The battlefield is getting crowded; all participants have their own agendas and plans to defeat Daesh, although the reality of the situation suggests something else. What they want is much more than to defeat an organised armed group that took over Mosul two and a half years ago. As expected, they have considered every factor except for the one and a half million residents inside the city.
The fight against Daesh is at its most serious phase and will be difficult, especially considering that the extremists have promised to fight to the end. This presents a number of challenges in the battle for Mosul.
More than one million refugees have fled from the city; most are Arab Sunnis who left after Daesh took control, although the occupation has affected all community groups, including the Kurds, the Yazidis, the Turkmen and the Christians. As a result, there is a humanitarian crisis, the world’s biggest challenge in the history of the UN, claims the international organisation. It has said on several occasions that it does not have the proper resources to care for this number of refugees, despite building five camps recently, each with a capacity sufficient for 700 families. This is an insignificant amount given the number of refugees. That’s challenge number one.
Number two is that Mosul’s infrastructure has been destroyed by air strikes. We could be looking at another Ramadi, of which 80 per cent was destroyed. Mosul, though, is much bigger; it is the second largest city in Iraq with nearly three million inhabitants. One can only imagine the level of destruction that will result from the effort to retake the city. The bankrupt Iraqi government will not be able to rebuild Mosul, so will the US? It has been reluctant to get involved and has been looking at the current government with a great deal of suspicion. Or will Iran, which only looks at this city through the lens of its own interests? Mosul after Daesh will be a city of rubble and none of the parties racing to “free Mosul” are taking this factor into consideration.
Where is Mosul?
Mosul is the second biggest city in Iraq. It is located in the north of the country.
What is happening there?
Since June 2014 it has been under the control of Daesh.
What’s happening now?
Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by an international coalition which is led by the US, are battling to recapture the city from Daesh.
Perhaps the most important challenge is that the number of groups involved in the battle are not compatible and are there to secure their own interests. There are the Shia, who make up 80 per cent of the attacking forces, and the militias affiliated with the Shia People’s Front; they have said that they will remain on the outskirts of the city, much the same as what happened in the battle for Fallujah. If it were up to them, they would repeat the same shameful crimes against humanity. There is also the Kurdish Peshmerga, which believes that there are parts of Mosul that are not accounted for in the Iraqi constitution and would like to present Baghdad with a fait accompli to accept new administrative limits in the city, taking it back to pre-2003.
Others involved include Hashd Al-Shabi, or the “Guards of Nineveh”, led by the former governor of Mosul, Atheel Al-Nujaifi, who seeks to gain control after the city is liberated from Daesh. Officials in Baghdad would like to prevent him from this on the grounds that he is not an actual member of Hashd Al-Shabi. Turkey is also there and has insisted that it wants to participate and is threatened directly by events taking place in Mosul and by Iran’s involvement. One must not forget the US forces — 5,000 troops — with a lot of ammunition and resources. The mix is by no means homogeneous and suggests both the nature of the battle and the challenges that will be faced post-liberation.
The fourth challenge will be to prevent the militias on the ground from committing atrocities against the people of Mosul. Militia leader Qais Al-Khazali, for example, has vowed that the battle will be revenge for the death of Imam Hussain in the year 680 CE. This is the same sectarian rhetoric that prevailed before the battle of Fallujah. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi met with Shia militias a few days ago and emphasised their importance and role, despite the objection of regional actors and their continued emphasis that the involvement of such militias in Mosul would only further complicate matters not only in Iraq but also in the region at large. The involvement of individual militias will magnify sectarian strife and make it difficult to control.
Many parties heading for Mosul are refusing to answer the question of what will happen post-Daesh. Where will its leaders go after Mosul? Is it true that an exit route towards Syria has been facilitated? Is the Iraqi government ready to accommodate all of the individuals who have been impacted negatively by Daesh ideology? How will they prevent the formation of sleeper cells and individuals who are ready to act at a moment’s notice?
No one has the answers to any of these questions. It will be dangerous simply to ship Daesh fighters to the Sahara, as happened with Al-Qaeda extremists in 2007 and 2008, only for them to reappear as “Islamic State…”.
The battle for Mosul will deepen the wounds of the Iraqi people and increase Iran’s influence in the Arab world. It was also increase Turkey’s role in Iraq, not to mention the growth of Shia militias as they become more prominent and strong. Nevertheless, the fight will fail in its efforts to eradicate Daesh because, in all honesty, this is not a battle for freedom so much as a battle to implement regional agendas, some secret and some very open.
This article was first published on Al-Araby on 18 October 2016.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.