The liberation of Mosul is in the early days of execution, but as the central government in Baghdad and policymakers in the US will soon find out, liberating the city and kicking out ISIL (also known as ISIS) will be the easy part.
The real challenge will be finding a political settlement that allows the local Sunni inhabitants to address their legitimate political grievances with the central government in Baghdad.
It is in this area that the battle for Mosul will be truly won or lost.
Even though there has been much media reporting on the upcoming offensive to retake Mosul from ISIL, there are many reasons why we should not expect a swift liberation of the city.
Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city, and urban warfare is no easy task as the recent operation to liberate Ramadi has shown.
A slow long fight
Ramadi has a population of around 200,000 compared with Mosul’s estimated population of 1.8 million (albeit many of them left the city for safer refuge).
Ramadi is still being cleared of booby traps and insurgents even though it was “liberated” months ago.
Ramadan being observed next month and the heat of the summer are both guaranteed to slow down military operations. Also, it remains to be seen if the Iraqi security forces are truly up to the challenge.
Kurdish forces can only play a limited role in the campaign and would not be seen as liberators at all by the locals.
The composition of the liberating force is still a matter of debate. Many locals do not trust the Iraqi security forces.
Kurdish forces can only play a limited role in the campaign and would not be seen as liberators at all by the locals. The use of Shia militias by Baghdad to help retake the city would be a disaster. Using a large-scale US ground force to liberate the city would be equally bonkers.
Do not underestimate the challenge a city the size of Mosul will be to liberate. With an operation this size, success is likely to be measured in months if not years – not days and weeks.
The success and speed of the operation will largely depend on the mood of the Sunni inhabitants.
However terrible life under ISIL might be, the locals will need to see a credible alternative to the status quo before they openly support the Iraqi security forces.
This will be easier said than done.
Recent polling carried out by Iraqi polling firm IIACSS conducted sheds light on this. The results are both eye-opening and alarming. Some findings are:
- In Mosul, 74 percent of Sunni respondents say they do not want to be liberated by the Iraqi army on its own.
- Of the 120 Sunni respondents in Mosul, 100 percent do not want to be liberated by Shiite militias or the Kurds.
- Does this mean Iraqi Sunnis like ISIL? No. A poll conducted in January 2016 showed that 99 percent of Shiite and 95 percent of Sunnis across Iraq oppose ISIL.
These attitudes by Iraq’s Sunni population probably explain why even though Fallujah has been surrounded for more than a year by Iraqi security forces there has not been a popular uprising by the Sunni inhabitants against ISIL.
Until these larger political and sectarian divisions are addressed in Iraq, it really will not matter in the bigger picture who has de facto control over Mosul.
Not a fatal blow
If Mosul were to fall tomorrow it would be a blow – but not a fatal one – for ISIL.
Even if ISIL is removed from Iraq, they will still have a base on which to fall back. The terror organisation’s capital, training centres, arms depots, primary sources of revenue remain in Syria. Until there is a strategy to deal with ISIL in its centre of gravity in Syria the terror group will remain a threat to regional security.
Of course, ISIL needs to be expelled, but simply removing the terror group will not solve many of Iraq’s sectarian divisions – many of which were the reasons why ISIL was able to capture the city to begin with.
Until the sectarian divisions inside Iraq are addressed, it is hard to see how the liberation of Mosul will make a significant difference or a lasting impact on the overall stability of the country.
If sectarian divisions and political grievances are not addressed by Baghdad, then something else will eventually replace ISIL. If the recent evolution of terrorist groups in the region is any indication, whatever comes after ISIL will probably be just as bad, if not worse.
Before we know it, in a few years, someone will have to liberate Mosul (or Ramadi or Fallujah) all over again.
As General David Petraeus said in 2003, soon after the invasion of Iraq before he became a household name: “Tell me how this ends.”
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.