The War in Iraq; ISIS at Bay

The war in Iraq did not end when U.S. President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” aboard ‘the USS Abraham’ aircraft carrier in May 2003. The ‘Abraham’ had just returned from the Persian Gulf. It was after that declaration that the real war began. It did not take long for sectarian and ethnic conflicts to erupt in Iraq, just as many analysts, who had studied Iraq, rather than the neo-conservative machinations that informed its invasion, had predicted. Al-Qaida, or groups claiming allegiance to it, appeared in all its ugliness in Iraq, where it had never dared earlier set its pinky toe, let alone a whole foot, during the Saddam Hussein era.

Since then, terrorism and sectarianism only intensified in quality and quantity. Elections brought nominal democracy, but in effect they replaced the rule of the Ba’ath Party with the rule of Shiite dominated political forces, bent more on revenge than fairness and establishing institutions to allow the whole population to participate. Islamic State or ISIS/DAESH (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria / Dawla Islamiyya fi Iraq wa Shams) is but one of the most terrifying, political-military creatures to emerge from the ashes of post-Saddam Iraq. If Mary Shelley were alive today, she could not have found a better physical manifestation for her ‘Frankenstein.’

After wreaking havoc from northern Iraq to eastern Syria, taking over the cities of Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS is finally in trouble in both Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it is hard to extricate the fate of ISIS without discussing both Iraq and Syria. But, this analysis focuses on the Group’s Iraq manifestation, for it marks the final stage of the war that G.W. Bush began. Of course, the end of ISIS will not permanently terminate the group; much less will it terminate Islamic fundamentalism. ISIS is an ideological-religious group, rooted in apocalyptic eschatology. Its actions were and are amplified by the conditions of the Iraq War and Iraq’s inherent fragility, rooted in its very inception from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot agreement. The Islamic State will be no more; its demise is not in doubt. The major concern of this latest chapter of the war is the future of Iraq after the Islamic State or the Caliphate, that ISIS carved out of the lands that the Assyrians once ruled. ISIS will temporarily disband. Many of its fighters will die fighting, some will be captured. But, if the Iraqi government fails to radically change the conditions that fueled the ascent of ISIS, there will still be to come new editions and chapters of the war in Iraq.

Iraq’s Next War is Just Around the Corner
The next war in Iraq might take a different name; it might feature different combatants. Yet, its result will still be more war. Baghdad, ever torn by ethnic and religious conflicts, has still not recovered from the instability following the American (and ‘Coalition of the Willing’) intervention in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. It won’t magically recover after the present war smashes the Islamic State. The Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds will contend what is left of Mesopotamia. Saddam Hussein was hanged on December 30, 2006, when the country was already in the grip of al-Qaida terror and sectarian vendettas from which ISIS arose - thanks also to the strategic support of former Baathist military officers. Now, the coalition fighting ISIS has reached the outskirts of Mosul, almost surrounding some 3,000-5,000 ISIS fighters there. The anti-Isis coalition has used a strategy of attrition, launching concentric strikes along four main directions, from north to south of the city. The coalition has on its side the advantage of numerical superiority, greater firepower and a controlled hinterland. The Caliphate’s forces can still inflict casualties, hoping in the process to weaken the coalition, highlighting the ethno-religious differences. The government army includes three main militias: Shiites, Kurds and Sunni. Their external proxy sponsors are also taking part in different ways. They include Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and of course Russia and the United States. Their main goal is to take over Mosul as quickly as is possible, seizing the greatest possible extent of the city itself and the rich oil fields just beyond it.

Mosul represents the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg-like advance into northern Iraq in 2014. Mosul then offered little resistance, because such were the grievances of local Sunnis with the elected Shiite dominated government and the sectarian political schemes it played, that ISIS was all but welcomed. ISIS even established basic order, from organising vehicle traffic, to restoring basic services. The fact that ISIS’s conquest was televised and turned the takeover of Mosul into the kind of media event that established the Group’s reputation. Mosul, even more than Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State (in Syria) was a symbol of ‘prestige’, which inspired many volunteers from all over the world to join ISIS. It is in Mosul at the Hadbaa mosque that ISIS’ s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State. It was an actual bona-fide attempt at a Caliphate, a challenge to al-Qaida, which would from then on in Mesopotamia and Syria, be relegated to ISIS’s amateurish cousins and rival. Mosul became the foundation of ISIS’s military and psychological warfare.

Mosul Showed the Failure of the Iraqi Peace on Live TV
Mosul is also a symbol of weakness – the weakness of the Iraqi army and the corruption of the post-Saddam government. In June 2014, as ISIS advanced, the now largely Shiite dominated Iraqi army retreated, leaving the unarmed civilian population to their fate. ISIS killed unarmed civilians, which would deepen sectarian wounds. Now, the problem in Mosul remains largely political. The forces to wrestle it away from ISIS exist. They can get the job done. But, how strong is the government’s political ability to truly take it under control. The pattern will be similar in every city the army and its backers take back from ISIS. There are militias, parties or tribes everywhere. Some of these militias are Shiite. In Fallujah for example, Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (The Popular Mobilization Forces) killed and tortured hundreds of Sunni men – using methods not unlike those of ISIS, just on a smaller scale, exerted no little violence against Sunni civilians as well as combatants. There are good reasons to suspect similar revenge claims in Mosul. The result will be a perpetuation of the sectarian divisions.

Indeed, over the course of 2016, the Iraqi Army has managed to recapture many cities ahead of Mosul. These include Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and Sinjar. But few people, if any, have felt safe enough to return home. The minorities of Iraq still live in fear. In Mosul, there were Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak. They are unlikely to come back. Few have any trust in the government institutions. They feel as if the government has abandoned them to the Islamic state. This want of trust, does not augur a favorable liberation, given that much of the population mistrusts their ‘liberators’.

The future of post-ISIS Mosul, therefore, remains uncertain in even the most optimistic of cases. Much will depend on which militias remain for the final battles and what steps they take to protect civilians. Should the Shiite militias lead the ‘liberation’, it could end up perpetuating sectarian violence even after ISIS is long gone. Whilst, the sectarian issue weighs heavily on the future of peaceful coexistence of the Iraqi people, Mosul’s fate depends on the ambitions of Turkey and Iran, and not least Kurdistan. They will continue to use northern Iraq as the battlefield for their regional pretensions. The election of Donald Trump adds another of that other Donald – Rumsfeld’s that is, famous Iraq war maxim: “known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns”. That statement might seem surreal, but only at first glance. Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the Iraq invasion, was never more accurate in describing the problems that the Americans would encounter in the Saddam aftermath.

Trump should not seek to change the current operations in Mosul, if the city is untaken by January, but Trump could affect the next phase - which will establish equilibrium, presumably along ethnic and religious guidelines. Trump’s art in making deals, must contend with the problem of Kurdish demands for autonomy and Turkey’s intention to prevent them. There are no easy solutions to the Kurdish demands for autonomy. Also, the Sunnis will not be dominated by the Shiites and the latter’s ‘instinct’ to keep all the power will be tested . The fight will continue in other forms. Probably Isis could turn into a terrorist network, becoming more like al-Qaeda. Maybe, the Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia and other Wahhabi governments, will continue to support what 'remains' of ISIS to weaken the government in Baghdad (and Damascus), Tehran's allies, throughout the "Shiite Crescent", which stretches through Afghanistan to the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has participated in the fight against ISIS, in no small way, to unleash its geopolitical ambitions. That’s not just about preventing the formation of a Kurdish State. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have rather Ottoman colonial ambitions. Erdogan, who seems to be capable of anything, might try to take back Ottoman areas of northern Iraq, starting from Mosul.

In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres had dismembered the Ottoman Empire and applied the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the territory between the colonialist Allied Powers. Syria fell under the French mandate; Iraq went to the British. Now, Erdogan might justify his claims to Mosul, noting that the city is located ideally to curb the Kurds. How the US responds to that might be critical.

Then there is Iran. Its intentions are ambiguous in Iraq. Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad should manage the interests of the Iranians with those of more extreme local Shi’ite personalities such as Imam Moqtada Al Sadr, who has many of the poor Shiite neighborhoods under his control and a powerful personal militia, to boot. Iran is not going to back down from its expansionistic tendency in post-Saddam Iraq. Iran sees itself as the protector of Shi'ite interests. It wants to continue overseeing it. Not surprisingly, the anti-ISIS coalition includes thousands of volunteers, who report to Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, who takes orders from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. The Iraqis have insisted the Iranian militias stay in the rural areas of Mosul to prevent the outbreak of inter-ethnic feuds.

Ultimately, the capture of Mosul could match the curse that Bush met after the American invasion. He declared ‘mission accomplished’. He won the war and lost the peace. Iraq over the past 36 years has witnessed the use of all weapons except for nuclear. Mustard gas, white phosphorus bombs, depleted uranium shells deployed from aircraft and cruise missiles of various generations. But medieval style violence was also in abundance, enough to make Hulagu Khan, the Mongol leader, who laid siege to Baghdad in 1258, at least feel right at home. The 2003 war was but the preface to over a decade of suffering, hundreds of explosions: mortars, car bombs, suicide bombers, beheadings, rape, in an orgy of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Iraq has been the pinnacle of barbarism and fanaticism. Millions of Iraqis have become refugees abroad, or internally displaced. The irony is that although shattered, it still has more oil resources than Saudi Arabia.

The regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia seems destined to continue, thus the Shiites and the Sunni, in contention however the present conflict ends.

The fate of Mosul seems to be determined and is likely to be an extremely bloody affair, but whether that brings about the ‘end’ of the caliphate, will also have to do with what ensues at Raqqah in Syria, and whether ‘the Caliph’ is personally accounted for, before this story ends. Islam has been plagued by the significant number of caliphs that disappeared over the centuries, often inspiring enduring and dedicated sects, from amongst their followers. It would be fortunate for Islam, to have no more to add to that number.

Alessandro Bruno