Mosul Will Be Remembered As a Turning Point

The US-led coalition offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the final major foothold of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, has progressed slowly but positively over the course of the past month. However, questions still remain whether the offensive, Operation Inherent Resolve, will prove to be a coalition of convenience that dissolves without a clear and common enemy, or if political wills in Baghdad and Erbil, both in Iraq, are able to hash out a post-conflict structure that preempts ethnic opportunists and revenge killing. The battle for Mosul may mark the culmination of a protracted effort to build some semblance of unity amidst Iraq’s factionalist disorder.

The Combined Joint Task Force, an international coalition, has been coordinating military efforts to retake Mosul with Iraqi national forces on the ground. With its surveillance, reconnaissance, and airpower assistance, this coalition has made substantial progress toward Mosul’s more densely populated areas, and has achieved success through tactics that emphasize patience and a meticulous advance, reinforce, and attend to civilian needs pattern. While the path ahead for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will not be easy, a preponderance of evidence suggests that Mosul’s recapture is a question of when rather than if.

Having learned lessons from the costly battles to liberate Anbar Province since 2014, the Iraqi government seems to be taking a more well-coordinated approach to liberating Mosul. In particular, air strikes are not liberally called, and members of ISIS are contained within the city. Thus far, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have advanced to their predetermined stopping line alongside the ISF, who will continue to close their grip on IS positions from the north, east, and south. To the west of Sunni-majority Mosul, Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias have been tasked with retaking Tal Afar and closing off Highway 47, the most likely escape route toward Syria for fleeing militants.

The immediate challenge to the legitimacy of this coalition will be focused around preventing sectarian violence against civilians by the Hashd al-Shaabi throughout the fight for Tal Afar, a majority Sunni city with a large ethnic Turkmen community. This city was the site of widespread sectarian violence in 2007 and again in 2015. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the lead Shi’ite religious authority in Iraq and a major voice for mobilization against ISIS, has urged discipline with regard to military forces’ dealings with civilians in the past, and will likely play a central role in preventing violent reprisals by the Hashd in the future. As a voice for moderation he stands in opposition to some of the Iranian-backed militias on the ground outside of Mosul and Tal Afar, who receive assistance from Iran’s Quds Force, and have been accused of sectarian brutality in the wake of the battle for Fallujah.

Accordingly, it is essential that the Abadi government rebuilds local Sunni power structures in a way that assures recently liberated populations that they are represented in Baghdad and protected in their own communities. Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi’s role as a prominent Mosul-born Sunni within the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi positioned him for a consequential role in post-ISIS Mosul. However, Obeidi was sacked in August 2016 amid corruption allegations. His absence from the invasion and reconciliation process leaves a vacuum of viable Sunni leadership in Nineveh governorate that could prove destabilizing. This threat is particularly urgent, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been vocal about his willingness to intervene in Iraq should Turkmen minority communities appear threatened.

In Erbil, Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani is quickly running out of excuses to put off a new Kurdish leadership referendum. His presidency legally expired in August 2015, but he has been able to put off another election through public focus on the fight against ISIS and his position as an internationally recognized voice for Kurdish independence. Once the battle for Mosul is concluded, his options to hold on to power will be limited, likely pushing him toward renegotiating terms with Baghdad or calling for an independence referendum. Such a referendum would have enormous regional consequences, and would threaten the tenuous stability of Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. There is no outcome to the predicament of potential Kurdish independence that is beneficial to Baghdad or the stability of Iraq as a whole, but with the support of the coalition and the threat of Iraqi or Turkish intervention in Kurdistan, there remains potential for Abadi to renegotiate the federalist system in a way that maintains essential funding for the central government and recognizes Erbil’s rising power status.

Exacerbating each of these challenges to the future stability of Iraq will be an Islamic State that has devolved into an insurgency. ISIS recently reactivated a cell in Fallujah to target Shia pilgrims, carried out suicide attacks in the Shia holy city of Karbala during Arba’een, and set off a series of bombs in Baghdad—far from the front line. In addition to carrying out a counterinsurgency, the Iraqi government is saddled with the financial burden of rebuilding the country in the wake of the conflict. Reports show that only 30,000 of Ramadi’s half-million residents have returned to the city after ISIS planted explosive booby traps in their retreat, and Fallujah is only marginally better off in this regard. Whether these areas become a symbol of Iraqi resilience or a rallying cry for the next wave of sectarian violence is contingent on Baghdad and its allies’ willingness to commit their limited resources toward long-term stabilization and rebuilding plans for the post-ISIS Sunni community.

ISIS will undoubtedly be defeated in Iraq’s major cities. However, in its wake there must be a strategy to preempt the political and economic factors that allowed it to gain traction in the first place. It is the responsibility of the central government in Baghdad and its allies to avoid past mistakes and future catalysts for tension over the course of the fight against ISIS and the rebuilding of the country. By doing so, they have the potential to establish Mosul as the inflection point from which Iraq was restored as a functional and stable state.

Tyler Nocita is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Image: Iraqi soldier carries his weapon during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, December 1, 2016. (Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani)