Why the real battle for Mosul is political
Putting in place a strategy that wins back the tribal elements is the only way for lasting victory in Mosul
As coalition airstrikes and Iraqi troops with allied groups encircle Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul to take it back from ISIS, it is paramount to have a political roadmap in the aftermath of any military victory.
Mosul’s third offensive following the war in Iraq (2003) and then its capture by ISIS in 2014, can only be its last if coupled by a political strategy that protects its locals, and reinfuses it into the state of Iraq. Failure to do so will be detrimental on both, the fate of Mosul and that of the Iraqi state.
To be able to reverse the ISIS path, there must be an understanding of what went wrong in 2014. ISIS takeover of Mesopotamia’s ancient city was the result of a political failure before a military one. Back then, the Nouri Maliki government in Baghdad abandoned the Sahwa strategy, and the reconciliation efforts with the Sunni tribes in Mosul, opening the door for ISIS to exploit the disenfranchisement of the locals and ransack the city.
Putting in place a strategy that wins back the tribal elements, assures and protects the locals, is the only way for lasting victory in Mosul. Finding a new political tapestry to address the local grievances, while making sure that the clashing interests of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shiite militias don’t dictate the outcome of the post-ISIS Mosul, will determine the long-term success of the battle.
The real hard battle for Mosul will be in charting its political course after the military operations. Failure in reaching a safe political landing will mar the city in a spiral of conflict over its fate and Iraq’s futureJoyce Karam
The battle promises a bloody confrontation between 6000 ISIS fighters in a city of landmines, burning oil fields and extensive tunnels, encircled today by the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, a tribal force and Shiite militias.
The Turkish army deployment behind Bashiqa mountains – despite objections from Baghdad – only expands the military field around Mosul, and exposes the charged political climate that will unlikely go away if ISIS is defeated.
What is clear behind the timing for this battle is the lack of the element of surprise and the high level of preparedness on all sides including ISIS. The talk about liberating Mosul started last Spring with US President Barack Obama telling CBS “my expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall.”
The Kurdish forces, Peshmerga’s, latest advances East of Mosul have only increased the speculation about a looming battle to recapture the city with those forces leading the frontline. The US has also increased its troop presence the number of American troops authorized to be in Iraq is now 5,262, according to a senior US defense official.
What’s at stake
For Washington, liberating Mosul will help Obama salvage his legacy in Iraq and against ISIS, while also offering a national security boost for the Democrats ahead of the November 8th elections. The complex nature of the battle, and the need for many political and military pieces to come together could mean, however, fight that would go beyond a month for the ancient Mesopotamian city.
The loss of Mosul will undoubtedly deal the biggest blow for ISIS since 2014. For two years, ISIS ransacked, obliterated its heritage and exploited Mosul’s population estimated at 1.5 million by the United Nations. The city as a landmark for the militants served as a recruiting ground for ISIS, and a territorial entity to govern and exhibit brutality and prowess.
Mosul also helped ISIS generate money from oil, taxes and ransom, and to distinguish itself from al-Qaeda who never controlled territory or announced a Caliphate.
But beyond symbolism, losing Mosul, after Tikrit, Fallujah and Ramadi would force ISIS more out of Iraq and in the direction of Syria and other conflict areas in Libya and Yemen. Syria offers ISIS a safer haven than Iraq today, given that there is no serious effort to fight the group in Raqqa or Deir Zour, and because of the inability of US coalition to operate as freely as it does in Iraq.
For Iraq, the battle of Mosul is a testing ground for Iraqi factions to find a working formula and consensus for governance after ISIS. Reaching a power-sharing agreement between the different forces fighting for Mosul today, and protecting the local Sunni population will be critical for both the outcome of the battle and Iraq's future.
The real hard battle for Mosul will be in charting its political course after the military operations. Failure in reaching a safe political landing will mar the city in a spiral of conflict over its fate and Iraq’s future.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam