The invasion of Mosul, Iraq began this week, with many disparate interests joining forces against ISIS. But while there will likely be many proud declarations of victory in the coming weeks, the end of the invasion will not be the end of the problems in Iraq.
The tensions run deep on the outskirts of Mosul, ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. The Turks clash with the Iraqi government; the Shia militias are feared and hated by Sunnis in Mosul–and the feeling is reciprocal; and the Kurdish troops have tenuous relationships with everyone else. US Special Forces and airstrikes are being relied upon to transform these uneasy bedfellows into a cohesive fighting force capable of unseating ISIS from what was once Iraq’s second city.
The battle is expected to take place over weeks, and the distrust among the participants is likely to shape the ultimate outcome. That makes the following article by Patrick Cockburn at The Independent indispensable. In it, Cockburn goes into detail about the different factions and interests involved in the fight for Mosul. With the weight of US airpower, he expects ISIS will be defeated in the city. But chances are good that a liberated Mosul will still be deeply unstable for a long time thereafter. Here’s a link to the article:
Why This Matters
Mosul was the first major city that ISIS took over when it sprang into the US consciousness in the summer of 2014. As a result, the city holds great symbolic value, though the strategic importance of a victory there is less obvious.
No doubt, the timing of the invasion so near to the US election is not a coincidence. The Democratic Party would like nothing more than to have President Obama declare victory over ISIS in Iraq after defeating them at Mosul, just before American voters go to the polls on November 8th. In the very short-run, such an outcome could appear to be a vindication of President Obama’s foreign policy strategy–and by association, that of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The politics here are easy to understand, but it is a decision fraught with risk. Already we are hearing reports that the official non-combat US troops in Iraq will be near the front lines of the conflict. If the battle for Mosul drags on past election day due to grinding urban warfare, or if too many US flag-draped coffins are created as a result of it, the timing of Mosul invasion could easily backfire politically. President Obama faces a kind of Catch-22 on Mosul. For the invasion to be successful and efficient, heavy US involvement is likely to be a key ingredient. But with greater US involvement, comes a higher risk of US casualties and a more obvious abrogation of President Obama’s often repeated (and violated) pledge of “no boots on the ground”.
Stepping back from these narrow electoral concerns, the picture in Mosul looks more complicated and more bleak. There is little doubt that the forces arrayed against ISIS will eventually be able to kick them out of Mosul. The question then becomes, what next? As we ought to know by now, waging war is the easy part. Making peace is much more difficult.
ISIS will be defeated in some sense, but probably not in any way that matters. It will cease being a state and go back to its previous status as a violent insurgency, carrying out deadly attacks in Iraq and elsewhere. It could be argued that this is still an improvement, but violence in Iraq is almost certain to remain tragically high.
The fate of the Sunni civilian population of Mosul is another cause for concern. Because ISIS claims a radical form of Sunni Islam, Sunnis civilians are frequently singled out for collective reprisals by the Shia militia groups and/or otherwise displaced by the Kurds. This has happened in several places where Sunni-dominated Iraqi cities were “liberated” from ISIS by other forces. If it happens again in a city as large and significant as Mosul, the dysfunction in Iraq could enter another bloody chapter.
All of this is worth bearing in mind as we await the inevitable declarations of victory in the battle for Mosul.