Mosul sits in the Northern most region of Iraq, on the grand Tigris river, the same water which flows through Baghdad 200 miles south. Historically, Mosul is little more than a trading juncture featured as Ninevah in Biblical times. Now, this seemingly unimportant city is the place where the establishment of the Islamic State Group (hereafter referred to Da’esh) was announced. The declaration of a new caliphate in 2014 by al-Baghdadi, their self-proclaimed caliph, marked a turning point in Da’esh’s hyper-expanse.
Since this declaration, Da’esh have suffered a spate of set-backs, including the recent loss of the prophetically significant Dabiq in Northern Syria, and Fallujah. Hence, the fall of Mosul could be a turning point against Da’esh. The Battle for Mosul is but one in a succession of coalition campaigns to eradicate the Islamist group. Their elimination is now the best-possible outcome for both Iraqi and Syrian governments, and Western powers with a stake in a peaceful resolution.
Mosul is Iraq’s third most populous city. The UN estimates that up to a million Iraqis could be displaced by the offensive, including many of Mosul’s approximated 700,000 inhabitants. Hence, Iraqi forces cannot pursue the ‘Fallujah policy’ of liberation by decimation. Humanitarian concerns are featured prominently in the discussion surrounding the assault; Reuters News Agency confirmed Da’esh militants used civilians as human shields in Mosul. The group is also reported to be preventing civilians from leaving the city, blocking the coalition forces humanitarian ‘land corridor’ to the East.
Daily reports show heavy fighting, and a slowing advance as coalition forces draw nearer to the city. Undoubtably, Da’esh are militarily inferior. However, they have the defensive advantage, the hostage asset of Mosul’s population, and freedom from conventional battlefield norms; the use of car bombs and IEDs has been reported at Mosul.
The assault is likely to lead to a protracted conflict, as Da’esh do not want to loose their one significant foothold in Iraq. Da’esh’s desperation is already apparent – they attacked Kurdish controlled Kirkuk last Saturday, well outside their region of control, in an attempt to divert attention from Mosul and fracture coalition confidence. In a sense though, the actual physical drama of the battle for Mosul is less important in the theatre in which it plays out.
Mosul represents the furthest practical reaches of Da’esh influence and control. Where Sunni Islām is the predominant religion in Ninevah Province, the surrounding provinces are host to a diverse ethno-religious pool, as was Mosul before the beginning of the occupation in June 2014.
The Kurds are central to the success of this campaign. The Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, are among the 30,000 strong coalition forces in the assault to retake Mosul. Baghdad has had little to say on the matter – Iraqi government forces do not have the capacity to undertake the offensive while maintaining their defences elsewhere, but the uneasy coalition of necessity between the Kurds and the Iraqi government adds weight to the Kurd’s plea for succession. Hence, further concessions may come as a result of Kurdish involvement.
It has long been the position of Erbil (the de facto capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), that Mosul falls under their claim. Iraqi policy experts, such as Abbas Kadhim, have warned that further Kurdish acquisitions in Iraq may lead to war since lands that are currently administered by the Kurds, like Kirkuk, may come into dispute. This is not to say that the Kurds are wholly self-absorbed on the matter of Mosul; the Kurdish spirit is long acclaimed for its sense of justice, born from their long struggle for autonomy. The oppressive character of Da’esh is as equally abhorrent to the liberally minded Kurds as it is to us.
The battle lines at Mosul are clearly drawn, but the underlying context is far from simple. Some see what is happening in Iraq and Syria is a sectarian war, between the Sunni Da’esh group, and what they deem to be apostate (‘un-Islamic’) Shī’īte regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. True, this element has been catalytic in Da’esh appeal and rational, but ideology has been more salient than sectarianism; the Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims — fighting Sunni Da’esh.
However, it is easy to see why the conflict is often characterised as being sectarian in analytic discourse, especially when the Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia comes across as a Da’esh apologist. For instants, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir denies allegations made in a UK Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in July, that Saudi nationals were funding the group. Although, this wouldn’t be the first time that Saudi nationals funded extremist Sunni groups — al-Qaeda was principally formed and funded by wealthy Saudis, c.f. Osama bin Laden.
Saudi Arabia is not essential in the territorial defeat of the so called ‘Islamic State’, but it plays a deep ideological role, namely in the exportation of Wahhabism — a radical (rooted) reading of Islamic law — which Da’esh subscribes to. To this end, Saudi Arabia’s non-involvement in the battle of Mosul is less important than president that it sets in Wahhabism. The physical defeat alone of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will not bring to an end the menace of Da’esh.
Considering the sectarian divides that have been inflamed by the rise of Da’esh, the Kurd’s struggle for independence in Iraq, and the Iranian influence in Baghdad, the division of Iraq is likely. The Iraqi state has been an incoherent unit since the fall of Saddam Hussein, not that Saddam’s Iraq was ever particularly collaborative.
succession of Kurdish territories will be the only sure-fire means to maintain lasting peace in ‘Iraq’
While unity and solidarity are dish of the day today in Iraq, political and sectarian in-fighting are likely to resurge if and when Da’esh is eradicated. The speed of Da’esh’s initial advances in Iraq were stimulated by divisions in an already fractured nation. Sunni disillusionment with the Shī’īa government in Baghdad catalysed conflict, second only to the Kurdo-Iraqi relationship. This and a close friendship with Tehran will make Baghdad’s authority in all but the south little more than de jure rhetoric. National reconciliation is not what will be needed post-Da’esh, not even federalisation — succession of Kurdish territories will be the only sure-fire means to maintain lasting peace in ‘Iraq’; an independent Kurdish free-state to the North, and a semi-autonomous Sunni state to the West.
Mosul may represent a concerted international and intra-Iraqi effort in the fight against the abject intolerance of ‘Islamic State’, but every step closer to Mosul is another towards the big questions and big answers to Iraq’s incompetence as a state.
The war against Da’esh is going to be long and complicated. It will dominate our news screens for years to come. Its implications are long lasting, its motivations are historical. The battle for Mosul, if successful, will mark the beginning of the end for the ‘Islamic state’. Desperation is evident, and internal divisions may start to appear as the situation worsens. The battle also will reflect on the global status of the group. Roy Stewart, the UK’s Minister for International Development, warned that ‘jihadists’ forced out of Mosul will ‘likely return home and undertake terrorist acts’. A warning echoed globally. This is why the policy of coalition forces is to first eradicate the physical manifestations of Da’esh, then tackle the lingering ideologies. Mosul will slacken the snake’s grip, but severing its head will come with time and patience.