Don’t defeat IS, yet

Ramzy Mardini

A military push to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the rest of Nineveh Province from the so-called Islamic State (IS) is expected soon. Unfortunately, even if the campaign is successful, the liberation of Mosul will not stabilise the country. Nor will conquest resolve the underlying conditions that originally fuelled the extremist insurgency. Instead, the legacy of IS, will endure. Its rise and fall have altered the country’s society and politics in irreversible ways that threaten future cycles of conflict. Throughout history, victorious wars have often forged national identities, expanded state power and helped centralise political authority. But the war against the IS is having the opposite effect: fragmentation.
In parts of Iraq recaptured from the militants where I’ve travelled, signs of any central authority are nonexistent. Instead, what has emerged from the conflict is a complex patchwork of ethnic, tribal and religious militias that claim fief over particular territories. This was the case in liberated parts of Sinjar, where the massacre of Yazidis, a religious minority, perpetrated by the IS with local Sunni collaborators compelled the United States to intervene militarily in 2014. Now the remaining Yazidi community is divided and militarised, with each militia backed by a different Kurdish faction, and each Kurdish faction in turn backed by a different regional power.
In Nineveh Province, the social fabric that long reflected the coexistence of diverse groups seems permanently damaged. “IS changed everything,” one Yazidi man told me. “We can never trust Arabs again.” I heard same message from members of other minority groups. Each now demands political autonomy. In Iraq’s northern region, war has encouraged Kurdish nationalist aspirations to crystallise into urgent demands for statehood. It’s difficult to find anyone who feels they belong to Iraqi nation. The Baghdad government’s writ does not apply in most of Iraq.
The administration’s weak authority has forced the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to rely on dozens of Shiite militias to shore up national security. Mr. Abadi has tried to integrate these forces to bring them under his control, but the process has created parallel command structures within the security apparatus. In practice, the militias answer to a murky network of patronage and loyalties divided among different political parties, religious clerics and external patrons. It’s hard to tell where the militias end and the state begins.
The American experience in Iraq has been plagued by a series of false assumptions, misplaced confidence and poor foresight. In the latest manifestation, since 2014, the White House has wrongly prioritised the narrow, short-term military objective of defeating the Islamic State. The push to retake Mosul is not simply a case of the Iraqi Army against the IS; instead, an array of armed groups — each driven by its own parochial interests — are set to wage war there. This alone should give American policy makers pause, because of the threat this situation poses to reconstruction and post-conflict stability.
For many, fighting the IS is not about saving the nation or the state; it’s an opportunity to reap the political spoils of conquest. Among the groups competing for those rewards are: Sunni Arab tribal militias looking to expand control over territory ahead of the next provincial elections; Shiite Turkmen militias aiming to cleanse Sunni Turkmens from the area; Shiite Arab militias seeking a bigger say in government; and Kurdish groups wishing to consolidate control over disputed territories. Behind all these is a prime minister who needs a victory to strengthen his weak hand in Baghdad.
In the face of these forces, Nineveh’s provincial government, which has been in exile for over two years, does not have the capacity to re-establish its authority. A new governor was appointed last year, but he commands neither a political party nor a solid coalition of allies. American policy makers would be foolish to hope they could control such a complex environment of conflicting interests. Nor should they rely on these armed groups’ disarming after the IS is defeated. Given this unpromising picture, President Obama would be wise to postpone the military campaign. Any rushed victory would most likely prove pyrrhic — further fragmenting the civil-war-ravaged country and pushing it toward a new phase of armed sectarian politics. The writer is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.
— Courtesy: The New York Times

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