The fight for Mosul is fraught with risks. The long-awaited battle began Monday morning, when U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces launched an offensive to drive Islamic State from Iraq’s second-largest city and the group’s last major stronghold in Iraq. It is the biggest operation in Iraq since the 2003 American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Islamic State seized Mosul, a Sunni-majority city that once included many Shi’ites and Christians, more than two years ago. Yet as fighters prepared for an operation that the commander of the allied coalition said would likely continue for weeks or longer, analysts were assessing both the military strategy and its “day after” effect on the beleaguered city.
The launch of the assault was no surprise: U.S. officials and their Iraqi counterparts have been warning Islamic State that an attack was in the works – a strategy that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump challenged in the Oct. 9 presidential debate. “Why can’t they do it quietly?” Trump said. “Why can’t they make it a sneak attack?”
In fact, writes Reuters columnist Peter Apps, the United States and its allies have a history of deception when it comes to indicating where they will attack next. Earlier this year, they signaled than an assault on the IS capital of Raqqa, Syria was imminent. Islamic State responded accordingly, but the true target was Manbij, which fell to U.S.-backed mainly Kurdish forces after three months of fighting.
All sides will have to be flexible to succeed in Mosul, he notes. Islamic State tactics could involve demolishing whole city blocks as troops move in, or using the limited chemical weapons IS is believed to have. Few of the Iraqi forces have much training or equipment to deal with such attacks, although that is changing.
What happens the “day after” Islamic State loses power in Mosul is just as significant as the battle itself, writes Mina Al-Oraibi, whose family is originally from Mosul. The campaign could leave up to 1 million people homeless; civilians could be used as human shields or even gassed. The United Nations has warned that the humanitarian crisis in Mosul is likely to be the “single largest, most complex in the world.”
Restoring order and gaining trust is vital once Islamic State falls. “How the city will be governed,” writes Al-Oraibi, “from the treatment of prisoners to how quickly the displaced are resettled – will determine whether Mosul’s citizens can trust the new leaders of their city.”
In the aftermath of IS occupation, competing forces will want to translate their military gains into political control. But for Mosul to remain stable, its new leaders will need to be responsible to all of the city’s citizens, not only those from the same sect or ethnicity.
Al-Oraibi suggests that former Iraqi army generals and officers, innocent of any crimes and living outside of Mosul, could serve on a military commission alongside officers from the current army. They would be responsible for securing the city, reinstalling law and order and ensuring basic services for all sects. Once there is some semblance of normalcy, elections could be posible.
Columnist Josh Cohen believes in a more drastic solution to Iraq’s sectarian strife, with the creation of an independent “Sunnistan” free of control from Baghdad. At least initially, the entity could be similar to Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds have wide autonomy to run their own affairs.
“Given widespread distrust of Baghdad, it’s unlikely that Iraq’s Sunni population will ever develop a deep allegiance to a Shi’ite-dominated central government,” writes Cohen. “For this reason, the United States should realize that a unified Iraq is no longer possible, and the only way to prevent Islamic State or any other extremist Sunni group from crippling Iraq is to offer Sunnis a state of their own.”
Offering the Sunnis their own state could motivate them to turn against Islamic State and, just as importantly, prevent any other jihadist group from emerging in the future.
There are many challenges to this plan, writes Cohen, from getting buy-in from Baghdad, to the question of what happens to non-Sunni minorities who suddenly find themselves living in Sunnistan. But while Sunnistan’s creation would not automatically end all extremism in Iraq, it offers the best opportunity to defeat Islamic State, as well as to maintain peace afterwards.
The question now is whether the battle for Mosul will be the first step toward establishing that peace.
Helen Coster is a Senior Editor at Reuters.