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The Battle of Mosul is on: Where will ISIL Go?

The battle for Mosul started just few hours after ISIL evacuated its fighters from Dabiq, a town given by the leaders of the group a special religious symbolism. As in the case of Jarabulus, a Syrian former stronghold of ISIL, the groups’ fighters just pulled out few hours before the attack of the Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” (ES) and Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The reason of the surprising withdrawal is not known. ISIL fighters headed back either to Raqqa or to Al Bab. The most feasible reason for the withdrawal from Dabiq to Al Bab is that ISIL hopes that when ES and FSA advance to Al Bab, a fight will erupt between the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the two groups backed by Turkey.

Just two months ago, SDF captured Manbij from ISIL and announced that it is preparing to take Al Bab. Turkey says now that the next step, after Dabiq, is Al Bab.

Also in the case of Manbij, ISIL pulled out after guarantees from the YPG that the Jihadists will not be targeted while withdrawing. Now, ISIL is left with Al Bab, Raqqa, Mosul and the stretch of territory crossing Syrian-Iraqi borders including parts of Dair Al Zour.

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are progressing towards Mosul from the north-west while Iraq’s security forces are progressing from south and south east. It remains to be seen how the fight for Mosul, then Al Bab then Raqqa and Dair Alzour, will progress. But the end game is already written on the wall: ISIL will be defeated militarily. There is little doubt about that.

The doubt is abundant, however, about what will become of ISIL after losing its territorial “state”.

ISIL has never been a mere geographic phenomenon. It is an “idea” which aims at establishing the proper Islamic Caliphate on a base of extremely rigid interpretation of Islamic religious texts. As such, it cannot be defeated by bombs and air raids. If it loses its territories, it will become an idea that was not allowed by the “infidels” to exist “for fear it will bring back Islamic glory”, as ISIL already says. Then, like a mushroom, it will surface back once the proper moisture and temperature are there-that is to say once conditions allow it to reappear. So long as the strain of interpreting Islam per the rigid doctrine which is currently living in some of its corners, ISIL will remain there as a potentiality.  

Going back to Mosul, we will find Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) reluctant to seek control of the mostly Arab Mosul. The KRG’s agenda is two-folded: 1- To make sure that ISIL will not appear again close to its territory. 2- To make sure that Mosul will be run by a friendly council. The defeat of ISIL and the areas’ cleansing of its fighters, which will certainly follow, achieve the first objective. The agreement reached earlier between Baghdad, the KRG and the US on the composition of the governing body in the post-ISIL Mosul has already addressed the second concern of the KRG.

As for the major Sunni tribes in the region, they are opened to relations with both KRG and Turkey. The thorn in their cooperation with Baghdad is the Shia Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). Nineveh’s Sunnis formed their own National Mobilization Force (NMF). The Turks and the KRG keep strong ties to NMF, and that makes them a target of fierce demands in Baghdad to pull out their military presence in around Mosul and in Bashiqa Camp close to city.

But Turkey insists to remain a player in defining the future of Mosul. The moves of Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and Turkey stem from a realization that Baghdad failed repeatedly in building a national representative country balanced enough to end suspicions and enmity of the three major components of the Iraq: The Kurds, The Sunnis and the Shias.

As the battle of Mosul started, Turkey’s President Racep Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara will never give up its role in north Iraq. “What do they say? Turkey shouldn’t enter Mosul. Why can’t we enter? We have a 350-kilometer border [with Iraq]. Others who have nothing to do with the region are entering it. We will not be responsible for the negative consequences that will emerge from any operation that doesn’t include Turkey. We will be involved both in the operation and at the [negotiating] table afterward. It is not possible for us to stay excluded. No one should expect us to leave Bashiqa”, Erdogan said Oct. 17.

While Erdogan was hardening his position on Bashiqa, he sent a diplomatic delegation to Baghdad to try to mitigate the increasing tension between the two countries. The delegation, headed by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Umit Yalcın, includes officials from various security institutions and held talks in Baghdad on Oct. 17. The delegation will discuss the mandate and duration of the Turkish troops’ stay at the Bashiqa camp in Mosul province. A previous proposal by Ankara to make the Bashiqa camp an official part of the coalition against ISIL is also on the agenda. Turkish troops in Bashiqa are not combatant forces. The deal with the US states that those forces would stay in the camp throughout the Mosul offensive. However, they will respond to artillery shooting in the event of an ISIL threat against the camp or the surrounding region.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced concern over any possible “revenge killings” against Sunni locals in Tel Afar if Shia militias take part in the upcoming offensive to retake the town. In talks with Turkey, the U.S. has reportedly given assurances that only the Iraqi army and police will be tasked in an offensive into Tel Afar after the Mosul operation. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, spoke by phone on Oct. 17 and discussed the Mosul offensive. 

The future of ISIL will ultimately be determined by the future of Iraq. The idea now is to turn the Nineveh Province into a semi-autonomous region like the Kurdish region. Nineveh will be a test case for a decentralized Iraq.

This places a challenge on the Province’s governance body to maintain security, clean the region of ISIL, and develop the scarce resources of the province. But above all it should give an example of tolerance and respect of Iraq’s national identity and diversity. Ankara, Erbil and Washington will certainly provide Nineveh Sunnis with all the help they can afford.

If such an encouraging scenario goes through, all the eyes will focus on the PMF. Iran’s IRGC agents in this force will not rest without shaking the region and destabilizing it to weaken US presence, end Turkish influence and continue the project of building a land bridge between Iran and the East Mediterranean. This will guarantee that ISIL-2 will emerge yet again. Those guys do not get it. No one will accept subjugation under their sectarian fist. We will see if they try to exercise their hobby of killing Sunni civilians in Tel Afar as they did in Fallujah.

ISIL will remain, though unseen, even if it is defeated militarily. It will resurface in another form and under another name if the conditions are favorable. It is up to Baghdad and Tehran either to allow the previous conditions back and find another ISIL facing them or to sincerely work to allow all Iraqis to live together in dignity and peace.  


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