By Ranjit Gupta*
On 17 October 2016, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi announced the commencement of the battle for Mosul. He also said that except for the Iraqi army, police and security forces, “no others will be allowed to enter Mosul;” Iraqi troops have agreed to stay out of Kurdish territory and the Peshmerga have promised they will not enter Mosul. However, the Iraqi government has little political clout or military capability to enforce this eminently desirable restraining measure in respect of non-state groups. Unexpectedly, rapid advances have been made despite Islamic State (IS) fighters putting up fierce resistance. The IS being defeated and Mosul and Nineveh Provinces being recaptured is now a certainty. Though this would mark the welcome end of a savagery infused and blood soaked episode, it is distinctly possible that another, and longer term, unhappy episode in this northern Iraqi region could begin.
The assault on Mosul is led by the Iraqi army, police and special forces, supported by the Kurdish Peshmerga and backed by US coalition led air strikes and special forces. Additionally, Sunni militias, many trained by/proxies of Turkey, and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) or Hashd al-Shaabi, composed of approximately 40 predominantly Shia militia groups many of which have close ties to Iran, are also involved, but outside Mosul. Once the common enemy – the IS – is removed from the scene, the centrifugal and competing forces of sectarianism and separatism will inevitably come to the fore. In fact, this may well start happening while the fight against the IS is still underway, even potentially risking an abortion of a successful outcome of the battle.
Given the deserved ill-repute of the PMF for vengeance attacks on Sunni populations of towns liberated from the IS earlier, it would be a miracle if clashes do not occur between them and others involved in the assault. In early November, they took control of key points on the highway between Mosul and the IS capital Raqqa in Syria and are seeking to take over the strategic town of Tel Afar, near the Syrian border, which is populated mainly by Sunni Turkmens; this could prompt Turkish intervention against them. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other Turkish leaders have made it clear that they will protect the Turkmen community and other Sunni populations in the battle theatre wherever needed.
Turkey’s unambiguously stated intent of intrusive involvement is an ominous portent. Brazenly rejecting the Iraqi government’s repeated demands for removal of its forces from Iraqi territory and despite the Iraqi government’s categorical opposition, Erdogan has insisted that Turkey, with 2,000 well-armed and equipped troops stationed near Bashiqa, only 8 kms northeast of Mosul, and more troops and armour in other border regions and just across the border, must and will be involved in the battle for Mosul and must be at the table to decide Mosul’s future since Mosul and Kirkuk, indeed the whole of Nineveh province, are “part of our [Turkey’s] soul,” (incorporated into Iraq, established in 1920, only in 1923/26). Reopening the issue almost a century later, Erdogan has said that “Insistence on (the 1923 borders) is the greatest injustice that can be done to the state and the nation…If everything is changing in the world of today, we cannot consider adherence to the treaty of 1923 a success.”
On 07 November 2016, the Kurdish Peshmerga won back control of Bashiqa from the IS. Despite having cordial political and particularly strong economic relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the Turkish foreign minister very recently said that “If there is a threat to Turkey from Iraq, we will use all our resources and rights, including a ground operation…We aren’t saying this to Iraqis alone, but to the United States and all coalition nations, (and) to the northern Iraqi government” (Kurdish Regional Government).
A century-long struggle for independence for the Kurds may be nearing a turning point. Having enjoyed de facto self-governance for over a decade, they will not easily let go of this new opportunity, keeping in mind its particularly significant role in the fight against the IS. The Iraqi Kurds are savouring a sense of empowerment and self-confidence as never before. In a February 2016 interview to the German newspaper ‘Bild’, KRG President Masoud Barzani, inter alia, said that Iraqi Kurds have been waiting for independence “for too long…..We are not Arabs, we are our own Kurdish nation… If the people of Kurdistan are waiting for someone else to present the right of self-determination as a gift, independence will never be obtained. That right exists and the people of Kurdistan must demand it and put it into motion. The time has long been ripe for it, but we are currently concentrating on the fight against Daesh; as soon as Mosul is liberated, Kurds will meet with ’partners in Baghdad’ and talk about our independence.” If pursued excessively assertively, new conflicts could arise.
The question of who will control/govern Mosul will immediately arise. No plans have been announced, partly because this could unravel the coalition seeking to liberate it. Shia-Sunni clashes and atrocities on different minorities are almost inevitable. Then, almost inevitably, the PMF and the Sunni forces trained by Turkey will also almost certainly enter the fray and in the context of increasing mayhem, direct Turkish intervention is a very distinct possibility and this in turn could bring in other countervailing foreign intervention.
Oil rich Kirkuk is a city that has been particularly hotly contested between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government for decades. The defeat of the IS will reopen the issue of Kurdish control of Kirkuk – the Kurdish Peshmega had taken over after 12 June 2014, when the Iraqi army fled following the success of the IS’ 2014 Northern Iraq offensive. Once the dust settles in Mosul, the central government will seek to reclaim disputed territories and/or recently Kurdish-occupied areas (see map) and Kirkuk in particular – all of which the Kurd leadership has no intentions of withdrawing from. Thus, another conflict is in the making.
Iraq’s misfortunes are unlikely to end with the defeat of the IS.
* Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow and Columnist, IPCS; former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman; and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India