The March on Mosul: A Battle for Hope and Influence

A cautiously united offensive presses further into the Nineveh region, liberating towns and villages as it prepares to lay siege to ISIL’s last major stronghold in Iraq. Kurdish forces and intersectional tribal militias are fighting alongside an ever-improving Iraqi army in a joint effort to reclaim Mosul, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his Caliphate in June 2014. Iraq’s previously bustling commercial centre has turned quiet. For the last two years, its people have sat in the grips of a terror organisation internationally denounced for its blatant dismissal of human rights and its punishing religious doctrine. If the armed forces, backed by American arms, Turkish tanks, and British bombers, can continue to retake ground and push ISIL forces out of defensible territory, Mosul can be returned to Baghdad’s rule of law, like Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this year. Successive advances through Mosul’s outskirts underscore growing fractures in ISIL’s influence and promise millions an emancipation from cruel violations of basic human rights and overbearing oppression in every aspect of their lives.

In what ‘may become the biggest battle yet’ of the campaign against the insurgency’s destructive expansion across Iraq and Syria, reclaiming Mosul marks the beginning of the end of al-Baghdadi’s Salafist jihad, building the groundwork for diplomatic discussions following the restoration of political order to a region torn by years of violent turmoil. ISIL’s rapid seizure of vast area across the region, and its subsequent clampdown on communication and movement of those in it, have had harsh effects on the quality of life of the innocent unlucky enough to reside within its borders, who lack such rights as basic as salaries. Embargoes by foreign powers and crippled supply lines have turned food, water, and electricity into luxurious commodities. Moreover, relentless bombing raids continue to pound occupying soldiers and isolated families alike. In class, schoolchildren are taught not to fear suicide bombers. The intentional defamation of the Tomb of Jonah and other sacred places simultaneously demoralises and infuriates the notion of cultural heritage. Barred from using the internet and constantly subjugated to graphic propaganda campaigns, Mosul’s urban dwellers lack the legal right to protest their situation, as well as the physical capacity to attempt it. The city has become a ‘large prison’ governed by Soviet-style wardens.

Image courtesy of Aa2-2004, © 2013, some rights reserved.

With Mosul back in Iraqi control, not only could a small degree of normal life be returned to those who live there, but the ease with which further cities can be liberated from ISIL’s grip is increased dramatically. No longer being able to use Mosul as a centre for Iraqi operations disorganises ISIL’s forces, making them less able to pursue their agenda in Syria and elsewhere. As ISIL retreats, it leaves scorched earth and demolished buildings in its path, adding to the death toll and the cost of proper humanitarian relief. ISIL is on the decline not only due to its continuous string of military losses but its lack of support outside of its borders. The terror group is at a growing disadvantage not only because it is so extreme that it cannot cooperate with its neighbors, but because its intensity indirectly creates cooperation among its neighbors. That even Al Qaeda considers ISIL’s violence ‘too extreme and brutal’ is indicative of the latter’s isolation even among terrorist groups in the region. Kurdish forces have signed conditional and temporary ceasefires with Turkey and Shi’ite militia groups in an effort to consolidate opposition to ISIL’s aggression. Far short of a military alliance, the cessation of most violence between the parties weakens mutual animosities and enables more constructive conversations.

Iraqi special forces divisions comprise the bulk of the force marching on Mosul, but they are joined by Peshmerga as well as Sunni and Shia tribal militias. While some of the ground forces are trained or funded by nearby governments and armed by Western powers, each of these parties has a stake not only in erasing ISIL from the map but in ensuring their geopolitical interests are realised following the conflict’s end. Turkish President Erdogan has made clear he would protect the Sunni Turkmen population in the nearby Tal Afar from Shi’ite militia groups, backed by Iranian military advisors, whom he fears to cause further terror and fighting. The Kurdistan Regional Government, which has signed agreements with the United States to ensure its infantry’s adequate supply of armaments and ammunition, has emphasised Mosul’s Kurdish plurality, and views the conflict as an opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to function independently of Iraqi oversight. Aside from culture and nationalism, the disputes see Russia clashing with Turkey over oil deals in Nineveh following ISIL’s retreat. To the victor traditionally go the spoils, but this uneasy group of victors may create even more conflict in their efforts to divide the spoils appropriately.

The struggle against ISIL has brought divisive parties together, but the structural conditions that manifested and intensified the conflict still exist. Competition for increasingly critical irrigable land and oil aside, radicalism and sectarian violence exacerbate already prominent nationalist tensions. One might hope that the cooperation involved in bringing about ISIL’s demise would ease the resolution of these disagreements, but it is likely that the unison of these groups is only temporary; terror, massacre, and destruction have been wrought by the clashing of worldviews and an inability to reconcile differences. In order to resolve these tensions and to avoid a reincarnation of something quasi-ISIL in the future, the parties involved will need to negotiate constructively when drawing new borders and writing new constitutions. Even if politics continue to cause disruption and dissuade conflict resolution, the reclamation of Mosul and the seemingly destined demise of ISIL are a leap in the right direction for those who live there, who can, for the first time in two years, walk outside without escorts and freely listen to music.

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