Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
‘Will they fight like in Fallujah?’ must be the question running through the Iraqi government’s mind.
It took 10,500 US Marines over six weeks to retake the town of 300,000 that had become the headquarters of the first Iraqi insurgency.
Last year, the current Iraqi army, supported by a collection of largely Shia auxiliary militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation forces, retook the Sunni town from ISIS: the latest iteration of the Baathist-Islamist rebellion.
The irony that the invasion of Iraq forced the remnants of Saddam’s regime into alliance with a religious jihad is not lost on the conflict’s Western observers, still obsessed as they are with their own error, to the neglect of the people who must live with it.
Kurdistan aside, free thanks to the war, it’s now some 70 years since Iraqis have had an administration capable enough to keep order, without setting records for brutality unsurpassed in that region by anyone not a member of the Assad family.
Shocking though IS’s terror is, it should not come a surprise from an organisation peopled by ex-officers of Saddam’s secret police and the rougher elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq. More shocking still is that its barbarism has always been able to count on a decent element of toleration from the central Sunni towns that formed the bedrock of support for the old regime, and even from the Sunni population in more northerly Mosul.
In this the comparison to the Nazis is, for once, not misplaced. ISIS are not, according to available opinion research (and there are very brave people who carry it out) exactly popular, but they are not seen as orders of magnitudes worse than the Popular Mobilisation Forces that they replaced.
Not a few of the internally displaced people who have fled to Kurdistan say they fled not from Daesh, but from the Iraqi government’s own auxiliary militia, whom they accuse, with justification, of sectarian atrocities.
In the last few months, forces assisted by US advisers have begun to be assembled for Mosul’s liberation. Peshmerga from the Kurds, the PMF, Christian and Turkmen militias sheltering in territory under Kurdish control, and shiny, American-equipped regular Iraqi government troops.
Their first engagement, to take outlying villages to Mosul’s south-east was not an unqualified success. That they were repulsed by a small force of ISIS fighters points either to the incompetence of regular Iraqi personnel or to IS’s intention to dig in.
This looks like being a long campaign, as ISIS seem determined to hold territory. It is essential that Iraq’s Western backers, keen for a quick success, don’t push the Iraqi forces into a fight for which they are not ready. They risk getting bogged down, or, worse, rebuffed altogether.
Of even more importance is acting on the recognition that a place needs to be found for Sunnis in Iraq. Without it, even if IS is defeated, some other outfit, perhaps even worse, will take its place, promising to resist Shia and Iranian domination. Donors in the Gulf will be sympathetic, for strategic as well as sectarian reasons. An unbroken arc of Shia influence stretching from Beirut, through Damascus and Baghdad, would not unreasonably be seen as threatening.
It is quite likely that even if ISIS is successfully defeated, a well-funded replacement will soon be ready to take its place. The critical question is whether that replacement will be able to gain the support of the local population. The temporary success of the US-backed Awakening shows that it is possible to win the support of Iraq’s Sunni population. They however feel they have been abandoned by the Americans and need to be reassured that they won’t be left alone between the Iran-backed Shia and its PMF auxiliaries, and a renewed Islamist-Baathist post-ISIS insurgency, once Western attention fades again.
Should the mission to liberate Mosul be successful, its administration will be a central test of whether this can be done. Plans already exist to establish a power-sharing administration involving Sunnis, Kurds, Shia and Christians in the city. The Government of Iraq claims to be working towards just this. It remains however to be seen whether they are serious about it. If they are not, ISIS or its replacement will come back and the days of an unitary multi-sectarian Iraq will be numbered.