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OPINION / Middle East

What success would look like in Fallujah

Shia militias must behave in a sensitive and empathetic way to the mostly Sunni civilians they liberate in Iraq.

by Afzal Ashraf

The more experience an analyst has of the conflict in Iraq and Syria, the more reluctant he or she is to predict what is going to happen and why. This is because there are so many players involved and almost as many agendas.

Until recently, everyone was expecting an operation to recover Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). News reports were about coalition leafleting of Raqqa, warning civilians to get out of the city before an all-out assault. Now the news is about Fallujah.

Inside Story - Do Shia militias stoke sectarian tension in Fallujah?

Suddenly, a full-scale assault is under way to free Fallujah. It is unlikely that the Fallujah and Raqqa "liberation" plans are linked. There was a plan of sorts to coordinate the attack on Raqqa with Mosul but Fallujah unexpectedly came to the fore.

The reason for the attention on Fallujah seems to have more to do with events in Baghdad than any coordinated anti-ISIL strategy.

Mother of all insurgencies

The high death toll in the recent ISIL bombings in Baghdad has rattled the Haider al-Abadi government.

This, coming so soon after the storming of the Green Zone earlier this month resulting from growing unrest among the population about security, food, water, electricity, etc.

READ MORE: A new formula in the battle for Fallujah

These events are being exploited by the one man in Iraq who knows how to run the mother of all insurgencies, Moqtada al-Sadr. He has skilfully positioned himself as the champion of the common Iraqi.

Prominent Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr [Reuters]

The government needs to be seen to be doing something and needs to distract from the day-to-day suffering of its civilian population. That is why Fallujah has made it up the charts in terms of recapture planning.

As the US-led coalition discovered more than a decade ago, Fallujah is easy to lose and hard to regain.

How successful the current assault is likely to be will depend on three things.

First, how many ISIL fighters are actually in the city? The fewer there are, the more chance of success.

Second, it will depend upon how willing the fighters or their leadership is to stand and fight. If they choose to have a tactical withdrawal, something they have done in the past, then the recapture might happen relatively easily.

Why the Iraqi army, which is already getting air support from coalition partners, ground support ... from the US and some operational support from the Iranians, needs to use sectarian militias is a curious question.

Third, it will depend upon the Iraqi army and their Shia militias' appetite for civilian casualties and destruction. The more willing they are to inflict civilian casualties and destroy infrastructure, the easier and quicker will be the recapture.

This last point about the use of Shia militias is significant to the long-term sustainability of any gains in Fallujah and elsewhere.

Why the Iraqi army, which is already getting air support from coalition partners, ground support in the form of training from the US and some operational support from the Iranians, needs to use sectarian militias is a curious question.

Political bankruptcy

It betrays the political bankruptcy of the Baghdad government and even the sustainability of the idea of Iraq as a state. If the state cannot have monopoly of force then it cannot govern a country. The absence of this monopoly of force is largely the cause of the current crisis. 

The assault on Fallujah may yield a tactical victory in the short term, but it is likely to lay the foundation for a future crisis of sectarian and identity-based extremism.

The only way to avoid that would be to ensure that the Shia militias are disciplined and behave in a sensitive and empathetic way to the mostly Sunni civilians they liberate.

Also, it would require a massive rebuilding and resettlement programme for the city. Performance of the post-Saddam regimes in Baghdad has been poor in both exerting discipline over armed groups and in investing in non-Shia areas, leaving little room for optimism.

READ MORE: How to prevent sectarian backlash from Baghdad bombings

The use of Kurdish forces by the US in Raqqa faces a similar political and military equation - short-term success at the risk of long-term instability and conflict.

Fatal blow to ISIL

Should Raqqa be liberated, it will definitely strike a near-fatal blow to ISIL, given that the city is its capital. However, the presence and even the knowledge that Kurdish militias have been victorious in Raqqa will not rest easy with local proud Arab egos.

Indeed, regional powers such as Turkey are irritated that Kurdish groups they regard as terrorists are being supported by the US. Many Syrian rebels, even those that disguise their Islamist agenda behind a veil of moderation, see the Kurdish YPG as godless socialists.

For detached political analysts, the alliance of US troops with a Marxist-inspired group of Kurds who are more ideologically aligned with Russia than the US is a source of academic amusement. It's like being at the wedding of a friend when you know the marriage will result in a quick and possibly acrimonious divorce.

However, if these two assaults are successful and closely followed by a victory in Mosul, then there is a chance of dismantling ISIL. That will at least simplify the Iraq and Syrian issues to the enduring ones of poor, ineffective governance, sectarian violence and Kurdish nationalism.

Afzal Ashraf is a consultant fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and served in the UK armed forces. He was involved in developing a counterinsurgency strategy and in the policing and the justice sectors in Iraq.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 



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