Two weeks after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi officially announced the much-awaited Mosul offensive, Iraqi elite Counter-Terrorism Service troops have reportedly entered the outskirts of Mosul, for the first time since the city fell to Islamic State (ISIS) in summer 2014. Mosul will be liberated, be it in weeks or months; the actual battle for the future of Iraq will then intensify.
The future of Iraq in its current form is far from certain. Despite regaining most of the territory lost to ISIS, the authority of the Iraqi government is waning as the militias, often uncontrollable, are flourishing.
These militias are a state within a state as they have their own administrative body and political leadership, that is tied to Iran.
And they are increasingly gaining financial independence. These militias have been frequently accused of revenge killing against Sunnis and have clashed, although in limited fashion, with the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Increasing reliance on these militias in the newly liberated areas, mostly Sunni areas, will further worsen the already bad relations between Baghdad and the minority Sunni community.
Furthermore, as these militias get closer to the Kurdish borders in the north, more clashes are expected with the Peshmerga.
These militias have also been involved in kidnappings for ransom and identity-based killing. At times, especially when they are not on the front lines, they have been fighting each other as well. In each area, each militia is mostly controlled by a specific tribe or tribes and they have been fighting in some areas, such as Diyala and Basra.
Meanwhile Kurds in the north have been regaining most of what they consider Kurdistan.
In Nineveh they are starting to dig trenches and build permanent outposts of what they call the natural borders of Kurdistan with Iraq. In Kirkuk they are in control of the city, as Peshmerga took advantage of a golden opportunity in 2014 when Iraqi security forces deserted the city. After ISIS, the issue of the contested territories will resurface as the Iraqi government will not let these territories go, if for no other reason than popular pressure.
Here the picture will get even more complicated as the minorities also want their share, particularly in Nineveh. These minorities have all completely lost trust in the Sunni Arabs who they claim betrayed them when ISIS overran their areas. Backed by the Kurds, Christians, who have their own militias, though small, want self-rule n the Nineveh Plain. Ideally, they want to join the Kurdistan region, while keeping their self-rule. Yazidis in Sinjar want to become a province within Kurdistan, again with self-rule. Meanwhile, backed by Turkey, Turkmen, especially Sunni Turkmen, will push for a region of their own in Tel Afar just east of Sinjar.
What complicates the case of Sinjar and Tal Afar further is the regional dimension, as the PKK, labeled terrorists by Turkey, have a strong presence in Sinjar. While the Shi’ite militias will have a role in Tal Afar through the Shi’ite Turkmen, backed by Iran, who make up around 40 percent of the city. Whole Shi’ite militias, known as popular mobilization forces or PMF, have been advancing in southwestern Mosul, less than 20 km. from Tel Afar. Turkey has started deploying troops to the southeastern city of Slopi, not so far from Tal Afar and Sinjar.
As Erdogan threatens to take action if the PMF enter Tal Afar or if the PKK make Sinjar “another Qandil,” Turkey’s intervention in Syria makes it a likely scenario, especially since Turkey always has a base in Bashiq, just northeast Mosul. The PMF plan, as reported by The Guardian, will be securing a route to Syria as part of Iran’s plan to build a land corridor to the Mediterranean, but that all depends on whether Turkey will intervene.
As everyone is eyeing parts of the cake in Iraq, Sunni Arabs, who have lost most, will not sit by idly. Both Shi’ites in south and central Iraq and Kurds in the north have been expanding. Sunnis consider many of these areas theirs. The Sunnis have been building their own militias, some pro-government and others pro-Turkey. With the end of the battle for Mosul, Sunnis will actively seek to build a region or regions of their own, likely hoping to include areas controlled by the Iraqi government and Shi’ite militias, or those controlled by the Kurds and other minorities as in the case of Nineveh. That makes violent confrontations more likely.
As Iraq is going through a tough economic crisis, rebuilding the liberated territories is probably the biggest challenge for the Iraqi government in terms of regaining the trust of the Sunnis. But as that will requires tens of billions of dollars, it is unlikely Iraqi government will be able to rebuild these areas.
Poverty, homelessness and political isolation will likely anger Sunnis further, and thus the Iraqi government’s few remaining bridges with them will also be destroyed.
In addition to all the above, there have been other developments. Public libraries are in decline. Just days after the Mosul offensive began, the Iraqi Parliament passed a bill by majority Shi’ite bloc but backed by many Sunni lawmakers, banning sale, production or exportation of alcohol, this in a country known for its social and religious mosaic. A day after the bill passed, Mahmoud al-Hassan, a lawmaker from the majority Shi’ite bloc, called on people to kill those who fail to implement this law; days after his statement, a Christian man who owned a liquor shop was killed in the southern city of Basra. There is also increasing pressure on dress codes in the universities.
In short here is what post ISIS-Iraq is going to look like: the country will be territorially as much as politically divided into regions, not just three but probably six.
Kurds solidify their gains and formalize the borders with Iraq. Militias will flourish further and civil liberties, except in Kurdistan, will decline further. Iraq will become proto-states within a state.
[Originally published in The Jerusalem Post]