This week marked the start of offensives ultimately aimed at retaking two of ISIS’s last major urban strongholds—Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, and Fallujah, the first major Iraqi city to fall to ISIS some two years ago. The final prize, Mosul, seems to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future, despite indications a year ago that a battle to retake the city could come any day. An Iraqi army offensive launched in late March stalled quickly.
Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city. ISIS wrested it from Iraqi government control in 2014 in its first major show of strength, and it is where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” and demanded the allegiance of the world’s Muslims. Taking it back will be essential to winning the war against ISIS. But as fighters opposed to ISIS try to advance elsewhere on the battlefield, little is being done to promote the reconciliation between Shia and Sunni Arabs that Iraq really needs—both to construct a force capable of beating ISIS, in Mosul and beyond, and to create the political conditions to prevent its return.
ISIS and the ‘Loser Effect’
We—the Kurds in Iraq—believe the road to Mosul begins in Baghdad. My colleagues in the Kurdistan Region Security Council and I are working closely with the global coalition in the war on ISIS and planning for the Mosul offensive. (I’m writing here in a personal capacity.) Our peshmerga remain the most effective ground force against ISIS in Iraq, and have already defeated the group on every major front where we’ve faced them, pushing the jihadists to the edge of Mosul after the group’s attempts to expand north from the city. Joint raids by U.S. and Kurdish special-operations forces in and around the city, as well as in Syria, have netted troves of intelligence on the group’s operations and finances.
And our peshmerga will continue creating the conditions to allow a liberating force to take Mosul back. We have let the Iraqi army to use Kurdish territory as a staging ground. Since doing so, in fact, we’ve seen a sudden increase in ISIS attacks into Kurdish-held territory. But our brave men alone cannot go into Mosul, an Arab city, where they would be seen as an occupying force. Put simply, given that we Kurds aspire to run our own affairs in our own territory in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, no peshmerga will die to restore Iraqi unity. The Kurds cannot force Shia and Sunni Arabs to live together in peace.
At least 40,000 peshmerga continue to hold a 600-mile border against ISIS in northern Iraq. These fighters have relied on mostly aging, Soviet-era equipment to clear over 8,000 miles of territory. We intend to keep it all, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Iraqi army abandoned in June 2014 as ISIS swept across northern Iraq. We are part of the global coalition against ISIS, and Islamic State-occupied territory remains a threat to us, so we have an interest in participating in the Mosul operation. But we expect the Iraqi government to compensate us, both militarily and politically.
Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has announced plans for an independence referendum later this year in territories reclaimed by the peshmerga. I and many of my compatriots in the Kurdistan region believe the Iraqi government in Baghdad is deliberately pushing us away: It has suspended of our share of the country’s oil revenues for the last two years, withheld payments to the peshmerga, and lobbied against our attempts to purchase arms for the war on ISIS. In 2015, for instance, we received only one weapons shipment from Baghdad. It was mostly ammunition. For the rest, we had to rely on other countries.
took back from ISIS last December in its first major victory against the group. In that case, the government could rely on a small but cohesive Sunni front to help. This meant that the operation did not require Shia militias to occupy the Sunni city. Given the brutality some of those militias have displayed elsewhere, many locals might not prefer that state of affairs to ISIS rule.
Mosul, on the other hand, is a much larger city, with a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. It’s the political and tribal center of anti-government sentiment. The Kurdish government and the international anti-ISIS coalition have estimated that there are nearly 9,000 die-hard ISIS fighters in the city, and that dislodging them will require at least two divisions, or 30,000 men, engaged in house-to-house fighting for up to six months. As of now, however, nearly two years since Mosul fell, just 5,400 men from the Iraqi army are in place in Makhmour, south of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, 50 miles from Mosul.
The U.S. is devoting painstaking efforts to keeping Shia militias out of Mosul, where their involvement could begin an endless cycle of score-settling and diminish hopes that the Sunnis will turn against ISIS and revolt. But it was this same kind of Sunni revolt that was required to defeat the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the effort against ISIS cannot succeed without a similar mobilization in the Sunni areas where the group predominates. The volunteers in the current fight, however, are riven by ethnic differences and mistrust. Each group is competing for influence in a post-ISIS Mosul; some, backed by Turkey, antagonize the Iranian-backed Shia militias. Iran and Turkey, in turn, are filling the vacuum left by the government in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government, whose policies created the current crisis, has left those same policies largely in place. Officials have done little to offer Mosul’s people an alternative between domination by Shia militias on the one hand or ISIS control on the other.
But the right policies can increase the operation’s chances of success. Baghdad can do more to encourage a Sunni-led revolt. There are over a million mostly Sunni Arabs living in displacement in the Kurdistan region, and in our conversations with them they’ve expressed that they’re not interested in fighting for Mosul unless political and security guarantees come from Baghdad. Further devolution of power to Sunni provinces can give the community a stake in the country’s future and buy-in to the political process.
And if Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants to encourage more peshmerga participation in the fight for Mosul—including help organizing Sunni groups—he can restore federal payments to Kurdistan and provide equipment. These are rights, not privileges, enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution. The peshmerga have not been paid for five months. His government’s practice of providing arms to Kurdish groups that refuse to come under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs undermines our region and should stop.
These gestures would lesson tensions and give the Kurds incentives to fight a battle that’s fundamentally not theirs. Beyond the Mosul operation, Abadi can accept he cannot hold back the Kurds, and offer political recognition of our national goals. We will not return to a united Iraq if Mosul is liberated. The gulf between our government in Erbil and the Iraqi government in Baghdad is unbridgeable.
We can provide the means for a swift victory. But the ability to hold Mosul in the long term will depend on the Shia-led government reaching an inclusive political agreement with its Sunni community. The Sunnis, too, need their autonomy in the areas they dominate, including the parts of northern and western Iraq where ISIS currently holds sway. The right to create federal regions is stipulated in the Iraqi constitution, and many Sunni officials believe doing so holds the key to a secure future. In the past, however, calls for a regional government in Sunni areas, similar to what the Kurds have, were met with the arrival of the Iraqi army and a declaration of martial law by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Kurds believe long-term stability can only be achieved by recognizing the new, de facto segregated Iraq. No amount of firepower will deliver peace.