The day after ISIL in Iraq

The day after ISIL in Iraq

“I came [today] from a liberated Mosul… This is the first time that the Iraqi army is fighting with Kurdish Peshmerga forces side by side against ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] … [But] winning the war means nothing unless we also win peace,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said during a keynote speech at the fifth annual Sulaymaniyah (Suli) Forum last week, entitled “Beyond Daesh: Ending the Cycle of Conflict, Toward Durable Solutions.” 

The forum, which was hosted by the American University of Iraq Sulaymaniyah, brought together senior officials, distinguished analysts, scholars, sector leaders and journalists from the Middle East and North Africa, Europe and the United States to discuss current challenges and long-term solutions for the Middle East. 

Since the Mosul offensive kicked off in October 2016, Iraqi security forces – together with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Sunni Arab tribesmen and Shiite militia members, assisted by U.S.-led coalition air support – have made substantial gains on the ground in terms of pushing ISIL out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the last ISIL stronghold in the country.

A month ago, Iraqi troops captured the east bank of the Tigris River, which divides the city. Since then, they have been moving deeper into western Mosul, where the old center is located. However, the density of the civilian population, the difficulty of moving tanks and armored vehicles through narrow streets and ISIL’s network of secret tunnels and passageways underneath the city makes it harder to capture the western part. Therefore, the second part of the Mosul offensive has been conducted with almost a surgeon’s sensitivity to avoid collateral damage.

“The conduct of war is going to determine the conditions of peace in Iraq,” David Milliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said at the Suli Forum, underlining the delicacy of sectarian balances.

In this context, the issue as to which forces are participating in the liberation of Sunni-majority Mosul, as well as the post-ISIL order to be established, are deemed extremely important in terms of preventing further sectarian clashes, which could easily play into the hands of the group.

To refresh our memories, the mobilization of the al-Hashd al-Shaabi units in the Mosul offensive and their possible move to liberate Tal Afar – a city composed of Sunni and Shiite Turkmens – elicited strong criticisms from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last year amid accusations of abuses against Sunnis in Fallujah and Tikrit.  

Eventually, in an attempt to relieve tensions, Iraqi special forces decided to enter Mosul themselves and protect the southern flank, Kurdish forces handled the assault to the north and east, while the al-Hashd al-Shaabi agreed to secure the gap in the southwest.

The course of the operation will be a litmus test in terms of defeating ISIL, not only in Iraq but also in Syria. The more pressing issue, however, is how to prevent the re-emergence of new ISILs with any other name. In this respect, addressing the root causes of radicalism put its mark on this year’s Suli Forum.

Senior politicians, military officials and experts shared their perspectives on topics such as post-security measures, the reconstruction of war-torn cities, the rehabilitation of internally displaced people (IDP) and the social integration of soldiers in the post-war period.

There are currently 4 million IDPs in Iraq, of whom only 1.7 million have returned so far. The rehabilitation of 3.3 million IDPs, including their education, employment and social security, is not an easy task for Iraq’s government to undertake without the support of the international community, given the staggering 35 percent unemployment rate among young Iraqis.

What is at stake here is not only finding financial resources, but also the widespread corruption and nepotism that harm Iraqis, preventing the distribution of goods and services on an equitable basis, which subsequently creates social resentment.

Another thorny issue is how to erase the bad memories of sectarian violence during the war and slowly rebuild trust among different ethnic religious communities. In this regard, Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, says, “Iraq needs a civil modern democratic state; a state founded on the basis of equal citizenship – not a state divided between a majority and minorities.”

At the end of the vibrant discussions, nearly every participant agreed on the importance of inclusionary democracy and good governance as the ultimate path to create a better future for Iraqis. 

So far, fighting against a common enemy seems to have united different ethnic and sectarian groups in Iraq, but without a durable post-ISIL strategy and order, this sense of solidarity could easily be replaced by competition and a struggle for power.