Day: August 1, 2016

The story will not end with Mosul’s liberation

A former Middle East Institute research assistant still working on Iraq offers this: 

The dust is settling in Fallujah, where the Iraqi army is digging in. The center of gravity in the fight against Da’esh (ISIS) is now moving north. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and a Da’esh stronghold since June 2014, will now become a battleground again. D-Day remains unclear, though on Sunday Nineveh’s former governor predicted a mid-September start date for the Mosul offensive.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi Federal Government in Baghdad – alongside international partners – have held months of discussions and planning sessions to prepare for what is to come. At times the discussions have been less than amicable, but it is generally understood that Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army will work together closely to liberate the city.

The humanitarian situation arising from that liberation will be bleak. Contingency planners in Iraq and Kurdistan believe there are around 1.2 million civilians trapped inside of the city, with another 800,000 in the surrounding districts and villages in Nineveh province. This population will be directly exposed to the fighting.

This will present an unprecedented challenge for authorities. KRG reports predict that the number of new IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) will reach around 420,000 individuals (72,000 families). The vast bulk of these IDPs will flee north and east, into the Iraqi Kurdistan.

This could spell disaster for the KRG. The region is already suffering from the effects of years of fighting, a severe economic downturn, and a bitter ongoing dispute with the federal government in Baghdad over its share of the nationwide budget. Despite all this, Kurdistan has become a comparatively safe haven for those displaced by regional turmoil (and for economic migrants from the south). As a result the KRG now hosts close to 1.3 million IDPs, plus 245,000 Syrian refugees – around a quarter of the region’s total population.

Moreover, the 420,000 IDP figure does not represent the worst-case prediction. One briefing document produced by a KRG department presents three possible scenarios for the Mosul offensive’s IDP fallout. In the first, best-case scenario, the operation lasts only a few weeks. In this case, the number of IDPs will remain comparatively low, as Da’esh bans freedom of movement, and Mosuli civilians attempt to weather the conflict at home.

The second, middle-case, scenario gives the 420,000 IDP contingency figure. It assumes an offensive lasting more than several weeks, in which shelling and airstrikes become more intense, and the battle descends into block-by-block street fighting.

In the third, worst case scenario the offensive lasts several months. Bitter street fighting, increasing shortages of food and supplies, and inner-city chaos ensue as Da’esh slowly loses control. In this scenario, the number of people fleeing the fighting may rise to more than a million.

This third case scenario warrants being taken seriously. The operation to retake Fallujah lasted a month. The Mosul offensive could well last much longer. Mosul city is considerably larger than Fallujah, at approximately 250 square miles to Fallujah’s four square miles. Mosul’s still-resident population is also vastly larger than Fallujah’s, making it harder and more time-consuming for attacking forces to avoid collateral damage (it can be assumed that the defenders will have no such qualms). Further, Da’esh has had more than two years to entrench. The loss of Mosul, the jewel in its crown, will be a more symbolic defeat than any previous loss. Da’esh is likely to put up a determined defense.

Any of the three scenarios will put an incredible financial and logistical burden on already struggling Kurdistan. Five new IDP camps are planned, but the KRG already struggles to care for the numerous IDPs already in-region. Meanwhile, the stagnant economy has forced the domestic population to undergo painful belt-tightening.

While Iraqi Kurdistan remains relatively stable for now, tensions and resentments bubble barely below the surface. Civil service salaries have been slashed and frequently have not been paid at all. President Masoud Barzani has clung to power, even as his presidential term (and the extension he gave himself) has expired. The Kurdish parliament has ground to a halt as party relations between former coalition partners, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Gorran, have deteriorated to non-speaking terms. Politics between the major parties has become increasingly violent.

Conversations with Kurdish citizens in the region suggest that the failures of their leaders have not gone unobserved, but rather are currently being tolerated for the greater good. Popular grievances will resurface once the common enemy is defeated. Kurds will expect speedy redress from the government in return for their patience these past two years, starting the moment Da’esh is beaten.

Mosul’s fall may be seen as that moment. The domestic and international press will see it as the moment the international coalition broke the back of Da’esh in Iraq. Even as it falls, Erbil will be facing a vast influx of IDPs. It is doubtful the KRG will have the capacity or resources to process and provide for this new population, while also caring for its own.

But even if the liberation of Mosul goes smoothly, other risks will follow: ISIS fighters are likely to escape and pose as IDPs, Arabs fleeing to Kurdistan may therefore be distrusted and even mistreated. Disputes between the KRG and Baghdad will intensify, especially if the Kurds try to keep the eastern bank of the Tigris in Mosul as well as the Nineveh plain, which has a mixed Yazidi, Assyrian Christian, Kurdish, Shabak, Arab population of about 400,000.

This story will not end with the liberation of Mosul.

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