The northern Iraqi city of Hawija represents the last Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold in the country. After the gruelling battle for Mosul and the rapid victory at Tal Afar, the Iraqi state is on the verge of winning its immediate war against ISIS. Hawija and the nearby area are surrounded by Iraq state- and Kurdish-controlled territory, forming what might appear to be a tight seal.
But things are not all as they seem.
What has been called the siege of the Hawija pocket is less tight than the word implies. ISIS troops and supplies have been able to move through the nearby Hamrin mountains with relative ease. The area has been used as a base by insurgent groups since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Michael Pregent, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, said: ‘ISIS is isolated in Hawija but ISIS 2.0 has morphed to the al-Qaeda model and is still able to conduct attacks across Iraq’.
The fate of Hawija in the short term is in little doubt. While it remains in ISIS’s hands it is a threat both to the Iraqi state and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Both have good reasons to wish to remove ISIS from the city.
Michael Stephens, a research fellow for the Royal United Services Institute, said: ‘I expect, as with Tal Afar, that this will all be over quite quickly. The estimation is that there are 2,000 [ISIS] fighters holed up there, but they have been taking casualties at quite a high rate simply from air strikes. I doubt that they can last all that long.’
‘The fighters holed up there are not the best that ISIS has to offer,’ he added.
The battle ought to be quick and decisive. Stephens said, if all goes to plan, ‘the town will basically be surrounded from all sides, I cannot see how ISIS will be able to disperse its forces effectively on eight fronts at once’.
Thus the real question concerns what comes after ISIS. Hawija has already sustained damage from coalition air strikes. If there is real damage to the area’s infrastructure and the stuff of ordinary life, as well as high numbers of civilian casualties, the residents of the Hawija pocket will not be well-disposed towards their liberators.
Stephens said: ‘The question in my mind is less about whether [ISIS] can be defeated, but about the damage to civilian life and the infrastructure of the town caused by the battle, which I expect will be relatively substantial’.
The damage cities sustain in being liberated from ISIS is a serious problem. In Mosul, the destruction caused deaths of civilians and provided the backdrop for sectarian reprisals after ISIS was defeated.
Pregent said: ‘ISIS was never hard to dislodge unless IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps]-backed militias were trying to do it. They’ve failed at every attempt without US air support.’
Things are also complicated by the fact that Hawija is situated between zones controlled by the KRG and the Baghdad government. There is little appetite in some quarters for attempting to take the area at all, as doing so could only result in more complexity and possible violence.
This could leave civilians suffering under ISIS rule for more time than many international coalition members would prefer.
The upcoming Kurdish referendum on independence could complicate things. It has already caused KRG President Masoud Barzani to deny that his peshmerga will co-operate with the Iraqi security forces.
Stephens said the problem is ‘whether the referendum screws up Iraqi Army and Peshmerga joint operations, which unfortunately seem to be subject to significant tension at present’.
Pregent said: ‘The peshmerga will hold positions between Hawija and Kirkuk to maintain their advantage when it comes to Kirkuk’.
The Hawija battle, when it comes, will likely be over quickly. But the consequences of a badly planned or impatiently executed operation could be extensive.
If the peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces do not coordinate, ISIS troops may be able to extract a heavy price for the loss of the city.
If coalition airpower is used to flatten Hawija, the future may be a bleak one for its inhabitants, despite their liberation. And if the city serves as a militia staging post on the road to Kirkuk or becomes the centre of an Arab–Kurdish fault line, the problems the future could hold will only increase.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.