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.  

What About the Children?

Nilen Patel

This is Europe’s quiet crisis. The lives of children are depicted as the most precious. They are meant to be lives to be protected and nurtured. They are supposed to be the future of our societies after all.

However, 96,500 unaccompanied children applied for asylum across Europe in 2015. Over 10,000 of these are unaccounted for or missing.

Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, believes many of these children are working as slaves, on construction sites and farm land or as sex workers. How can we let these children, the most vulnerable and valued members of society, be the ones to be let down by our European politics? In a society governed by numbers, the extent of human trafficking has long since passed the stage in Europe where it should demand attention and response.

Perhaps this is just further evidence of Europe’s ineffective strategy to cope with refugees. UNICEF found that children currently have to wait up to 11 months between registration and transfer to a country that has agreed to accept them. In Sweden up to 10 children are reported missing each week and in Slovenia more than 80 per cent of unaccompanied children went missing from reception centres. The situation is a complex and emotional one, but traffickers are taking advantage of the waves of migrants and operating across Europe due to the weakness of Europe’s child protection system.

Even on a national scale, we are far from rising to the challenge. Just last month the House of Commons defeated an amendment to an immigration bill that would have seen the UK accept 3000 child refugees. The Home Office argued that they were doing enough already to help child refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. David Cameron maintains that we must ensure that refugees don’t have the incentive to travel across Europe. Yet the National Crime Agency identified that the number of children being trafficked in the UK increased by 46% from last year, so this is a problem that is clearly not diminishing or going to disappear.

What the Home Office failed to acknowledge is that a significant number of these refugees were under 14 years of age, and travelling alone without the protection of adult family members or guardians. As a means to pacify protestors to the UK stance, the government has agreed to fast-track child migrants who have family members in the UK as well as take in children registered in Greece, Italy or France before the refugee deal was created with Turkey. Yet is a fast-track modification of a notoriously slow process actually helpful? Furthermore, this is another act of ostracising the children who need help the most - the ones without parents or guardians. Smugglers and traffickers, meanwhile, are presenting these migrants with “solutions”, an escape route to a better life, far exceeding what the asylum jungle currently offers them.

It is this internal conflict of how to respond that is symbolic of the EU attitude towards this ever-growing crisis. Unaccompanied children just aren’t valued enough by a society hypocritically putting children in that vulnerable and important societal position.

The fact is that the conflict driving this migration isn’t disappearing, meaning it has become a question of humanity to acknowledge the situation and respond as best as possible. We need to counter the “offer” of smugglers and traffickers rather than restricting our borders. The situation they are fleeing from will always provide a greater incentive to migrate than any disincentive David Cameron could ever create.

The crisis of child refugees is a quiet one, but it shouldn’t be this way. There is an incongruence of what we as a society place value on and what our policies place value on. By reassessing what we believe is important and then crucially protecting these values, we can hope to better the situation in Europe.

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.