Kawa Hassan Addresses European Parliament on Mosul Offensive

Commentary | November 29, 2016

On November 28, Hassan delivered a comprehensive speech to the European Parliament's Sub-committee on Security and Defense in Brussels, Belgium. He highlighted the challenges the Iraqi military faces to defeat ISIS and analyzed the nature of the political landscape in Mosul and Iraq at large after the defeat of ISIS. Below is the full text of his speech.

The operation “Nainwa We Are Coming”, which aims to defeat ISIS in Mosul, began on the 17th of October. Almost 100,000 Iraqi troops—ranging from the army, counter-terrorism service, police, Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite Popular mobilization units and Sunni Tribal mobilization forces—are participating in the fight against 5,000-6,000 ISIS fighters. These forces are supported by the U.S. and other Western countries that make up the Global Coalition against ISIS. According to Iraqi military sources, Iraqi troops have regained 50 percent of the total territory of Nainwa Province that ISIS had captured during its blitzkrieg in 2014. According to U.S. sources, Iraqi troops recaptured 25 percent of the Mosul city. Indeed, Iraqi troops have achieved considerable military success.

But the fight is far from over. In fact we may witness a terribly bloody and protracted war with far-reaching regional ramifications. It might not be an exaggeration to say that the outcome of the Mosul offensive might shape the future of Iraq. Monumental military challenges and daunting political problems lie ahead.

The military obstacles are as follows:  

First, Iraqi forces face a paradox as they intensify the battle against ISIS. The more territories they liberate, the closer they get to the power base of ISIS—namely the western part of Mosul city and Tal’Afar. Urban warfare against a brutal, smart and adaptive enemy like ISIS, particularly in a city where more than a million people live, is a true nightmare for Iraqi troops. This slows the advance of anti-ISIS troops. These forces have to take back territories from ISIS and at the same time make sure they don’t target civilians or get hit by Islamic State attacks.

Second, the city of Mosul is now encircled to the north, south and east. This encirclement greatly limits the freedom of movement of ISIS fighters in and out of Mosul. More importantly, it cuts ISIS’s supply route from the rest of Iraq and its other major stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. But ISIS still controls the 60-kilometer strategic road between Mosul and Tal Afar as well as the strategic Tal Afar itself. This prevents advancing troops from completely encircling the city from the west.

Third, ISIS is using civilians as human shields and is dug in among the population. Daesh militants move around the city in tunnels; drive suicide car bombs into Iraqi troops and make use of sniper and mortar fire.  

Fourth, anti-ISIS forces have one common enemy but not one common agenda. They are united by their anger at ISIS and the crimes it committed against different sectarian, ethnic and religious groups. But their unity stops there. Shiite Hashd wants to retake Tal Afar, Kurdish Peshmerga want to keep and expand pre-2014 territories, Sunnis are divided between diverse groups, PKK wants to keep control of part of Sinjar, troops of the religious minorities (Yezidis, Shabaks and Christians) want to retake their territories and perhaps to punish the local Sunni population, whom they see as ISIS collaborators. The multiplicity and diversity of aims and objectives enormously complicate the military battle as well as future political deals.

Now I will address the post-ISIS political scene both in Mosul and Iraq in general.

Let me first explain that post-ISIS Mosul doesn’t mean ISIS will be completely defeated. As has been the case in other liberated areas such Anbar, Salahadin and Diyala, ISIS is successful in mounting “traditional” terrorist attacks against civilians and military targets. This threat will not go away after it has been driven out of Mosul. Despite successive military defeats, Islamic State retains resilience and the capacity to remain a mortal terrorist organization. It seems that ISIS has multiple operational centers capable of acting independently to launch deadly attacks. As was the case with its predecessor Islamic State in Iraq, after military defeat in Mosul, Islamic State will go back to the desert. The vast desert border areas between Iraq and Syria are ideal locations for Daesh to retreat, retaliate, avenge, recruit and capitalize on potential political failures to tackle structural problems of exclusion, lack of rule of law, and exclusive politics.

The Mosul battle might shape the future of Iraq but the fate of Tal Afar might decide the future of the Mosul offensive. This town has a population of 100,000 people and lies 60 kilometers to the west of Mosul. Before 2003, it had a population of 200,000 Turkmen, of which approximately three-quarters were Sunni and one-quarter Shiite, in addition to Kurds. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein favored the Sunni Turkmen and gave them lands in the north of the town, while the Shiite Turkomen were marginalized. Sunni Turkmen were also prominent in the army and security services. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, these divisions turned into sectarian strife between Shiite and Sunni Turkmen. Tal Afar became a beacon for the predecessors of ISIS,  Alqaeda in Iraq and Islamic State in Iraq. According to the Analyst Gareth Stansfield, given its strategic proximity to Syria, Tal Afar became a Jihadist highway for AQI, ISI and ISIS.

After its takeover by ISIS in 2014, ISIS killed or expelled the Shiite Turkmen and Kurds. Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces retook villages and now push towards the city itself. Tens of thousands have fled the town, some to the Syrian border, and other towards Iraqi Kurdistan, while others flee to ISIS-held areas. The actions of Shiite militias will decide the fate of this town and with it the fate of Mosul. If they exact widespread revenge against the Sunnis and expel them, this might create a conducive environment for ISIS to come back and for a potential regional conflict with Turkey, and between Turkey and Iran. But if they show restraint and let the Iraqi army, special forces and moderate Shiite militias liberate the town and apply rule of law, the worst case scenario might not happen.           

The topic of disputed territories between Baghdad and Erbil and future relations in general will come to the forefront once Mosul is liberated. Kurdish authorities maintain that they will not leave pre-October areas they took before the latest offensive but they will be ready to negotiate about territories they liberated post-October 17. Iraqi authorities disagree with the Kurdish position. For now Kurdish and Iraqi forces fight side by side against ISIS. Yet it is difficult to predict what will happen in the days after defeat of ISIS. The potential for military conflict is definitely present.

Given the fragmentation of Sunni political parties, it is very difficult to predict which Sunni faction will control Mosul in the aftermath of an ISIS defeat.

It might take months to drive ISIS out of Mosul. But the biggest question is what would happen afterwards.

The liberation of Mosul could lead to a new beginning for Iraq and to the emergence of an inclusive Iraqi state provided three conditions are met: 

  • Iraqi authorities should regain the trust of the Moslawis, the people of Mosul. This is important because the sectarian policies of Iraq's previous government and the collapse of the people's confidence in the Iraqi army and post-2003 Iraqi state led to the ISIS takeover in June 2014.  The Iraqi government will be judged by its actions, not its words. Will they succeed in providing good governance and rule of law, and revitalize institutions such as universities? 
  • The United States, United Nations, European Union, donor countries and regional states should set up a special fund for the stabilization and reconstruction of Mosul. The humanitarian and reconstruction needs in Mosul are immense. The international community and regional states can play a positive role in rebuilding Mosul by committing to financial resources. This will send a signal to the Moslawis that they will not be abandoned once ISIS is defeated. 
  • International and regional powers should play a positive role in bridging - rather than broadening and deepening- the divide between the diverse Iraqi communities to reach mutual compromises regarding territorial disputes, distribution of wealth and power sharing.

Click here to watch the full speech. Hassan's remarks begin around the 54:45 mark.