as a microcosm of Iraq. Growing up, my family had friends from all ethnic and religious backgrounds of Iraq because the city truly was a melting pot for the country, from Assyrians, to Shabak to Kurds. When IS struck in Mosul and targeted all Christians, Yezidis and other minorities, it had a specific strategic goal – to tear at the social fabric of one of the world’s most diverse cities.
Since 2014, the militants cut off escape routes, imposed a reign of terror and effectively isolated Mosul from the rest of the country. Many of those left inside the city feel abandoned or unfairly branded as cooperating with IS, while those who were forced to flee either long for home or feel torn from it forever.
To heal those wounds, the next leaders of Mosul must be responsible to all of the city’s citizens, not only those from the same sect or ethnicity. Reinstating a provincial council with representatives from varied ethnic and religious groups will only make things worse. Giving one “governor” sole authority will also fail because different groups don’t trust one other. There is no single individual who could appeal to even a simple majority.
An enlightened military commission, responsible for securing the city, reinstalling law and order and ensuring basic services for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, could represent a way out. For most of history, extending back to Ottoman time, Mosul has been known as the “city of generals” – the birthplace of many army generals and officers. While the people of the city have a fondness for this title, those who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s army resent it.
Nevertheless, there are former Iraqi generals and officers, innocent of any crimes, who are living outside Mosul and could serve on a commission alongside officers from the current army. A group of this type would instil trust in the city’s residents. Once there is some semblance of normality, elections may be possible.
The United Nations has warned that the humanitarian operation in Mosul is likely to be the “single largest, most complex in the world” this year. Yet the process of determining who governs the city the day after IS loses power will be more complex, and possibly have a larger humanitarian toll, than the horror now inflicted by IS.