Forging certainty in the dust of Middle Eastern plays of power is an impossibility its participants never wish to accept. The imminent defeat of Islamic State forces in Mosul – deemed imminent, at least, by the forces assaulting the stronghold – provide a suggestion that there will be greater stability in the region. Nasty fundamentalist forces will be banished, paving the way for a peaceful order.
This naïve, even outrageous suggestion, is fairly standard. A new force of contention, backed by a slew of shady forces and finances, will come to the fore, only to then vanish and reconstitute itself as a different actor. The bones of one grave will simply be moved to another.
A glance at the geographical slicing of the Middle East – the Sykes-Picot colonial order repudiated by Islamic State – does much to assist in this distortion. Removing or expelling an invader from one province simply rustles an already disturbed terrain. Tribal loyalties and religious groups attempt to consolidate with each insurrection, often violently.
The forces involved in the retaking of Mosul suggest the complexity of what awaits after the operation. On October 17, some 18,000 Iraqi Security Forces, accompanied by 10,000 armed Kurds, thousands of police forces, and an assortment of Shia and Sunni fighters, commenced military operations.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt this moment of battle to be historic (is there ever anything else?), a true reckoning. “I am announcing today the beginning of these heroic operations to liberate you from the brutality and terrorism of ISIS.”
Operations against ISIS in June 2014 were not quite so heroic, and demonstrated the amphibian qualities of the defenders. The winds were blowing somewhat differently as Iraqi forces, funded by Washington’s deep pockets, capitulated in spectacular fashion to the marauders.
Even the current operation is beset by more than a whiff of sectarian and ethnic tension. This is additional to the complexities on the ground, packed with the traditional guerrilla nasties of improvised explosive devices and booby traps, not to mention the frequent use of civilians as human shields.
Institutional stability has been much of a dream in Iraq in the bloody aftermath of 2003. A good deal of this strife was occasioned by atrocious planning on the part of the US-led coalition, the arrogance of imperial incompetence, and the inability by the viceroys to see the obvious.
The same speculation is now taking place regarding Mosul. There are comments from such figures as Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy claiming that Mosul will withstand a sectarian split once ISIS is expelled; that there will be some form of civil society in place to buttress any internal ruptures. “The liberation of Mosul,” he suggests with crystal ball confidence, “will go better than you think.”
Given the record of ISIS in the context of reducing their occupied cities to rubble on retreat, this is fanciful talk at best. The cities of Falluja, Tikrit and Ramadi were all left in various degrees of crippled devastation. As such forces near defeat, the infrastructure is despoiled, atrocities multiply and the age of the recruits drops.
Much of the aftermath becomes a conjecture on a board of races and balancing. The constitution of the city, having changed in the last two years, presents its own challenges for those various ethnic groups (the Turkmen, the Yazidis, amongst them) who will be attempting to return.
The convoluted and complex strategic picture also means that each of the combatant groups, be they the Shia and Sunni Arabs, or the Kurds, will want a dominant, controlling part of the northern Iraq pie. For the Kurdish peshmerga forces, this chance is nothing short of one to create an autonomous area of self-governance, a point that will rile Ankara and planners in Baghdad.
The problem is further complicated by an Iraqi government that is Shia dominated. They can count on Iranian support in their attempts to bring Mosul back under government control, including militia elements that have proven their mettle in battles against Islamic State forces.
But such forces as the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia have shown themselves ruthless in dispending with foes in their battles against Islamic State. One of its spokesmen, Karim Nuri, was even confident that no foreign assistance was needed in the operation. “We do not need Saudi soldiers, or Turkish soldiers, not even Iranian soldiers or American soldiers. We are able to defeat Daesh on our own, alone.” Grim local housekeeping is in order.
The Sunni forces see a chance to re-establish influence in Mosul, in alliance with the Kurdish troops on an operational level, though the Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, has made it clear that his forces will not set foot in the retaken city.
The scene, in short, is set for a violent re-capture, followed by a sorting out of scores, mostly at the end of the gun. The pattern was set in the retaking of Fallujah last spring. Iranian-backed Shiite forces joined the Iraqi government forces, enthused by the prospect of victory. Even before the dust had settled, summary executions by the hundreds had taken place. In such a retributive climate, the lust for hot blooded vengeance will continue being strong.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org