Mosul : An Iraqi special forces soldier peeks through a hole in a door as his unit gets ready to search a compound in Gogjali, an eastern district of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. Iraqi special forces paused their advance in the eastern district of Mosul on Wednesday to clear a neighborhood of any remaining Islamic State militants, killing at least eight while carrying out house-to-house searches. AP/PTI(AP11_2_2016_000256B) Image Credit: AP

On October 17, the Iraqi government launched its long-anticipated military operation to recapture the city of Mosul from Daesh )the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The timing of the offensive is meant not only to bolster the fragile political position of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, but also to allow outgoing United States President Barack Obama to atone for having lost Mosul under his watch.

The expulsion of Daesh forces from Mosul, difficult as it would be, might not, however, be the most complicated task ahead. The delicate ethnic and sectarian balances across Mosul, coupled with the fragility of the anti-Daesh coalition portend massive problems ahead.

The Obama administration hopes that a decisive victory in Mosul will serve to enhance the credibility of its military strategy based on the avoidance of direct confrontation and the strengthening of local allies, not just against Daesh but across the Middle East. That strategy had suffered a serious setback when tens of thousands of Iraqi forces, trained and equipped by the US, collapsed in the face of a Daesh onslaught in June, 2014 — thus giving the group the power not only to take Mosul but also to threaten Baghdad itself.

The fundamental dilemma hanging over the operation in Mosul, however, is rooted in the lack of a plan to deal with the day following the battle, which itself is raising fears that the events of the 2003 US invasion will repeat themselves. In that conflict, the US may have won a rapid military victory, but had underestimated the severity of the political and sectarian complexities that were lying ahead.

American planners are aware that there is no clear plan in place for how to govern Mosul — a city made up of a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups — in the aftermath of a Daesh defeat. Nonetheless, they support the offensive on the grounds that all of the military preparations for it are in place and that any delay would have an adverse effect on the morale of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

The main worry for many Iraqis is the actions of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Militia (PMM), a group formed by former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and is affiliated with sectarian parties. The PMM stands accused of being involved in wide-scale ethnic cleansing in Diyala and Tikrit last year. Although US officials have strenuously asserted that their country extends support only to the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga, previous experiences suggest, however, that Iranian-backed armed groups pull the strings. Assurances by the PMM and like-minded groups that they would not enter the city of Mosul cannot be trusted.

The territorial ambitions of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which could lead to an even wider conflict taking place in Iraq, is another cause of concern. Here again, the Peshmerga has vowed not to enter residential quarters of the city, but that too cannot be trusted, given the Kurdish-Arab dispute over the future of Kirkuk, an ethnically divided enclave in northern Iraq. One eventuality is the northern governorates of Iraq becoming the site of a proxy war between Turkey, which has already begun protesting that it will oppose any demographic changes to Mosul once Daesh is flushed out, and Iran, which is looking for an opportunity to extend its influence across all of Iraq.

Huge human tolls

In an effort to reduce possible sectarian clashes following the defeat of Daesh, Washington has pressured the Al Abadi government to ensure that Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Force leads the battle. This America-trained and equipped group, with its composition drawn from a variety of ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, is regarded as more professional and less sectarian than other units.

Notwithstanding the huge human tolls and the cost in terms of material, given the massive firepower which the anti- Daesh Coalition has amassed, the outcome of the Battle for Mosul appears today to be a certainty. The expulsion of Daesh will not bring about the end of human suffering there, however.

The vast majority of Mosul residents, who were never Daesh supporters and who were in fact its first victims, now feel the full weight of political oppression from their fellow countrymen. The Obama administration is no stranger to this state of affairs. Cognizant of how Baghdad’s sectarian policies helped to create Daesh, the White House had insisted as far back as August of 2014 on the resignation of Al Maliki — accused of the worst excesses of sectarianism — before it would approve military aid to the Iraqi government. Today, however, the White House seems set on repeating the exact same mistake of the administration of former US president George W. Bush, marching blindfolded into an invasion without an exit strategy and a plan for the day after.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.