After more than two years of occupation, the operation to retake Mosul from the hands of the Islamic State terrorists has begun. The battle opposes a myriad of actors. Daesh, a Sunni extremist organisation made up of an odd mixture of brutal Islamist militants and ex-Ba’athists is now cornered in Iraq’s second biggest city which it has occupied since June 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in front of the Sunni jihadi blitzkrieg.
The forces engaged in the battle against Daesh are heterogeneous and each group wants to play a role in the liberation of the city: the official Iraqi forces which want to wash away the shame of their 2014 collapse and hide the weakness of a corrupt government; Kurdish forces which are slowly building the autonomy of an Iraqi Kurdistan; Shia militias trained by an Islamic Republic of Iran hoping to increase its influence in the region; Sunni factions (some of them also made up of Ba’athists) trained by a Turkish power led by a new sultan which does not hide anymore its plan to increase its control beyond its border.
As the defeat of Daesh in Mosul is all but guaranteed the pertinent question is: what is the future of Northern Iraq? Given the power struggles underpinning the battle for Mosul, peace remains a far-fetched objective and further conflicts remain on the horizon. The art of perpetual war was captured by George Orwell in his novel 1984 where he wrote: “the war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact”.
The current, protracted, conflict in Iraq serves as a reminder that war prevents wider societal changes. While the population is busy “fighting the enemy”, broader political questions can remain unanswered and fictive narratives can be built to legitimise the current rulers. While the unemployed (mainly Shia) youth go on the frontline to fight the terrorist organisation, the fight against political corruption which, in part, played a role in the rise of Daesh in the first place, has practically vanished.
Iraq and its oil reserves could be a prosperous society. However, it currently fails to provide basic services such as a reliable access to electricity. While Shia populations in the Middle-East tend to blame their fate on the oppression of Sunni rulers, in the case of Iraq, it is the Shia political class that has ruined the country for most Iraqis regardless of sectarian affiliations. The powerlessness of Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric in Iraq, to influence politics is symptomatic of a broad division amidst many inconsistencies within the Iraqi society.
Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey engaged in the struggle against Daesh and the liberation of Mosul equally benefit from this war and controlled destabilisation. Their apparent fight against the Islamic State hides the fact that they back up other extremist Sunni organisations which are ideologically similar to Daesh. Additionally, the term “terrorist” is used as an umbrella term to cover all form of opposition to their current authoritarian rule.
Iran also benefits from the controlled-chaos plaguing Iraq as it allows the Islamic Republic to increase its influence over its Arab neighbour while taking the moral high-ground domestically and internationally as the defender of the oppressed against what they call “takfiri” militancy. Along with its influence in Syria in defending President Bashar al-Assad against other brutal Sunni extremists, Iran has become a great power in the region and can, therefore, legitimise more easily its power over its own population.
The liberation of Mosul will not mean the end of war. It will only reshape the balance of power between different factions currently battling in the region and re-create new and similar threats to Iraq’s peace. Ultimately, Iraqis will continue to suffer while the nihilist ideology informing Sunni extremist militants will take yet another form and Iran will keep increasing its influence over Iraqi society.
Nicolas Pirsoul is a doctoral student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.
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