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Multiple actors and interest hamper Iraq’s Anti-ISIS Campaign

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

“The battle won’t be delayed after the first of this year, and its end by God’s will shall be swift”. In his statement on January 21, the Iraqi defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi was still planning for an immediate upcoming operation to liberate Mosul, the largest city in Northern Iraq, from the hands of the Islamic State.

However, as Seth J. Frantzman points out in his analysis of The Dangerous Limits of Iraq’s Anti-ISIS Campaign for the National Interest, plans to free Mosul from IS have been obstructed by the number of actors involved and their respective interests. The involvement of Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, and Washington – to name the three biggest actors involved – makes centralized planning complex, coordination difficult, and too few troops available for the operation.

While ISIS exiled the Christian minorities and committed widespread atrocities against the Yazidi minority after their capture of Mosul in 2014, there are also reports of Shia government troops executing Sunni prisoners before withdrawing from the city. This perceived prosecution by the Shia-led central government led many to support ISIS when they first arrived in Mosul.

On the other hand, most of the refugees from Mosul and the surrounding area fled to the KRG. Most of them are Arabs, and besides being economically straining, they also endanger the demographic balance of the Kurdistan region – a very controversial issue as Kurdistan prepares for a referendum on independence.

Anti-Isis campaign video from Britain

Also the geographic location of Mosul makes the situation complex: while in striking distance of the KRG’s military forces, the closest unit of the Iraqi army and its allied Shia militias Hashd al-Shaabi are about 150 kilometers away. Finally, the violence between Kurds and Shia Turkmen that erupted in Tuz Khurmatu in November 2015 made cooperation between the KRG and the Shia militias against ISIS very unlikely.

Neither actor wants to see a foreign force – be it Shia or Kurdish – invading the city, but at the same time neither is able to control the city. The Iraqi army and the central-government allied Shia militias are unable to muster enough forces near Mosul at the moment, and “want the Kurds to stay out of most of the operation and not conquer more disputed territory”, while the KRG is skeptical about “doing the lion’s share of work to liberate an Arab city”, the central government, and the readiness of Turkish trained Sunni militias.

While the battle for Mosul has been portrayed as imminent in Western media, many remain skeptical: in the words of KRG deputy prime minister Qubad Talabani: “I don’t think the Iraqi armed forces are ready and I don’t think the coalition is confident in the ability of everyone to get ready”.

Michael Pregent, a former intelligence advisory in Iraq agrees: “the force to retake Mosul hasn’t been built yet”. Consequently, the offensive to recapture Mosul from ISIS might be postponed beyond 2016.

Read Seth J. Frantzman’s entire analysis “The Dangerous Limits of Iraq’s Anti-ISIS Campaign” at the National Interest’s homepage here.