What happens after Mosul?

Sami Hamdi Iraq, Middle East/North Africa, World Politics

With the East of the city secure, and a Western offensive underway, the days of ISIS control are numbered at best. The war has taken its toll on Iraq, with thousands forced into migration and city infrastructure severely damaged by air strikes, suicide bombings, and heavy shelling. However the real battle begins after ISIS leave Mosul, and the signs of a greater and potentially far more dangerous conflict are already in plain sight.

The operation has taken far longer than expected. With a coalition composed of a US-backed Iraqi army, Iranian-backed Shia militias, Turkey-backed Sunni tribal confederation, and the powerful Kurdish Peshmerga, the ousting of ISIS from Mosul should have been a relatively easy operation.

However the campaign has been fraught with divisions and suspicions between these various forces, as well as a desire by each party to secure a victory in such a way that it guarantees them control of the oil-rich, and strategically-located city.

Control of the City

The central issue is control. Administration over the city has been a contentious issue between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Central Government in Baghdad. Mosul is an oil-rich city but also geo-strategic and its demographic has been altered over the years as Kurds and Arabs on either side have been encouraged to settle in order to alter its identity. For the Kurds, control of the city would be a great leap in securing the future of a potentially independent Kurdistan and there has been vociferous lobbying in Washington throughout the operation to secure guarantees over Kurdish control of the city.

Baghdad is suspicious of the KRG’s ambitions, as well as US plans for the city. The US has expressed sympathy for Kurdish independence since the days of Saddam Hussein and their support for Kurdish groups in Syria recently have exacerbated suspicions in the region that Washington is exploring the possibility of recognising an independent Kurdish state. This is a red line for Baghdad which is keen to restore its control of Mosul even if that means using the notorious Shia militias to enforce it.

The Militias

There are unanimous sensitivities and misgivings about the role of the Shia militias operating under the guise of the Popular Mobilisation Force (or Hashd al-Shaabi; الحشد الشعبي). These forces have been at the fore of the campaign against ISIS, taking the lead on the ground in light of a poorly-trained, and ill-equipped Iraqi army. However, despite being vital to the success of operations, they have left a trail of sectarian ‘revenge’ killings in their wake and areas they occupy are scenes of forced migration of the local Sunni population who are labelled as suspect ‘ISIS sympathisers’. This has resulted in deep reservations about allowing their presence inside the city where reconciliation and reintegration of the population into mainstream Iraqi society is vital to prevent a recurrence of the ISIS question.

“militia forces looted, torched, and blew up hundreds of civilian houses and buildings in Tikrit and the neighboring towns of al-Dur, al-Bu ‘Ajil and al-Alam along the Tigris River, in violation of the laws of war.” – Human Rights Watch

The US has struggled with this catch-22; that the militias are the only force capable of driving back ISIS, but their use is disastrous in building bridges in a deeply divided sectarian society. In the operation to liberate Tikrit, Obama explicitly imposed a condition that air strikes would only take place if the militias were excluded from the operation. Despite this condition, militias later looted and ransacked the city after ISIS were defeated. In Ramadi, the need for the military power of the militias outweighed their crimes in Fallujah, and the US settled for an agreement whereby the militias would be used but media coverage would  attribute the success overwhelmingly to the Iraqi army.

In Mosul however, the US has been reluctant to cede to Kurdish demands for control of the city out of fear of stoking wider tensions post-ISIS, which has dampened Kurdish enthusiasm for the campaign. Faced with an Iraqi army incapable of completing the Western offensive on its own, the US is therefore forced to mull over the prospect of using the powerful militias once more.

The Local Tribes

There is another party also vying for control; the Sunni Tribal Confederation (Hashd al-Ashaa’iri; الحشد العشائري). These tribes have their homeland in Mosul and in the territory immediately surrounding Mosul. These tribes expect Mosul to be returned to them and have lobbied the central government for permission to establish their own ‘National Guard’ as a counter-weight to the powerful Shia militias. Baghdad simply does not trust these tribes and it is worth remembering that the last time the Sunni tribes had a militia in the form of the ‘Sahawaat’ which successfully defeated Al-Qaeda, then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set about immediately crushing the group for fear of a challenge to his influence.

Baghdad believes that granting the Sunni tribes their own ‘National Guard’ would be paving the way for an autonomous Sunni region which would set Iraq up for a three-way split. That, and also that influence in Baghdad is often measured by military power on the ground which is monopolised by the Shia powers. These groups remain reluctant to cede any of their power and influence, even at the expense of social cohesion and unity.

Unfortunately for these tribes, in the same manner as they lack representation in Baghdad, so too do they lack representation on the regional stage capable of advocating their claim for control of the city. Although Turkey has provided military assistance, this is only in so far as to bolster the KRG claims to the city, with whom Ankara has historically warm ties with, and with whom it seeks restrict the movements of the YPG and PKK.

Potential conflict

These issues have plagued the war on ISIS in Iraq and continue to hamper operations in Mosul. The domestic population fear the militias, but also fear becoming embroiled in a conflict between Kurdish forces and the central government in Baghdad which, given the large number of armed groups outside government control, threatens to become a bloody affair.

Moreover, Mosul is the last bastion of ISIS in Iraq, meaning the raison d’etre for the militias would naturally come to an end. These militias, after cementing their popularity in the South as the main fighting force in the liberation of Iraq, are highly unlikely to simply go home. Instead, Iran has pulled off a coup on their behalf, uniting their Shia allies in Baghdad to incorporate the 140,000-strong militias into the army, infiltrating the very institution the US sought to stem Iran’s influence with. In other words, the army is set to become a sectarian institution under the de facto authority of the various sectarian warlords who exert immense influence on an already sectarian government.

With this latest move, a stand-off between the Kurds, Baghdad, and Sunni tribes seems all the more likely, exacerbated by a Trump administration keen to out-muscle Iran in the region. It is not far-fetched to anticipate skirmishes between the groups, as well as sporadic security disturbances, particularly as Baghdad cements its Shia identity as a result of its sectarian institutions.

Moreover, such differences do not bode well for social reconciliation on sectarian and regional lines, raising concerns of a continuation of the very sense of alienation that created the environment in which ISIS were able to thrive in the first place. ISIS did not take control out of conquest, but out of indifference and a general sense that they were a refreshing change from the brutal, sectarian government in Baghdad. The militias remain the anti-thesis of sectarian reconciliation and their continued presence remains an insurmountable stumbling bloc towards genuine peace. Ergo, the only viable solution to begin the process of reconciliation would be to demonstrate like-for-like treatment.

In other words, given the inability of the government to disband the Shia militias, it makes sense to create a balance of powers by establishing a federal Sunni National Guard, if only to empower the Sunni bloc enough to force the Shia powers into an agreement of power-sharing. This enfranchises the Sunni population, allays fears of an almighty sectarian state, thereby making reconciliation a genuine possibility. As it stands, with the overwhelming Shia influence on all government institutions as well as the string of crimes committed against the Sunni population during the campaign, the defeat of ISIS looks set to be the prologue of a fiercer conflict that has all the makings of a destructive three-way partition.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…