By Derek Verbakel*
Progress is well underway for Mosul to be recaptured from the Islamic State (IS). Aided by US-led air and ground support, the anti-IS campaign chiefly involves the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); Kurdish Peshmerga; a collection of predominantly-Iran-backed (mostly-Shia) militias; and Sunni tribal fighters. ISF units have breached the city’s easternmost neighbourhoods, and while resistance is stiff, it nevertheless seems like only a matter of time until the IS is militarily defeated and, as many commentators present it, Mosul, is thereby ‘liberated’.
Yet, such triumphalist and reductive language framing the military campaign risks downplaying the fraught political conditions in Mosul and Ninewa Province more widely. Indeed, once the IS is dislodged, there will be underlying and unameliorated political issues that present even greater challenges to stabilising northern Iraq.
Tangled and competing interests drive various stakeholders who will not disarm once the IS is gone, and ultimately aim to translate hard-won gains into political advantages. The ISF – the only party authorised by Baghdad to enter Mosul itself – have worked unprecedentedly close with the Peshmerga, who have pledged to stay out; but this could change due to a shifting coalition strategy or unilateral decisions. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) wants to consolidate control of disputed territories claimed also by the central government in Baghdad. Like their previous actions, Kurdish security personnel may forcibly displace Arab families from their homes in contested areas, tilting the ethnic demographic balance.
Shia sectarian militias will seek a larger role in Iraq’s government and broader political society. They seem to have accepted Baghdad’s demand – restated by Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians as well as Turkey and the US – of refraining from entering Mosul. Yet some Shia militia leaders have proclaimed a religious duty to fight in Mosul, Iraq’s main Sunni Arab-majority city; and while their presence alone would inflame sectarian tensions, they might also rehearse past episodes of violence against Sunni civilians.
Shia militias may also seek to establish a permanent base of operations in Tal Afar – like Mosul, a city to which Turkey claims historic and cultural ties. This would allow strategic access to aligned forces in Syria and more immediately challenge Turkey and its KRG allies’ influence in northern Iraq. Under the pretext of defending Sunnis, Ankara has already threatened unilateral action against Shia militias, who it suggests will not only seek to raze Mosul, but also rid Tal Afar of its majority-Sunni Turkmen population.
A broader power struggle is also escalating between Ankara and Baghdad over spheres of influence in northern Iraq. They have exchanged threats of war over Baghdad’s repeated, unheeded demands to withdraw Turkish troops stationed just northeast of Mosul since January 2015. While rebuffed by Baghdad and the KRG, Ankara has demanded a greater role in the Mosul campaign, and last week aggressively shored up forces facing the Iraq border. Along with containing advances by Shia militias and the IS, above all, Turkey’s presence in Iraq aims to quell trans-border nationalist aspirations of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), labelled terrorists also by the KRG. Also seeking to augment Turkish influence in Ninewa is Atheel al-Nujaifi, a former provincial governor who heads a Sunni Arab militia trained and equipped by Turkey. Baghdad staunchly opposes Nujaifi’s intention to figure centrally in post-IS provincial politics.
To claim credibility as a national institution, the Shia-dominated Iraqi central government will need to reassert state power in ways acceptable to Mosul’s inhabitants. This was not the case when in 2014, from outside perspectives, the IS overran the city with surprising ease and members and sympathisers began embedding themselves into Mosul’s social fabric. There occurred intermarriage with the population and joining the IS became a much-needed avenue to stable employment for many Moslawis.
It will be tricky to determine who joined – whether earnestly, out of desperation, or not at all – and how to treat IS prisoners and families, as well as others who might feel unfairly branded as collaborators. There may also persist a degree of support for the IS. Having experienced alienation especially since 2003, Moslawis have tended to regard the central government warily; and so, engendering a sense of political enfranchisement, particularly among Sunni Arabs in a conflict-stricken city, will be difficult.
Beyond Mosul, there will also be crucial but divisive questions concerning the form of post-IS governance structures and security provision in Ninewa. Baghdad will face enormous pressure to address longstanding disputes regarding dispensation of territory, revenues, and powers to local authorities. Several agendas and frameworks are fiercely contested by Sunni and Kurdish leaders as well as minority communities who view Sunni Arabs as complicit in the IS’ attempted genocide. Violence will spike if armed groups seek to pre-emptively homogenise area demographics along ethnic or sectarian lines.
As such, troublingly absent is any consensus on what happens after the IS is displaced from Mosul and wider Ninewa – which will be the site of clashing interests pursued by several anti-IS groups unwilling to disarm or withdraw. There will be no unifying Iraqi nationalist political project to bridge inter-communal divisions and little trust among traumatised populations in new or reconstituted systems of governance. Vulnerable to self-serving interventions by external powers, this political minefield will be prone to further cycles of violence.
* Derek Verbakel
Researcher, IReS, IPCS