Category Archives: Kurds

Why defeating ISIS in Mosul is only the beginning for Iraq

The operation to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Mosul is underway, and some encouraging progress has already been made. The Iraqi military and the Peshmerga have recaptured a string of villages, including Nawaran and Khalidiya, and coalition forces are closing in on the centre of Mosul, where an intricate tunnelling network and a moat of oil tankers await them.

If all goes well, the offensive will last just a couple of months. Daesh know that they are running out of time and options in Iraq after a succession of heavy defeats. Ramadi, Baquba and Fallujah were all lost this year to strengthened Iraqi Armed Forces and huge efforts have also been made to attack IS communication through social media.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. The battle ahead is crucial both for the future of Iraq and in the war against international terrorism, but it isn’t going to be as simple as a few territorial gains. Contingency planning must be precise in order to prevent a local backlash and conflict being waged amongst the powers engaged in the pursuit of ISIS.

It is very interesting, for example, that President Erdogan of Turkey has spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks citing the national oath; an oath which demands the restoration of both Kirkuk and Mosul to Turkish rule. Erdogan told the International Law Congress in Istanbul that it was ‘impossible to remain outside the Mosul equation’, and that “a history lies for us. If the gentlemen desire so, let them read the Misak-i Milli (National Oath) and understand what the place means to us.” A map proposed by the 1920 Ottoman oath can be seen here, clearly including large sections of Iraq: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misak-%C4%B1_Mill%C3%AE#/media/File:Misaki_Milli.jpg

Back in 1926, Turkey and Britain (then the regional colonial power) signed the Ankara Pact, upon the advice of the League of Nations Council, which officially designated Mosul to the newly established state of Iraq. Recep Erdogan, a staunch political conservative who maintains strong domestic support, may well be developing an imperial strategy in Iraq based on his country’s historical political aspirations.

It isn’t as crazy as it may seem. Strategic and territorial Turkish-Iraqi disputes are decades old. Take the case of Bashiqa, a town located 10 miles north of Mosul. Despite strong opposition from Iraq’s government, Turkey maintains a hefty military presence at its base there, and seems more than willing to use its troops to influence the campaign to rid northern Iraq of ISIS.

One side battle, therefore, is how to prevent almost inevitable military conflict brewing between Iraq and an ambitious state of Turkey. The BBC reported just two days ago that “US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter made the point explicitly at the end of last week when, on a visit to Baghdad, he reaffirmed “the vital importance of every country operating with full respect for Iraqi sovereignty”. His words were quite obviously directed at Erdogan. (One has to wonder what the implications for Turkey’s NATO membership would be if territorial goals in Iraq were pursued with vigour over the coming months)

Another battle is more subtle and less likely to be accurately reported on after the offensive is over. Gaining the support of the local population (an objective made harder to achieve by the strategic interests of competing regional powers) is crucial to Mosul’s long-term stability. Patrick Cockburn, one of Britain’s best foreign correspondents, wrote in his book The Rise of Islamic State that ‘the fall of Mosul was the result of a popular uprising as well as military assault. The Iraqi army was detested as a foreign occupying force of Shia soldiers, regarded in Mosul as creatures of an Iranian puppet regime led by Maliki’ (then the shia Prime Minister of Iraq).

Mosul, once a content city of two million Sunni Muslims (more recent population figures are rather difficult to obtain), objected fiercely to being defended by soldiers it regarded as alien. This civil dispute became a handy smokescreen and weakness for ISIS to exploit in the original battle for Mosul in June 2014. Local residents, however wary they were of the Islamic State’s intentions for the city, accepted that as a branch of Sunni Islam they represented the lesser of two evils.

Two years on, though, and it would seem that this is no longer true. The sheer barbarism of ISIS’ regime (recent chemical attacks, the mass execution of citizens and their use as human shields acting as depressing proof of this) has left thousands desperate for liberation. But will Iraqi Armed Forces, directed by the Shia Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, be able to regain the support of the locals who helped to drive them out two years ago? Will civilians in Mosul instead look to Turkey for solace after several years of disenchantment?

Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, revealed recently that his country’s plan was to create a safe haven for refugees in northern Iraq; a move that will certainly heighten Prime Minister Abadi’s sensitivities. Prime Minister Yildirim of Turkey suggested that a haven was necessary in order to protect citizens against what a called ‘a common threat’; namely, the PKK, but it would seem more likely that the policy is designed to grab a piece of the Iraqi pie and maximise influence in an oil-rich and strategically crucial part of the Middle East.

So defeating ISIS in Mosul may well be the easy part. Coordinating the removal of forces and winning over the local population whilst preserving Iraqi sovereignty in Mosul, on the other hand, could be the real battle ahead.


Reflecting on Owen Smith’s ISIS comments

Owen Smith is quickly proving only one thing: he is not up to the top job in Britain. Nor is he making a particularly persuasive case for why he should be the man to lead Labour into the 2020 General Election. I have decided not to write in any great length about his desire to ignore June’s referendum result, focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity or his alternative Labour manifesto (that may as well be a carbon copy of Mr Corbyn’s). If I believed him to have any real chance of becoming the next leader of the Labour Party, I might divert more of my attention towards him.

I do, however, want to pick up on his ludicrous comments this week concerning Islamic State that have topped off a truly torrid few weeks of campaigning. Appearing alongside Jeremy Corbyn on Victoria Derbyshire, Mr Smith said: “I worked on the Northern Ireland peace process for three years; I was part of the UK’s negotiating team that helped bring together the loyalist paramilitaries. My view is that, ultimately, all solutions to these international crises do come about through dialogue, so eventually if we are to try to solve this all of the actors do need to be involved. But at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating. At some point for us to resolve this, we will need to get people round the table.”

It is almost comical. As I read it, my sympathy for traditional Labour voters begins to strengthen. They were robbed of their identity by Anthony Blair as the century turned and this is what they are left with. Anybody who has ever accused Jeremy Corbyn of being unelectable may like to consider an Owen Smith premiership for just a moment. It is particularly bewildering to me that not more Labour members have noticed just how similar Mr Smith’s policies are to Jeremy Corbyn’s. To elect Owen Smith as Labour’s new leader would, in effect, mean swapping out an old-fashioned state socialist for a slightly younger state socialist with contempt for democracy and negotiating skills so impressive that even the mention of his name would be enough to de-radicalise an Islamic State fighter.

Naturally, Smith’s comments have been ridiculed by the wider public and political intelligentsia. There is no ‘getting ISIS round a table’ on offer in this conflict. But the absurdity of the suggestion is not what I wanted to get into on this blog. My interest in his comments spring from how debased our national debate is on the subject, and how soaked up many of us seem to get over the (in my view) greatly over-exaggerated threat presented by ISIS. Despite our eagerness to interfere in the running of other countries, I am constantly baffled by how easily events in the Middle East take centre stage in British political debate. Why are we so obsessed with interfering in the affairs of other parts of the world, and why do we afford a vile terror group so much publicity?

Britain undoubtedly played a role in creating the environment out of which ISIS grew. Bush and Blair’s Iraq invasion, sectarian in nature and devoid of any substantive long-term planning, laid the groundwork for brutality and division in a country that would otherwise have been happy to see the back of Saddam Hussein. In this context, I am forced to concede that Britain has links to ISIS and will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain a frontrunner in the campaign to ‘degrade and destroy ISIL’. It therefore goes without saying that a potential Prime Ministerial candidate suggesting that we sit round a table with Islamic State leaders and negotiate, with the hope of arriving at some kind of political settlement (what form would it take?), is a laughable exposing of our foreign policy incompetence in the matter.

Could you imagine Owen Smith standing up in front of a packed NATO summit and, in his thick northern accent, proclaiming to the rest of the alliance that the best way to tackle ISIS is to get round a table and to negotiate with them? He’d quickly be laughed out of the room. But this notion aside, I wonder if we have bothered to ask on whose authority we have been assigned with the responsibility of dealing with ISIL. It seems to me that every time we venture into the Middle East in some fashion (usually to satisfy the egos of our politicians) we manage to make things worse. Has anybody come up with a long-term strategy for life in the Levant once ISIS is gone? Or is that not for us to think about as long as our politicians are able to thump their chests on the world stage?

I mentioned earlier that I considered the ISIS threat to be a greatly exaggerated one. In fact, I would probably go further than this. I think ISIS is a minor irritation that looks set to be the architect of its own downfall. One day soon I may return to this blog with a piece entitled ‘Why the Islamic State was doomed to fail from the start’. It may be true to say that ISIL are the most successful terror group in human history, but that isn’t saying too much. The nature of the regime – barbaric, surrounded by enemies and over-reliant on particular mediums of propaganda and finance – meant that such a group were never going to thrive for a particularly long period of time. I dare say that we have entered the twilight period of the group’s existence. The sheer bravery of regional Kurdish fighters, combined military efforts from competing outside powers and the intransigence of the Assad government have ensured that much of the territory once marked by those infamous black flags has been returned to more moderate ownership.

In truth, ISIS have always been flattered by our incessant media coverage and spotlighting. Ordinary people do not think about them, even at railway stations or at airports (as we are supposed to) and our politicians like to appear busy in the war on terror by talking hard and over-promising. If nothing else, it is a breath of fresh air that Mr Smith has proposed a solution that differs somewhat from the usual proposals we here. Bombing campaigns aren’t quite as ludicrous on paper as the suggestion that a Labour leadership candidate can dilute extreme Islamic ideology, but they are certainly every bit as ineffective. Either way, the Labour Party would do well not to elect Owen Smith as its leader. If this is the kind of opposition that would meet Theresa May at the dispatch box, then Jeremy Corbyn may not seem so pacifistic and radical after all.