Iraqi Sunnis protesting against the central government of former PM Nouri al-Maliki, April 2014. Photo: AFP
U.S. President Barack Obama recently, at the G20 Summit in Turkey, reiterated his strong aversion to sending U.S. ground forces to combat the Islamic State (ISIS), saying that while he has every confidence that they could “march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out,” that terror group, he nonetheless believes it would ultimately result in another costly quagmire for the U.S. in the region.
He surely has a point: It would be naive to assume that, as bad as ISIS is, that their removal will see a stable situation fall into place. Remember as bad and as hated as Saddam Hussein was by his brutalized subjects the haphazard and short-sighted nature of his removal and the instability that followed plunged Iraq into a morass of sectarian violence from which it is still trying to escape.
Over the last year many have voiced concerns about the possible ramifications of having Shia militias kick ISIS out of the Sunni Arab-majority Iraqi province of Anbar. While the PMU's aren't exclusively a Shi'ite fighting-force the overwhelming majority of the militias are Shia, and some of whom quite sectarian. Since June Shia militias and the Iraqi military have been trying to kick ISIS out of Fallujah and Ramadi with little or no successes.
In neighbouring Syria the only sizable force on the ground in a position to force ISIS from its capital Raqqa is undoubtedly the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG). They recently joined up with much smaller Arab, Armenian, Assyrian and Turkmen militias forming a new umbrella alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). However, not unlike the PMU's, even with these other militias this group remains a predominantly Kurdish force which, while it may be able to clear Raqqa of ISIS jihadis in the short-term, may not be welcome by the Sunni Arab locals in the long-term.
The Americans are evidently cognizant of this. In their recently declared plans to close off the remainder of the Syrian frontier with Turkey (the northwestern 68-mile stretch of territory between the two Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Afrin) where ISIS retains a presence, they made clear they don't want the YPG forces to participate, just the Sunni Arab Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia. This demonstrates that they are wary about having a Kurdish force occupying a Sunni Arab-majority city.
This also necessitates a plan for post-ISIS Mosul and Raqqa. Remember both of these Sunni Arab cities opposed their central governments before they were overrun by ISIS. Most of Mosul's Sunni Arab residents resented the government in Baghdad under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and saw the Iraqi Army as almost tantamount to a foreign occupying force. Raqqa was the first provincial capital in Syria to fall to the Syrian opposition. However given their inability to effectively consolidate their control, coupled with infighting among themselves, they were pushed out by ISIS less than a year later.
Given this complicated situation it is incumbent upon those who are trying to devise strategies to defeat ISIS to recognize the great importance of also figuring out just how and who exactly will control and administer these two cities.
The governor of Mosul, Atheel Nujaifi (who has taken refuge in Erbil), believes that the solution lies in giving the ordinary Sunnis something to fight for and enable them to keep ISIS out of their communities when they regain control of them. Remember after the 'Sahwa' (a.k.a. the Sunni Awakening Councils) were formed during the Iraq War they had very substantial success against ISIS's predecessors, al-Qaeda, but were later disarmed and sidelined by Maliki. Building trust amongst the Sunnis to establish a new Sahwa in both Iraq and Syria (made-up of locals from the areas – remember the many Internally Displaced People in Iraqi Kurdistan will eventually need to go home and rebuild their lives) to operate effectively as provincial authorities in those areas after ISIS is kicked out will be difficult in light of this history.
In Iraq the long delayed battle for Mosul will likely consist of a loosely connected force of Iraqi Army units, militia and Kurdish Peshmerga none of which would be suited for governing that city in the long-term after ISIS. Similarly in Syria the SDF may be able to militarily kick ISIS out of Raqqa but, despite its Sunni Arab component, is unsuited to govern such a city and population in the long-term.
This therefore necessitates the creation of something like a Sahwa to manage and secure the post-ISIS order in those two important urban centers. Such a solution is what is needed to ensure that ISIS is afflicted with a permanent defeat when Mosul and Raqqa are retaken from them and not a short-term one brought about by lack of foresight which may enable that group to rise again in the future.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and political writer who writes on Middle East affairs, politics, developments and history. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.