The long-delayed military campaign to liberate Mosul from ISIS occupation is in its early stages. However, as the central government in Baghdad and policymakers in the U.S. will soon find out, the military operation will be the easy part.
Washington must encourage Baghdad to prepare a post-liberation political framework for Mosul now in order to cement a lasting political defeat for ISIS and prevent its return to the city. This encouragement should include the following steps:
- Pressing Baghdad to develop an enduring political settlement for Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Governorate,
- Providing humanitarian relief and helping Iraqi efforts to prevent refugee camps from turning into ISIS bases, and
- Establishing a long-term political framework that will give Iraq’s anxious Sunni minority a stake and hope in being included in a broad-based national government.
The Current Situation in Mosul
Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city, and urban warfare is no easy task, as the recent operations to liberate Ramadi and Fallujah have shown. Ramadi and Fallujah have populations of around 200,000 and 275,000, respectively, compared with Mosul’s estimated population of 1.8 million (albeit many left the city for refuge).
ISIS has controlled Mosul since June 2014. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are currently advancing towards Mosul and hold positions approximately 40 miles south of the city. From the north, Peshmerga militia fighters from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) hold position as close as five miles from the outskirts of the city. The Peshmerga wisely have refrained from entering the predominantly Sunni Arab city.
However terrible life under ISIS might be, the local Sunni Arabs will need to see a credible and acceptable alternative to the status quo before they openly support the ISF. Many Sunni Arabs were pushed into the arms of ISIS, which they saw as a lesser evil, after suffering what they regarded as malign neglect, disenfranchisement and repression at the hands of the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government.
The U.S. Needs to Plan Now
Policymakers should not underestimate the challenge of liberating a city the size of Mosul. If a regional political modus vivendi is not arranged with all anti-ISIS factions in Mosul and the broader Nineveh Governorate, then the liberation will be in vain. There is also enormous potential for a humanitarian disaster as a result of the operation. In order to ensure that the liberation of Mosul translates into long-term stability in the region, the U.S. should:
- Insist that Baghdad restricts the role of Shiite militias in the Mosul operation. Baghdad may be tempted to accommodate Iranian pressure to use Shiite militias as part of the liberation force for Mosul. Shiite militias should be excluded from the liberation force unless used in predominantly Shia-populated areas. Many militias linked closely to Iran have been accused of gross human rights abuses against Sunnis in previous offensives in Fallujah and Ramadi.
- Ensure Peshmerga receive needed equipment. Earlier this year the U.S. sent two brigades worth of equipment and weapons to the central government in Baghdad for use by the Peshmerga. Baghdad has played politics with the KRG in the past. The U.S. now must ensure that Baghdad continues to deliver this material to the KRG in a timely manner. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq is too important to U.S. national interests to allow Iraqi infighting to get in the way.
- Recognize the limitations of the Peshmerga and plan accordingly. However capable the Peshmerga have proven to be in the fight against ISIS, they are not a silver bullet. Peshmerga are most effective in predominantly Kurdish areas and would be resented if they occupy Arab, Turkmen, or Yazidi areas for extended periods. The U.S. needs to recognize this limitation as it develops its Mosul liberation plan. To minimize friction with Kurdish and ISF and gain the confidence of liberated civilians, the U.S. should press Baghdad to recruit, vet, and train local police and security forces from liberated areas that reflect the ethnic/sectarian composition of the local population.
- Continue counter-terrorism efforts to attack ISIS leaders, funding, and ideology. The U.S. should work with Arab media and investigative organizations to document ISIS crimes against civilians in Mosul and Nineveh, especially atrocities against Sunni Arabs, to undermine the ideological appeal of ISIS. Publicizing the critical accounts of ISIS defectors would be particularly useful in divesting ISIS of public support.
- Encourage Baghdad to work with local Sunnis in Mosul. The real challenge for Iraq’s central government will be negotiating and implementing a political settlement that allows the local Sunni inhabitants to address their legitimate political grievances with the central government in Baghdad without feeling the need to turn to extremist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. To kickstart the local economy and build popular support, Baghdad should hire as many local residents as possible to repair infrastructure and rebuild their own neighborhoods.
- Push Baghdad for a political settlement for the Nineveh Governorate. The idea of more regional autonomy for the Nineveh region should also be explored. Nineveh is a diverse region inhabited by multiple religious and ethnic groups, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and Shabaks distributed among the Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian, and Armenian populations. To ensure long-term stability in the region, Baghdad must ensure all factions in the governorate are fairly represented in all levels of government.
- Push Baghdad, Erbil, and regional partners to prepare for the influx of internally displaced people (IDP). The KRG are already caring for approximately 1.8 million IDP. This places a monumental strain on precious resources in the KRG, which has far fewer resources than the Iraqi government. Officials in Erbil believe that the liberation of Mosul could displace another 500,000 people to the KRG. Looking after these IDP will be costly. The U.S. should press the KRG, Iraqi government, and regional partners to prioritize resources to prepare for the influx of more people.
- Help ensure that IDP camps are protected. The U.S. should encourage the KRG and Iraqi government to take appropriate measures to protect the inhabitants of IDP camps offering technical advice, if required. The two main threats are (1) ISIS efforts to embed itself and take control of Sunni camps and (2) sectarian and tribal revenge attacks against non-ISIS Sunni Arabs fleeing Mosul.
- Provide advanced medical care to extremely wounded Peshmerga. Peshmerga have fought gallantly and effectively against ISIS, but not without terrible costs to life and limb. More than 8,500 Peshmerga have been wounded. Several dozen of these wounded require medical care beyond what is available to them in the KRG, which is less capable than that available to the ISF. The U.S. should consider providing medical care to show solidarity and support with the Kurdish people. (Germany, India, Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are already doing so.)
- Ensure that the liberation of Tal Afar is part of the overall campaign plan for the liberation of Mosul. Tal Afar is a city in Nineveh Governorate that is 75 percent ethnic Turkmen. Signs indicate that ISIS is relocating material and family members to Tal Afar to make this city its final redoubt in Iraq after Mosul is liberated. The liberation of Tal Afar must be part of the Mosul operation.
Not the End
Liberating Mosul from the clutches of ISIS is not the end of the story. ISIS will still have a base on which to fall back in Syria. Also, until the sectarian divisions inside Iraq are addressed, it is difficult to see how the liberation of Mosul will have a lasting impact on Iraq’s long-term stability. If Baghdad fails to address sectarian divisions and political grievances, then something else will eventually replace ISIS. If the recent evolution of terrorist groups in the region is any indication, whatever comes after ISIS will probably be as bad—if not worse.
—Luke Coffey is Director of and James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.