Monday, October 24, 2016

After Mosul and the Caliphate's Collapse: The Coming Storm in Northern Iraq and Syria

Iraqi Army convoy prepares to move into battle against the Dacish in Mosul
 The long awaited offensive to liberate Mosul from the so-called lslamic State – Dacish – has now completed its first week.  As Dr. Faris Kamal Nadhmi noted in a perceptive post (, victory in Mosul cannot be understood in military terms alone.  What then constitutes a successful outcome to the current campaign against the Dacish in Mosul?  Unfortunately, unless there is comprehensive and integrated political and humanitarian assistance campaign designed to consolidate the military gains in Mosul, northern Iraq, military success will represent a Pyrrhic victory.

There are three critical issues which need to be considered in conjunction with the current military offensive. The first is trust and loyalty, the second is humanitarian assistance, and the third is the regional balance of forces.  If each of these issues is not dealt with systematically and in a well-thought out manner, the Dacish’s defeat in Mosul could lead to even greater, enduring problems in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
Pesh Merga convoy on way to Mosul

Trust and loyalty
When the Dacish defeated Iraqi army units numbering 60,000 in June 2014 with only a small force, it was clear that much preparation for the attack had already occurred.  Dacish agents had already infiltrated the city and bribed city officials in Mosul to pave the way for the attack.

With 800-1000 lightly armed terrorists defeating two divisions of Iraqi troops with state-of-the-art US military weaponry, the Dacish victory in June 2014 was political, not military.  It was the direct outcome of the highly sectarian policies of then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.  Officer posts in Mosul and northern Iraq were sold to Maliki loyalists, often to those who had little or no military experience.  Many of the newly appointed officers refused to pay members of the Iraqi army their salaries, keeping part or all for themselves.  

This theft of salaries had the effect of leading Iraqi soldiers to erect checkpoints on Mosul streets where residents were required to pay brides to pass by.  Understandably, such actions created enormous resentment, especially since the troops were not native Moslawis but drawn from other areas of Iraq.

Member Iraq's elite counter-terrorism unit
Many Moslawis fear the return of the Iraqi army, which is made all the more combustible by the inclusion of Popular Mobilization Units comprised of predominantly Shici troops.  After the Dacish is expelled from Mosul, the Iraqi government’s first task must be to secure its residents’ loyalties.  First and foremost, Iraqi militias - known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs or al-hashid al-shacbi) - which are officially not part of the Iraqi army - need to be excluded from post-Dacish Mosul.  There is no military reason why they should be allowed in the city.

Made up almost exclusively of Shica, Moslawis fear these militias, some of which have already been accused of serious human rights violations in al-Anbar Province and other areas of north central Iraq  (  With the Dacish playing the sectarian card, Mosul residents are terrified of being killed by the terrorists for perceived disloyalty, or attacked and possibly killed by PMU forces after the Dacish defeat because they will be considered, ipso facto, Dacish supporters. 

To promote feelings of trust among a populace, which has been traumatized by over 2 years of Dacish rule, requires a crystal clear statement by the Iraqi government that only Iraqi Army personnel and federal police will be allowed in the city.  Only such a statement can help alleviate Moslawi concerns about the PMUs.  Further, the Iraqi government should request an observer team from the United Nations to take up residence in Mosul for the foreseeable future. 

United Nations personnel should include members of the UN High Commission for Refugees who can see to the needs of displaced persons, from Mosul and surrounding villages and towns.  Knowing that UN personnel will serve in an around Mosul represents another way to reassure Sunni Arabs and other ethnic groups that their rights will be respected.

The Iraqi government will need to quickly put in place a new Mosul municipal council comprised of trusted community leaders who are not tarnished by having cooperated with the Dacish.  These community leaders, along with members of the Ninawa Provincial Council, should be invited by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani to make a presentation to meetings of the Iraqi Council of Deputies (national parliament) and the KRG Regional Parliament to exchange views on the rebuilding of Mosul and Ninawa Province following the elimination of the Dacish.

Such high level meetings, and smaller informal meetings of influential decision-makers from all Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups, would go a long way to reestablishing trust among Mosul's residents.  As such, it could become a “teachable moment” which would prevent sectarian forces from exploiting the current situation to promote narrow and divisive political ends which could lead to a new and potentially larger crisis threatening Iraq’s national unity.

The humanitarian dimension of the crisis
Displaced family from  village of Qayyara south of Mpsul
Along with the current civil war in Syria, the Mosul offensive threatens to produce one of the MENA region’s largest displaced persons crisis.  There are still 1.2 million residents in Mosul and countless Iraqis have already been forced from the city and surrounding villages and towns.  Large tent cities have been erected for them.  If the fight for Mosul persists for a long time, and the city experiences significant destruction of buildings and infrastructure, the residents may be forced to leave an uninhabitable space. 

The Obama administration - which has pushed for the Mosul campaign to defeat the Dacish before Barack Obama leaves office – should make a much more concerted effort to organize an international coalition including the UN, the EU, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, India and Japan, to develop a Displaced Persons Fund for those civilians forced to leave their home as result of the current offensive against the Dacish.

Tent city under construction
Here is a unique opportunity to engage Iraqi youth groups – Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak – to deploy to refugee camps to provide services to their inhabitants, including providing children with toys and education, conveying problems and complaints about life in the camps to the appropriate officials, organizing sports activities, and demonstrating to refugees that someone cares about them.

Likewise, a coalition of clerics from Iraq’s many religious communities could serve in the displaced persons/refugee camps to meet the residents’ spiritual and psychological needs.  The Federal Government and the KRG could work together with local Ninawa Province leaders to organize both youth groups and groups of clerics to confront the many problems which will be faced over an extended period of time by those Mosul and surrounding area residents forced from their homes.

Proper treatment of residents in displaced person’s camps is also critical to long term views of those who are displaced.  If the time during which they are displaced shows no concern and caring by either the Federal Government or the KRG, it will recreate the same feelings and resentment which led many Moslawis to welcome the Dacish as liberators when they seized Mosul and large parts of northern Iraq in June and July 2014. 

Balance of forces
Many analysts see the diverse military coalition mobilized against the Dacish as a potential “time bomb” in the making once terrorist forces are expelled from Mosul.  In other words, once the Dacish is defeated, the forces in the coalition will turn on each other. 

Soldiers suffer from the toxic air from oil well fires set by the Dacish
However, this coalition can be viewed through another lens, namely as unique in terms of the diversity of ethnicities and religious identities which comprise the forces fighting against terrorism.  If the US is smart, it will work with local forces sympathetic to a stable post-Dacish northern Iraq by working to bring them together.

While there are forces within the KRG’s Pesh Merga which want to use the battle to increase Kurdish controlled territory, the US should make clear to the Kurds that moving into areas not considered Kurdish will only lead to a renewed conflict.

The KRG faces severe economic constraints with the collapse of international oil prices.  There have been demonstrations in the KRG because its employees have not been paid for over 14 months.  Under the new Federal oil minister, cAbd al-Karim al-Luaibi, significant progress has been made to finally establish an oil policy which the Federal Government and the KRG find acceptable.

Because the US has considerable influence in the KRG, a bundle of economic incentives should be offered to prevent the KRG from seizing land to which it is not entitled. Such incentives can also be used to consolidate the military cooperation between the Pesh Merga and the Iraqi Army in fighting terrorism to date in an effort to develop a truly federal fighting force.

Pesh Merga forces themselves still reflect residual divisions between those loyal to Kurdish Democratic Party leader (KDP) and KRG President Barzani, and those loyal to Jalal Talabani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdish (PUK).  US Special Forces should work to train a new inter-ethnic Iraqi force designed to address the problem of terrorism in northern Iraq which will continue beyond the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul.

In addition to the mixed ethnosectarian composition of the Iraqi Army, there are also Assyrian, Yazidi,Turkmen and Shabak forces.  Because these minority groups have experienced some of the most horrible torture, killings and sex slavery at the hands of Dacish terrorists, they should also be organized into mixed military units to assure residents of their respective communities that they will have formal military protection in the future.

Beyond the defeat of Dacish looms another serious problem – the threat Turkey poses not just to Iraq but to the Rojava Kurds whose YPG (Peoples' Protection Forces) units have been in the vanguard of fighting the Dacish – think of Kobane – and liberating territory from it (

Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has used the crisis in northern Iraq to promote his interests in northern Iraq where the Turkish Army has a base north of Mosul and is training a militia of Sunni and Turkmen fighters under the aegis of the prominent al-Nujayfi family from Ninawa Province.

Erdoğan’s two objectives in interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs are, first, to prevent the Rojava Kurds from consolidating a viable autonomous political entity in northeastern Syria, and, second, gaining control over the oil resources in northern Iraq around the city of Mosul.  The latter represents an irredentist objective which extends back to the end of Ottoman rule in Iraq at the end of WWI.  

Preventing the coming storm
The main threat to post-Dacish stability in northern Iraq and, after the de facto terrorist capital, al-Raqqa, is liberated, is preventing Turkey from exploiting the situation for its geo-strategic and economic ends.

Turkish forces train Iraqi Turkmen units in Bashiqa near Mosul
First and foremost, Turkish troops must be forced to withdraw completely from northern Iraq.  The US, the EU and NATO need to impose serious economic sanctions on Turkey if it fails to do so.  The positioning of Turkish forces in the north without the Federal Government's permission constitutes a serious violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Second, the US must make it clear that it will not allow Turkey to destroy the autonomous region which has been established by the Rojava Kurds in northeastern Syria. 

As I noted elsewhere, the social and political experiment which the Rojava Kurds have created is a model for all countries and regions of the MENA region to emulate (  Economic cooperatives, gender equality, outlawing destructive traditions such as so-called “honor killings” and forced marriages of underage girls, equal treatment of minorities and emphasis on human rights for all citizens, allowing Erdoğan to end this experiment through military force would be shameful on the part of the US which is the only power which can prevent it from happening.
Putin and Erdoğan meeting in Baku June, 2015
To those who argue that Erdoğan should be supported for Turkey’s strategic value, let’s remember the failed US’ track record over the last 50 years with dictators in the Middle East.  While US policy favorable to the Rojava Kurds, especially its arming them to fight the Dacish, might push Erdoğan closer to the Russians, such an alliance is inherently unstable, since Turkey is the odd state out in a Russia-Syria-Iran alliance.  As two headstrong dictators, Putin and Erdoğan do not make for a good long-term couple.

Let’s also remember that Erdoğans current popularity is, in large measure, due to his suppression of last July’s military coup, and that the path of the Turkish economy will be the longer term determinant of whether such support persists.  Erdoğans core social base is in the small business sector of the Turkish economy.  If sanctions are imposed and the economy begins to deteriorate, then  his political position will  be adversely affected.

Now is not the time for the US to follow a “hands off” strategy in northern Iraq.  It needs to bring all the stakeholders to the table and indicate that “enough is enough.”  The US has given sizeable resources in blood and materiel in Iraq and it is now time for sectarianism and individual political agendas to be put aside for the common good of Iraq, Syria and the region.  

The US playing “footsie” with dictators like Erdoğan must also stop.  Short term fixes, such as the US maneuvering which allowed Nuri al-Maliki to remain in office as prime minister after losing the 2010 Iraqi national parliamentary elections, can now be seen for the out-sized mistake that it was.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!