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Mosul: the looming battle has begun

The Mosul operation marks the return of US forces to Iraq after their 2011 withdrawal. What would a long term stability in Mosul need?

A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier walks inside a house previously used by the Islamic State in Faziliya, north of Mosul, Iraq. Picture by Felipe Dana AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The much anticipated operation to liberate Mosul has been underway for two weeks already. The Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni and Shia militias are all involved and supported by a US-led coalition and its airstrikes. The operation marks the return of US forces to Iraq after the controversial withdrawal in 2011. Since the emergence of ISIL in 2014, the number of US military advisors slowly but steadily increased to over 5000. After more than two years of the ‘train and equip’ program for Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga, the early signs of the operation seem promising showing a good level of cooperation between the various military groups involved, something many analysts warned could further complicate the future of the liberated territories.

Addressing the crowd of journalists on the Khazir front, Masoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, announced the success of the first round of the operation and praised the coordination between the Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga calling it ‘historic’. Barzani added that this is the first time the two forces shed blood together. He also warned that the operation could be a lengthy one pointed out the absence of a political agreement between Erbil and Baghdad besides the military one.

Post-ISIL Mosul

Policy makers and analysts had previously urged for the non-military elements to be addressed prior to launching any offensive against ISIL in Iraq’s second largest city which is also the last ISIL stronghold in the country. Earlier in September, a report by the Middle East Research Institute urged for the structural issues that led to the emergence of ISIL to be taken into account to avoid any void in the aftermath of the operation.

Policy makers and analysts had previously urged for the non-military elements to be addressed prior to launching any offensive against ISIL

The report also called for the urgency of humanitarian planning, dealing with issues of governance, and post-conflict security, reconstruction and reconciliation in order to prevent the return of the power dynamics that allowed the rise of ISIL in the wake of systematic marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni population. Despite such calls, the operation kicked off without addressing these crucial non-military aspects, and without any political agreement between the political actors on how to govern post-ISIL Mosul.

Two weeks on, the absence of order in the newly liberated areas is visible. Many blame the dysfunctional government for the ease with which ISIL captured Mosul and its surrounding countryside two years ago. Colonel Khalid Jasim al-Jabardi told the Economist “the [Mosul] mayor is still in Erbil, millions of dollars have been sent but there’s still no electricity, no food, no water. People are starting to say that life under Daesh [ISIL] was better. If the same happens when Mosul falls, then we will have big problems. Perhaps not Daesh, but another terrorist group will emerge.”

Many blame the dysfunctional government for the ease with which ISIL captured Mosul

In addition to the military battle which seems to be going underway as planned, frictions have emerged as a result of Turkey’s role in the fight. Turkey’s military actions in Bashiqa, east of Mosul and deployment of its tanks and artillery near the Iraqi borders has infuriated the government in Baghdad and elicited a warning from Iraq's Prime Minister. Ankara, however, says the move is a precaution. Political analysts believe Turkey is attempting to export its internal crisis to Iraq in the wake of the failed coup and wants a role in the battle to retake Mosul from ISIL, by virtue of being a member of the anti-ISIL coalition.

Iraq’s ‘island of decency’ at risk

Compared to the rest of Iraq, the Kurdistan region has often been called an ‘island of decency’ and a ‘beacon of hope’ for the rest of Iraq thanks to its economic development coupled with political stability. Its Peshmerga forces have been crucial ground troops holding back the ISIL rampage in the region and they will continue to do so as the battle for the liberation of Mosul is underway.

Smoke rises from burning oil fields in Qayara, some 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq. Picture by Felipe Dana AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Speaking to New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman in August 2016, US president Barack Obama explained his decision to authorize military forces to protect the refugees from ISIL in Kurdistan: “the Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see. It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere.”

However, Obama warned against the Kurds’ total reliance on the US by adding: “I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against ISIL.”

Two years on, this rare stability remains at risk due to multiple shocks, including the political stalemate since last year. The deadlock is the result of power struggles among the region’s main political parties over the controversial presidency crisis. Despite US-sponsored negotiations, the political parties failed to reach any breakthrough. While Barzani continues his tasks as president, controversies remain over the fate of his office.

A long term stability in the post-ISIL Mosul, Iraq and the Kurdistan region requires a multifaceted approach which includes addressing the non-military elements impeding peace and prosperity.

The consequences of the protracted political deadlock, accompanied by the economic decline, have been severe. The parliament has failed to hold any sessions to pass necessary legislations to tackle economic crunch since August last year. The speaker of parliament and several ministers were dismissed from their posts without early elections or cabinet reshuffle, which in turn has impacted the overall governance process.

As a result, the public is paying a high price and continues to suffer from a lack of sufficient services. Economic decline coupled with the collapse of a democratic order in the Kurdistan region, if the parliament remains muffled and the parties fail to reconvene, would add to the instability of Iraq and the Middle East. The United States should therefore intensify and leverage its influence and condition its military and financial support for the Kurdistan region to encourage political parties to resume talks and restore the governance system.

A long term stability in the post-ISIL Mosul, Iraq and the Kurdistan region requires a multifaceted approach which includes addressing the non-military elements impeding peace and prosperity. A stable post-ISIL Mosul, Kurdistan and Iraq requires the US to have an overarching approach to help end the politics of marginalization and sectarianism but also to allow the rule of law, good governance and accountability to triumph.

About the author

Shivan Fazil Sabr recently joined the East-West Center in Hawaii as Leadership Fellow. Before joining the EWC, Shivan worked at the Middle East Research Institute, a policy research think tank based in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Follow him on @ShivanFazil


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