Under a cloak of relative anonymity and overshadowed by the scope of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, the Islamic State – also commonly referred to as ISIS or Daesh – shocked the global community as they gained control of Mosul during the summer of 2014. The second largest city in Iraq and home to a large Sunni Muslim population, ISIS’ stronghold signified to the diplomatic world the depth of their threat and that they were no longer a group to be overlooked. Since that summer, ISIS has repeatedly shocked the international community, not only because of their violent tendencies and continual human rights violations, but also for their ability to maintain both a territory with state-like qualities and a successful recruitment campaign throughout the Western world.
US and Iraqi forces training during Operation New Dawn, by US Navy Petty Officer 1st Class James E. Foehl
The battle to regain Mosul, coined the Mosul Offensive, officially began on the 16th of October with the aim of expunging ISIS’ presence so that Iraqi authorities may reassert their power in the northern provinces. The offensive consists of members of the Iraqi army, special forces, and the federal police who are working alongside the predominantly Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, reinforced by United States-led air power and military advisors. As of publication, the first phase of the offensive is underway, seeking to set a foothold around Mosul and regain surrounding villages that have previously been under ISIS control.
Mosul’s importance in the fight against ISIS not only stems from the fact that it is one of the larger Iraqi cities, but also from the power it gives the Islamic State. The city is a hub for chemical weapon production and a strategic location for gaining access to surrounding territories such as Turkish Kurdistan, Iran, and Syria. Most importantly, it is where the terror group conducts taxation campaigns that bring in a majority of its revenue. Mosul also has symbolic significance for the group as it was the location of a monumental speech given by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive leader of the terror organization. Douglas Ollivant, former US National Security Council director for Iraq, stressed that defeating ISIS in Mosul would signify the beginning of their demise, stating “This is the last major urban area that ISIS holds [in Iraq]. After Mosul, it’s all one big mop up operation.”
2016 has not been a good year for the jihadist group. ISIS has seen the downfall of strategically significant territorial strongholds. In January, they suffered the loss of Ramadi, the provincial capital of the Western Anbar Province, which was followed by the fall of Fallujah in June and then the loss of 12% of their Iraqi and Syrian territories in July. The organization has also experienced major economic hits affecting the oil and water supply of civilians in regions under their control. Schools have been directly affected by this economic downturn with many of them remaining closed for the past year due to an absence of funding.
The battle for Mosul is not an easy one and the structure of the operation will have major implications on how the country will regroup and restructure at the end of the campaign. Analysts are voicing concern that the use of the ‘hasd al-shabi’ – Shia militias – in the Sunni majority city could lead to a resurgence of sectarian violence, an issue that has plagued the country since America’s intervention in 2003. Others say that a redrawing of Iraq’s boundaries should be expected at the end of the offensive, with the country most likely being reshaped according to religious and ethnic divides such as Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. Currently, the various groups are uniting under a general Iraqi identity and hope to wipe out ISIS’ presence in the region, but they all have different motives for participation. Shias recognize that their involvement is an opportunity to re-unite the country under Baghdad while Sunni militias are seizing the occasion to establish a Sunni presence independent from ISIS. The Kurds, however, see their participation as a major bargaining chip in their fight to make Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous state, into a fully independent internationally recognized nation. In the end though, there are two clear goals: to extricate ISIS and to see a country united under Baghdad with Iraqi flags waving once again.
While the possibility of eradicating ISIS’ presence in Iraq seems promising, it is easy to overlook the human rights implications that the offensive may have on the civilian population of Mosul. On Tuesday of last week, Amnesty International published a sweeping report called Punished for Daesh’s Crimes: Displaced Iraqis Abused by Militias and Governmental Forces. Based on comprehensive interviews with victims and their families, Amnesty sought to expose the war crimes and human rights violations committed by the Shia Militias who are a key component of the offensive strategy. The report coincides with the beginning of the offensive as a reminder to forces on the ground that the international community is watching. As Phillip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, states, “Iraqi authorities must take concrete steps to ensure there is no repeat of the gross violations witnessed in Fallujah and other parts of Iraq during confrontation between government forces and with the Islamic State.”
The ‘gross violations’ to which Luther refers are the killings and torture schemes that have taken place without impunity by security forces and popular mobilization units, comprised of mainly Shia militants, in eight provinces with large Sunni populations. Alongside accusations of senseless murders, the militia and military groups have been accused of detaining refugees from the city without judicial proceedings and of using physical violence to obtain coerced confessions. Baghdad has yet to respond to the findings, while the Kurdish government flat out denies the validity of the accusations. Humanitarian crises do not rest solely on the backs of the militias but are an inevitable repercussion of prolonged armed conflict, with experts and analysts like Bruno Geddo of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Iraq stating that the exodus from Mosul could be “one of the largest man-made displacement crises of recent times.” At the same time, the civilian hardships of living under ISIS should not be overlooked. Mosul residents are under constant threat of sniper violence and of being thrown in jail or tortured and killed by ISIS combatants. Those who attempt to escape are met with million – dinar fines or, if they were a former member of the Iraqi police, death by beheading.
On October 20th, senior diplomats from several Western and Middle Eastern nations convened in Paris to discuss how to restore peace and stability in the country as well as to ensure minimal humanitarian damages. During a televised conference, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi emphasized the importance of protecting human rights during the offensive and of using the discussions in Paris to create humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians. al-Abadi also underscored that the country is not seeking to fall into the same divide of sectarian violence that overtook Iraq post-2003. In light of the recently released Amnesty report, there seems to be ambivalence towards the severity of the findings on the part of the participatory members of the offensive. Some may argue that the human rights injustices suffered under ISIS control are worse than any act to committed or foreseen as a result of the violence. As the Mosul Offensive unfolds, it is important to watch whether the Iraqi government and the international community will omit the rights of the few for the greater good of a nation or if they will try to preserve the human rights of Iraqi civilians during the fight against ISIS.