Tens of thousands of soldiers from an extremely varied patchwork of armed forces have begun the long-awaited push to take Mosul – the last remaining major population center in Iraq under the control of the so-called Islamic State and the second biggest city in the country. The fighting is fierce and may last several months before the area is fully cleared of ISIS fighters. Many villages have been captured by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, but the battle has not yet reached the city itself.
The generals and politicians in the United States and its junior partners are hailing this as a historic milestone that proves the wisdom of their strategies. The offensive is being presented as the decisive battle that will usher in a post-ISIS era of stability in Iraq.
There is no doubt that the estimated million plus civilians still in Mosul wish to be free of ISIS’ despotic rule. Adhering stringently to the Salafist ideology that is the state religion of key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, ISIS has sought to send Mosul back to the 8th century. Women have no rights whatsoever, and religious and ethnic minorities who once made up a large part of the city’s diverse population have been in large part murdered or expelled. Most forms of entertainment have been banned, and public executions sow terror among the people.
There is certainly a sense of hopefulness now that this period of extreme repression and hardship in the city will soon be coming to an end. However, the push to recapture the city is just as much about jockeying for position for the next round of sectarian and geopolitical conflict that appears set to explode once the terrorist group is dislodged.
Since ISIS’ lightening offensive across Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, there has been a great deal of commentary about the breakdown of the Sykes-Picot order in the Middle East. This refers to the secret 1916 agreement – exposed by the newly-established Soviet government in 1917 – that in large part determined the modern-day borders of the region. The purpose was to divide the territory of the Ottoman Empire in anticipation of their defeat in World War One. In typically arrogant colonial fashion, two men, the British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot, drew lines on a map and dictated the fate of the people of the Middle East.
In keeping with the racist narrative that the peoples of the region are motivated by millennia-old conflict and perpetually at war with each other, the foreign policy “experts” in the west argued that the Sykes-Picot borders could only contain this eternal friction for so long before sectarian hatred inevitably bubbled over and erased them. But the rise of ISIS – and the consequences that will endure long past the pacification of the group – is really about the breakdown of the anti-colonial order than the breakdown of the colonial order.
Of course the borders of the Middle East are in a sense artificial, but it is within these boundaries that the heroic struggles for national liberation took place. One by one, the governments of the region that had their roots in the Arab nationalist and leftist ferment that won independence from European rule were destroyed or destabilized beyond recognition by U.S.-led imperialist powers over the past decade and a half – the Ba’ath government in Iraq in 2003, the Gaddafi government in Libya in 2011, and the ongoing war against the Ba’ath government in Syria. This is the incubator that produced such an ultra-reactionary force as ISIS.
The vast array of competing states and organizations present in the Mosul offensive are a reflection of a political landscape shattered by decades of imperialist intervention of the most brutal variety. The correlation of forces between them will be of tremendous consequence to the future of the Middle East.
Sunni Arab forces
Donald Trump claimed in the final presidential debate that “Mosul is a Sunni city.” Like most of the things he says, that is not fully true. Mosul does indeed have a Sunni Arab majority, but it historically has been one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of Iraq. Along with the surrounding Nineveh province, Mosul has been home to large Christian, Chaldean, Yazidi, Assyrian, Turkmen and other populations.
The peaceful state of coexistence between these groups was shattered by the 2003 U.S. invasion, which reconstituted the Iraqi government on an explicitly sectarian basis and led to great economic and social turmoil, fueling the rise of extremist ideology. The U.S.-instigated civil war caused unbelievable death and destruction from 2006 to 2008, and while U.S.-led forces mostly left the country in 2011 their bloody legacy lived on in the form of ISIS. What was once an integrated and pluralistic region was transformed into one in which communities withdrew into themselves for fear of sectarian violence.
Mosul has therefore become of supreme strategic importance for Sunni Arab forces which are seeking to reassert control of territory in the face of a hostile central Iraqi government. The Nujaifi family has long held great military and economic power in the city, and former Nineveh Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi along with his brother and former Speaker of Parliament Osama have been key players among the Sunni Arab forces involved in the offensive.
Since shortly after ISIS’ 2014 conquest of large swathes of Iraq, Sunni Arab leaders have been calling for the creation of a National Guard that would be organized by each provincial government. While efforts to have such a force authorized by the central government have stalled, a Sunni Arab force called the National Mobilization has been formed under the political leadership of the Nujaifis. Thousands of fighters make up its ranks, and it desires to play a central role in the liberation of Mosul.
The National Mobilization is trained in large part by the Turkish military, which maintains a controversial installation in the town of Bashiqa. The religiously-oriented government of Turkish president Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) aims to be the dominant Sunni power in the region, and has been accused of aspiring to reconstitute the power and glory of the Ottoman Empire – indeed Mosul was part of Turkey until 1926.
The Turkish military has so far kept a low profile in the fighting, but Erdogan clearly desires to play a substantial role. Right before the offensive was launched, he had the gall to dismiss Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s protests over the Turkish presence at Bashiqa by saying, “The army of the Republic of Turkey has not lost its standing so as to take instructions from you [Abadi]. You are not my interlocutor, you are not at my level … It’s not important at all how you shout from Iraq. You should know that we will do what we want to do.”
Just across the border in Syria the Turkish armed forces are carrying out a major ground incursion called Operation Euphrates Shield, and time will tell if Erdogan has a similar scheme in mind for northern Iraq.
The Iraqi National Army
The Iraqi military was completely dismantled by the U.S. occupation authorities and a new army was constructed that the generals and politicians hopes would serve as an obedient and effective neo-colonial proxy force. The United States spent $25 billion over the course of the occupation building up a 250,000-strong Iraqi Armed Forces.
When ISIS launched their 2014 rampage, however, it turned out that 50,000 of those troops were “ghost soldiers.” The pay structure of the army created an incentive for officers to claim to have more soldiers in their units than actually exist so that they can pocket the difference in salary payments. The army was also widely seen as a sectarian institution, with commanders chosen on the basis of clientelism and overseen by the Shiite-dominated central government.
Instead of defending the majority Sunni areas of the country, the Iraqi Army instead collapsed and retreated to the outskirts of Baghdad. Humiliated, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki resigned and was replaced by current Prime Minister Abadi.
Although Abadi is from the same Dawa Party as Maliki, he has adjusted the orientation of the central government in a manner that is friendlier to the United States. Despite being closer to U.S. imperialism, the source of the country’s fragmentation, many (though not all) of Abadi’s opponents have demagogically used sectarian rhetoric to rally opposition to his government.
Since the war with ISIS began in Iraq, the Pentagon has sent a steadily escalating number of “advisors” to the country to reconstruct the Iraqi military. There are now about 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, despite the blatantly false “no boots on the ground” promises by the Obama administration and other politicians.
The Mosul offensive is a prized opportunity for the Iraqi Army to decisively recover from the humiliation of 2014.
At the height of ISIS’ expansion in Iraq, fears were rife that the terrorists would advance on Baghdad and overrun key government installations. Many of the political forces represented in the government, grouped together at least nominally under the Shiite National Alliance coalition, maintained armed wings as a legacy of the resistance war against the U.S.-led occupation and associated civil war. To defend Baghdad and reverse ISIS’ momentum, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a call to arms, which resulted in the formation of the Popular Mobilization Units.
The PMU is not a homogenous force, but has achieved a degree of cohesiveness and legitimacy, operating under the nominal command of the Interior Ministry. Well over 100,000 fighters loyal to a wide range of Shia armed groups make up the units, which have engaged in several key battles over the past two years. There is a unified command structure, but the various components of the Popular Mobilization do not necessarily have identical political goals.
In Tikrit, Jurf al-Sahkar, Baiji and in a supporting role during the offensive earlier this year to retake the major cities of Anbar province, the Popular Mobilization has proven itself to be an effective fighting force and as such is a central actor in the current offensive. However, it appears unlikely that the PMU will enter the city of Mosul itself.
Having been born in the heat of the sectarian warfare that characterized the U.S.-led occupation, there have been widespread allegations that these forces have carried out atrocities against Sunni Arab civilians. Instead, the Popular Mobilization is present on the margins of the offensive, participating in “shaping” operations that prepared the ground for the offensive.
It remains an open question as to whether the Popular Mobilization will be disbanded following the end of the war with ISIS. Such a move could be fiercely resisted by the units.
Even is ISIS is driven from Iraq, the war in Syria looks set to grind on, and there is speculation that the Popular Mobilization could be deployed to the country after the Mosul battle. Such a move would tip the scales in a major way in favor of the forces resisting efforts to overthrow the Syrian Ba’ath government, but would also be hugely controversial regionally and globally.
Thousands of Kurdish fighters have given their lives in the long war against ISIS. The Peshmerga, armed forces loyal to the Kurdistan Regional Government, are yet another important piece of the coalition that is now closing in on Mosul.
The KRG was formed following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, a consequence of both the generations-long struggle for national self-determination waged by the Kurdish people as well as the pro-U.S. orientation adopted by the dominant political forces operating in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The President of the KRG is Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and son of Kurdish founding father Mustafa Barzani. This section of the Kurdish national movement has navigated a highly complex situation and pursed many geopolitical twists and turns, but has in recent decades engaged in a strategic alliance with Washington.
Barzani also enjoys close relations with the Turkish government. In the face of disputes with the federal government over oil revenues, the Turkish market offers an attractive alternative to doing business with the central authorities.
The KDP/Barzani forces have historically been in conflict with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and fought a civil war in the 1990s, but have arranged a power-sharing deal that preserved a degree of Kurdish unity when it comes to relations with Baghdad. Intra-Kurdish divisions are expressed in Iraqi federal politics, as the PUK as well as Gorran – a split from the PUK – appear to have entered into an alliance with the Shi’ite Arab forces grouped around former Prime Minister Maliki in opposition to Abadi.
Most importantly from the position of the Turkish government, the KDP and essentially all Iraqi Kurdish forces are locked in a bitter rivalry with the Kurdish forces that operate in Syria and Turkey. In the latter, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has waged a decades-long struggle for socialism and self-determination. In the former, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their People’s Protection Units/Women’s Protection Units military arm is the hegemonic force of the national movement.
Erdogan’s AKP government initially assumed an accommodative posture towards the Kurdish movement, and engaged in peace talks with the PKK. However, Erdogan pivoted dramatically following the inconclusive 2015 election and resumed the war against the PKK. This has translated into a conflict with its NATO ally the United States, which is supporting the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Forces that control much of northern Syria.
PKK/PYD forces do not have a high-profile role in the Mosul offensive. However, the Sinjar Resistance Units, composed of Yazidi fighters trained by the PKK, may move to assert control over a larger swathe of territory after having suffered tremendous atrocities at the hands of ISIS.
The widely varied and intertangled interests that are exploding on the Mosul battlefield reflect the U.S.-instigated fracturing of the political arena following the 2003 invasion. It is a crucial situation for anti-war activists and progressive-minded people to understand.
Progressive people from all over the country will be descending on Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2017 to stage a massive demonstration along Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. This mobilization will set the tone for the fight back against racism, bigotry, war and corporate power in the coming period. It is an important opportunity to show solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Iraq, whose efforts to resolve this profound crisis would benefit greatly from a respite from the constant U.S. aggression that has fragmented their country.