As the battle for Mosul enters what looks like its decisive phase, Iraqi leaders face a number of certainties and uncertainties.
The first certainty is that, in pure military terms, ISIS or Daesh in Arabic, cannot maintain its hold on the western section of Mosul for much longer.
The next certainty is that, when staring at impending defeat, the hard-core ISIS fighters will retreat to Syria where they could retrench and remain in their deadly business for months, not years.
From its very beginning, ISIS has had an implicit non-aggression pact with the Syrian regime and its Iranian-backers. In an interview granted to French television earlier this month, the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad, tried to avoid the thorny issue by beating around the bush. He claimed that his aim was to “liberate every inch of Syrian territory” with priority given to recapturing areas not controlled by ISIS.
The next certainty is that the United States under a new administration is determined to help destroy ISIS. This is an important development, ending the shadow-boxing put on show by President Barack Obama. The visit to Iraq last week by the new U.S. Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, was designed to signal a major change in American strategy.
Under Obama the U.S. was more than parsimonious in investing in the fight against ISIS. Obama wanted to appear to be fighting “the enemy of mankind” with a minimum of commitment on his part. Even the use of American air power in ongoing battles had to be cleared with him, a process that often took too long to be of any use to the Iraqi ground forces engaged in the fighting.
The “Islamic Caliphate” could also count on another certainty: a Turkish version of benign neglect with Ankara preferring to fight the Kurds in Syria rather than Sunni Arab militants.
In recent months the non-aggression arrangement between ISIS on the one hand, and Assad and his Iranian sponsors on the other, has been extended to cover Russia as well. The Russia-Iran-Assad triumvirate is likely to remain focused on fighting non-ISIS anti-regime groups, allowing the “Caliphate” to maintain a presence in Syria.
Even when it is driven out of Mosul, the ISIS terror machine is likely to remain a neighbor of Iraq just across the border in Syria. It could morph into a foyer of provocation and terror that Iraqi leaders would ignore at their peril.
As things stand today, winning a military victory in Mosul – in the sense of hoisting the Iraqi national flag in place of the black banner of ISIS in the city- may be the easiest part of a complex and dangerous game.
Beyond that there are a number of uncertainties that could transform any victory into a temporary triumph if not a pyrrhic exercise.
The first uncertainty regards the way that the spoils of victory might be shared.
The various Shi’ite armed groups that have taken part in parts of the battle are determined to claim as big a share as they can. If they bite a bigger morsel than they deserve, they could transform the end of the war into a recipe for revanchism by the humiliated Sunni population.
That sentiment could be deepened if the Islamic Republic in Tehran tries to grab a bigger share beyond the usual Madison Avenue “selfies” of General Qassem Soleimani.
Then we have the Kurds, again divided into different groups with contradictory agendas none of which includes the concept of Iraqi nationhood.
Finally, various Iraqi official forces, starring with the so-called Golden Division, are also in the picture anxious to heighten their profiles in the hope of playing a greater role in any putative political configuration in Baghdad.
The next uncertainty is: In whose name will victory in Mosul be claimed?
Winning the war against ISIS in the name of Iraq as a united nation-state is one thing, winning it in the name of a coalition of disparate – at times even antagonistic, ethnic and sectarian forces – is quite another.
It may not be exaggerated to suggest that the right victory in Mosul could mark the rebirth of Iraq as a nation-state while the wrong victory could spell the end of Iraq as a unified entity. Recent leaks in Washington reveal that the Obama administration was in fact counting on a wrong victory leading to the break-up of Iraq into three mini-states, a scheme propagated by Vice President Joe Biden since the 1990s.
The most important uncertainty, even assuming the Iraqi leaders manage the risks entailed in sharing the spoils of victory, concerns what may happen after Mosul.
The standard narrative in Baghdad, echoed across the world, is that ISIS consists of a few thousand “foreign”, that is to say non-Iraqi, fanatics who have gathered from all over the world to oppress the people of Mosul. (Bashar al-Assad makes a similar claim about all his opponents in Syria.)
Reality, however, is more complex than that.
There are, of course, many thousands of evil-doers who have come to Iraq and Syria to realize their criminal schemes in the name of Islam. However, it would be naive to think that they and they alone are involved in what is a major struggle over the future shape of Iraq and Syria if not the entire Middle East. The truth is that a good segment of the population in Mosul so resented the government in Baghdad that it was prepared to tolerate, if not actually help, ISIS as a lesser of the two evils.
That segment of population, which includes the remnants of the Ba’athist regime, the army of Saddam Hussein and his civil and security services, represents the marshlands in which the mosquitoes of terror have been breeding and could continue to breed in the future.
Any “after Mosul” strategy should include a realistic plan to smoke out and expel the non-Iraqi terrorists, many of them citizens of Western European nations and Russia, who have joined ISIS.
But it must also include plans to weave Iraq’s Sunni community back into the fabric of national politics by granting them a genuine share of power and a clear vision for a future in dignity. And that, of course, cannot be done if the central power in Baghdad is atrophied by corruption, sectarianism and incompetence.
The new U.S. administration must make its support for the war to liberate Mosul conditional on a genuine attempt at house-cleaning in Baghdad.