Iraq braces for ‘post-Mosul syndrome’
Iraqis were judged in a recent international survey to be the nationality that most readily shows kindness to strangers. The finding of the Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation was confirmation of the country’s well-established tradition of hospitality.
Iraqis might be wryly reflecting, however, as they confront widespread speculation of renewed communal strife once Mosul is liberated from the clutches of the Islamic State (ISIS), that the generosity they show to outsiders is so often absent among themselves.
A coalition of forces has held together to drive the offensive against ISIS, which occupied Iraq’s second largest city in June 2014 but even before the city is liberated, a “post-Mosul” syndrome is emerging amid dire warnings that this alliance will not hold.
Patrick Hamilton, the International Committee of the Red Cross official in charge of its operations in the region, told Reuters after a visit to northern Iraq ahead of the Mosul offensive that he was struck by a sense of angst about what was to come, “both for the immediate future in terms of this offensive and what that might entail”.
“But also for the longer-term future, what Iraq itself might look like post-Mosul and what will be the fate of these various communities that make up Iraq and how they will find or try to find a way forward together,” Hamilton said.
Concerns about the fate of tens of thousands of civilians who could be displaced by the fighting are compounded by fears that the predominantly Sunni population might face reprisals by vengeful Shia militias, some of which have a history of serious sectarian abuse.
“There’s a need to anticipate, to prepare for the day after and the stabilisation of Mosul after the military battle,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said as the offensive was launched in mid-October in northern Iraq.
“We must win the war but also examine everything that can help to win peace. What will happen after? We must set up administration and prepare stabilisation.”
The US-led coalition has been preparing for months for the battle and for the day after. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in July that the mechanics of the Mosul offensive, including the movement of forces, had been planned months previously.
The main focus of talks among coalition military planners was on what happened after the defeat of ISIS, including stabilisation and reconstruction, he said.
Nearer to home, a heavy responsibility will fall on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to try to ensure that the fractious forces that have combined to liberate Mosul do not go on to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
His task will include not only ensuring that Sunnis do not become the victims of sectarian terror, but also giving them a political stake in the post-Mosul scenario.
It will also include defusing potential conflict with the Kurds, who see the battle as not only an opportunity to oust ISIS but also to assert their control of disputed territory they regard as part of Kurdistan.
He will need to persuade all communities that, after what will be a significant victory over ISIS, their future depends on cooperation within a united or federal state rather than in competing for physical and economic space from a purely communal perspective.
That would be a large enough task if Abadi were not also faced with the continuing dabbling of outside players more interested in pursuing their own interests than in advancing the cause of a stable Iraq.
Turkey’s insistence on playing an uninvited role has proved a complicating factor and has been rejected by Abadi, obliging the United States to try to defuse tensions between Ankara and Baghdad. In a signal of caution to the Turks, Carter stressed during a visit to Baghdad “the vital importance of every country operating with full respect for Iraqi sovereignty”.
As in neighbouring Syria, Turkish policy appears to be geared less to defeating ISIS than to ensuring that the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought Ankara since 1984 for an autonomous Kurdistan, does not gain an advantage after it too offered to join the fight for Mosul.
So, as it focuses on ISIS, the Iraqi government faces the spectre of the Turkish-PKK war spilling over its border.
Turkey’s demand for a future voice in determining the fate of the Mosul region adds to long-standing concerns of Iranian interference in the affairs of Shia-majority Iraq.
Military planners know that the battle for Mosul itself will be messy, with many civilian lives at stake. Their hope is that plans are in place to deal with the even more challenging aftermath.