Will Fallujah put an end to ISIL in Iraq?

A long-term solution to ISIL in Iraq requires much more than recapturing territory, says Iraqi scholar Zaid al-Ali

Civilians in Fallujah
Fallujah will be a delicate and difficult environment for a long time [Getty Images]

As the Iraqi army, backed by a coalition of militias and forces, makes slow advances toward Fallujah, one of the most circulating theories suggests that if the Islamic State group (Daesh) (ISIL, also known as ISIS) loses Fallujah to the army, then it is finished off in Iraq.

Al Jazeera talks to Iraqi scholar, Zaid al-Ali, author of the book (The Struggle for Iraq’s Future), on why the battle for Fallujah matters in the larger context of the war on Daesh in Iraq, the human rights abuses committed by the militias accompanying the Iraq army and best approach to end Daesh’s rule of terror in the country.

Many fear that ISIL's departure might usher in a new period of suffering for Fallujah's civilian population [EPA]
Many fear that ISIL’s departure might usher in a new period of suffering for Fallujah’s civilian population [EPA]

Al Jazeera: To what extent would you agree with the theory that if Daesh loses Fallujah to the Iraqi army, then it is finished in Iraq? 

The only long-term solution to Iraq’s ISIL and to the presence of groups like ISIL is to upend the political system by making its politicians more accountable, and that can only be achieved through major electoral reform.

Zaid al-Ali: Fallujah is certainly a major centre for ISIL. It has been holding territory there for more than two years now, far longer than any other part of the country, which means that it has had far longer to entrench itself in that city than anywhere else.

ISIL has also invested a significant amount of its own fighters in the city’s defence. Finally, Fallujah is the symbolic centre of resistance to the post-2003 order and to the US occupation that brought it into existence.

ISIL will eventually lose control over Fallujah, probably some time over the next few weeks, and that will certainly represent yet another major blow to the organisation’s prestige.

It seems fairly obvious that while ISIL will continue to hold territory in Iraq in the short term, in the medium term it will almost certainly be pushed out of Iraqi territory. ISIL’s resources are under a significant amount of strain, and it is being pressured by a large number of actors in different places.The maths are simply not in its favour and so it is just a matter of time until it loses control over Fallujah, Mosul and all Iraqi territory.

It’s also worth noting, however, that the long-term picture, however, remains fairly bleak for Iraq. A long-term solution to ISIL requires much, much more than recapturing territory. If the Iraqi state wants to prevent ISIL (or a different version of the organisation) from regaining a foothold in the country after it has been pushed out pursuant to the current effort, then it will have to implement a real and comprehensive counterinsurgency effort.

That will require major reform to the security sector, to the justice sector (including the courts), to prison facilities, etc. All of these things are needed not just to reassure local populations that the state will now be treating them more equitably, but also to ensure that criminals will be punished while the innocent will be protected, which has not been the case thus far.

Under current circumstances, however, there is no way that any of these things will take place. Iraq’s political system is simply too decrepit and too dysfunctional for major reform to be carried out. Sectarianism, corruption and incompetence among the political class are too entrenched.

The vast majority of Iraq’s politicians simply do not care about real reform; and even if they did, they wouldn’t have the faintest idea of how to approach the problem because they’re so incompetent. The only long-term solution to Iraq’s ISIL and to the presence of groups like ISIL is to upend the political system by making its politicians more accountable, and that can only be achieved through major electoral reform.

Al Jazeera: Is there some exaggeration to suggest that Fallujah is at the heart of Daesh’s recruit network?

Al-Ali: It would be wrong to suggest that ISIL only has one source of recruits or that Fallujah is a major source of ISIL recruits. ISIL fighters come from a large number of places, and Fallujah is just one of them.

It is certainly true that there are far more people in Fallujah that are willing to fight against the ruling authorities in Baghdad than other areas. To take Tikrit as an obvious counterexample: Tikrit is not particularly tribal or religious, it is a middle-class town, it is a provincial capital, it is the seat of a large university and hospital, many of its inhabitants are employed by the state, and until 2014 it had been relatively peaceful. Thus, when ISIL took over the town, the organisation was not particularly surprised to see Tikritis flee to Erbil and Baghdad.

Almost no one stayed and almost no one fled to other areas under ISIL’s control. Since its liberation, 95 percent of the city’s inhabitants have returned and it has been relatively peaceful.

Fallujah is practically Tikrit’s polar opposite. It is tribal, religious, its social structure was deeply affected by the US-led war in 2003, and it has been a major source of instability since then. The result is that there are far more people in Fallujah who are willing to bear arms against [central government] in Baghdad than in places like Tikrit.

The proportion, nonetheless, is still very low in comparison to the city’s entire population, but it is high enough to make the battle for Fallujah a very difficult one for the Iraq army, and to ensure that post-liberation it will continue to be a very difficult place to govern in comparison with Tikrit.

Al Jazeera: Recent reports claimed that Fallujah civilians have been subject to torture at the hands of militia accompanying the Iraqi army. What do we know about such incidents? Do you think this is a reflection of a sectarian-oriented policy adopted mainly by militias such as al-Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces)?

Confronting ISIL: Hundreds flee city of Fallujah

Al-Ali: Torture is extremely common in Iraq. Almost everyone who is accused of terrorist activities or of criminal activity is tortured as a matter of course.

Basic constitutional rights, including the right to be brought before a judge, to be charged with a crime within a specific period of time, to remain free of physical and psychological torture, are all simply ignored by the police, by the army, by public prosecutors and by judges.

So if the state’s official institutions don’t respect these rules, what chance do irregular armed units whose legal status remains uncertain to this day have of respecting them?

Having said all that, I do not think that this is a reflection of sectarianism, given that Shia detainees who are arrested in other parts of the country are typically subjected to the same type of treatment by the security services.

This is more a reflection of a significant amount of laziness and stupidity by policymakers, and the consequence of Iraq’s culture of impunity and lack of accountability. Stupidly, officials who are responsible for determining Iraq’s security policy assume that torture will cause for criminals to confess, not giving any thought to the possibility that they may be torturing the wrong person who will confess to anything under a sufficient amount of duress.

This clearly needs to change as a matter of extreme urgency. This particular issue doesn’t require any major reform, given that there are constitutional and legal rules that prohibit torture in all cases. All that would need to happen in this case is for the law to be applied in as public a way as possible, particularly to ensure that all security officials understand that torture will not be tolerated.

Al Jazeera: How would you view statements by the commander of the popular mobilisation forces, Hadi al-Amari, that his militia will not enter Fallujah unless all civilians have been evacuated from it?

Al-Ali: It’s still unclear that al-Hashd al-Shaabi militia will be entering the city in any major way in any event. They are not playing a major role in the operation so far, and are unlikely to play an important role after the city’s liberation either.

Fallujah will be a delicate and difficult environment for a long time, and Iraqi officials understand that. The same can be said of Tikrit, where al-Hashd did not play a particularly important role. The actions that they did take (including significant looting) were widely reported in the press, but in the end they did not carry out large-scale massacres as many people assumed would happen.

Regardless, there isn’t a major distinction insofar as I can tell between the Hashd and the regular armed forces – they are both susceptible to engage in criminal behaviour.

Al Jazeera: How would you rank the battle over Fallujah in the larger context of the war on Daesh?

Al-Ali: By all accounts, the battle for Fallujah is another important milestone, but it is part of an ongoing trend of ISIL being pushed out of Iraqi territory. I expect it to be over within a few weeks, but  major challenges are expected over the next few years. I am generally optimistic about the short term military campaign, but very pessimistic about the long term prospects for democracy, the rule of law and justice in Iraq. 

Source: Al Jazeera