Thursday, 13th April 2017

Iraq: Baghdad and allies look beyond Mosul to save Iraq

Chastened by the failure of past stabilisation and state-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, military leaders in Europe and North America have, in recent years, argued strongly that any campaign in the region should be linked to a ‘holistic’ strategy, encompassing political, economic and social reconstruction, as well as the successful projection of military power. This is seen as essential so as not to leave ‘ungoverned spaces’ for the likes of Islamic State (IS, aka Isis or Daesh). Thinking soldiers – whose number includes United States secretary of defence James Mattis (a former Central Command commander) and national security advisor Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond ‘HR’ McMasters (who replaced the less cerebral, more bellicose Michael Flynn) will thus welcome the more rounded conclusions of the first conference in two years of the 68-nation coalition dedicated to defeating IS, which suggested the projection of military power would be supported by a wider policy framework.

But the conference, held at the State Department in Washington on 22 March, also showed there remain clear limits to US re-engagement in Iraq, whose government is being pressed to do much more to improve governance and promote a more inclusive economy and society. In his speech to the coalition, secretary of state Rex Tillerson said “we will continue to facilitate the return of people to their homes and work with local political leadership”. He committed the US to setting up “interim zones of stability” to help refugees return home in the next phase of the fight against IS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. However, Tillerson added: “As a coalition, we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction”. The US had so far provided 75% of the military resources and 25% of the humanitarian support expended in the campaign against IS – others should carry more responsibility, he said.

There have been substantial military advances, and in the past year the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria had dropped by more than 90%, while 75% of Daesh’s online propaganda had been “eliminated”, Tillerson said. “Reflecting on the past year or so, we should be encouraged by the significant progress we as a coalition are making.” Present at the conference was British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who made his speech but then left to be briefed on the apparently ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack on parliament in London – an event which hung heavy on the meeting, underlining the global change that radical Jihadism continues to pose.

A more robust US military approach and a changed strategy development model after the micro-management of Barack Obama’s presidency are apparent across the region. On 22 March, The New York Times (NYT) reported that hundreds of Syrian fighters and their American military advisers, backed by US artillery and attack helicopters, had begun a major operation to cut off the western approaches to the IS capital, Raqqa. It was the first air assault by the US in Syria in its campaign against IS. The NYT said “the mission… reflected the leeway the Trump administration has given its commanders to carry out operations without prolonged review in Washington”.

In Iraq, the military campaign will continue to preoccupy commanders, as the liberation of Mosul grinds on as a street-to-street urban conflict three months after Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s initial target date to take back the city by end-2016. Further conflict is expected in Iraq after the Mosul campaign, which officially launched in October 2016, concludes. IS still holds territory including Hawija, south of Kirkuk in Nineveh province, Tel Afar in Kirkuk governorate and some other urban areas. More fighting is also expected in the Sinjar region, not only to dislodge IS from those areas it still holds, but between Kurds affiliated to the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the dissident Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The anti-IS campaign has brought together some uncomfortable allies, with the Shia Hashd Popular Mobilisation Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga militia fighting alongside the Iraqi Armed Forces. Speaking earlier in March, Abadi praised these groups’ “unprecedented co-operation” in the Mosul campaign. In Washington on 20 March the PM observed that “if you want to establish peace… you have to win over the people and you have to be careful not to antagonise people, to polarise the situation”. His strategy is thus “to win over the people”, because if “people will co-operate with you, then they will rebuild their own region”.

Past experience shows this is easier said than done. Fears persist that Hashd and Peshmerga activity could further alienate Sunni populations. This remains a highly sensitive subject given the way that former PM Nouri Al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, and the actions of Shiite militia (after the US withdrawal), alienated Sunni communities. Iraq’s widening.

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