Mosul may be saved from ISIS, but at what cost?

By Ahmed Sukker

As the advance on the city gathers pace, the people of Mosul are about to bare the brunt of their own liberation. The potential humanitarian consequences of which cannot be overestimated.

Middle East Monitor

Civillians flee ISIS controlled Mosul. Source: Middle East Monitor

Lise Grande, Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, told the BBC that “no institution in the world could cope with 150,000 people moving at once”. In Mosul, it is estimated as many as one million residents could flee their homes in the course of this growing conflict.

Such a catastrophe would be only the latest in a string of tragedies to befall the population of Iraq’s third biggest city, whose tribulations have become emblematic of the challenges facing the country since the American-led invasion in 2003.

The city’s predominantly Sunni population are again the victims of forces outside of their control. Witness to some of the most intense fighting during the American occupation, marginalized by sectarian politics in Baghdad, and abandoned by their national army in the face of ISIS; Mosul is now the battleground on which competing powers within and outside the country are seeking to stake a claim.

During their occupation of Mosul, faced with an increasingly hostile local Sunni population, American generals made the decision to align themselves with predominantly Kurdish armed groups, helping them cement control over an area covering half of the city.  

Such sectarianism was replicated at a national level, where Western foreign policy decisions have been marked by their reliance on strategic alliances that functioned increasingly along sectarian lines.

This can be traced back to the London meeting of the Iraqi opposition that took place in 2002,  in which six Iraqi opposition groups (the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri); the Iraqi National Accord; the Iraqi National Congress, and the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, which wants to see a return of the Hashemite dynasty) met with American officials to discuss post-Saddam Iraq.

The future Iraq imagined by the end of the meeting was democratic, federal, and multi-ethnic. But in reality, a government set-up on the basis of communal representation, instead of citizen’s representation, has led to what can only be called institutionalised sectarianism.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (transitional government) was set up the basis of an ethnic quota system, and in the subsequent period of de-Ba’athification (or purging the political landscape of officials linked to the Saddam regime), the new state institutions quickly came under the control of competing group identities.

As with the original battle for Mosul, Western powers maintained their authority by playing one off against the other. But with the Obama administration’s commitment to nominally withdrawing troops from Iraq, other regional and domestic powers are now grappling to fill the power vacuum.

The result is the complex and often contradictory coalition of forces now tasked with capturing Mosul from the so-called Islamic State. United only in a desire to stop the others from claiming this strategic prize, they represent the increasing fracturing of power in Iraq rather than any sudden surge in national unity,

The Iraqi national army has been hastily recomposed after its corruption and ineptitude allowed ISIS to overrun large Sunni population centers. But it is still cripplingly reliant on the so-called Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), an umbrella term for a range of militias providing the backbone of the forces which have driven ISIS from cities such as Fallujah and Tikrit.

In doing so, despite initial denials, they have been endowed with American air-support, a controversial move given that many of the militias are closely linked to Iran. Overwhelmingly Shiite in their make up, Human RIghts Watch have accused the PMUs of inflicting sectarian collective punishment on local Sunni populations in the areas they have ‘liberated’ from ISIS; burning homes and looting property. But there have also already been reports of sectarian violence against children in Mosul perpetrated by the Iraqi National Army itself.

Not only has this agitated Sunni populations in Iraq, it has opened the door for countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to step up their involvement in the country in the name of protecting their fellow Sunni Muslims.

Turkey in particular has argued the need for it to play a leading role in the assault on Mosul, in order to prevent further sectarian escalation; which would destabilise the region and ferment Sunni extremism like ISIS. Ankara officials have been putting forward the case that Mosul falls naturally within their sphere of influence, having at one point been included in the borders of the prospective Turkish state following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But this is only one dynamic of a wider regional power struggle, also being played out in Syria; with Turkey and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran and Russia on the other. 2009 saw plans to export Qatari gas to Europe in a pipeline running through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Arguably, the Assad regime in Syria rejected the proposal to appease its allies in Moscow, as it endangers Russia’s position as key gas supplier to Europe. Iran has its own plans for the region, with a proposed pipeline that runs through its sphere of influence in Iraq and Syria, before shipping gas onto Europe.

Turkey’s maneuvers alongside Saudi Arabia in both northern Iraq and during the Syrian Civil War are therefore arguably aimed at halting growing Russian, and particularly Iranian, influence in the region. Additionally, Ankara wants to stop the Iraqi Army from unilaterally taking Mosul, as that would raise questions about the continued presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq.

The picture is further complicated by the autonomy that Kurdish organisations have gained since the collapse of old regimes in both Syria and Iraq. The Peshmerga, who make up the armed force of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), are to play a key role in the assault. And while Turkey has good relations with the KRG, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is also waging a renewed war against the Turkish state, is angling to be included in the battle plans.

With the West prioritising the destruction of the Islamic State, seemingly no matter the cost; Iran providing the backbone of the Iraqi government’s efforts; Turkey and Saudi Arabia both looking to bolster their influence in the region; and different Kurdish groups looking to secure their own positions; it appears that the people of Mosul will again be left as an afterthought in the battle for the future of Iraq.  

  1. […] of the fight against ISIS. The battle to drive ISIS from Mosul, which has yet to reach its final, potentially catastrophic, conclusion, looks likely to test relations further, with the government in Baghdad already raising […]

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