The fall of Mosul to ISIL in June 2014 shocked Iraq and the world. After the fall of this city, ISIL continued its advance for some months. Considering the danger posed by ISIL to other parts of the country, an anti-ISIL coalition emerged and there were accelerated efforts to defeat ISIL. Despite these efforts, certain problems in Iraq delayed operations against it. These were mainly related to differing perspectives on the future of the country and the city itself. There were also problems emanating from the shortcomings of the Iraqi government in terms of the security structures of the country. In addition to the disagreements among different ethnic and sectarian groups inside the country, differences among regional and international actors are also important hurdles to progress. Despite various official statements, it seems improbable that there will be a successful military operation against ISIL in Mosul in the short run.
Since the fall of Mosul to ISIL (Daesh) in June 2014, one of the most important stated aims of the Baghdad government has been the recapture of the city. Over the months following the fall of the city, debates about the failure of various actors in fulfilling their duties to defend Mosul resulted in a blame game among political figures in Iraq. In order to figure out the respective responsibilities of civilian and military officials for this failure, an investigative body was established. Besides this, the Iraqi government has been supported by several regional and international actors in training and equipping the Iraqi army to recapture the city. Recently, the Iraqi government have declared that their troops are getting closer to Mosul. There were several similar arguments in 2014 and 2015, and despite all the efforts of the international community, as well as Iraqi actors, there are still several hurdles on the road to freeing Mosul.
Although everyone is talking about the unity of Iraq, relations between Shia and Sunni groups and also between Baghdad and Arbil deteriorated to a scale that it seems it will require lots of energy to keep Iraq united
One of the most important difficulties ahead is disagreements between different actors in Iraq about the future of Mosul. Although everyone is talking about the unity of Iraq, relations between Shia and Sunni groups and also between Baghdad and Arbil have deteriorated to a scale that it seems it will require lots of energy to keep Iraq united. The future of Mosul, along with other Sunni majority governorates within Iraq, is a main point of friction between certain political figures.
This difficulty can be named the ‘Sunni question’ in Iraq. By phrasing this question in this way, we are also referring to the question of leadership among Sunni groups. All possibly important Sunni politicians in Iraq has either been discredited or eliminated from the political scene. The experience of Tariq Hashimi is a very illustrative one in this respect. Rafi Isavi escaped a similar fate thanks to
the support he gets from his family and clan in Anbar. Osama Nujaifi and Atheel Nujaifi from Mosul are important figures among the Sunnis. The fall of Mosul, however, discredited Atheel Nujaifi and he was replaced by Nofal Hammadi. Osama Nujaifi’s political influence in Baghdad has also decreased recently due to measures introduced by Prime Minister Abadi.
In order to start an operation to free Mosul, there should be an agreement among the interested parties for how to handle the post-ISIL situation. For the time being, this consensus is lacking. Beside differences over the fate of a post-ISIL Mosul, there are disagreements among political and military groups about the military operation itself. As the second biggest city in Iraq, one mostly populated by Sunni Arabs, Sunni Arab tribes and political figures believe that the operation should be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the local population and should not be used for sectarian purposes within Iraqi dynamics. Such a perception would feed into ISIL’s media campaign to provoke sectarian feelings.
The fall of Mosul made the problems of Iraqi army clear to everyone. Trained and equipped by the US, the Iraqi army was expected to provide security after the withdrawal of US forces. The fiasco in Mosul, however, led many people to question the reliability of the Iraqi army as a security provider. The gap left by the Iraqi army was filled by the ‘popular forces’ or ‘Hasd Al Shabi’. These forces are Shiite militia groups that are trained and equipped by Iran. In the absence of a credible military power, these groups have provided some security, but they have also created problems due to their sectarian agenda and unlawful acts. For this reason, the employment of these Hasd Al Shabi forces to free Mosul from ISIL is rejected particularly vehemently by Sunni politicians and parties.
Although there have been many irregularities committed by these militias over the last two years, last month’s events further reinforced these feelings. Many Iraqi political actors criticized the atrocities committed by these groups and their burning of Sunni mosques in Diyala and Muktadiye. It is argued that their aim is to eliminate Sunni groups from Diyala, which constitutes a road connection between Iran and Baghdad. Such acts have added to concerns about the sectarian agenda of these forces. Given this background, several Sunni politicians warn that use of these groups in an operation against Mosul might ignite a sectarian civil war in Iraq. In response to these arguments, Shiite groups argue that the lack of trained and equipped forces in Iraq requires the participation of Hasd Al Shabi in the operation against Mosul.
Despite all the efforts over the two years since the fall of Mosul, operations in other parts of Iraq show that the Iraqi army is not capable of meeting expectations in terms of recapturing Mosul. Given conditions in the Iraqi army, there is a constant talk about the possible contribution of the Peshmerga to the liberation of Mosul. It is a fact that there are some Kurds living in Mosul and the possible role of the Peshmerga might be welcomed by these Kurds. Hence the contribution of the Peshmerga to complement the role of the army has come onto the agenda of operation for Mosul. We can say that most of the Sunni groups do not oppose such a role, but there are some opposition to the role of the Peshmerga from Shiite groups in Iraq.
It is expected that these Sunni groups should have the leading role in the operation to free Mosul in order to prevent a sectarian atmosphere.
Beside the Iraqi army and Peshmarga, there are Sunni armed groups composed of tribes and also Hasd al Vatani. It is expected that these Sunni groups should have the leading role in the operation to free Mosul in order to prevent a sectarian atmosphere. The problem here is that these groups are underprepared and under-equipped to take on such a role. Although there are some groups trained by the US and Turkey in that regard, equipping these people with the required arms has been objected to by the central government and several Shiite groups. As a result of this objection, we cannot talk about a sizable and effective military force composed of Sunni fighters to eliminate the threat of ISIL.
As a result of aerial bombardment and ground operations against ISIL since last year, some parts of Iraq have been liberated. Ramadi can be given as an example here. The problem with the Ramadi example is that the city was destroyed during the operation and there is now no electricity, water and security in the city. The lack of these basic services prevents the local population who escaped from the city from coming back and starting a new life there. With this experience in mind, we can say that the operation in Mosul will be a more difficult one since the population of Mosul is much bigger than the population of Ramadi. Mines laid by ISIL was one of the biggest hurdles in going back to the normalcy in Ramadi, and it can be expected that ISIL has laid more mines in Mosul than Ramadi.
Despite bombings, it is a fact that without having a combined ground military operation, there will not be a solution to the problem of ISIL.
Aerial bombardment carried out by the coalition against ISIL has weakened and curtailed its offensive position in Iraq. There are reports that, thanks to the bombardment of the anti-ISIL coalition, oil pipelines and banks controlled by ISIL have been damaged and this has curtailed the economic resources of ISIL. Now ISIL is under pressure and this has limited its capacity to carry out any aggression. Despite these bombings, it is a fact that without a combined ground military operation, there will not be a solution to the problem of ISIL. The aforementioned differences between actors within Iraq shows that conflicting interests and priorities between groups have prevented an operation to capture Mosul from ISIL.
In addition to the difficulties above, conflicting priorities among regional and international actors should also be taken into consideration. Iran wants to increase its control in Iraq and extend it to the Sunni areas as well. In that regard, it sees the role of Hasd al Shabi crucial to reaching these other areas. From the point of view of Iran, Hasd al Shabi should take part in the Mosul operation. Continuing security and political difficulties in Iraq makes Iran an indispensable actor and consequently the continuation of the current environment legitimizes the role of Iran in Iraq.
Turkey is concerned by the presence of both ISIL and the PKK in and around Mosul. The PKK is trying to benefit from the fighting with ISIL in terms of legitimizing itself and at the same time increasing the area under its control. Iraq had been a source of concern for Turkey for many decades and this trend continues today. The PKK’s increasing presence in Sinjar after the defeat of ISIL there further legitimizes Turkey’s concerns.
The US aims to fight ISIL and supports Baghdad. However, it refrains from too much engagement in the fight. Russia seeks to benefit from conditions both in Iraq and Syria to increase its presence in the region. The declaration of the establishment of a joint intelligence center in Baghdad between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia aimed to show how these countries are coordinating.
The challenges described above mainly refer to the conflicting priorities and agendas of different groups in Iraq, but also regional and international actors. There are several other setbacks within Iraq that prevent an early assault against ISIL in Mosul. Security problems in different parts of the country continue even today. It seems very unlikely that a large-scale military operation will be carried out against Mosul before the Iraqi government has provided basic security in other cities. The government is not capable of providing very basic services to its citizenry and discontent is increasing day by day. Last year, as a result of the hardships that the people are facing, protests erupted in different cities, demanding security, electricity, water and the elimination of corruption. Prime Minister Abadi declared a reform agenda to meet these demands and introduced some measures in line with this. Nearly one year later, however, the proposed reforms have not materialized and there are talks of the formation of a technocratic government.
When we look to the reasons of the failure of the government in meeting the demands of the people, beside political rivalries and needs for bureaucratic reform, the most important hurdle is the decline in oil prices and state revenues. Operations against ISIL, the restructuring of institutions and better services for the citizens require extra resources. In contrast to these increased needs, the revenues of the state are in a dramatic decline because of oil prices. These developments have prevented the government pursuing its stated aims and this failure has resulted in a loss of hope among its citizens. Currently there are some rumors that the Iraqi government will not be able to pay the salaries of civil servants from May onwards due to declining revenues. The Kurdish Regional Government has not paid its staff their salaries for the last five months and similar difficulties may emerge for the Baghdad government as well. This shows that, besides hurdles in terms of security, economic challenges may also delay an operation against ISIL-controlled Mosul.
Considering all of the challenges above, despite the stated aim of freeing Mosul from ISIL, an operation against ISIL in this city does not seem probable in the short run.