Hayder al-Khoei with Atheel al-Nujaifi, former governor of Nineveh and head of the Nineveh Guard. Photo: Hayder al-Khoei/Twitter
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – After ISIS is militarily defeated in Mosul, it will become clear that the radical group also worked as a force that kept the many guns in the region pointed in the same direction, according to Middle East specialist Hayder al-Khoei, an Iraqi working for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in London.
“As soon as ISIS is defeated, we are not just talking Sunni-Shiite tensions, but there are Sunni-Sunni, Shiite-Shiite and Kurdish-Kurdish tensions as well,” he warned during a visit to the Kurdistan capital of Erbil.
“And the Kurds that have been very honest and candid that they are not going to retreat from territory… this means that even if you can calm down the tension between Shiites and Sunnis, you will have Arab-Kurdish tensions that are going to be extremely difficult to contain.”
At the same time, geopolitics play an even more important role in Mosul than in other areas of Iraq, he pointed out, with the competition between Turkey and Iran playing out in the city.
“If the Turks insist on having their forces and those they train and back involved in Mosul, it will give more excuse domestically in Iran to those groups that say ‘we also have to be involved in Mosul,’” he said, indicating that Shiite militias will be triggered by Turkish involvement to move into the city.
In the military arrangements for the battle for Mosul, that is expected to start shortly, Iraqi Shiite militias that are backed by Iran have now been ordered to stay out of town, for fear of retaliation against the majority Sunnis population, as in the earlier liberated cities of Tikrit and Fallujah.
Turkey is playing a dangerous card, al-Khoei indicated. “If Iran sees Turkey’s aggressive military presence in Mosul, it will not take it quietly. It is also going to aggressively deal with it.”
At the same time, al-Khoei, who until recently was an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London, says that “thankfully”, the geopolitical players Iran and the United States are “de-conflicting, call it what you want: understanding, cooperating.”
“In the military sense they are avoiding conflict. They are working with the same people, are sometimes in the same building in Baghdad, in different rooms or on different floors. No Iraqi politician will say this on the record, but sometimes the pro-Iran commanders are in the same room as the Americans looking at the same screens, reading the same intelligence.”
The son of a prominent Shiite cleric, who many thought would lead the Iraqi Shiites after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, but was killed soon afterwards, al-Khoei points out that even with this understanding between Iran and the US, many threats remain.
He feels that not enough attention is being paid to the post-military reconciliation phase, “because especially the bigger powers want quick military victories, as something they can point to and say: I liberated the city...”
Not all reactions are predictable, he said, pointing to the way Sunnis in towns that were liberated from ISIS now look at politics. “There has been a fundamental shift in the way Sunni Arabs perceive Baghdad. Most of the blame now is put on Sunni political leaders. This is coming from Sunni Arab tribal leaders, and I've talked to Moslawis and Anbaris in IDP camps. I expected to hear ‘Maliki, Maliki, Shiite, Shiite,’ but they were blaming their own political leaders or the Iraqi Sunni dissidents who live outside Iraq and have a very sectarian discourse.”
Civilians in towns occupied by ISIS suffered the most and, because of this, al-Khoei is sure they will make sure this cannot happen again. Lots of people welcomed the jihadists in the beginning, “they even called it the tribal revolution. Now it will be more difficult to repeat that. People have changed.”
“I am confident that Moslawis will make sure that ISIS, or any jihadist group, is not a viable alternative to Baghdad. Sunnis lost their homes, their cities, their families, because of a political discourse. That is what led, on both sides, to escalation... They’re going to be much more resilient; they have problems with Baghdad, yes, trust issues, yes, but people are going to try much harder so they don't go through this again.”
Yet he acknowledges that many of the radical Sunnis from the villages, who played an important role in the jihadist groups in Mosul even before ISIS took over, will go underground. “A lot of them may just shave their beards and wear some nice suits and ties. Many of them were part of this revolutionary tribal constellation. Their discourse will not change, and the grievances remain the same: ‘we lost power and we want it back.’”
“An interesting question: when will Mosul really be liberated? A lot of people fear that even if ISIS is defeated, the same allies, networks and anti-government violence and terrorism are going to remain, but will simply change face. It will have a more secular, nationalist face. That makes matters even more complicated for everyone.”