By Afro-Middle East Centre
Reports in January 2017 that the leader of the Islamic State group (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed, reports that he had been captured by Russian troops in Syria, and the insistence by IS sources that he is still alive and fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul, raise a number of questions about the IS chief’s location, and whether he is still alive. The IS response to this, by nominating a potential successor to Baghdadi, and the fact that the group is in the process of moving its Syria capital from the city of Raqqa to Deir al-Zour, suggest important reorganising in the IS structure and leadership to cope with a new military and political situation.
The IS leadership has certainly taken seriously the possibility that Baghdadi could get killed (if he is not already dead) or captured in the near future in fighting with the Iraqi or Syrian armies, any of a number of militia groups in the two countries, or airstrikes by the USA, Russia or the Syrian regime. The group’s Shura Council, its supreme decision-making body, has taken the matter seriously enough that it nominated, earlier this month, a successor to the self-styled ‘caliph’, one Abu Hafsa al-Mawsely, in the event that Baghdadi might become incapcitated.
But that decision, which was not unanimously agreed-upon in the Shura, has led to conflicts among IS commanders and fighters, some of whom refuse to accept Mawsely as a possible new leader. Consequently, the Shura Council has decided to reconvene – on an as-yet-unspecified date, and most likely in the Iraqi city of Mosul, to again discuss the matter of Baghdadi’s successor. The new meeting could nominate another candidate.
Not much is known about Mawsely, except that he is the deputy commander of IS’s ‘Nineveh province’, has a reputation for being one of the more brutal commanders in the group, is a senior legislator in the group’s governance structure, and has occupied several important military and administrative positions. He is based in the ancient city of Nineveh, on the outskirts of Mosul, the city which IS has occupied since 2014, and is now being forced out of by the Iraqi army and a number of militias, with support from the US-led coalition.
The IS Shura Council consists of a selected group of military leaders and legislators from its various ‘provinces’. It is expected that once the Shura Council finalises its decision, IS fighters will accept it and will be willing to pledge their allegiance to the new ‘caliph’ in the event of Baghdadi’s death or capture.
Baghdadi became the leader of IS’s precursor, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), in 2010. He was born near the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971 , and obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad in 2013. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi helped found the militant Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (JJASJ), which later joined the Mujahedin Shura Council (MSC) in 2006. The MSC became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, also known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq) in 2006, with Baghdadi as head of its shari'ah committee and member of its senior consultative council. After a ten-month detention in the US prison Abu Ghaib and Camp Buca detention centres. Baghdadi was announced as ISI leader in May 2010, following the death of his predecessor Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi. He was the mastermind behind the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’ thereafter.
Reports indicate that Baghdadi had escaped from Mosul in February when the road to the west of the city was opened in the wake of a fierce attack launched by IS fighters. The group claims its fighters used seventeen suicide car bombs from Mosul and some units from Syria to temporarily clear the road out of the city it has held, uncontested, for about two years. Before he left the city, however, Baghdadi addressed supporters and fighters in what has been referred to as his ‘farewell speech’. According to a report from its members, the IS ‘caliph’ admitted that the group had been defeated in Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces and militias, and urged his fighters to flee the urban areas and take refuge in the mountains.
While he was on his way out of the city, a US swat team ambushed a vehicle carrying a top IS commander who, it seems, the US military believed was Baghdadi or another senior IS leader. US troops in a helicopter exchanged gunfire with IS fighters who were protecting the vehicle. IS sources reported that only one person was injured and nobody was killed in the exchange, but some news agencies reported that Baghdadi was in the convoy and that he had been seriously wounded. The US Pentagon, however, admits that it is unsure where the IS leader might be.
Baghdadi allegedly broke a months-long silence in May 2016 by releasing an audio message in which he once again urged Muslims from around the world to emigrate to the ‘caliphate’ that the group has proclaimed in areas of Syria and Iraq. The group’s dire military situation and its battle for survival has, however, meant that the flow of fighters and other ‘immigrants’ to its ‘state’ has slowed down considerably.
With IS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, under attack by a range of forces in the past few months, the group began moving its governance structures from Raqqa to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour earlier this month. Its military commanders, bureaucracy and some fighters are now headquartered 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.
This follows a difficult month of March for IS in Raqqa, with US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and other groups moving on the city, having captured the Tabqa airbase, and cutting off the road between al-Thawrah (where IS fighters had retreated to) and Raqqa. It is almost certain that Raqqa will fall to opposition groups in the next few months, necessitating the emergency measures undertaken by the IS leadership.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
With the Islamic State group (IS) losing territory in Syria and Iraq, many believe that the group will use the territory it controls in Africa as a fallback and shift its focus to the continent. This has seen international, and specifically western, powers grow increasingly weary of existing African conflicts, especially in Libya and Egypt, and we are beginning to see a convergence between Russia and the USA on supporting military strongmen. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar have thus been empowered in their attempts to crackdown on dissent in the name of countering ‘terrorism’, further militarising politics in those countries and impeding efforts to negotiate political compromises. African states have subsequently been compelled to admit Morocco into the African Union and reinstate Egypt, partially as a result of western pressure and the belief that the two countries could form a bulwark against the Islamic State group’s expansion.
Although IS controls territory and possesses operational capacity in Libya and Nigeria, significantly this is more the result of the group appealing to existing cleavages and state fragmentation rather than inspiring the creation of new anti-state formations. The group has thus spent minimal efforts in establishing structures in southern and central Africa, rather promoting immigration to areas it already controls. IS has lost ground in Nigeria and Libya, two of its three strongest African ‘provinces’; however, failure to fill the vacuum left by its territorial losses and an inadequate focus on the economic reasons behind the group’s rise is paving the way for a resurgence of similar groups. With IS on the wane, a contextualised response emphasising governance in areas recaptured from the group needs to be promoted, especially since the group’s emergence has galvanised the international community.
Background: The declaration of provinces
Following the declaration of a caliphate in July 2014, IS initially had great success. It consolidated control of much of Iraq’s Anbar province, parts of Deir ez-Zor in Syria and Qamishli in Turkey, in addition to areas it originally controlled in Syria. This enabled it to traverse the Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish borders, giving it the flexibility to direct the flow of arms and generate revenue through taxes and trade in oil. However, the group has increasingly faced setbacks, especially following the surge in the intensity of the international and regional effort to displace it from Syria and Iraq. It has been forced to alter its strategies and tactics. Initially advocating immigration to its ‘state’, the group has begun declaring non-contiguous provinces, as a result of a few major changes: First, heightened awareness and tighter border controls meant that by September 2014 the ability of IS recruits to travel to Syria, especially from western countries, had severely diminished.
Second, because IS was conceived in a system that was already experiencing local conflict, the group sought to subsume this conflict and capitalise on it in order to increase its influence. The group also began prospecting for areas with resources, both human and natural, that could strengthen its operational capacity and scope. The group’s mantra evolved to encompass ‘remaining and expanding’, with an increased focus on enticing militant groups to pledge allegiance to it, allowing it to increase its appeal and reach, and a shift away from a sole focus on territorial consolidation in Syria and Iraq. The group increasingly saw its success as expansion into other hotspots and the ability to incorporate these into its territorial project. This had succeeded, and by November 2014 it had received pledges of allegiance from around twenty existing militant groups, including former al-Qa'ida franchises in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
In recent times, especially since early 2016, the reversals suffered in its main area of focus, Syria and Iraq, have forced the group to begin contemplating the option of retreat in order to survive and remain relevant.
However, in assessing the group’s influence in Africa over the past year, a holistic contextualisation is required. First, distinctions between groups directly controlled by IS in Syria, those in Libya and those, such as Boko Haram, who exercise more control over strategy and tactics need to be made. Second, we need to identify areas that are strategically significant to IS, such as Libya and Egypt, and those, which the group sees more as a means of gaining increased publicity. Last, we need to remain vigilant and account for the nuances between the different threats posed by groups that have declared allegiance to IS and citizens emigrating to IS-controlled areas.
In the past, IS viewed Libya as critically important, because of its oil resources and large Mediterranean coastline. This, the group believed, would allow it to increase its operational capacity, and threaten Europe, especially because Libya is located close to European states such as Malta and Italy. The group thus declared three Libyan provinces (Fezzan, Barqa and Tripolitania) in 2014, and dispatched senior leaders to the country to convince militia to pledge allegiance. Further, unlike in other provinces, IS in Libya was led by an Iraqi, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, directly appointed by the group’s Syrian leadership. IS initially had some successes, capturing the jihadist stronghold of Derna in October 2014 and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in May 2015. However, following its capture of Sirte and the group’s attempts to move westward towards Misrata, a concerted campaign commenced to combat the group comprised of local militia groupings and western powers including the USA, the UK and France. The December 2015 Government of National Accord (GNA) was forced through for this purpose, and since August 2016 the USA has launched over 300 airstrikes in the country.
This has been somewhat successful. Since June 2016, the group has largely been pushed out of Sirte, and leaders such as Abu Nabil have been killed. However, Libya is an exemplar of the paranoia around IS that currently marks the international community’s response to it. First, IS’s strength in Libya was already questionable following its inception. Although possessing between 3 000 and 6 000 combatants, IS in Libya appears outnumbered and outgunned when noting that the country is home to around 200 000 people belonging to different militias. By August 2015 it had already been pushed out of the hotbed of Derna by the relatively small, al-Qa'ida-linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council. Significantly both the rival administrations in Tripoli (the General National Congress [GNC]) and Tobruk (the House of Representatives [HoR]) have used the paranoia over the threat of IS in Libya to gain international support and weapons.
Second, the international community has favoured international intervention at the expense of local political processes. The Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat in December 2015 and forming the GNA, was forced through, ignoring initial successes in obtaining local backing and in spite of the fact that a week prior to its conclusion the rival administrations had expressed their willingness to conclude a local unification agreement. Even though the agreement was likely disingenuous, international actors needed to hold the two parties to it instead of the flat rejection that had been evident from the UN’s response.
The result has been a lack of support for the GNA, which is likely to never receive ratification from the Tobruk-based HoR, and which in recent times has experienced opposition from the GNC. The country remains divided, and may be headed towards partition as the divisive General Khalifa Haftar strengthens his control over the eastern oilfields.
IS’s partnership with Nigeria’s Boko Haram was more a marriage of convenience than an ideological and strategic union. IS saw the group as important in terms of gaining appeal and publicity, while Boko Haram viewed the merger as a means of unlocking financial resources and benefiting from IS’s media arm. There was thus very little tactical and operational coordination between IS in Syria and its then-declared West Africa province (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah). As a result Boko Haram’s military losses, which began during the last few months of the Goodluck Jonathan administration in Nigeria, have continued. The group has largely been forced out of the territory it previously controlled in Borno and Adamawa, preferring to undertake operations in northern Cameroon. Attacks in Niger have declined to less than half a dozen from a peak of twenty-four in February 2015, and since July, these have also decreased to around eight per month in Cameroon. Boko Haram is no longer able to maintain and hold territory; the group is now mostly involved in smaller operations against weaker targets and isolated military bases.
Further, in August 2016 IS in Syria released a message recognising Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the wilayat, supposedly because of indiscriminate attacks against Muslims by its former leader, Abubakar Shekau. Shekau’s inability to enact and implement governance structures in areas the group controlled had also influenced the move. Shekau has since disputed this, threatening to further fragment the group, which had already been reeling since Ansaru’s formal condemnation of the group in February 2015. Ansaru previously coordinated activities with Boko Haram, and prior to 2015 many analysts viewed it as the more sophisticated faction within the group, which was tasked with kidnappings and attacks on foreigners.
IS in Syria’s repudiation of Shekau is also influenced by the group’s recent recognition of a Saharan province based in Mali, which in June 2016 reportedly carried out an attack on a military post in Bosso (Niger) killing thirty-two soldiers, and in recent months has carried out two smaller attacks in Burkina Faso. Shekau’s repudiation is also significant since it is one of the first instances wherein IS’s Syrian leadership has acted to alter provincial leadership structures, and because it illustrates that the group has limitations on what it will tolerate from provincial leaders. Further, Barnawi’s appointment may be a sign that IS’s Syrian leadership is beginning to view West Africa as important since it continues to suffer setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya. However, the appointment has changed little thus far especially in terms of operational command and coordination. Shekau’s continued influence over factions within the group also points to the beginnings of a debilitating power struggle. The group’s infighting and the coordinated response by Lake Chad Basin countries has meant that by December 2016 it had been pushed out of its Sambisa Forest stronghold; in January 2017, a UN report went as far as claiming that it now lacks the resources to compensate fighters.
Notably, the success of the multinational Joint Task Force, consisting of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, has been constrained owing to concerns over sovereignty and different command and control protocols. The effort has transitioned more into a coalition of the willing, wherein states share interests and undertake individual actions, rather than an actual coordinated effort to contain the group. Moreover, failure to establish governance structures in areas where Boko Haram has been driven out from has led to the group being able to return intermittently; incidentally this is one of the key reasons the group initially arose.
Previously recognised as Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the group, now referred to as ‘IS Sinai Province’, declared allegiance to IS in November 2014, and currently remains one of IS’s most operationally and tactically capable fighting forces. Following the 2015 Sheikh Zuweid attacks, which saw around a hundred combatants mount a coordinated attack on Egyptian security installations, the group has continued to remain active, and in 2016 is alleged to have undertaken over 700 operations in the Sinai region alone. The most infamous of these was the blowing up of a Russian civilian aircraft in October 2015, killing over 200. The decades-long, 1 600-strong Multinational Forces and Observers mission stationed in the Sinai, which is tasked with monitoring the area following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, has also been affected and countries such as Fiji have pulled out troops. The USA has even proposed that an electronic monitoring system be used instead, to allow it to also decrease its troop contribution to the mission.
IS’s resurgence continues despite the third phase of Egypt’s Operation Martyr’s Right, which according to Egyptian security reports has killed around 2 300 militants and arrested a further 2 500 – even though most analysts estimated the group’s strength at between 1 000 and 2 000 fighters at its peak in 2015. The numbers of dead and arrested indicate the conflicting results of Egypt’s scorched earth policy, which has actually led to increased militancy, especially by other groups. Violence is also spreading to the mainland; in the past year, IS’s mainland Egypt province formed, and the younger, less ideological Popular Resistance Committees became hardened.
This is likely to continue, especially as the primary democratic alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood, remains stifled, and because the Sisi regime is facing increased economic pressure, and has thus curbed its state-led redistributive policies and widened its repression to include leftists and youth groupings.
Observations and returning combatants
It is clearly observable that in most instances IS uses already existent cleavages and groupings to further its influence and reach in areas outside of Syria and Iraq. In Nigeria and Sinai, it thus successfully rebranded existing organisations instead of establishing new ones from scratch. The presence of al-Qa'ida on parts of the continent has been significant in this regard, as IS has sought to entice militants belonging to it to declare their allegiance to it. For the most part, in Africa this has failed. Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb has largely remained intact, and thus far Shabab has withstood attempts to declare allegiance to Baghdadi, despite the fact that splinter groups within these organisations have broken off to join IS.
Further, it is observable that IS-linked groups for the most part were already involved in conflict with the state and other powers prior to the declaration of the caliphate. Boko Haram had been militarily confronting the Nigerian state since at least 2010, while Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis had turned inward following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013. Even in Libya, where the Derna Youth Shoura Council and the Battar Brigade were newly formed groupings that had previously been involved in fighting in Syria, IS’s ability to consolidate control of Sirte came as a result of aggrieved former Gaddafites joining the group, and because the Ansar Al-Sharia members present in Sirte rebranded and joined IS. This illustrates two key points: First, lack of governance and social services are a major factor accounting for the growth of IS on the continent, and ideology plays a supplementary role. Consequently, a military-only response, which does not improve governance, will lead to the group enduring, even though it may change its name and modus operandi. Second, as can be observed with the minimal coordination between IS and its West Africa and Sinai provinces, groups have had some form of agency. They have used IS headquarters to gain financial and operational support, and do not always follow its precepts entirely. Shekau, for instance, failed to install governance structures, and continued indiscriminate attacks on Nigerian Muslims while being allied to IS.
Apart from unsuccessful attempts to entice Shabab in East Africa, IS has refrained from attempting to establish wilayat further south. This results from various factors including the lack of a majority Muslim population as a base, the fact that many countries further south are more responsive to their citizens, and because most sub-Saharan countries are not directly involved in attempts to combat the group in Syria and Iraq. The group has however advocated emigration to areas it controls, and it is feared that returning combatants pose a threat to their home states. While justifiable in the cases of Tunisia and Morocco, which have seen thousands join the fight in Syria, for the most part this has been exaggerated. Most combatants have preferred to remain in IS-held territory, and most returnees cite disillusionment with the group as a reason for their return.
The current military-first approach to combatting IS, which has had some success, will only be long lasting if paired with a simultaneous focus on governance and restorative justice in recaptured areas. This will also help to stem the problem of IS recruitment, which, although partially curbed as a result of increased interstate coordination, may surge if former combatants and possible recruits feel aggrieved over perceptions around judicial unfairness and the lack of resource equitability.
Failure to create institutions to assist with this, as is the case in Libya, Egypt and to an extent Nigeria, risks engendering the conditions for the emergence of similar groups in future. African states thus need to ensure that the focus on IS extends from a military approach to one dealing with the root causes of militancy. This is especially pertinent as the group continues to lose territorial control in Libya and Nigeria, and its capacity wanes. Further, the reintegration of former IS combatants, and those belonging to other militant groups, is a necessity, especially as the majority of low-level combatants joined the group for economic reasons, and because the factors are an important weapon in disrupting IS’s claims of legitimacy.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Of the myriad political and social developments since the spectacular rise of the Islamic State group (IS) in mid-2014, it is perhaps the movement’s ability to exacerbate and capitalise on existing fractures between and within Syria and Iraq and regional powers Turkey and Iran that has dramatically altered the nature of politics in the region. IS can be perceived as less a cause than a symptom of the failure of state-building processes in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation in 2003. The operation to retake Mosul from IS began one month ago, but as alliances and rivalries are ever-shifting in the fight against IS, Baghdad has attempted to prevent Turkey from participating in the US-Iraqi campaign to recapture the strategic city.
Mosul, where 5000 IS fighters are based, has historically been an important crossroad for trade and ideas, and was once a major cultural centre of the Islamic world. While it and the Syrian city of Aleppo share an Ottoman past that remains a point of cultural affiliation with Turkey for the people of northern Syria and northern Iraq, Mosul has been the external frontier of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) – whose power and access to arms . That area in Iraq is also a centre for Turkish military support to Ankara’s ally, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani.
Turkey’s military goes back to the early 1990s when a brutal civil war broke out between two Kurdish political groups – Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Barzani has always been wary of the latter’s close relations with Baghdad and Tehran, and gave Ankara the green light to pursue PKK militants in the Kurdish area of Iraq under KDP control. His difficult relations with PKK leaders enabled a closer relationship between Erbil and Ankara. In the past few years, Turkey’s military has also had military training programmestohelp professionalise the KRG’s Peshmerga forces.
From the end of 2015, Baghdad began vocalising its desire to limit the Turkish presence in Iraq, throwing the generally stable relationship between the KRG and Ankara into stark relief. As the region saw greater Kurdish political consolidation as a result of the two-year battle against IS, Barzani has become less willing to sacrifice himself for the Turkish cause. In December 2015, the Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, under pressure from sectarian networks in Baghdad, called on the United Nations Security Council – with Russia’s assistance – to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory.
Turkey’s refusal was met with attacks on its operating bases, for which both IS and Iraq’s Kata'ib Hizbullah claimed responsibility. The Iraqi government’s most recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the Mosul operation that beganmid-October was reluctantly accepted by Turkey, and it is believed that an agreement between the two limited Turkey’s combatant role to air support in exchange for it maintaining its bases in northern Iraq, particularly the key Bashiqa base.
Arguing there was a possibility of a spillover of the Mosul operation through the porous Iraq-Turkey border, Turkish Armed Forces and combat vehicles amassed in the border town of , prompting Abadi to threaten: ‘If a confrontation happens we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy, and we will deal with it as an enemy.’ Ankara’s response was as undiplomatic, with its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, publicly challenging Abadi: ‘If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organisations?’ and ‘If you are so strong, why has the [PKK] occupied your lands for years?
Cavusoglu’s comment exposed a sore point for the Turks: the uncomfortable reality that its strategic relationship with the USA is being tested by the shift towards ethnic and sectarian politics in the region, which, since the rise of IS, has favoured the Kurds (including those in the PKK and the Syrian PYG that Turkey regards as an existential threat) and Iranian-backed Shi'a groups in Iraq. The institutionalisation of ethnicity as a means to attain power is largely a by-product of state reconfiguration initiated by the USA during its Iraqi occupation, when it distributed political power and financial support on ethnic and sectarian bases. Whereas Turkey could previously rely on its NATO membership and on the KRG to check the PKK’s influence, rapprochement between the USA and Iran, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, and the legitimation of the Syrian PYD (a PKK ally) have limited Turkey’s ability to decisively influence what happens on its borders. The role of the Shi'a militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and abuses by some Kurdish groups against Sunnis have allowed Ankara to argue that Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in Tal Afar, in particular, will be targeted in revenge attacks, and thus Turkish presence is necessary.
Turkey’s key strategic objective is to limit PKK activities in northern Iraq, and to prevent the armed group from joining with the PMU in Sinjar, east of Mosul, which would create a long stretch of territory connecting the Syrian YPG with the PKK in Iraq. Additionally, Turkey has lost prestige as the guardian of Mosul, Sulaymaniye and Kirkuk – regions which historically had significant numbers of Iraqi Turkmen. These areas were ceded by the Ottomans after the breakup of the Ottoman empire following World War I, a sore point for Turkish nationalists like Kemal Atatürk and his successors.
Apart from , Turkey also regards Mosul, together with Aleppo in Syria, as the last outpost of the cultural and historical connection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Should the city be destroyed, three territories considered ‘disputed territories’ between Baghdad and the KRG will be at the centre of the rebuilding of a new Iraq and, by extension, a new Middle East. This uncertain outcome requires greater attention. Where will IS members seek refuge if not in the porous border region? Who will be responsible for millions of Iraqi refugees? How long can a military battle against IS (or the PKK) be sustained without completely engulfing the region in protracted warfare? To what extent can the politics of sectarianism be exploited at the expense of inclusive and democratic states in the Middle East?
With the operation against IS in Raqqa, Syria, underway at the same time, and with the YPG playing a key role there, Turkish anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish entity on its doorstep are heightening. Should IS continue to be tenacious,and should the war stretch out longer than planned, Turkey may enter the conflict regardless of the Iraqi position. This could no doubt raise serious legal questions, but would also signal a sharp change in the relations between Ankara and both Baghdad and Washington. ISmight be on its last legs as a pseudo-state, but there is little doubt that it has reshaped the nature of the state and politics in the Middle East for some time to come.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The 16 October declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of the beginning of the offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group (IS) was welcomed by a range of forces in the Middle East and globally. However, there was immediately an attempt to address fears of potential sectarian violence that might be unleashed upon the liberation of the city, IS’s de facto Iraqi capital.
At a conference of Iraqi tribes held in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to support the Mosul offensive, tribal leaders from Nineveh, the province in which Mosul is located, insisted Shi'a militias should not be involved in the military attempt to liberate Mosul. They feared that Mosul’s Sunnis will be blamed for IS’s crimes, and were afraid of revenge attacks. They based their fears on reports that more than 700 Sunni males had disappeared after Shi'a militias captured Fallujah, and that looting and mass killings occurred in Tikrit when that city was liberated from IS.
Responding to concerns about sectarian reprisals, Iraqi Kurdish leaders promised that their Peshmerga forces would not enter Mosul, and the USA conditioned its air support on Shi'a militias not entering the city. The alliance of Shi'a militias, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), one of the more successful anti-IS forces, has not been excluded from the battle, however. As the Iraqi army advances from the south and west, and Peshmerga forces conduct a multipronged assault from the north and east, the PMF headed westwards to block IS’s escape route from Mosul into Syria. Adding another sectarian dimension, Turkish forces stationed in Bashiqa camp near Mosul joined the fighting against IS this week – despite protests from the Iraqi government – after an invitation from the Peshmerga. Turkey claimed concern for Mosul’s minority Turkmen population and for the Sunni majority.
Mosul and its surrounding area, although having a majority of Sunnis, is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas in Iraq. The last major stronghold of IS in Iraq, its three million population (before IS captured it) included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians, with a religious and sectarian diversity that included Sunnis, Shi'as, Salafis, Yezidis and Christians.
Over the past year IS has taken a battering on the battlefield. Its loss of the Syrian town of Dabiq earlier this month was a huge symbolic defeat. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, has regained morale and momentum with the recapture of major cities such as Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah over the past ten months. The Mosul offensive involves more than 30 000 forces, mostly made up of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by US air strikes and special forces. IS probably has around 6 000 fighters in the city. The initial advance on Mosul saw more than twenty villages and hamlets liberated by Iraqi and Kurdish forces within two days, but the offensive then slowed down due to the number of explosives and booby traps on the roads. Earlier this week, around forty kilometres separated the coalition forces from Mosul.
There have already been reports of some local IS fighters abandoning Mosul, leaving foreign fighters behind. Nevertheless, IS is expected to mount stiff resistance from within the city. The fall of this crucial city will affect IS politically as it loses territory, thus jeopardising its state-building project, and also financially since Mosul has been a huge contributor of tax revenue for the group. Coalition forces claim, however, that Mosul will fall within two months. They are hoping that, as IS fighters defend the city against coalition forces, resistance within Mosul will rise up to battle IS from within. This has already begun with an Iraqi flag being raised over an IS government building last week.
Much of the city will likely be in ruins before it is liberated. It is uncertain whether the fragile Iraqi state will be capable of reconstructing this and other devastated areas. It will also have to take over the provision of services and security in areas in which it has not had the responsibility for the past two years, thus increasing its resource burden. Most importantly, the grievances and sense of marginalisation of Sunni communities in the north has not disappeared. The real mark of Iraq’s success in defeating IS will be whether the government is able to address this marginalisation, and include Sunnis in the state in a manner that removes these grievances. If not, then the reasons that IS was able to take Mosul so easily will persist, and the region will remain ripe for others who claim to support the Sunnis in the north against the central government.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Fallujah held by the Islamic State group (IS) has ground to a halt in light of fierce house-to-house fighting with IS fighters. The city has been under IS control since January 2014, with 90 000 civilians trapped inside. Some 20 000 civilians fled during the first few weeks of the fighting, which began on 25 May, through IS lines, dodging Iraqi army fire, and even swimming the Euphrates river. In the initial push towards Fallujah, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha'bi) were at the forefront of the battle. These Shi'a militias have been accused of numerous human rights violations against Sunni communities, since their cooption by Baghdad in the fight against IS.
Merely fifty kilometres north of Baghdad, Fallujah is strategically important to the Iraqi capital. IS has used it as a staging ground for infiltrating the capital, and executing attacks that have sapped confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retakes Fallujah and returns it to Baghdad’s authority will serve as the template for the Iraqi army’s impending assault on Mosul, which will be conducted in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The battle of Fallujah also represents an internal political issue for Iraq’s Shi'a political class. The successes of the Badr Brigade, a Shi'a militia with strong links to Tehran, in securing Baghdad and beating back IS from Diyala province has provided Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri with significant political capital. Meanwhile the protest movement in Baghdad against corruption and poor service delivery threatens to de-legitimise Abadi’s fledgling government.
The inability of Iraqi forces to coordinate with Sunni tribal leaders – who the government had alienated through heavily sectarian security measures – granted IS the ability to consolidate its control over Fallujah in 2014. In light of the failures leading up to the fall of Fallujah, the government has recently worked to increase coordination with Sunni tribes and militias in battles to retake territory seized by IS since mid-2014. This coordination is a conscious attempt by Abadi to provide a united national front against IS, exemplified through the increasing purchase Sunni tribes and militias have over Baghdad’s approach to retaking Sunni areas. Sunni tribes have called on the government to reign in Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Fallujah assault. Abadi had attempted to hold them on the outskirts of the city. In the days leading up to the current assault, reports of abuses by these forces against Sunni civilians in the liberated areas south of Fallujah prompted Anbar’s Provincial Council to call on ‘sectarian factions [to keep] away from the battle of Fallujah’. In light of these abuses, Abadi also ordered the government to prosecute fighters accused of committing violations.
Within the Shi'a political class, Abadi is on the back foot. The Badr Brigade has become a prominent force within Iraqi politics through its successes against IS. Badr’s political front, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is poised to become kingmaker in Iraqi elections. This party receives much financial support from Tehran, and uses its control of Diyala province to exhibit its potential as a ruling partner. Meanwhile, the Sadrist camp, led by influential Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized upon the May protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone to demand the prime minister changes his cabinet to a technocratic one, eradicates corruption, and enhances service delivery. Sadr and Abadi support the incorporation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi army, a move opposed by Badr head Ameri. Other militia leaders echo this.
The battle for Fallujah will be a protracted engagement for Iraqi national forces, is becoming increasingly bloody as Iraqi forces get closer to the centre where IS militants are holed up, allegedly using civilians as human shields. Abadi knows that using the militias will grant political points to his rivals. However, these forces have proved effective at clearing and occupying rural zones around contested cities. Abadi thus devised a formula in which Popular Mobilisation Forces are held at the outskirts to prevent IS reinforcements entering the cities, but play no visible role in the liberation of the city. This is a positive development in the battle against IS. The perception of the Iraqi army as liberators in Sunni Fallujah will assist in the pursuit of national unity. Success could guarantee Abadi’s administration the popular support it drastically needs.