Mosul, a sprawling city of 1.5 million in Northern Iraq, has been under ISIS control for two years. The city in which Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared his caliphate is facing a joint military operation, bringing together the Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters and Shia militias. Although outnumbered, ISIS has the home field advantage, concentrating in Mosul and leaving soldiers with no fear of death in the outlying villages to delay incoming forces with fierce resistance. This force has had no qualms using human lives as meat shields, and yet the most significant threat to the citizens of Mosul may not be the fighting, but what comes after.
This operation has the makings of one of the greatest man-made disasters in decades, as up to a million people may be displaced from their homes. 200,000 are expected to be forced out within just the first weeks of an operation which could drag on for months. The Iraqi army has been dropping leaflets encouraging people to stay in their homes while the fighting goes on and to take measures to safeguard their families. As of yet, there has been no agreed upon safe passage for civilians to flee the city, so staying within their homes may be their only option.
In the midst of a politically charged refugee crisis in the region extending into Europe and stretching the globe, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that it is severely underprepared as funds have fallen drastically short. About 60,000 homes have been built to host the civilians caught in this operation with about 250,000 more planned or in construction, leaving a significant shortfall of about 700,000 potentially left without shelter. Further complicating matters is the numerous flashpoints for sectarian violence to take place, as the Shia government manages the liberation of a largely Sunni city, alongside Kurdish and tribal allies, in a country which has suffered sectarian violence. Few parties are ready to manage vulnerable minority groups.
After finding nearby humanitarian assistance to be stretched to its capacity, civilians fleeing Mosul will likely end up at the Turkish border, about 90 miles from the city. “(But) if something goes wrong in Mosul, hundreds of thousands will put their migrant bags on their backs, they will be miserable and worn out, and come with their belongings to the only place they can go to, which is Turkey,” said Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus. Despite the success of the EU-Turkey deal in cutting down irregular migrants in Greece, a large new batch of refugees could throw the fragile progress into disarray, with a greater burden for all of Europe. Thus, Europe has two options: accept the continual rise in refugee numbers, or speed up their sluggish reaction to the crisis, as well as its miserly funding and aid efforts. The international community must raise the bar and contribute more meaningfully to mitigate the refugee crisis.
“Liberating” the city of Mosul may begin with good intentions. It may even be a military success. But poor strategic management could result in a huge loss, both humanitarian, and for the future of Iraq, Turkey, and the region. While it was initially believed that Shia militia forces would be excluded from entering Mosul for fear of sectarian violence, it has now been revealed that Popular Mobilization Force, a primarily Iranian trained collection of militias will be participating in the Mosul offensive. Sunni states in the region are already concerned with Iranian behavior in the region. Iran furthering its rising influence over Iraq will not soothe America’s troubled relations with the Middle East as Sunni states behave more aggressively in the midst of American pullback. Respectful and dignified treatment of the residents of this Sunni majority city is critical to the establishment of trust with their Shia government.
The small silver lining is the confidence of Turkish officials who have stated they are prepared to create camps and provide food and water to incoming refugees. Yet, as diplomatic tensions rise over Turkish presence in Northern Iraq, the future holds many uncertainties, including a lack of clarity at the political endgame. Turkey’s stake at the table and on the battlefield is crucial, as it has already sustained the brunt of the international consequences of the crises in Syria and Iraq: the expense of hosting millions of refugees, the political and social consequences of integrating these refugees, and the instability of its border regions.
Many parties, including Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and their Western and regional backers are contributing to the operation, and each will desire a seat at the table when the battle is over. A sustainable peace includes provisions and security for vulnerable minority communities, economic empowerment of the numerous displaced peoples within Iraq, and a strong government to ward off the type of power vacuum that allowed ISIS to flourish. The capacity of Iraq’s government to provide even one of these qualifications is questionable.