After months of planning, the much-anticipated battle for Mosul is expected to arrive in the coming weeks. Not only will the liberation of Mosul prove a bloody and attritional struggle, but the political future of Nineveh province is unclear.
For every day that Iraqi forces have prepared for the offense, IS has been planning its own systemic defense with oil filled trenches, complex tunnels, and widespread booby-traps.
Without a long-term plan to appease various sides, especially the restive Sunni population, the future of Mosul will prove as contentious and complicated as its eventual liberation.
Mosul has been a hotbed of al-Qaeda and Sunni fueled insurgency since 2003. The ability of IS to gain support from the disenchanted Sunnis and form loose alliances with various Sunni militant groups was the key to its success.
The basis of these alliances was greater hatred of the Shiite-led government than any real affinity with IS. This fact was underscored by the Sunni demonstrations against the Shia hegemony of power and the marginalization policies of the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Without addressing the root-causes of Sunni animosity and discontent, Baghdad could end up at square one.
Owing to the fragmented and fractured Iraq, Mosul and the surrounding regions requires a long-term solution that can finally provide a sense of equilibrium between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias.
US President Barack Obama echoed this sentiment as he stressed to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Mosul needed stability and rebuilding so that IS and its “extremist ideology born out of desperation will not return.”
The various forces taking part in the liberation of Mosul tells its own story. Kurdish Peshmerga, who have played a vital role in pushing back IS, will play a key role as will the Iraqi forces, Sunni tribal militias, and Shia Popular Mobilization Units. This is augmented by Iranian elements that will directly or indirectly support the operation, thousands of US Special Forces, and a multi-national force patrolling the skies.
It makes great reading on paper – Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds join forces in a national struggle. But it’s anything but a united effort, and even a central command is difficult to establish. Arabs remain as opposed to Kurdish forces entering the city as they are with IS remaining, the Shia militia forces are looked upon by great distrust from large sections of the local Sunni population and Baghdad remains worried of empowering Sunni militias.
Then there is a question of who retains control of a predominantly and restive Sunni province.
Nineveh is one of the most divided areas in Iraq and as such as the security forces holding the fort once IS is ousted must reflect this.
The boundaries of the Nineveh province must change to reflect the ethnosectarian reality. Large sections of the province are already part of the Kurdistan Region; the borders must be redrawn to ensure that the realities on the ground are reflected in the political and security apparatus.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces should continue to control the liberated Kurdish areas until a referendum can be held. It is important that the fate of disputed territories is resolved on a legal basis to provide stability. Ultimately, an autonomous Sunni federal region should be established and local Sunni tribes need empowerment to keep security in their own areas.
It was the Sunni Awakening Councils, local Sunnis armed and paid under the auspices of the U.S. that proved the turning point in driving out al-Qaeda between 2007 and 2008.
Sectarian mistrust destabilized the region. This time, Baghdad must take heed and make concessions in the post-IS era. Without a political solution, the city will ultimately return to instability and violence.
Baghdad has been busy rebuilding the Iraqi Army for the second time since 2003, yet Shia militia remains the strongest Arab based force. This fact underscores that a national army is hard to achieve in a deeply divided state.
The danger now after 13 years of bloodshed and Sunni marginalization is that Baghdad may find it impossible to resurrect the notion of a united Iraq, let alone heal the Gulf of sectarian mistrust and animosity.
Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani has emphasized many times for the need of a clear and comprehensive “political plan” for the post-IS era in Mosul.
In the absence of such a plan, the deep-rooted animosity, mistrust and political instability between the various groups in Iraq will quickly extinguish any sense of triumph.
First Published: Kurdistan 24