The destruction of Islamic State (IS) in Mosul is highly probable, but removing the group’s presence from the besieged city is about the only goal uniting the attacking coalition. The United States should closely supervise the power vacuum in post-IS Mosul to reduce the likelihood of sectarian killings or the marginalisation of minority groups. The US must also renew communication with the Turkish military to mitigate growing Iranian influence adjourning the Turkish border
As the Shi’ite coalition of Hashid al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) approach the IS stronghold of Tal Afar, the encirclement of Mosul is almost complete. The self-proclaimed caliphate is outnumbered ten-to-one and surrounded. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga are converging from the north, south and east, while the PMU is advancing from the west. The coalition of anti-IS forces consists of approximately 100,000 troops with US assistance, and includes Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish Peshmerga, Hashid al-Shaabi and Turkmen Sunni militias. This is slowly but surely gaining ground despite vehicle-borne IEDs, surprise attacks and retributive killings.
The danger of sectarian killings by Shi’ite militias looms behind the offensive. The collapse of U.S. trained Iraqi army forces in 2014 left a void that the developing PMU managed to fill. Backed with the combative fervour of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's 2014 fatwa compelling young Shia men to fight IS, the PMU has become a potent combat force. Although paid by the Iraqi government, Hashid al-Shaabi is commanded from Tehran. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has reportedly consulted militia commanders Hadi al Amiri, from Badr Brigade, and Qassem Soleimani, who leads the Iranian paramilitary Quds force. These groups are implicated in sectarian killings of Iraqi Sunnis in liberated provinces Anbar, Diyla, and Salah al-Din. On 17 October Abadi announced the PMU was participating in the offensive, but forbidden from entering the Sunni-majority city. With a record of atrocities during the Fallujah offensive, anti-IS forces should observe strict supervision of Hasid forces to avoid sectarian violence.
The Kurdish Peshmerga will likely seek to consolidate and expand their territory, to the detriment of surrounding Sunni regions. Abadi has stipulated that the Kurds must return to their previous locations once Mosul has been reclaimed. Nevertheless, accounts from Peshmerga fighters suggest they may attempt to claim additional territory in northern Iraq. Reports of Peshmerga-led demolitions of Sunni homes in the liberated Qarah Tappah province are a troubling indication of future Kurdish treatment of Iraqi Sunnis. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani compounded fears by rejecting the freedom of residents who had supported IS to return to liberated villages. This carries troubling undertones that Sunni Arabs may be excluded from areas of future Kurdish control.
Turkey’s security concerns have driven President Erdogan to assert Ankara’s presence in northern Iraq and Mosul. Erdogan and Abadi exchanged heated rhetoric following Turkey’s deployment in Bashiqa to train local Peshmerga units and Sunni tribesmen. Baghdad considers Turkey’s expanding presence an impingement on sovereignty, as troops were deployed without any consultation between regimes. Ankara’s goal is to construct a Sunni bulwark in Mosul, that would prevent the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) establishing a stronger foothold in northern Iraq. This process began in August when the PKK helped clear IS troops from the province of Sinjar and reportedly settled in the region. Security analyst Metin Gurcan suggests that Ankara and Washington share a geostrategic interest in nurturing a Sunni political movement in Northern Iraq which would resist Iran’s influence in the region.
The US is likely a crucial partner in the offensive by virtue of its air support, training, and engineering supplies. The Pentagon reports that US forces have launched 2,400 precision bombs, missiles, and rockets into the Mosul area since October. Washington shares Ankara’s concern about prolonged sectarian conflict in Mosul as Shi’ite militias advance into the area. Rather than picking sides in the political fallout from a liberated Mosul, the US should pursue any kind of accommodation that reconciles the goals of all parties involved. Sectarian violence may by avoided by balancing Kurdish autonomy while directly addressing Sunni grievances This may not appeal to a conflict-weary Washington, but one upshot would be the restraint of Iranian power. With luck, this victory could bring some degree of stability to long-suffering Iraq.
Tom Connolly is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne.