By Samuel Helfont*
(FPRI) — It has been over two years since the Islamic State sacked the Iraqi city of Mosul and captured much of the Sunni Arab regions in northern and western Iraq. The country remains mired in military conflict and political instability. This week Iraqi forces, with the backing of the American led coalition, are currently fighting to re-take Mosul. They hope that doing so will deliver a serious blow to the Islamic State. However, this battle, while extremely important, will not put an end to the crisis in Iraq or the threat of the Islamic State. To understand why, one must put the battle into its larger political context. In this post, I will try do just that and then attempt to provide a brief look ahead at the short, medium, and long term repercussions for the crisis in Iraq.
Iraq is currently divided into three distinct regions: Iraq proper, which is governed by Baghdad; the Kurdish autonomous zone; and the areas controlled by the Islamic State. Militarily, the Iraqi Armed Forces, with significant aid from popular mobilization forces (al-hashd al-sha‘bi), Kurdish Peshmerga, and American-led coalition forces, have been advancing steadily on the Islamic State’s positions. The Islamic State has been losing territory for over a year, and because of coalition air superiority, has not been able to mass forces for a counter-attack since the Spring of 2015. This success has often come at a steep price. While there has been some token Sunni Arab participation in the popular mobilization forces, they are dominated by sectarian, often Iranian-backed, Shi‘i militias. As these forces advance into Sunni Arab territory, they have clashed with the local populations. Human Rights Watch has “documented summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of homes” by elements of the popular mobilization forces.
The current focus of the combined military operations in Iraq is to re-take the city of Mosul. Theoretically, a military operation to re-take the city is fairly straightforward. However, in practice, it has been delayed for some time because it needs to be carried out in a manner that is consistent with the long-term political goals of a unified Iraq. A military assault that defeats the Islamic State while alienating much of the population or creating a humanitarian crisis will ultimately prove counter-productive. Recent Iraqi campaigns to re-take Sunni Arab cities left them in ruins and displaced most of their populations. Those cities had, at most, a few hundred thousand residents each. Mosul has almost two million residents. Thus, if the Iraqi forces employ their previous tactics in Mosul, they will likely trigger an acute humanitarian crisis. There are also fears that disputed areas liberated by the Kurds will be forced into the Kurdish autonomous region against the will of Arabs and non-Kurdish minorities.
American and coalition forces clearly understand this dynamic. In July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted a defense ministers summit and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a parallel foreign ministers summit. In both meetings, representatives of the anti-Islamic State coalition emphasized the importance of post-conflict stabilization and development in Sunni Arab sections of Iraq. By doing so, they hope to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they have a place in a united Iraq. These efforts face difficult challenges. Atrocities carried out by Kurdish and Shi‘i militias have had a deep impact on Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Some of the Sunni Arab population in Iraq continues to see Shi‘i and Kurdish forces as greater evils than the Islamic State. It is difficult to determine the extent of this sentiment, but there are some troubling signs. A recent, un-scientific poll conducted by al-Jazeera found that “72 percent of respondents said they supported the Islamic State over the Shia militias in the battle of Fallujah; 84 percent said that the Iranian occupation posed a greater threat than the Islamic State; and 86 percent said the goal of the Fallujah campaign was to consolidate Iranian occupation of Iraq rather than to fight terrorism.” As un-scientific as these numbers may be, if they bear even a passing resemblance to reality, they signal a difficult road ahead. If Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue to view the Iraqi government as a greater threat than the Islamic State, then retaking Mosul will represent little more than a tactical victory. And the strategic landscape will be ripe for the reemergence of the Islamic State or a similar group in the near future.
Over the long-term, the anti-Islamic State coalition’s goal of convincing Sunni Arabs to support the Iraqi government faces several structural political and economic problems. First, for several centuries, Sunni Arabs formed Iraq’s social, political, and economic elite. In 2003, the American-led invasion of Iraq disrupted the country’s system of rule, leaving Iraq’s Shi‘i majority in control. This created a disparity between the historical positions of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and the possibilities they face under an even semi-democratic Iraq. As a result, they have been ambivalent at best about their prospects under the current regime in Baghdad. That situation will continue to provide openings for groups such as the Islamic State well into the future.
The two most widely discussed solutions to this problem are: (1) to de-centralize the government in Iraq, giving the Sunni Arab regions much more autonomy; and (2) to create a power-sharing system in Baghdad that would grant the Sunni Arabs more power. However, Iraq’s main oil fields are in the Shi‘i south and the Kurdish north. Thus, in a decentralized system, Baghdad would have to finance the Sunni Arab regions while agreeing to limit its political control over them. Such an arrangement is unlikely to be popular in non-Sunni Arab regions. Furthermore, since 2003, Iran has worked to install its allies in Baghdad. It has significant influence in many of the most important ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. Because Iran views Iraq as part of a broader regional struggle with Sunni Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, it is likely to block policies that cede power to Sunni Arabs.
To put it succinctly, the crisis in Iraq is not going to disappear after the liberation of Mosul and as long as the political and military conflicts in Iraq remain unresolved, Iraq will continue to be a source for terrorism and mass migration. Retaking Mosul is a vital first step in alleviating these problems, but we should be under no illusions that it will end the crisis in Iraq, or that the U.S. can refocus its attention elsewhere.
About the author:
*Samuel Helfont is a Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, and holds a post-doctoral lectureship in the University of Pennsylvania’s interdisciplinary International Relations Program. In May 2015, he completed a PhD in Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department, where he wrote his dissertation on Saddam Hussein’s instrumentalization of religion as well as its legacy beyond 2003. His research is based on newly-available Ba’th Party and Iraqi state records.
This article was published at FPRI.