The Liberation of Mosul — Now What?

 In Counterterrorism

The Iraqi government announced its liberation of Mosul this week after nine months of intense operations to clear the city of ISIS. Three years ago ISIS waltzed across the Syria-Iraq border, took over Iraq’s second largest city, and declared Mosul part of its caliphate.

Photo Credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid EU Delivers Aid Inside War-Ravaged Mosul_11 via photopin (license)

But victory has come at the expense of the destruction of Mosul and the Ninevah Plains. Northern Iraq is utterly devastated. According to Sky News Arabia, 80% of Mosul has been destroyed which includes 308 schools, 12 educational institutes (including Mosul University) 11,000 homes, four electric stations, six water purification plants, 212 workshops/businesses, 63 houses of worship (historic mosques and churches), 29 hotels, factories, 9 hospitals, and 76 health centers.

According to Refugees International, war and instability has caused the displacement of 3.3 million people. Today, 11 million people require assistance to survive: water, food, and shelter. They have lost their property, their homes, and their livelihoods. Most are not able to rebuild their shattered lives.

Amnesty International warned in a report released Tuesday that the conflict in Mosul has created a “civilian catastrophe,” because extremists carried out forced displacement, summary killings and used civilians as human shields. On the other side of the equation, Iraq government forces (which include government troops, Shi’a militias, and Iranian advisors) have also engaged in extrajudicial killings. They are known for their “death squads” that shoot first and ask questions later.

 

While there is great relief that most of Northern Iraq has been liberated, it doesn’t mean that everything’s OK now.

There will be ongoing problems with remaining terrorist elements, regardless of whether they stay in Iraq, Syria, or go elsewhere in the region. Foreign fighters and their families have been abandoning ISIS and beginning the long journey home via Turkish land borders. Two months ago, two British nationals and a U.S. citizen (from Jacksonville, FL) were arrested by Turkish forces as they crossed the border. And that’s just a drop in the bucket of foreign fighters leaving Iraq. Once home, many of them will claim to have gone to Iraq or Syria for humanitarian purposes. Sure.

It is immensely hard to determine which Iraqis are innocent civilians and which are Islamic State fighters, families and supporters. This is the messy part of war rarely acknowledged by the outside world–but remains a major driver of sectarian strife. Radical remnants don’t just disappear. Those that are not killed have to go SOMEWHERE. And Shi’a militants are working to ferret them out of the local population, and not in ways that would make any of us feel comfortable.

 

We’re not out of the woods yet. The protracted humanitarian crisis may get worse.

It takes time and resources to rebuild infrastructure and economies. Not only is Mosul’s infrastructure a disaster, cities across Northern Iraq are completely uninhabitable. (Having worked directly with Christians from historic villages such as Qaraqosh, I know that if these people could go back, they would in an instant. The fact that refugee camps are still full, indicates how ravaged the countryside is. If ISIS couldn’t control the area, they made sure no one else could either.) There is little to suggest that Baghdad has the capacity to move the country forward without encroaching on historic Sunni, Yazidi and Christian areas. 

 

Photo Credit: Kurdishstruggle Peshmerga | Kurdish Army via photopin (license)

And consider this wild card: The Kurdish government just announced an independence referendum for late September. This is a provocative, yet timely step that takes advantage of the chaos to advance the Kurds’ greatest dream. This could cause further tension in the region, depending on the Kurds’ ability to placate the Baghdad government, as well as Turkey and Iran with economic incentives.

(Background on Kurdistan: The northeastern section of Iraq is referred to as Kurdistan. The Kurds are not Arabs. They are a distinctly different people group historically located in and along the border areas of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Kurds were severely persecuted under Saddam Hussein until the US, UK and France established a no fly zone in Northern Iraq after the First Gulf War in 1991. (You may recall shocking images, like the one below, of thousands of Kurds killed with mustard gas and nerve agents as part of Saddam’s al-Anfal genocidal campaign.) The no fly zone enabled the Kurds to get back on their feet and establish self-governing mechanisms.)

Over the past three years, the Kurds have been hospitable to those displaced by ISIS. I commend that. But information I have just received from sources in Northern Iraq indicates that the Kurdish government may kick out tens of thousands of Christians, along with Arab Sunnis which make up the largest portion of displaced persons. As far as the Christians go–they don’t have many options. Outside of the Christian cities and villages that they hail from, which are now destroyed, much of Iraq remains inhospitable to them—with or without ISIS.

(Context: Saddam Hussein largely allowed Christians to live in peace, but since the Iraq War, the numbers of Christians in Iraq have tanked. In 2003, there were approximately 1.1 million Christians, and today it’s approximately 180,000. What’s worse is that many Christians are what I call “repeat refugees” which means that they have fled multiple Iraqi cities over the years. They are in a constant state of upheaval and are exhausted by the struggle to survive.)

 

Photo Credit: Michele Rigby Assad

Kurdish authorities are considering the closure of refugee camps. They are concerned that ISIS and similar groups are using them as a base for operations. (This is one of the most underreported dynamics in Western press. We like to think all people in refugee camps are innocent. Not true. Refugee camps are microcosms of the conflicts from which they emerge, meaning that there is representation from all elements of society. The last few refugee camps set up outside Mosul contain a large number of ISIS families. The terrorists sent their families out of the city when the fighting got too intense.)

 

Recommendations

While I support the right of the Kurds for self-determination, I would like our government to engage Kurdish authorities and ask that they allow Kurdistan to remain a safehaven for displaced persons, particularly those that are most vulnerable, such as Christians and Yazidis (an Islamic sect that is considered heretical by Sunnis and Shi’a).

Our government should encourage Kurdish authorities to allow churches, mosques and nongovernmental organizations in Kurdistan to continue providing support to those whose lives were destroyed by ISIS.

 Reconstruction support should not be funneled through Baghdad’s central government as that money will never reach intended recipients due to corruption and mismanagement.

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