The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, recently traveled to Mosul to declare victory over the Islamic State (IS). The battle there, which continues to stamp out pockets of IS resistance, is the culmination of almost three years of IS control over Iraq’s second largest city.
Now that IS has been (mostly) driven from the city, what’s next?
To think of the future of the city, it would be wise to look at the past; specifically, how Mosul fell to IS. In January of 2014, IS swept out of Syria, where it had gained strength, into al-Anbar province, taking Ramadi and Fallujah. Both cities were former strong holds of IS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Iraqi forces moved to counter IS gains in Anbar, drawing some forces away from Mosul. Mosul was then assaulted in a blitzkrieg, as IS trucks flowed in and took the city in short order. After this, Iraqi forces were the subject of scorn because of their lack of resistance and outright retreat in the face of a numerically inferior enemy.
Why did the Iraqi forces give up Iraq’s second largest city so quickly? Some attributed it to cowardice, others to lack of proficiency or training. The reason lies more with the sectarian divide which dominated Iraq between the bombing of the al-Askari mosque on February 22, 2006 and the US’s temporarily successful efforts to reconcile the Sunni and Shia, leading to the US withdrawal of combat troops on December 18, 2011. This period was marked with countless abductions, torture, extra-judicial killings, and retaliations amongst the Sunni and Shia.
Following the US withdrawal and the relative peace Iraq enjoyed, then Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, conducted a purge of Sunnis in the military leadership and political high offices. Al Maliki’s purge undid US efforts to bring Sunnis back in to Iraq’s legitimate government and left Iraqi Sunnis outside of the new post-Saddam Iraq, as they had been after the 2003 de-Baathification policy of the Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer.
The army that was to guard Mosul, a primarily Sunni city, was largely Shia. The factor of sectarianism more than likely entered into the soldiers and commanders’ calculus of whether or not to defend the city. It seems they determined it was not beneficial for them to fight for Sunnis against IS, a Sunni invader.
The same can explain why the Sunnis of Mosul largely welcomed IS. Traditionally, Iraqi Sunnis are relatively more moderate and secular than some regional counterparts, namely in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Iraq’s Sunnis were the cornerstone of the Ba’ath party, which was, in name at least, secular, socialist, and pan-Arab. The Moslawi Sunni did not necessarily accept IS into their territory because they agreed with IS’s policy or goals, but because IS was a better alternative for them as Sunni’s than the Baghdad based and Iranian sponsored Shia which sought retribution for decades of persecution under Saddam.
The fight to drive IS from Mosul is just the most recent iteration in the larger on-going sectarian conflict in Iraq and the region.
While the Iraqi Army fled in the face of IS’s advance in 2014, they were bolstered in 2017 by Popular Mobilized Units (PMUs). The main PMUs are Iranian trained, funded, and supplied. The primary Shia PMUs have strong ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), whose main mission is to export the Iranian model of Islamic Revolution outside of Iran’s borders. The IRGC-QF’s most successful efforts have been in Lebanon, where the IRGC-QF was responsible for the early formation and guidance of Hezbollah. Hezbollah now plays the role of king maker in Lebanon, is taking part in preserving Assad in Syria, and was connected to the Shia insurgency against the US and coalition forces in Iraq.
While the kinetic battle against IS has concluded, the political battle for Mosul is far from resolved. Mosul’s majority Sunni residents rightfully fear the wrath of the PMUs, who have been accused of torture and carrying out extra-judicial killings of Sunnis, reminiscent of the sectarian civil war in areas they have “liberated.” Residents of Mosul would rightly fear the same retribution once IS no longer poses a threat.
If the US wishes to see continued success and stifle the possibility of IS, or whatever radical Sunni group will follow in its wake, gaining ground and support in Iraq, it must ensure there is a favorable political solution for Iraq’s Sunni minority. Such a solution was one of the main goals of US efforts led by General David Petraeus during the surge and reconciliation process. Sunni tribes were brought into the security apparatus of the state and legitimized. In a country and a region where power equals legitimacy, security is inherently political.
If the Sunnis feel separated from and targeted by the Shia dominated government in Baghdad it is only a matter of time before a situation like the sectarian strife of the mid and late 2000s or IS’s ability to gain and hold ground in Iraq’s Sunni areas repeats itself.
In addition to the larger sectarian conflict there is the Kurdish aspect of the fight for Mosul and the future the battle ushers in. The Kurds, rightfully so, were not used as a main element in the fighting within Mosul proper (as opposed to the continuing fight for Raqqa), but were used to drive IS from the borders of the expanded Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the east towards Mosul as the PMUs and Iraqi Army pushed from the south and the west. The Kurds reached their limit of advance early and have not been major players in the liberation of the city but will be important in determining it’s future because the future of the KRG, which is scheduled to hold an independence referendum on September 25th, is closely tied to the future of Mosul.
Most are aware of Turkish opposition to Kurdish independence, given domestic measures taken by the Erdogan and prior governments and the historic and ongoing conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government. What is less well known is the Iranian opposition to Kurdish independence, even if just within the borders of the current KRG.
If Kurdistan breaks away from Iraq, Iran stands to lose. Since the US led invasion, Iran has had an outsized influence in Iraq. Iranian backed militias and Iranian supported political parties make up the nucleus of the Iraq state. A fracturing of Iraq decreases Iranian influence. Not to mention the possibility of Kurdish independence starting the process of Sunni Iraq attempting to break away with support of US and Western allied Sunni states in the region.
Kurdish independence in Iraq can also have domestic implications, as Iranian Kurds in the northwest may desire to join the Iraqi Kurdish brethren by migrating or breaking away to join a forming Kurdish state. This could start a domino effect as other minorities in Iran seek to break away following the lead of the Kurds. Azeri Iranians in the north may wish to join Azerbaijan. Balochs in the southeast may find common cause with their brethren in Pakistan who have been fighting the Pakistani government for self-determination.
To the Iranians, the KRG transitioning from autonomous to independent could be the first domino that falls and begins the reshaping of the Middle East it seeks to influence.
In 2003, after the Screaming Eagles captured Mosul, General Petraeus, then the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, is quoted as wondering, “how this ends.” The question, as it pertains to Mosul, and Iraq in general, will remain unanswered unless political compromise is made and all parties feel they are part of a functional representative government that protects their rights, Iraqi is partitioned, or enough blood is spilled that the status quo becomes acceptable.