The retaking of Mosul by a hodgepodge of forces led by the Iraqi government has become imminent. It may happen in weeks, if not in days. It will be the recapturing of the land and buildings only, for the occupants are fleeing en masse. Pitched battles between the Islamic State fighters and Iraqi forces/militias are expected to continue for months. While the ISIS might be driven out, there is little hope of peace returning to the region. The reason being the extremely tainted makeup of the so-called liberators and the massive war crimes they have perpetuated during the campaign. Mosul is heading towards a disaster and its so-called saviors are responsible for it.
The first casualty even before the start of the offensive was human life. Blood was spilled indiscriminately with massive war crimes perpetuated by the Iraqi forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias. Given the extremely hostile environment, one could not expect the citizens to return to their homes in the foreseeable future. There won’t be any homes left by then, given the mass looting and destruction campaign by the militias.
The campaign was faulty to begin with. It came on the heels of a few terror attacks in the US, and appeared to be a hasty attempt by the then-president Barack Obama to regain some public support. As I had argued back in October, the lack of a Plan B had doomed the offensive for an eventual failure. Much blood had already spilled by then and Amnesty International had raised alarms about rampant war crimes. Obama eventually left the White House and his successor has largely allowed the pre-existing arrangement to continue. President Donald Trump has not forgotten to reiterate his old rhetoric of wiping out the ISIS in the meanwhile. With such a shoddy campaign, the outfit could only be weakened but not eliminated.
Still, all hope is not lost. There is still room for course correction. If the Trump administration really wants to distinguish itself from its predecessor, it should do away with the feet-dragging. The Obama administration looked the other way as the Iraqi government and allied militias perpetuated their rein of terror. There was even an element of collusion as U.S. advisers were embedded with some of the military units.
First, the Trump administration needs to extricate itself of the unholy alliance with the Iraqi regime. The latter is practically a stooge of Iran, of which Trump is not a big fan. Iran is the key player behind the Shiite militias and there have been reports of currently-serving Iranian officers being embedded among them. These militias are hell-bent on destroying the very fabric of the Iraqi society, as they take their orders from Tehran. They are also the ones carrying out the most horrendous of atrocities. If the Iraqi government is serious about establishing its authority, it needs to ban the militias rather than enabling and legalizing them.
Second, the Americans could work with Turkey and other regional partners to chalk out a long-term strategy for the region. Some sort of patch-up between the Kurds and Turkey is required, with the US acting as the mediator. The biggest onus lies on the Iraqi government, which has not shown any signs of taking the embattled Sunnis on board. The deeply sectarian policies of Baghdad have already exacted a huge toll on them. Current dynamics indicate a rehashing of the violence and state-suppression cycle that has dogged the region for over a decade.
The stakeholders in any future solution would include the Iraqi government, the Kurds and the Sunnis — with the US and Turkey acting as possible mediators/guarantors. Iran should be kept out, for it is the key instigator and enabler of chaos in the region. The Iraqi government can help itself a great deal by saying no to Tehran. It can do that by strengthening its internal political structure. This would essentially call for an all-inclusive government and constitutional reforms, which could empower the disenfranchised and embattled Sunnis.
The Syrian situation is intrinsically linked with that of Iraq. The actual fight against ISIS is in Syria. If Trump is really serious about re-establishing US primacy, he needs to divest himself of the infatuation with Vladimir Putin. Circumstances suggest he will be forced to re-calibrate his earlier stance as any tangible victory against ISIS will involve the removal of the breeding grounds. The Obama administration was least concerned about addressing the root cause. It preferred dithering and turning a blind eye to the Assad-Iranian nexus, which has already caused the loss of over half a million lives. Trump could undo this flawed policy, if he listens to sane minds in his cabinets like Jim Mattis. It remains a big “if” though.
Otherwise, the worst case scenario is already unfolding. Territorial control of Mosul by the Iraqi coalition, coupled with mass displacement and widespread atrocities will only embolden the extremists. If that is the way to go, one should stop dreaming about eliminating the ISIS or bringing peace to the region.