Fasting approach a year since the Islamic State (IS) darted across the Syrian desert to rapidly occupy Mosul, this week an official from the U.S. Central Command laid out plans for a spring offensive on the city involving Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
The five Iraqi brigades expected to spearhead the attack are subject of frantic efforts by coalition forces to complete training on schedule. The smaller brigades will serve as reserve forces with three Peshmerga brigades playing the crucial role of pinning down IS fighters in the north and west of the city.
Whilst a spring offensive is highly symbolic for Iraq and the Coalition, it is less a question of training but more whether Iraqi forces will sufficiently motivated to drive out thousands of well-armed IS fighters or if sectarian affiliations will once again prove a handicap.
Moreover, the long-term questions still cast a dark cloud over Iraq – the size and buy-in of any Sunni force, their role in the battle for Mosul and whether they will be sufficiently enticed into an IS-free region after years of animosity and mistrust of the Baghdad government and Shiite dominated forces.
Even if IS driven from Mosul, who assumes control of the city? If Baghdad does not deal with the Sunni card effectively, something that it has failed to properly address since 2003, then any post IS Iraq may not be a far cry from the one before it.
Sunnis continue to view Iraqi forces with mistrust, not to mention the sectarian militias who have for many years been a source of blood-letting.
As for Baghdad-Erbil tensions, although the Kurds have played the pivotal role of containing and driving back IS, the divide with Baghdad has if anything only increased.
The oil exportation deal struck in late 2014 between Baghdad and Erbil, which delivered a glimmer of hope that age-old tension over oil exports and revenues would finally be settled, has once again stalled. You would think that with the menace the IS poses, Baghdad would focus on the task at hand, and not the ubiquitous policy aimed curbing Kurdish drive towards full autonomy.
The Kurds quickly took control of Kirkuk in the aftermath of the IS onslaught as Iraqi forces wilted away. Giving up control of Kirkuk has become a Kurdish red-line, but there are clear signs that Sunnis and Shiites will not accept such a view.
Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani warned that Kurdish control of Kirkuk was not a topic of discussion. “…they must know that either we will all die, or Kirkuk will never fall to the enemy ever again,” Barzani vowed.
Barzani warned that only the Kurds can decide if they needed support in Kirkuk, “unless we make such a decision no other force is allowed in Kirkuk,” Barzani stressed.
However, the growing presence of Shiite militias on the borders of Kirkuk, principally aimed at IS, but certainly as a show of force against the Kurds, demonstrates that in spite of all the Kurdish sacrifices against IS, Baghdad’s stance towards the Kurds remains unchanged.
As Barzani insisted that Shiite militiamen would be “prohibited under any circumstances” from entering the Kirkuk, Hadi al-Amiri, a top Shiite militia commander, vowed that his forces “are able to go wherever if needed”.
The question remains, are such forces really needed to protect Kirkuk or attack Tikrit and Mosul?
If IS can be defeated, then it is likely that Baghdad would insist on a return of Iraqi troops to Kirkuk. It was the lack of competence of the 12th division in Kirkuk that caused the vacuum in the first place.
Barzani urged Arabs who oppose IS to “play your roles” and to come forward “with action, not words alone”.
But are Arabs really ready to reconcile, unite and bridge the sectarian divide? Unfortunately, this is very doubtful.
First Published: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc