Mansour: The more the Iraqi political elite quarrel in a post-Mosul context, the more likely ISIS will re-emerge
ISIS leadership will go underground and stage an insurgency aimed exploiting political and sectarian tensions
Editor’s Note: Renad Mansour is an Academy Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. His research explores Iraq in transition and the dilemmas posed by state-building. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
As the grueling battle to retake Mosul from ISIS gets underway, Iraqis from all sects and ethnicities are coming together in high spirits. They are optimistic and anticipate a successful end to the battle.
This mood has seldom been seen in the country since the US-led war began in 2003. Adversaries who have usually engaged in political and sectarian wrangling are uniting against the common enemy of ISIS.
For the first time in recent memory, the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga is fighting alongside the Iraqi army – an army that the Kurds have historically viewed as an enemy of their nationalist movement.
In fact, relations between Baghdad and Irbil have been strained for many years. Just a few years ago, Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Region, implied that he would likely never go back to Baghdad. He said that his next trip would be to negotiate independence.
However, last week, Barzani bit the bullet and returned to Baghdad, not to negotiate independence, but to negotiate bettering economic and military cooperation, a tone echoed by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representatives. In a recent meeting in London, KRG foreign minister Falah Mustafa repeatedly stated that he was part of an Iraqi delegation – a rarity in his previous vernacular.
Iraq’s divided Shia camp has also come together amidst the battle for Mosul. Two days after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of operations, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr invited the leaders of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – the predominantly Shia paramilitaries – to Najaf to hold talks. This was a surprise move, as many of these leaders are sworn enemies of Sadr. For instance, Qais Khazali, who leads the League of the Righteous (Asaib ahl al-Haq), split from the Sadrist movement and has been working against Sadr for several years.
In another rare move, the PMUs openly pledged to allow the Iraqi army and police take the lead on the operations. This is a huge divergence from previous liberation operations, such as in Tikrit or Ramadi, where the same PMUs’ leadership criticized the Iraqi army and Abadi, and went to fight against ISIS without seeking permission from Baghdad. In rhetoric, at least, the PMUs are taking the back seat.
Is this general mood of cooperation a genuine move to a new stage in post-2003 Iraqi politics? Has ISIS managed, indirectly, to bring Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds together? Or is it merely that political squabbling, while Iraqis soldiers fight their biggest battle since 2003, is taboo?
Although it is too early to tell, the absence of an agreed plan for what comes after ISIS is conspicuous.
In lieu of such a plan, each party has its own designs over Mosul’s post-ISIS leadership. For instance, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) seems to be interested in the return of former Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi, whereas certain leaders of Shia paramilitaries are against Nujaifi’s return. Other Shia leaders have called for an interim governing council.
Each party also has its own ideas of what type of governance is required to fill the power vacuum post-ISIS. Barzani and much of the Kurdistan Region leadership backs increased decentralization, so that Mosul, and its province Nineveh, gains greater autonomy from the central government.
Others, such as former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are keen to strengthen Baghdad’s position, and are therefore against affording too much autonomy to the provinces. This debate on federalism is expected to continue even after ISIS loses control of Mosul.
ISIS’ looming defeat in Mosul will necessitate a change in strategy for the group, away from governing territory toward the use of insurgency tactics. Here, the political divisions among the groups descending on Mosul provide opportunities for ISIS to exploit.
By reconfiguring the narrative to make Mosul a small battle in the greater war, the ISIS leadership will go underground and stage an insurgency aimed at exploiting these political and sectarian tensions among the Iraqi leadership.
The more the Iraqi political elite quarrel in a post-Mosul context, the more likely that ISIS – or an incarnate of the jihadi organization – will re-emerge.
The current sign of cooperation and high spirits is an important tactic in the war against ISIS, which breeds on division. The test, though, is whether the leadership can build on the current atmosphere of political cooperation to reach a settlement on what comes next in Mosul and other liberated areas.
Until this political victory is achieved, the military victory – in many ways the easier win – will not be able to provide the stability needed to forever oust an ISIS which is down, but not out.