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The fight for Mosul: the danger of arming Sunni opponents to Daesh and the Sunni/Shia power struggle

The liberation of Mosul, backed up by Sunni powers, themselves backed up by western powers, will only add to the general feeling of injustice experienced by Shias and will only benefit Iran and its conspiracy theories.

Uncredited AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Smoke rises from Islamic state positions after an airstrike by coalition forces in Mosul, Iraq,Oct. 18, 2016. Uncredited AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

What is happening now in the Middle East is crucial for the future of the region. Iraq and Syria, in particular, represent paradigmatic examples of the sectarian fault-line dividing the Muslim world and the changes that these two nations will undergo in the near future might well reshape the power-balance between opposite factions, namely the Sunnis and the Shias.

The nearing offensive against Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, held by Daesh since June 2014 and the strategical planning of the fight reveals forthcoming issues for the reconstruction of Iraq. Indeed, Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city and the idea of having Shia forces (the Iraqi army and Shia militias mostly trained and armed by Iran) liberating a Sunni city from a Sunni terrorist organization creates an important sectarian issue.

An obvious answer would be to support and arm Sunni opponents to Daesh as some of these groups plead for increased assistance from the Iraqi government in their fight against the terrorist organization. This solution, however, is not without a risk as the political and ideological influences of these groups are not completely transparent and many Shias in Iraq are suspicious of the Sunni population.

Indeed, Shias believe that the quick and resistanceless fall of northern and western Iraq, means that the populations in these areas collaborated with the Sunni terror organization before finding out that the so-called Sunni Islamic State might not be a much better alternative to the Shia led Iraqi government.

Syria represents a good example of how supplying arms to Sunni armed groups could quickly turn against the purpose of arming such opposition in the first place since many of the so-called “moderate” Islamist organisations either switched their allegiance to Sunni extremist groups or sometimes lost their battle (and therefore weapons) against them.

Further doubts arise when we find out that some of these Sunni opposition groups are actually trained by Turkey and are made up of ex-officers from Saddam’s army. Arming these groups would therefore signify in effect a re-ba’athification of northern Iraq. When we know that Daesh itself is made up of ex-ba’athists, further doubts arise.

Turkey’s insistence on playing a role in the re-conquest of Mosul and its anti-Shia rhetoric is highly problematic because it portrays the Mosul battle as a sectarian battle. While the sectarian dimension of the conflict is undeniable, as I mentioned earlier, focusing on arming Sunni forces to retake Mosul with the help of a Sunni neighbour effectively disintegrates the project of national unity which could save Iraq from further bloodshed.

Iraq needs to be saved by Iraqis regardless of their sectarian affiliation

Iraq needs to be saved by Iraqis regardless of their sectarian affiliation if the nation wants to have some hope to survive. If it happens that, because of demographic (and in fact democratic) reasons, the central government is led by Shias then it is up to them to devise strategies and policies which will prevent further sectarian tensions.

The role played by Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s leading spiritual Shia figure, and his focus on sectarian harmony and tolerance in the country is a proof that such a move is at least a very plausible possibility.

This debate leads to the realization of a double-standard problem when the Sunni-Shia divide becomes a matter of political disputes. Indeed, in no single country where Shias are a minority are they offered so much political and material support from other nations and the west in particular to be protected against oppressive central (Sunni-led) governments.

If there is a genuinely robust argument to be offered in support of increased Sunni participation and representation in Iraqi politics why is it that such argument is then never put forward when Shias represent a minority (which is almost in every country in the region) or even a majority as it is the case in Bahrain?

If it is fair to recognize that Sunnis should be free to determinate their own politics without receiving orders from a Shia-led government, why are Shias obliged to have their lives policed and dictated by Sunni government all around the Middle East?

The current debates over the role to be played by Sunnis in the liberation of Mosul need to be broadened if we want to avoid these double-standards and issues of Shia rights, and representation in the region needs to be addressed as well.

Otherwise the liberation of Mosul, backed up by Sunni powers, themselves backed up by western powers, will only add to the general feeling of injustice experienced by Shias and will only benefit Iran and its conspiracy theories about how western powers favoured the rise of extremist Sunni organizations such as Daesh.

About the author

Nicolas Pirsoul is a doctoral candidate in politics & international  relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, democracy and Middle Eastern politics.      


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