As the military battle over ISIL-controlled Mosul and Nineveh has begun, questions over the future of this vital province of Iraq are flowing thick and fast.
While there is confidence that the new US-supported coalition can defeat ISIL (also known as ISIS), there are concerns that each faction holds contesting views about what comes after.
It is becoming apparent, for example, that a number of elements have well-vested interests in partitioning the province into a series of six to eight ethnic or sectarian cantons with independent rights and autonomy from Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad.
Back in Washington and Congress there is some support for such solutions if they are seen as a way of protecting the rights of religious minorities such as Yazidis, Assyrians, and Chaldeans who have been mercilessly persecuted and ethnically cleansed from their ancient homelands by a genocidal ISIL.
Caution: Division Ahead
A note of caution should be sounded at this point as such arrangements, while appearing attractive in the abstract, could make matters worse, not better. Partition can deepen schisms in fragile states.
While power-sharing in Mosul before ISIL took over in 2014 was far from perfect, it did represent forms of power-sharing which accommodated and balanced minority interests. The 2013 governorate elections returned a coalition of parties from the Kurdish KDP and PUK, Atheel al-Nujaifi’s tribal, Sunni-dominated al-Hadba coalition, and other tribal, Shabak, Yazidi, Chaldean, and nationalist parties, reflecting the possibilities of representation without territorial carve-ups.
Current proposals to develop those cantons, which emanate from Mosul and Nineveh and are allegedly supported by Turkey, are not the product of constructive approaches to managing long-standing sectarian and ethnic problems, by the kinds of the elected coalitions described above or wider community-based dialogue processes and consultations.
Nor, just as importantly, do they represent other marginalised groups, namely young people, women, and community members whose opinions, perceptions, definitions, and ideas do not have a strong voice in current debates about Mosul and Nineveh post-ISIL.
Quite the opposite, such proposals are motivated by largely undisguised sectarian, patriarchal, tribal, or ethnic interests at the expense of the rights and protections of other parties.
Such proposals are motivated by largely undisguised sectarian, patriarchal, tribal, or ethnic interests at the expense of the rights and protections of other parties.
Furthermore, the creation of such cantons is unlikely to result from a consultative approach, and will therefore potentially result in more problems than it solves, especially if the cantons’ internal governance and legal structures prove incompatible with Iraq’s constitution.
Also, unless canton proposals are put to all Iraq’s citizens through referenda the implications and risks in terms of the territorial integrity of the rest of the country could be disastrous.
It will be very apparent from the start that the viability of such cantons depends on the level of cooperation between new neighbours.
The powers of individual cantons would have to be subject to lengthy and reciprocal negotiations. These in turn would demand a myriad of laws, treaties, and agreements to cover the gamut from the everyday to the existential.
One key concern around protection would be the residual threat from ISIL.
Would each putative canton in Nineveh have its own security, police, and intelligence forces? Just what kinds of security-related policies and coordination mechanisms will be in place to counter trans-canton crime, terrorism, drug-trafficking, arms smuggling, and other serious offences?
Such proposals to demarcate Mosul and the Nineveh into cantons where exclusive ethnic, tribal, and sectarian groups reside are likely to weaken each area’s ability to protect itself against ongoing challenges from unitary jihadist threats.
No one is saying that there will be easy choices ahead for the governing authorities in Baghdad. However, there is a question of whether they are prepared to support reconstruction or whether they will have to surrender to the demands of localised ethnic and sectarian interests.
There may be little choice in the matter. Baghdad may well capitulate, given that these local rivals are supported by strong and well-funded outside powers with their own agendas.
The US should think twice about supporting the secessionist demands of leaders such as Nujaifi and Massoud Barzani. The motives behind their current alliance of interests should be questioned. Proposals which break down power from the provincial level which are not truly representative and harmonious will still leave vulnerable populations on the margins.
When Mosul is re-taken the reconstruction and re-governance phase will be long and arduous, and demand US involvement yet again.
After all, having a US-aided coalition embark on an offensive against ISIL in Mosul and Nineveh implies a role for the US in the post-liberation settlement.
Hopefully, the spoils of Mosul and Nineveh will not be divided among the armed victors, but instead security and governance will be implemented equally without favour.
Beverley Milton-Edwards is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is also a professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research focuses on security sector governance in the Middle East and the challenges of political Islam.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.