An array of Iraqi forces, backed by a broad international coalition, is closing in on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, united in their determination to crush the jihadists but driven by starkly opposed agendas, Reuters reports:
While the shared goal of destroying Islamic State in Iraq should hold this unlikely coalition together until the jihadists are defeated, divisions run deep and raise the possibility of power struggles, sectarian strife or cross-border intervention.
Analysts warn that few political lessons appear to have been absorbed by Iraq’s Shiite ruling elite about the need to resolve issues for Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni minority, such as inclusive governance, that helped feed Sunni anger and the spread of IS in Iraq, the Christian Science Monitor reports:
Unless these issues are resolved, analysts say, this disconnect could mean that militarily expelling IS from Mosul may not prevent a new variation of IS from emerging, leeching off continued Sunni bitterness.
“We’ll see the son of Daesh within months of the liberation of Mosul,” says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “Because if you think about all the things we have gone through, the reasons why the Iraqi state is so weak, so illegitimate, so exclusionary of Sunnis, none of those have changed.”
“There is a hardening of sectarian attitudes amongst key influence groups,” says Dodge, who notes there are no representative Sunnis in Baghdad. “Not [Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani, not the senior ayatollahs, but beneath that – and the sense that once victory has been delivered in Mosul, we can get back to business as usual. There is no plan for reintegration of Sunni politicians. It’s like discussing [the sport of] cricket in America – people just don’t understand, they don’t care.”
“Iraqis are fed up,” says analyst Mieczysław P. Boduszyński. “Even as they wage war on ISIS they are also battling their own country’s corrupt and ineffective political elite.” Since 2015, Iraqis of all ethnic and sectarian stripes have been turning out en masse to protest against their political elite. Boduszyński explains in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.
ISIL will face a huge messaging problem after having lost all its governed urban areas, and it is difficult to “be the once and future caliphate.” Simply put, it doesn’t “resonate as much,” argues Douglas A. Ollivant, an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at New America and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iraq Task Force.
However, as the focus on ISIL will move — understandably — to its remaining strongholds in Syria, it is critical to keep U.S. attention on Iraq, he writes for War On The Rocks:
Iraq has demonstrated that it is indeed an ally and has in fact carried the bulk of the burden in the anti-ISIL fight. While its democracy is fragile and imperfect, it remains among a very small group of democracies in the Middle East. It is very much in the U.S. interest to retain both a practical and an ideological ally in this critical — and fragile — region.
While Prime Minister Abadi is a far cry from former premier Maliki, he has made mistakes and has a limited capacity to govern, notes Brookings analyst Kenneth Pollack:
At the most basic level, getting the stabilization and reconstruction of Mosul right is likely to be an enormously complex undertaking and any Iraqi government could doubtless benefit from external advice, assistance, and guidance—especially from the United States, the former occupying power who has done this many times in the past, both correctly and incorrectly. The mistakes made with Maliki should make clear the dangers of the United States uncritically backing an Iraqi prime minister who follows his own beliefs rather than what the historical record demonstrates is best warranted, no matter how much we may like him.
The devastation of Aleppo, Idlib, and Tikrit may motivate the Sunni leaders in Mosul and Raqqa to think and act politically rather than violently, adds analyst Frzand Sherko. The combination of these factors can shift the dynamic inside Mosul. With support from Sunni regional players, Mosul residents can turn their back on IS and lead the creation of a new Sunni, political-Islamic project, he writes for the Fikra Forum.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, warned in a recent article in The National Interest that there was a “danger of a war [between Turkey and Iraq] within a war that could damage the prospects for retaking and stabilizing Mosul.”
A successful campaign in Mosul has the potential to be an important milestone in the process of reconciliation, but only if the post-campaign period is given due attention, including issues of local governance, argued Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.
If such campaigns as the current offensive to retake Mosul are to succeed in the long term, a democratic approach to state-building is the only way to make real progress in defeating Islamic State, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, according to University of Chicago professor and Nobel Laureate Roger B. Myerson and J. Kael Weston, formerly a State Department official in Iraq and Afghanistan and the author of “The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Knopf).
While defeating Islamic State in northern Iraq. would remove a formidable threat, religious minorities and other civilians remain at risk and could face further atrocities, according to a new report from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.