Why Mosul matters: security, sectarianism and stability in a post-ISIS Iraq

Katherine Pye

As Iraqi government Special Forces enter the outskirts of Mosul and Kurdish forces advance from a new front in the north, the world witnesses the beginning of the end of the great black banner which once sprawled across the Levant.

Relief, however, will be short lived. The defeat of ISIS is by no means the dawn of a new Iraq. If the current course is pursued, the events of 2016 will continue a cycle of insurgency and jihad which has spanned decades. It may lead the country to the same fate as its Syrian neighbor with global repercussions to match.

However, Mosul presents an unrivalled opportunity to reverse this. Firstly, the battle for Mosul will be the largest deployment of Iraqi forces since 2003, significant in itself as a push by the weak Iraqi state to assert its dominance in a region of Iraq where they had never traditionally exerted much control. If the government is successful it is a promising first step for a stable new Iraqi state.

Secondly, Mosul embodies political and strategic problems in the nation; the Iraqi army are leading forces inside the city whilst their supporters are disparate and disjointed. They form a highly unstable fractious coalition including Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Sunni tribal units and Shia militia. Such a multilateral attack will set an important precedent for how ethno-religious groups are able to work with each other as Iraq begins reconstruction.

Furthermore, unlike previously liberated cities such as Tikrit and Fallujah, the northern city of Mosul is religiously diverse, meaning the way in which anti-ISIS forces handle their victory and treat Mosul’s inhabitants in the immediate aftermath could have crucial implications for ethno-religious politics in Iraq in the future. 

Government responses to divided communities such as Mosul will also have a real impact on geopolitics in the region. Whilst the USA has poured funds into Pershmerga coffers, Turkey has been watching the situation closely. Erdogan’s government have been eager to play a more dominant role since interventions in Jarabulus last September which threatened the Kurds with full-scale retreat.

Iran too has demonstrated strategic interests in the region, with the government funding the launch of a "United Shia Liberation Army", linking sectarian conflict in Iraq to Shia ‘struggles’ in Yemen and Syria. Should sectarian violence break out after Mosul is liberated, there are more than enough key players to intervene. A Syrian-style proxy war is never far away.

Yet despite this, groups fighting ISIS have not yet all met and there is no agreed verdict on what victory would look like in a political rather than military sense. As in 2003, troops move in once again without a clear strategy or any plans beyond the immediate term. Astoundingly, even US strategy in the region is overwhelmingly  ‘short term’, as outlined by Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Instead, each stakeholder will most likely rush to fill the ISIS vacuum by grabbing as much power as possible. This risks collapsing back into turmoil after fighting finishes, in a settlement where central government authority has never been assertive even in peacetime.

But what is often forgotten is that in the months that follow a defeat of ISIS on the ground, an estimated 30,000 foreign fighters will travel back to their home states. Like Al-Qaida after the US invasion of Afghanistan, these brutalised individuals represent an urgent yet invisible security threat, transforming from a state to a “brand”, maintaining an ability to inspire and recruit all over the world.

ISIS itself was born under conditions dangerously similar to those we see in Iraq today. The founder of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, the Iraqi Sunni insurgency which became ISIS, was Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was a Jordanian fighter living in Afghanistan under the Taliban when the US invasion forced them out. Moving to Iraq, he worked underground to build a new Islamic state, carrying out suicide attacks in Shia areas to heighten underlying sectarian tensions. Aggression against Sunnis from the Iraqi government, allied Shia militias or US-backed Kurds would provide perfect propaganda for insurgents in a fragile post-war Iraq.

What can the Iraqi government and its allies do to break this cycle of insurgency, or avoid sliding into total sectarian warfare in the absence of a common enemy? As a matter of urgency all groups opposed to Daesh must meet before invading Mosul, which the US can help facilitate. Religious communities and tribal leaders in and around Mosul need a platform on which to correspond and cooperate before hostilities are further entrenched. The Iraqi government also needs to set a precedent of much lower tolerance for Shia militia brutality. The recapture of Mosul is a critical time for the state to demonstrate post-ISIS Iraq is inclusive and even handed, robbing any Sunni extremist insurgency of the chaos it needs. Addressing Iraq’s long-term security issues requires strong leadership, cool-headed pragmatic decision making and a long-term outlook. At the moment, all are in dangerously short supply.  

Our Man in Syria: The Increasing Dangers of International Journalism

Zach Klamann

In the mid-morning light of revolutionary Misrata, Libya, renowned photojournalist Tim Hetherington was in a situation he’d been in too many times to count: trekking through a warzone with other journalists searching for the shot he needed for his story assignment. It was early 2011, so the war was just beginning to intensify across the country, and against his better judgement and usual practice, Hetherington had placed himself very close to the increasingly dangerous fighting. When he and fellow wartime-photojournalist Chris Hondros crossed the street to get a photo of dead rebel soldiers, a mortar landed on them and the rebels with whom they were working. Immediately, the other journalists present rushed the two of them to hospital. Hondros would succumb to his wounds later that day, while Hetherington would bleed out in the arms of legendary Sunday Times war-correspondent Marie Colvin, who would suffer a similar fate just months later in Homs, Syria as Assad forces mortared her compound.

Hetherington and Hondros were in Misrata a month after four New York Times correspondents, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, were kidnapped and beaten by Qaddafi forces before being released. In the coming years, the public beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Daesh would elicit worldwide horror. But, these are just the tip of the iceberg. Since 2011, 85 journalists have been killed in Syria alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Countless others have disappeared and remain missing to this day.

The danger has forced others out of the game or away from the worst of it. Prominent figures like Lynsey Addario, who considers spending months in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan (“The Most Dangerous Place in the World”) with Hetherington and getting kidnapped by Qaddafi’s military normal hazards of her job, now calls not going to Syria a “no-brainer.” Pulitzer Prize winning Esquire and New York Times correspondent CJ Chivers, whose expertise in artillery and munitions helped conclude that forces loyal to Qaddafi were responsible for Hetherington’s and Hondros’ deaths, has retired from war reporting because of its growing danger

All of this helps explain where the trend has led: war reporting is too dangerous for many of the big players. Looking back just ten years, every major publication from the Guardian to Al Jazeera had a bureau in Kabul and one in Baghdad. But, not a single one retains a reporter in Damascus or Misrata, much less a bureau. The risk of having someone kidnapped and paying gigantic sums for his or her release is too great for most companies, especially with the budget constraints of journalism today.

Consequently, freelancers have filled the void where there were once well run, well organized and well paid organisations. For the freelancers themselves, this is often a bad deal. With regular reporters, there are checks, a system in which someone is constantly aware of where they are, what they’re doing and when they should be back in the bureau. Freelancers are rarely given this kind of support, being asked, instead, to simply get the work done. As Richard Pendry put it in the Columbia Journalism Review, ‘News outlets are happy to reap the rewards of dangerous reporting, so long as freelancers shoulder all the responsibility,’ responsibility that, because they don’t have an organisation to fund them, means getting first aid training, protective gear and, crucially, insurance for themselves..

Yet, the allure of war reporting still attracts some journalists — for some it’s the possibility of glory and thrill seeking, but most are really in it to show the atrocities of war. So for these intrepid few, what happens if or when they get to the border?

In the classic model, because visas in war-torn countries are hard to come by, most reporters are smuggled into the country and start paying translator and “fixers” to help them find drivers, places to stay and other basic necessities to take care of them in an environment they don’t know. Often, major publications have access to and knowledge of reliable fixers who can get their reporters to the story safely. This meant that, even in the old model, freelancers had a harder time getting around safely in war zones. Paying for all these people and the petrol and the hotels and the food is expensive, so without a wealthy media organisation’s funding, freelancers have to pay and make connections for themselves.

Syria has made this all the more complicated. In the early days of the revolution, everything was normal, according to foreign correspondent James Harkin. However, he says, this ‘normal’ only works because journalists bring attention to rebel causes and sometimes the abuses of the regime, which, they hope, will bring action from the West. When the help never came to Syria, they found a new purpose for the journalists: kidnappings for ransom.

Yet, while it started with ransom, it didn’t stay that way. When reporters are kidnapped, they aren’t always put up for ransom. Sometimes, they are traded back and forth between rebel groups, transferring between run-down factories and abandoned Roman-era catacombs. All the groups realise the prize of having a westerner, especially an American, so instead of hoping to shine international light on Assad Regime human rights abuses, they use reporters as trading pieces, as Harkin found in his search for the now deceased James Foley and the still missing Austin Tice. This shift in dynamics, in which no one wants the reporters for anything more than currency, has made Syria more dangerous for journalists than Lebanon, or Iraq, or the Balkans or anything else in recent memory.

For those who do make it out, there’s often a toll to be paid. The University of Toronto conducted a study in which they found the rates of depression among journalists were much higher than they had been in Iraq. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is finally being recognised among war reporters and is being seen in many who return from Syria, especially those who have been kidnapped.

All of this has pushed media organisations like the Times, Telegraph and BBC to outlaw the usage of freelancers for their publications. However, many continue to do so when the need for the story is greatest or skirt their own rules by having the freelancer leave the danger area before filing the story, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

For those of us at home, the dangers facing freelancers are also incredibly important. It means, as Uri Friedman put it in Vanity Fair, ‘This century's worst humanitarian crisis is grinding on as a dwindling number of journalists bear witness to its destruction,’ so we ‘rarely see it.’

While millions of migrants race toward Europe and hundreds of thousands die in the fighting, most of the freelancers have bowed out, leaving news organisations to gather what they can from a complex network of verifiable Twitter feeds and Syrian journalists, who often complain that they lack the training, safety or background to do their jobs properly. Yet, the work they do is often the only way we have any idea what is going on in Syria at all, and they face the same risks as foreign journalists, except they don’t have a home to return to in the West.

So, as the US, Russia, Iran and much of the rest of the Middle East funnel fighters and firearms into the desolate country, most of us have little to no idea exactly what’s happening and what our governments are doing because the situation is just too dangerous to send in a journalist who, if he or she survives, will be treated like currency by those he or she paid for protection.

Facing IS: At Best Buying Time?


“Despite talk of military action, there was one thing we all agreed on: terrorism is resolved through politics and economics not through arms and intelligence, however important a role these play.” Those are the recollections of Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General of MI5, of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. These thoughts are perhaps worth considering now more than ever. Firstly, consider arms and intelligence, and the important role that these play. Military action against the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’, (they are ironically neither Islamic, nor a state), has so far proved successful in preventing their advances. US air strikes to assist the Peshmerga were pivotal in preventing IS from taking Erbil, as strikes to assist the Iraqi government were in preventing IS from seizing key Iraqi dams.

That said, at the time of publishing, reports are emerging from Syrian Kurds that air strikes are not actually working. One should take note of the mission creep that is now occurring, with US airstrikes being employed far beyond the scope of the initial objectives stated by President Obama on August 8. Those were specifically to help the fleeing Yazidis, and to protect the Kurdish people and US personnel in Erbil. Proponents would argue that nevertheless, the strikes to date have helped to contain the advance of IS. They have indeed played an important role. However, the idea that this makes them successful is a dangerously narrow way to judge success. In reality, there are a number of significant risks that arise from such strikes, even if they have physically restricted the advance of IS.

Terrorism is resolved through Politics and Economics

Let’s start with the blindingly obvious. Recent history has shown us that even the most advanced weapons technology does not eliminate collateral damage. In a 2013 report entitled “Will I Be Next?”, Amnesty International cites sources claiming that the US launched 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. It says that according to these same sources, between 400 and 900 civilians were killed in these strikes, and at least 600 people were seriously injured. Human Rights Watch released a similar report, noting the civilian casualties arising from drone strikes in Yemen. Beyond the intrinsic harm of such damage, and that cannot be overstated, such casualties are instrumentally counterproductive to the pursuit of the objectives that are used to justify the strikes in the first place. In Pakistan, they have alienated local communities, fostered hatred, and ultimately act as a recruitment tool for the very groups that the strikes claim to target. Similarly, such casualties would foster the same resentment in Iraq, and act as a recruitment tool for IS. Reports have already suggested that IS fighters have moved themselves and their military assets into built up areas, surrounding themselves with the civilian population. We risk feeding into IS’s wider narrative. In the Commons debate on the issue last week, George Galloway warned against Britain and its allies “returning to the scene of their former crimes”.

Whatever one thinks of the rest of his speech, and indeed his wider views, this is undeniably a sentiment that is felt across the region. The Arabs are not unaware of their history. The state of Iraq was only demarcated by the League of Nations in 1920, before being placed under British mandatory control. The Arabs that fought an insurgency against the Ottomans during the First World War were encouraged to do so by the British, and were promised an independent state, free of British interference in return. They were, of course, betrayed, with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French defining the division of the region between the two powers after the war. The post-war order in the Middle East, the nation states that exist, and the power blocs that have since controlled them, can be traced back to the heavy influence of the then colonial powers. Also note the proliferation of Al- Qaeda in Iraq that occurred precisely because of the 2003 invasion. Bombing Iraq again risks making Britain less safe (again). What about the presence of the Gulf states and the Iraqi government in the coalition? Iraqis know that the Gulf states are closely allied to the West, and this further feeds into the IS narrative of overhauling the existing order. As for the Iraqi government, it is unrealistic to expect Iraqi Sunnis to immediately support it after years of marginalisation at its hands. This will take time, and ultimately, it requires politics, the only real solution. That is not to mention the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian dilemmas. Syria has not been included, Turkey is wary of arming the Kurds, and Iran has refused to militarily cooperate. A failure to tackle these dilemmas may present insurmountable challenges to the success of any military action.


Nevertheless, bombing will inevitably continue and escalate, now with UK involvement. But despite what the likes of Senator John McCain will have you believe, the idea that military action will actually defeat IS and solve this problem is pure fantasy. It represents the short-term horizon, acute historical amnesia and complete lack of understanding of the complexities of Middle Eastern politics that have crept into foreign policy. If military action now plays out as planned, and that is a big if, it will only weaken IS for a period of time, and not defeat them. In addition, bombing risks making the problem even worse. Our leaders realise that something needs to be done, but in the absence of a coherent strategy, have reverted to bombing. Our armed forces are being asked to do something that is perhaps counterproductive, presumably to make us feel better. There are, of course, other ways to combat IS. Former British military officer Frank Ledwidge notes that “Nothing would better fit their [IS’s] agenda of recruiting Sunni sentiment and active support than to have western bombers overhead and Shia soldiers in front of them.” He instead suggests “intelligent, effective covert action, and I have no doubt this has begun.” In effect, he proposes UK military action, but not bombing. Ledwidge wants Britain to be involved militarily, but only in a covert manner, thus not feeding into the IS narrative. Perhaps this is wiser, but again, it can only buy time.


It is this said period of time that must be used wisely. In order to truly challenge IS, we must move beyond a reactive, knee-jerk foreign policy that consists overwhelmingly in arms and intelligence, and develop a longer-term view to engage in the political and economic spheres that Baroness Manningham-Buller speaks of. The common denominator of the states where such fundamentalism truly takes hold is poor governance and a broken state and/or society. Indeed, IS were given the opportunity to take hold in Iraq by the incompetence, corruption and sectarianism of Prime Minister Maliki and his government.

So what is the truly effective solution in states such as Iraq? As John Simpson puts it: “It may not be easy, but it is abundantly clear… The only serious answer is to turn them back into real countries once again.” He suggests pressure for good government, carefully targeted aid, counter-terrorism assistance, and military training. This is indeed something that the UK can influence. In 2012, Britain reportedly gave £86.8 million to Somalia, and £200 million to Afghanistan, ranked first and third in Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt nations respectively, and both countries where fundamentalism has taken hold. In a similar spirit, the UK should use its influence to ensure that its considerably close allies in the Gulf clamp down on the private individuals that are funding groups like IS. These are but a few tangible policies that the UK can pursue to take on IS. More specifically to Iraq, a political alternative has to be provided to the areas where IS has taken hold. This involves stopping the marginalisation of the Sunnis that occurred under Maliki. The idea of local Sunni units to police Sunni areas, and Shia units to police Shia areas, all part of a unified national guard, has been tabled. Perhaps that may be a start. More fundamentally, Iraq needs more federalism. It is through such a system that sectarian and tribal grievances can be properly addressed, and the wealth of the nation can be shared. It provides a channel through which local issues can be managed and controlled.

IS must be defeated by intelligent, effective, covert action

Ultimately, one must ask the question of what drives people into such violence. Political institutions that can deal with the root issues will prevent marginalised citizens being attracted to, and forced into violence. Such an approach involves long-term engagement and commitment in Iraq and elsewhere, and that is how we must really do battle. Whether we like it or not, military action will, at the very best, only buy time. More realistically, it may lead to dire consequences, and simply add fuel to the fire. The key is politics to challenge the root causes. There is no doubt that the phenomenon that IS represents must be tackled, and Britain can play a role. But if there is one thing that we can be certain of, one thing that history has repeatedly taught us, it is that the nuanced challenges posed by the Middle East cannot be solved militarily. It is worth summoning Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Westminster, take heed.