The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on November 2, 2016, which examined the prospects for stability in Mosul after its liberation from the Islamic State group (IS). The panel included Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow at the BDC; Ahab Bdaiwi, lecturer at Leiden University; and Beverley Milton-Edwards, visiting fellow at the BDC. Tarik Yousef, senior fellow and director of the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Yousef opened the discussion by recalling the global state of shock that followed IS’s capture of Mosul nearly two years ago. Thousands of civilians were killed and much of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed. The long-awaited military campaign to liberate the city has now begun, with an array of Iraqi forces advancing toward the city with the support of the Western-backed anti-ISIS coalition.
Responding to the opening remarks, Milton-Edwards noted that the United States has spent $15 million to finance Iraqi infrastructure and stabilization projects since 2014, while it spent $6.5 billion in an effort to combat IS. In contrasting these two figures, she highlighted the prioritization of security over humanitarian and reconstruction concerns. Milton-Edwards concluded her opening remarks by noting that the preference given to security will continue in the aftermath of the Mosul operation, despite the need to increase funding for peace-building projects.
Bdaiwi shifted the discussion to the evolution of militant actors in Iraq and the complex identities that they project. For example, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs)—comprised of predominantly Shia militias—present themselves as representatives not only of the particular communities to which they belong but also of broader transnational identities. The formation of this new socio-political movement creates a potential problem in Iraq as there is a fear that a similar post-IS Sunni movement may emerge to counter it. Such transnationally minded militant groups would result in dangerous clashes both within Iraq and outside it.
Alaaldin joined the discussion, emphasizing the need for Iraq to build credible and legitimate political institutions. Iraq needs a credible external power to help establish such institutions and also mediate and push Iraq in the right direction. Given the existence of multiple factions with different allegiances and identities, strong state political structures are needed to reconcile these differences. The successful development of a caliphate in the absence of a strong central government is unlikely given the size of the forces currently fighting IS in Northern Iraq, but Alaaldin noted the possibility of IS splintering into several groups in an attempt to fill the power vacuum that had resulted in the emergence of IS in the first place.
The panel continued to discuss the militias and their aspirations for Mosul and Iraq. Bdaiwi justified the initial success of IS in Mosul by pointing to Sunni grievances, most of which had been caused by the Iraqi government. Some Sunnis in Mosul first welcomed the arrival of IS, but became disillusioned with the organization after confronting its savagery and rigid practices. This created a large chasm between IS and the Iraqi Sunni community, making it difficult for Mosul’s Sunni community to accept the wishes of any other group that attempts to establish rule there. Unfortunately, this dynamic also poses a problem for the PMUs that wish to exert authority over Mosul after its liberation.
Regarding future authority over Mosul, Milton-Edwards posited how the liberation of Mosul could give some legitimacy to the Iraqi government. In order for this to happen, however, the PMUs and the Peshmerga must stay out of Mosul, allowing the Iraqi security forces to claim victory. The presence of competing militias in Mosul only complicates future prospects for stability. Baghdad must take the lead in stabilizing Mosul, but it needs help from an external power. Alaaldin noted that while the United States did not have a positive impact on power-sharing deals in Iraq in the past, today, a U.S. presence could signal to Iran and Turkey that Iraq will not be theirs for the taking. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will need to find a way to address the grievances voiced by Iraqis for his government to gain legitimacy. Currently the various PMUs pose a threat to al-Abadi’s aspirations for legitimacy, as these groups have demonstrated allegiances to other internal and external actors, making the Iraqi political situation more complex.
Following the examination of Iraq’s militias, the panelists offered scenarios for Iraq, some more optimistic than others. Bdaiwi highlighted a new trend where Shiites south of Basra have been moving north because of a lack of access to water. He noted that, in and around Basra, access to resources remains a source of conflict among the populace, causing intra-Shiite fighting. This example highlights the internal dynamics of identity politics in Iraq, demonstrating the complexities that political actors must overcome in order to achieve stability.
Milton-Edwards referred to an alternative solution proposed in Iraq, pointing to the possibility of creating semi-autonomous regions based on ethno-sectarian identities. The main problem with that outcome lies is the lack of security and proper governance it provides. It does not result from a national consensus, which raises the possibility of conflict in the future. Regrettably, when looking at the local arrangements and events from the past decade, it seems likely to see Iraq propelled closer to partition in the near future.
Alaaldin offered some optimism for Mosul and Iraq’s future. Presently, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces are demonstrating an unprecedented level of cooperation, whereas they clashed in the past. This development indicates the existence of political will for these groups to work and negotiate with each other. In order to achieve stability in Iraq, such cooperation is paramount. On a less positive note, he argued that Iran is threatened by the possibility of the emergence of an autonomous Arab-Sunni region in Iraq after the Mosul operation, which explains the build-up of PMU forces in Northern Iraq. Such fears and interests only destabilize the already fragile country.
The discussion concluded with a poignant comment from the audience, providing some hope for Iraq’s future. Mosul provides a great test case for the modern world, as it will indicate whether or not reconciliation and stabilization in such a fractured society is possible. Truly negotiated social contracts do not exist in the Arab world, but Mosul and Iraq could provide an opportunity for that to finally happen.
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