Iraqi forces, helped by US military advisors, are inching their way toward the re-conquest of Mosul, the country’s second largest city, from the Islamic State and its allies.
The Baghdad government and the newly-installed Donald Trump administration will undoubtedly hail the taking of the city as a triumph, in that it marks the weakening of a terrorist threat and the beginning of an era of peace in Iraq.
For all its extremism and chronic barbarities, the Islamic State, in both its Iraqi and Syrian versions, is a symptom of larger, long-running discontent among segments of the Sunni Muslim population in each country—a 75 per cent majority in Syria, a 20 per cent minority in Iraq.
In Iraq, ultra-sectarian Shiite Muslim politicians dominate the government and have shown little interest in reaching out to the Sunni population, once the bedrock of support for deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. Sunnis have fought back with along-running insurgency that began shortly after the 2003 US invasion that ousted Saddam from power.
Now, horrified by the terroristic excesses of the Islamic State and finding its insurgency collapsing, Sunnis find themselves in an evermore weakened position with no one to turn to.
So will the seething Sunni population finally throw in the towel and accept perpetual marginalization? Unlikely.
It’s worth remembering that shortly after the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, American officials said lingering violence was but the work of a few “dead-enders;” and back in 2007, following the vaunted US military ‘surge’ in Iraq, the insurgency under al-Qaeda was declared dead. Only a political solution, not periodic military moves, can pacify Iraq.
This is where the Trump Administration would likely want to help out. After Mosul’s fall in 2014, President Barack Obama called for the Baghdad government to reconcile with Sunnis. On several occasions, Obama fancifully claimed that political inclusiveness had already happened. It never did.
Neither former Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki nor his successor Haidar al-Abadi, who took office in 2014, provided Sunnis access to political participation nor economic relief to persuade the community that it is part of Iraqi society. Atrocities against Sunni civilians by Shiite militias also encourage Sunni suspicions. The rulers in Baghdad have been more interested in enriching themselves through corrupt dealings than easing the country’s ethnic strife.
Unfortunately for Trump, American ability to badger Baghdad is low and will decline further when Mosul is taken. Once the city is freed, America’s use to Baghdad will shrink. Moreover, there is a countervailing force with a greater store of influence that’s seems little interested in national reconciliation: Iran.
In reality, the Mosul campaign has been not just a US-Iraqi undertaking, but a three-legged alliance of convenience that includes Iran. Iran-sponsored Shiite militias have been busy blocking the western exits from Mosul to close off Islamic State escape routes. Iranian advisors counsel these militias and there are some reports of Iranian troops on the ground. All this is worrying to Sunnis who fear not only Shiite domination but Iran’s.
But while American military muscle in Iraq is temporary, Iran’s is permanent. Iranian-sponsored Iraqi militias groups have long operated. They help keep Abadi weak—he lacks full control over government use of force in his own country. Most of his army is weaker and less motivated than the armed groups sponsored by Iran.
My guess is that once Mosul falls, Iran will pressure Abadi to expel the US advisors present on the battlefield from the country. Meanwhile, Iran’s Shiite militias might well remain the north where they never had a presence before.
Trump has few cards to play. His expressed hostility to Iran is unlikely to lure Tehran into some sort of accommodation.
Moreover, after Obama’s US-mediated nuclear weapons deal, Iran is unconstrained by the threat of an Israeli and/or US attack on its atomic facilities. Without that concern, it is free to overtly and covertly carry out its key foreign policy goal: expulsion of the US from the Middle East. Iran’s axis of allies already runs from Tehran through Damascus and into Lebanon.