Mosul, key to the future of a unified Iraq

Take back the city . . . and then what?

Iraqi Premier Haïdar Al-Abadi and US President Barack Obama have promised impending defeat of the Islamic State organization (IS) in Mosul. However the battle for the nerve center of the “caliphate” is turning out to be more complex than expected. Besides which there is no telling whether this will put an end to the violence that has been eating away at Iraq for over thirteen years and open a new chapter in the history of the country.

“We are by your side as you are by ours. With God’s help, victory is near. Today we are advancing; tomorrow we shall triumph and work together to restore life, services and stability in every town and every village.” With this announcement on the airways of Iraqi radio, premier Haïdar Al-Abadi promised Mosul, fallen to IS two years ago, the imminent defeat of IS. The same tune was heard in Washington, where Barack Obama declared the city would free of the jihadi yoke by the end of his term of office.

For several months now the whole world has had its eye on Mosul, where operation “Conquest” (“Fatah”) officially began at the end of March in the Makhmour area, with an eye to liberating the province of Nineveh with a ragbag coalition of ground troops and intensified Western airstrikes. In August 2016, Joe Votel, who commands Centcom (US Central Command) said that Mosul would be taken “before the end of the year.” Since then there have been countless declarations about the assault on Iraq’s second largest city and speculations as to that perilous operation’s chances of success. Yet while the forthcoming “liberation” is widely predicted, few observers appear to be concerned by “the day after” when a whole series of fundamental questions will have to be addressed. For beneath the surface of the united struggle against IS there are still many issues between Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite militia and Sunni combatants. Some go so far as to say that Mosul will be another Aleppo, or even an inferno on the scale of Stalingrad.

Paradoxically enough, there are three essential aspects which are seldom mentioned in the abundant media coverage of this battle: what will be the future of Mosul, knowing that cities like Ramadi and Fallujah were laid to waste by previous military operations? What will become of Sunni Arabs, in particular in Nineveh? And to what extent will the fate of Mosul determine the survival (or collapse) of the Iraqi State, structurally bankrupt for many years now? Without a tangible administration, national and local, and without a political representation of the Sunni population appropriate to what is at stake, the return to stability is far from certain. It would probably be a good idea to consult the Iraqi people again, and especially the inhabitants of Mosul. Up to a million civilians are likely to be displaced during the coming siege, which poses the risk of more “civil wars after the civil war.”

The unique legacy of a rich history

Located in Northern Iraq, on the banks of the Tigris, Mosul is rich in its history and its exceptional diversity. In the 7th century, it was the Arabs who gave the city its present name after conquering the plains of Upper Mesopotamia. In ancient times, the region had been a shrine of civilization, endowed with a tremendous archeological heritage, monuments, mosques and tombs as well as sumptuous libraries. In the 20th century, Mosul became a symbol of the Iraqi mix of identities and cultures, with Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens living side by side with Jews, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis. The Shiites have always been only a small minority, which has no doubt exacerbated the conviction among many inhabitants of Mosul that there was a “plot” in Baghdad to eliminate them. The predominantly Sunni piety which characterizes the city facilitated the penetration of IS in 2014 and helps explain why the city’s youth found its radical ideology so attractive. This pattern was already present in the years of the Baathist dictatorship, when many young people in the rural areas around Mosul subscribed to pan-arabism out of hostility to the urban elites and as a revolutionary path for upward mobility.

Down through the centuries, because of its proximity to both the Turkish and Syrian borders, Mosul was a strategic metropolis, and in the Middle Age an important commercial hub, famous for its caravans, its fabrics, its marble and other merchandise. In the 10th century the city had been an independent emirate, but all that wealth could not fail to arouse greedy appetites. The city was ransacked by the Mongols, ruled by the Persians, and finally conquered by the Ottomans. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was ethnically Arab and Kurdish and still had an identity of its own, as illustrated by the continued existence of a local dialect (an object of mockery in the rest of Iraq) and by the writings and memoirs of the intellectuals of the period. The city’s administration, largely Sunni, bore the imprint of “pan-ottomanism” which evolved into Arab nationalism, forcefully expressed in the 1959 uprising led by Colonel Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Shawwaf ruthlessly put down in Mosul by a young Iraqi Republic which at the time had communistic leanings.

The local population has kept alive the memory of those events—“never again” has become an obsession—and has distanced itself from the State to avoid confronting it anew. This weight of the past may help to explain why Mosul did not rebel against IS, not even against the foreign jihadis who were quite unpopular with the population. It sheds light on the reluctance of many to leave their city in 2014, especially since they were rid of a predominantly Iraqi army acting as a force of occupation on behalf of Baghdad. And yet the townspeople also denounce jihadi brutality, often compared with that of the old regime. Their cynicism suggests they will defend neither IS nor its likely successors, in particular the Kurds and the Shiites, from whom they fear actions of reprisal.

The spectre of tomorrow

However optimistic the short-term predictions, the battle for Mosul will be painful: indeed, no one knows how much resistance IS will put up to defend its stronghold so that the idea of a calendar is very unconvincing. According to Iraqi and American sources, part of the IS leadership has already left the city and entrusted its defense to its most formidable units—5000 fighters according to the Pentagon—Iraqis, Turkmens and Chechens. These have adopted new combat techniques, such as setting fire to oil wells: the ensuing smokescreen interferes to some extent with western bombings and slows the advance of the Iraqi army. Underground tunnels have been dug, in addition to the habitual use of suicide bombers and booby traps. In the past, IS has put up ferocious resistance in its successive military campaigns and when it retreats, it leaves behind groups capable of covert insurrectionary actions similar to its strategy during its “first life” in Iraq.

For its part, Baghdad keeps proclaiming its determination to overcome the terrorist movement and recently urged Mosul civilians to cooperate with government forces, promising to “rescue them from injustice and tyranny.” This new language has an ironic ring for those who remember the disastrous record of the previous prime minister, Nuri Al-Maliki, whose actions between 2011 and 2013 were largely responsible for driving part of the population into the arms of IS and its revolutionary governance (fighting corruption, rebuilding institutions, attending to the basic needs of the population). The unheard of violence that has set in over the past few months may well have dashed Utopian hopes for real change. Unemployment has not disappeared in Mosul, nor have the various traffics, and the “social contract” between rebels and civilians has greatly shrunk. In response to the population’s grumbling, the militants left in Mosul are said to have been ordered to kill as many people and destroy as many buildings as possible.

In fact, the total absence of communication between Mosul and the outside world, together with IS propaganda, has concealed the decline of the quality of life in the city and the frailty inherent in Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s undertaking, considered by Sunni Muslims as a subversion of their tradition. Horrendous eyewitness accounts collected in the vicinity of Mosul (Al-Shirqat, Al-Qyyara) reveal the grim reality, a tragedy attested by the hundreds of thousands who have already fled the city or are tempted to take this desperate step. Worse still, neither Baghdad nor the Kurdistan capital Erbil are able to cope with the flood of refugees created by this umpteenth crisis. And moreover, in the event of a solid victory of the coalition over IS, the return of the army to Mosul will settle nothing if there is no perceptible improvement in daily living conditions: the demands of a civilian population which has suffered so much are basically the same as in 2014. And it must be recognized that the ruling elites remain incapable of satisfying them, that very few refugees or displaced persons have tasted the fruits of a long-promised “reconstruction” and that as things stand now, the authorities have no way of repopulating the areas disfigured by war.

A political desert

Beyond the immediacy of current events, the political confusion in Mosul is a direct reflection of the dramatic situation of Sunni Arabs in Iraq, deprived of any serious representation since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Only by restoring that lost representation will it be possible to bring these people back into the national community and stabilize the zones liberated from IS. The jihadis have prospered on a threefold vacuum, ideological, political and institutional, and on the disrepute of the post-Baathist elites. Two questions arise: which Sunni Arab forces are involved in the current struggle and what are their capacities? Can they counterbalance their rivals? Already, all sides agree that IS will have left behind a crippling legacy: its ideal of transnational Sunni unity has literally torn apart the Iraqi social fabric, aggravating the already existing rifts.

An awareness of this fragmentation has prompted key Sunni figures to meet regularly since last summer with an eye to clarifying their divergences. In this respect, two personalities have come to the fore, each representing a specific vision of the future of Mosul and of Iraq as a whole. Nawal Al-Sultan belongs to a Sunni Arab tribe in Mosul, and has taken the lead of the Sunni forces supporting the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias of the Nineveh Popular Mobilization Forces; in other words, he is following the Baghdad line. Governor of the province since the autumn of 2015, Al-Sultan is a former Baathist whose brother joined IS. His chief rival is a business man, Athil Al-Nujaïfi, a former governor who fled the region in 2014 and was removed from office the following year. He is allied with Kurdistan and with Turkey against Baghdad and Iran, demanding direct military support from the USA. Al-Nujaïfi is head of National Mobilization (Al-Hashd-Al-Watani), composed of several thousand men, some of them high-ranking officers from Mosul who oppose any interference from the Shiite militia and advocate Sunni regional autonomy as an alternative to IS.

The exact contours of this autonomy remain to be defined, but the proposition is viewed with great distaste by Shiite forces in central Iraq who see it as an attempt to partition the country. They also question its viability considering the limited natural resources in the Sunni provinces. The Sunni counter-argument rests on the 2005 Constitution which gives them the right to create such an autonomous region through a referendum. They are also counting on a “legal cover” of this sort to erase the shame attached to their having abandoned Mosul to IS in 2014 and to restore a political legitimacy seriously dented by past jihadi successes.

What future for Sunnis?

It is striking to note that all the debates around Iraq still refuse to deal with the plethora of historical considerations, whose importance for critical inquiry can never be underestimated. Thus, just as a century ago, at the end of WW1, when Mosul became a bone of contention between France and England, the future city now seems to prefigure either the renascence or final collapse of the modern Iraqi State.

Al-Baghdadi had good reasons for making Mosul his capital: in the jihadi imaginary, the city was an emblem of the “crusading” colonial order, along with the Sykes-Picot agreement and the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. Mosul, moreover, had never been located in Mesopotamia, which corresponds to present-day Iraq, and Nineveh was the last region to be attached to the new nation in 1921.

IS, in its wake, has reactivated the old “Mosul question” and all the appetites that traditionally fostered it, especially at the regional level. Turkey, for example, has deployed troops along the Northern border of Iraq in support of the Sunni National Mobilization and is taking advantage of this existential questioning of the Iraqi entity to assert its “rights” over Ninevah. For memory: in 1925, Ankara opposed the British annexation of its vilayet (after Paris had withdrawn its own claim), denouncing a violation of the armistice of Mudros, signed on October 30, 1918, which had placed Mosul and a part of the province of Ninevah as well as Iraqi Kurdistan under Turkish mandate.

Dominated as it has been since 2003 by the Shiite parties, will Baghdad be able to mend its ties with Mosul, cut off from the rest of the country for two years now and traditionally hostile to interference from the capital? Will the confessional violence advocated by IS outlast the organization, continuing to obstruct any prospect of national reconciliation of all the peoples of Iraq? Is there not a danger that the fragmentation of the Sunni population will lead to political chaos, which in the long run would make Mosul and other cities ungovernable de facto? In such circumstances, the jihadi ambition would be far from dead and buried, would retain an infinite capacity for reincarnation.