Analysis, Middle East

ANALYSIS – Mosul operation, what consequences for Iraq?

Without political deal agreed by all factions, any post-Daesh setting in Iraq will be vulnerable to failure

ANALYSIS – Mosul operation, what consequences for Iraq?


It is approaching two months since Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that the campaign to liberate had begun, and as expected, the road to victory is proving to be a long one. 

The campaign to liberate Mosul has seen an unprecedented coalition of military and paramilitary forces come together to fight ISIS [Daesh], but so far this level of cooperation has not been reflected politically.

Without a comprehensive political settlement agreed upon by all invested political factions, any post-Daesh setting in Iraq would be left extremely vulnerable to failure, which could bring catastrophic consequences with it.

The Iraqi government faces several challenges in setting aside vying political ambitions among competing interest groups involved in the fight against Daesh.

The early signs are that little progress has been made on this front, with high-profile Kurdish, Shia and Sunni leaders making contradictory statements on what governance structures and arrangements should be put in place.

If a sustainable victory against Daesh is to be achieved, a political agreement over a roadmap for state re-building and reconciliation must be reached in the near future. Any long-lasting future solution must address fundamental issues to encourage greater social and economic inclusion among Iraq’s local populations.

Military campaign

The military campaign has galvanized Iraqis from all sects and ethnicities as anticipation grows over a military victory over Daesh.

Alongside the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the police, they are joined by a coalition of the Popular Mobilizations Units (PMUs) -- also known as ‘Hashdi Shabi’ -- plus Peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters in the campaign to retake Mosul.

However, it has been made clear by Abadi that only the ISF will lead operations inside the city.

Although this campaign represents the biggest deployment of Iraqi forces since 2003, with the current slowing rate of progress we appear set for a grueling and protracted period of months, rather than weeks, of fighting.

The ISF have so far mainly focused on and made the most progress in recapturing territory in the eastern parts of Mosul. Attempts to recapture southern areas of Mosul have mostly faltered, with some success being achieved in northern areas in recent days. One reason for the frustrated progress inside the city is the strategy used by Daesh to use Mosul’s local population as a primary line of defense, and the ISF are struggling to make progress without incurring major civilian deaths.

As a result of this, commanders from the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) recently proposed that the military allows civilians to flee Mosul, so as to allow the ISF to engage more freely with Daesh militants.

However, this request was rejected by Abadi, citing the dangers posed to residents attempting to flee from Daesh, as well as the lack of capacity for aid agencies and local authorities to handle a mass exodus from Mosul.

It may also be the case that Abadi is reluctant to conduct a destructive campaign similar to that of Ramadi, whose residents had largely fled the city and eventually left much of it destroyed due to the severity of the urban warfare.

An eventual military victory against Daesh will likely force the group to shift its strategy from being a governing entity to reverting to its tried-and-tested underground insurgency tactics.

They will seek to regroup and try to find ways to exploit political and sectarian fault lines that could emerge as a result of a failure to provide a genuine alternative for all Iraqis.

Daesh was able to initially emerge in 2014 due to a power vacuum that had developed in areas of northern Iraq, and any future reincarnation of the group would seek to do the same again.

This further underlines the importance of any military campaign being accompanied with a comprehensive political agreement amongst all segments of the political and social spectrum in Iraq to avoid such governance and power vacuums forming again.

Political agreement still far off

As such, the biggest obstacle facing Iraqis in the fight against Daesh is the distinct lack of any political solution in a post-Daesh setting among the parties involved in the campaign.

So far, there has been an over-emphasis on how to achieve a military victory against Daesh, and not enough focus on what a political settlement will look like in the aftermath, with each party having its own designs over how events should progress and what the governance structures should look like.

This represents the biggest risk to all parties involved, not least the local residents of Mosul and the wider province of Nineveh.

There are several factors at play when considering where the key decision-making lies in ensuring a long-lasting political settlement in the aftermath of a military defeat of Daesh. How the current intra-Shia political malaise pans out will be crucial in deciding whether an acceptable and effective governance alternative is put in place in Sunni areas that have been liberated from Daesh.

Another factor is how the constitutional arrangements will change with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). KRG President Masoud Barzani has outlined his intention that there will be no withdrawal from land liberated from Daesh by Peshmerga forces, which includes parts of Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Nineveh, among others.

He has also reiterated his intention to hold an independence referendum in the near future.

Other Sunni politicians, such as Osama al-Nujaifi, have also outlined their proposals for greater devolved powers for provinces, such as Nineveh. These proposals would inevitably clash with those in Baghdad, as well as the positions of the main Shia political parties.

Hashdi Shabi (PMU) problem

Additionally, the recent passing of a bill in the Iraqi parliament recognizing the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) as an official government entity alongside the ISF will worry many across the political and social spectrum in Iraq.

On Nov. 26, 208 out of 327 members of parliament voted through the law, but the parliamentary session was boycotted by several Sunni Arab politicians, with many arguing that the law will encourage further division and sectarianism.

One Sunni lawmaker, Raad al-Dahlaki, warned that the PMU’s could become a force that overshadows the army, similar to the Revolutionary Guard in Iran.

The potential risk posed by the PMUs could well exacerbate existing sectarian tensions in the country. The largely Shia-dominated militia forces will be a parallel force to the ISF that is seen as ideologically-driven and heavily backed by Iran.

Although the law states the PMUs will be answerable to Prime Minister Abadi, there is little expectation about the enforceability of his command upon them.

There are doubts among many lawmakers that the passing of this law will make the PMUs more difficult to rein in, with command and control of the units de facto laying outside Abadi’s control.

Arguably, the politics surrounding the PMUs can be seen as a wider reflection of the intra-Shia struggle for political control in Baghdad.

From the struggle between Abadi and the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to the ambitions of PMU leaders such as Hadi al-Ameri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the political implications of the growing influence of the PMUs will be a crucial political factor in the upcoming provincial elections in Iraq in 2017 (which will most likely be delayed significantly) and parliamentary elections in 2018.

This all fundamentally undermines the long-term fight against Daesh. Iraqi lawmakers are still far from achieving political consensus on post-Daesh governance structures in Iraq. And the political implications of growing influence of the PMUs make the chances for a sustainable post-Daesh political agreement all the more difficult.

Whilst progress has been achieved on the military front and eventual victory is expected, the real test lies in what can be politically achieved in the aftermath.

Remnants of Daesh will likely remain as an insurgency movement in the future, and it will look to capitalize upon the political division to sow further insecurity and instability.

Reaching a political settlement on what comes next for Mosul and other liberated areas will be key in ensuring the security and stability to eradicate Daesh in the long-term.

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