As the final assault on the stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul is in the works, important questions are going unanswered. Chief among them is: What will ISIS do in Iraq after Mosul falls?
Though ISIS itself seems new, with its remarkable conquering of territory in 2014 seeming to herald a new terror organisation and a new modus operandi, the organisation has deep roots.
ISIS militants learnt how to fight insurgent wars following the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003. They learnt the politics of sectarianism from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of ISIS’s predecessor organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
It is likely that ISIS will retreat into the deserts, where it has great strategic depth. The insurgents did this during the US troop surge after 2007, when urban warfare became too difficult and too costly to sustain.
ISIS may wish to re-establish ties with Sunni tribes in Anbar province. These ties were central to the way AQI operated. These links were undermined and consequently diminished by the Sahwa movement, in which the United States replaced the militants as a partner Sunni tribes could trust.
Amid this, it is highly likely that ISIS will retain some capacity for orchestrating terrorist attacks. This is essential to the ISIS brand. As its territory diminishes and its power as a self-proclaimed state declines, it will only retain support by maintaining its primacy in international terrorism.
Some of the attacks carried out in ISIS’s name will be undertaken by its operatives. An example of this was the unexpected use of sleeper cells in Kirkuk last year, which inflicted damage and undercut the newfound success of the Iraqi military. ISIS will continue its programme of inspired foreign terrorism, with adherents persuaded to commit acts of violence and trained and aided remotely.
There is still acrimony surrounding the failure of Iraq’s security forces to defeat ISIS and the great retreat during which much of the country fell to the terror state.
Some Iraqi Sunnis see the retreat not as a failure in the face of unexpected opposition but as a deliberate ploy by then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to surrender the Sunni areas he had no intention of governing to ISIS, all the better to recapture them bloodily in the years to come.
That this idea has traction shows how fractious things have become.
It is also largely unknown how other actors will proceed after the caliphate falls.
Abdulla Hawez, who researches Turkey, Iraq and Syria and issues relating to Kurds at King’s College London, said: ‘The real challenge is going to be post-ISIS Mosul with each group trying to get a bigger share of the cake’.
This is a result of Mosul’s diversity and the interest of external forces in the fate of Iraq in general. Hawez noted that, in addition to Mosul’s large Sunni population, ‘there are large Turkmen, Yezidi, Christian and Kurdish concentrations in the province, with each hoping to get autonomy’.
There is little chance, he said, that this could develop into open hostility. The peace of Iraq after ISIS is removed from Mosul will not, at least immediately, be disturbed. Peace will hold, but stability is still some ways off. Without US attention and interest, lasting stability could prove difficult to attain.
Iraq also faces challenges to its integrity from a number of sources. The interplay of various groups, each with different ties to the Iraqi state and varying loyalty to the notion of Iraq, will decide the success of the country after Mosul falls.
The Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yezidi affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), are part of the People’s Mobilisation Forces – popular militias, some of which are notably pro-Iran.
The YBS is, in Hawez’s words, ‘allowing Iranian movement, including movement of weapons, to Syria in return for money and weapons’ because it controls the border between Iraqi Sinjar and Syria. This is a challenge to the integrity of the Iraqi state. Double dealing of this sort cannot continue if Iraq is to remain unified and at peace.
Iraq’s upcoming capture of Mosul should be a moment of sincere celebration but it cannot be allowed to obscure or to mask more systemic problems within the country and to serve as an excuse for failing to prepare for the next stage in ISIS’s metamorphosis. Keeping the country united is one way to begin that vital preparation.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.