Reports are breathlessly arriving about an impending assault on the Islamic State (IS) occupied northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Baghdad’s decision to attack smells of urgency. It is concerned Turkey will take the initiative and drive its armour south towards the city instead.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave the order to launch the offensive early October 17. Over the months, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have pre-positioned troops and heavy weaponry and begun shaping operations. A number of outlying villages will now need to be occupied before the main assault begins, so the ISF will be conducting those operations.
The long-awaited Mosul operation will not be easy. Baghdad has requested US military support for the combat phases. But the heavy-lifting will need to be conducted by the ISF and its partners. And those partners aren’t exactly cooperative bunch either – made up of Kurds, Sunnis, Shia, Iranians and everything in between.
IS has also occupied the city since 2014 with plenty of time to construct a maze of improvised explosive devices. The city is also part of the group’s critical territory, so it can be expected to stand and fight rather than strategically retreat as it did in Fallujah earlier in the year. That will make a tough fight into a long tough fight.
The Islamic State is different from al qaeda (AQ) in deciding to move past being only an idea. AQ remains a fragmented series of groups sharing an ideology but choosing to maintain compartmentalisation rather than present a target. IS thinks the AQ strategy of causing governments to collapse in Muslim countries isn’t a good use of its resources, so it became a solid fighting force instead. In doing so, it made itself vulnerable to the trap of time and space.
AQ will likely persists for generations because of its fragmentation. However, IS presents visible targets for US pilots and measurable battle damage. As the group loses territory, Washington’s propaganda about the group’s failure gains traction among Muslims.
Just this week, a Turkish assault in northern Syria overran the IS-held city of Dabiq. That’s an important information war victory because the apocalyptic IS points to a passage in the Muslim holy book about the final battle for the earth taking place near the town. Losing Dabiq, while being pushed back across its territory, undermines its claims to have God’s blessing. Intelligence reports are also showing IS recruits have dried to a trickle, largely as a result of this broken messaging.
But a crushed IS reopens another wound. Losing Mosul will not end the group’s jihadism. Both AQ and IS are the visible and angry force in the Islamic world boiling about how the religion – which is certainly not a monolithic entity – should deal with modernity.
Many Muslims appear fairly comfortable to amalgamate into the Western model of international relations and what it means to live in the 21st century. They have partially reconciled their religious tenets with the Western status quo expectations. Whatever hard-to-remove parts of their religious belief remain may be discarded by future generations. Western normality may evolve to accommodate anyway, as it has many times in the past.
Yet IS represents a faction of Islam refusing to succumb to the world-eating march of Western democracy but able to develop a true Islamic alternative. The group is not sophisticated enough to know how to fight successfully against the system arrayed against it.
The deepest question of Iraq pivots on what to call the Islamic State. Should it be named an insurgency or a civil war? Both have markedly different policy consequences. Getting this right is fundamental. Experts advising Washington are well aware of the problems of nomenclature.
If the US assessment is the fighting is an insurgency, then arming Iraqi police must be done to control the fighting. But if the assessment is this is a civil war, then supplying weapons to police would be arming perhaps one side of an internecine war. Civil wars can spill into genocide surprisingly quickly when automatic weapons are involved.
Here the utility of IS is revealed. The group offers plausible circumstance for the international community to act in a meaningful way in Mesopotamia to control what it considers both a terrible humanitarian collapse and a serious rift emerging against the concept of the nation-state. By putting the blame of Iraq’s unrest on IS, and emphasising its internationalism, Washington and its partners can call the fighting an insurgency.
But this is deceptive. The only military fighting for “Iraq” is 6000 US troops. Every other group is in the bloody process of organising a post-Iraq reality. Underneath is the fundamental question of how Islam plans to deal with modernity. And more importantly, which branch of that great monotheism will represent its future.
And when the US arms Baghdad, it looks exactly to Sunnis in Mosul like Washington is handing weapons to the Shiites. IS itself is a Sunni force. There may also be a geopolitical dynamic due Iran being Baghdad’s puppet master. But the civil war in Iraq – and that’s really what this is – is the struggle between and among two major interpretations of Islam.
So the assault on Mosul gathers pace. The international community, including New Zealand, prides itself on the ethics of excising IS from Iraq’s second largest city. But once again, the all-important Western goal of forcing democracy and self-governance across the world has found its participants crushing one side of an internal conflict in which it has no business intervening.
Hating the Islamic State is easy, but ensuring peace the day after Mosul falls is far more difficult. That should not be not a Western task, no matter the ultimate “ethical” goal.