Present Status and Possible Future of Post-ISIS Mosul?
Omar Mohammed, Founder of Mosul Eye
Since June 2014, questions have been raised about the structure of ISIS (also known as Da’ish), the reasons for its creation and actions in Mosul, as well as its military and economic structures, and its impact on the communities in the Middle East, in particular one of the oldest cities in the ancient world, Mosul. A city affected directly by ISIS, as well as operations by the Global Coalition and regular and irregular units of the Iraqi forces.
Most of these questions raised about ISIS in Mosul went unanswered or were answered quite far from the Mosul context. This has led to a lack of understanding of what happened in the city during its occupation by ISIS and during and after military operations. But what is happening now in the city of Mosul and the region of Nineveh, each with its distinct circumstances?
Mosul: The current situation
After the fall of Mosul in the hands of ISIS, there were rapid changes at the socio and economic levels. Firstly, Mosul was isolated completely from its regional and international environment. Then there was the dismantling of its social structures followed by the dismantling of the social code of the city through the deportation of the Christians, the enslavement of the Yezidi and the targeting of Sunnis. Then there was the reorganization of society along a new social class system based on allegiance to ISIS and the dissolution of the civil system replaced by a tribal one of clan sheikhs loyal to ISIS who pledged allegiance to them. For all the sheikhs who made such an alliance to Al-Baghdadi, their followers automatically pledged loyalty to ISIS, and their family members enjoyed multiple and diverse privileges depending on their proximity to the clans loyal to ISIS and its members in their military institutions.
After ISIS achieved its mission of destroying Mosul on all levels, then came the battle to liberate the city from the group, to eradicate ISIS, which left half the city completely destroyed, with the greatest destruction in the historic part of the city known as Old Mosul, which represented the city’s economic, historical and political heart. In all, more than 9,925 civilian structures were destroyed, along with 397 industrial and commercial units, 735 roads and crossings, 253 public buildings, 18 sports buildings, 25 military bases and 25 religious sites, excluding the heritage sites destroyed by ISIS. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-9d41ef6c-97c9-4953-ba43-284cc62ffdd0).
The casualties are also tragic, and the figures conflicting as to the real number of civilian deaths during the fighting. There are numbers indicating as many as 40,000 civilians killed during the military campaign to liberate the city, which lasted about 9 months, while other sources indicate around 9,000 civilians killed relying on official statistics, as well as thousands of people injured and more than two million displaced in camps.
Despite the great and obvious failure in reconstruction efforts, this is not the greatest concern now. The local residents in Mosul have begun to rebuild what the war has destroyed through their own efforts without government or international intervention after their great disappointment with the unrealistic promises made by the Iraqi government. But what is really worrying is what is going on in Mosul itself and Nineveh and its western and eastern sides, which is the disintegration and rivalry among militias that arose during the response to ISIS. According to statistics I’ve collected based upon information in Nineveh, there are around 43 armed militias belonging to Sunnis (tribal), Christians, and Shi’a (Turkmen and Shabak). These militias are divided between the Nineveh Plain and the west and south of Nineveh. And these armed militias have a great influence because of the presence of the strongest element supporting them. Every militia declares allegiance to the militias of Hashd Al-Shaabi or the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) that enjoy power in their areas, even those clans which were subordinate to ISIS or worked with them that have now switched to allying with the PMU as a means of survival.
Many tribal leaders allied to ISIS have switched to become leaders of the armed militias. Much of the news coming from Mosul is about these dangerous transformations and the inability of the judiciary and security services to deal with this issue because of the great influence of the militias that can acquit those it wants without the power of the law as a deterrence. In my interview with a judge, whose name I withhold for his protection, he said that some of the leaders of ISIS were exonerated by the forces of the PMU having given the justification that they were working as double agents and were “sources of information” inside ISIS, despite these leaders having committed crimes against Mosul’s residents!
The danger inherent in the Sunni division in Nineveh has created new opportunities for ISIS’ infiltration inside these armed militias supported by Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political leaders. The space available in these militias gives supporters of ISIS, who escaped justice, a smooth transition to the structures of the state once again to play the same role through which they can enter by the corruption of the armed forces and the Iraqi and regional governments, and by exploiting existing conflicts.
It is possible to understand what’s happening in Nineveh and its reflection on Mosul better by understanding the map of current political conflicts and the spread of armed militias according to their affiliations. In the areas of southern Nineveh from Hamam Al-Alil to Shirqat in the Sunni tribal areas the militias are loyal to the PMU and their resolution as to the tribes. After the military defeat of ISIS, the tribes had an allegiance with the PMU in order to survive. The areas of eastern Nineveh, known as the Nineveh Plain, are divided between Christian militias whose goal is setting up a protectorate for Christians like the Nineveh Plain Protection Forces and other Christian militias mixed and interwoven with other nationalities and religions. They are also loyal to the PMU like Babylon Brigade and have had clashes with the Shabak Shi’a militias called Hashd Al-Shaabki and also known as brigade 30, which are loyal to the PMU and in violent conflicts with the militias of the Christians in the Nineveh Plain and against the Sunni forces there as well.
As for Western Nineveh it’s the most dangerous, the area in which began and grew Al Qaeda and then ISIS. It was the fertile place for the growth and development of ISIS militarily where its training centers were located and also on the border with Syria. It is also an area where the Kurds, Yezidis, Turkmans (Sunnis and Shi’a), Sunni Arabs, and now Shi’a militias have intertwined and complex relations that are dangerous.
Before the failed referendum in Kurdistan the Sunni tribes were reeling between the authority of the Kurds and the government vacuum after ISIS. Then the region and its tribes moved to the new authority of the PMU. Perhaps the most dangerous areas experiencing sharp conflicts are in western Nineveh and Tel Afar, which awaits an unknown future for its Sunni Turkmen population who were expelled from their areas after the collapse of ISIS and the re-entry of its Turkmen Shia’a population. Also, some areas had their Arab population deported by the Kurds from their areas in northwestern Nineveh. Add to that Sinjar, which is suffering dangerous division and large conflicts between the Yezidis themselves, the Sunni tribes and the Yezidis, and the Kurds and the Shi’a militias. The city of Mosul is comprised of two parts––the East (capital of the Assyrian state) and in which the Esarhaddon Palace was recently discovered under the ruins of the Prophet Jonah Mosque that was blown up by ISIS in late 2014––and the West known as Old Mosul, for which there is no specific founding date, but where the Old City is very ancient. The presence of the Assyrians has been found in Mosul known by the name since then of “Al-Quly’at – a group of castles”, but that arose in parallel to the Assyrians to become a large settlement, which formed the spirit, history and civilization of Mosul. This definition is important in distinguishing between Nineveh and Mosul.
What is happening in the city today is very serious. After the destruction by ISIS to the antiquities and heritage, then came the battle that has destroyed much of the rest. Today in the city that represented the spirit of Arab-Islamic history and in which diverse ethnicities have heritage and artifacts for which there is nothing similar in other parts of the world, the door is open to easily steal the rest of the artifacts. The destruction did not affect only buildings and houses––because what was inside the houses was most important––evidence of the history of the city in artifacts and rare property held by Mosul residents. The irregular reconstruction operations conducted in the city also move rubble around in an unorganized way that is not well thought out. In the existing houses and buildings in Old Mosul, many of which date back to 2000 BC, especially those located in the area of Al-Quly’at (local source), as it is a part of the river area known historically as “The Secret Gate”, there are artifacts dating back to the first centuries after the emergence of Mosul. And still other buildings date to the early centuries of Islam like the “Musafi Al-Dhahb” mosque or the Umayyad mosque built in the year 638 after which began the Islamic campaign to occupy Mosul.
Reports have been received from people inside Mosul that looting took place in the Old City randomly after the end of operations to free the city and many antiquities have been lost. And this corresponds with information collected by some journalists who were covering the battle of Mosul about the stealing of antiquities and other assets and properties from the mosques, churches and even houses of Mosul! There was no observation or military authorities in the city to prevent the occurrence of these thefts and to protect the heritage. And UNESCO did not show enough attention to the protection of Mosul from looting and theft. And what is happening now is that the theft is documented in photos by citizens and photographers who publish photos of houses and historic sites in the Old City. These pictures show the presence of artifacts in some cases dating back centuries. After the publishing of such images, objects disappear from the sites! Social networking sites are then a way to determine what was present in the city and what has been stolen.
The Mosul Museum ravaged by ISIS and then destroyed during the battle to liberate the city was looted during and after the battle. There are still pieces of broken antiquities or parts of them around as well as some manuscripts and rare publications that detailed the contents of the museum. This is applicable to archaeological sites as well like Nimrud, Mashki Gate and Esarhaddon Palace, where artifacts have disappeared, and no one knows their fate until now. There is no structure to prosecute those who’ve stolen these artifacts which are privately owned by Mosul and its people as well as global heritage.
This type of vandalism happens to Mosul’s heritage and civilization because of deliberate neglect and in some cases the work of volunteers in good faith also leads to negative results. What is happening to Esarhaddon Palace and the remains of Nineveh’s archaeological heritage with the attempt to plant trees in an archaeological site will lead to a disaster. The archeological effects under Prophet Jonah’s Shrine are also threatened with destruction because of attempts by the Sunni Endowment Diwan to rebuild the mosque above it. The rain may also have destroyed some archaeological remnants because the tunnels are opened, and water has leaked into the site.
As for politics, in Mosul today there’s a turmoil not seen before. Disintegration of the social structures directly affects the political currents in the city. Everything has become associated with one concept––to be with or opposed to the PMU––and measured affiliations on this basis. Also, there has begun to arise a new conflict between the rural population, particularly that in southern Mosul, and the urban population. And some of the power in which the population of southern Mosul (and this refers to the tribal organizations) enjoyed under ISIS rule, empowering them with new authority and control acquired from the urban population, will eventually change the city’s social patterns.
Is ISIS over? That is the pressing question among academic specialists in terrorism. But they always overlook the fundamentals of the right answer that is the result of the right question. Therefore, the right question should be: Were the conditions and factors that led to the emergence of ISIS resolved? The answer: No. The reasons are clear as stated above. In western Nineveh Province, the area where ISIS first emerged and evolved, there are again assassination operations to liquidate Sunni tribal leaders that opposed ISIS. There is also the regional conflict in western Nineveh between the militias supported by Iran, the Kurds, the Yezidis and the Sunni tribes, as well as its proximity to the troubled Syrian border, which makes stability almost impossible. In recent days, there have been assassination operations in the areas of western Nineveh (Al-Ba’aj, Badush) and southern Mosul (Nimrud) carried out by ISIS, the same tactic used during the years of 2010-2014 which has evolved from the greater political dysfunction.
Solutions do not happen easily and will take time to be effective. There is a historical precedent from the time of the British during talks with the League of Nations around the problem of Mosul after World War I. At that time it was the prevailing belief among the British of the need to join Mosul to Iraq so that it would be difficult to rule Iraq without Mosul, as it would be very easy for Iran to otherwise control the country. And a century later, this still holds true. Since the collapse of Mosul in 2014 and following ISIS, Iraq has come under heavy Iranian influence, and Baghdad will continue to be weak.
It is necessary to begin the correct steps and not to repeat the errors of the past. For terrorism to be eliminated, the continuously generated reasons for terrorism must be eliminated, which requires solutions that will change the equation and create a new situation on the basis of new foundations to ensure the future of a stable Iraq and the wider region. Because the future is still unclear and the severity of collapse imminent without fast and correct measures:
- Iraq can’t live without international protection, in particular Mosul. There must be U.S. forces in an international alliance to stay in Mosul and grant protection for a period of at least five years and that should fall under the umbrella of the international alliance dedicated to fighting terrorism. What happened in Mosul was international terrorism and not only a local event. The continuation of the mission of the international alliance should not be limited to fighting terrorism only, but the granting of protection to cities from terrorism. Because the exit of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 granted life to terrorism again. As the Iraqi government is unable to completely manage the liberated cities or their disarmament and there is a clear deficit of rehabilitation and reconstruction, particularly in Mosul.
- The United States and Britain should differentiate between the demands of the Sunni population and terrorismwhich arose as a result of political and economic errors in which ISIS was born. The Sunni population needs to be addressed as they are the origin of terrorism that will increase and continue if there is ongoing marginalization where terrorist groups find new chances of recruiting more terrorists not only in Mosul, but indeed around the world. ISIS has now turned to global terrorism after local terrorism, although the group will continue to appeal to local issues in its global recruiting campaign. And the British in particular need to deal more judiciously with the government on this subject in Mosul. The current governor of Mosul Nawfal Akub shouldn’t be granted private visits especially after the latest one by the British ambassador who appeared publicly with Akub (as did the French ambassador during his last trip) at a very crucial time––a governor who has supported militias also supported by Iran. At the time, there were attempts to remove this governor from his post that came to light when the British ambassador gave him his full support. One of those close to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi reported to me that they withdrew their support from Governor Akub when claims arose from members of the provincial council to overthrow him, although he was faster than them when he maneuvered to the elite to request support from them for wide powers. And after the complaints and accusations against him at the administrative court ended in disaster, he is now being protected by many armed militias supported by Iran in Iraq and represents their interests in Mosul. The ambassadors’ prominent visit has upset many in Mosul working to create new conditions in the city away from the influence of the armed militias.
- Mosul should be removed from the authority of Baghdad temporarilyuntil it has been reconstructed and the current crisis in Mosul has passed requiring that the organizations and leaders have wide unconventional powers. To keep Mosul under the authority of the center government of Baghdad will lead to delay and neglect in the city as well as more political conflicts among the parties, which are trying to win favor and acceptance from Baghdad. To grant Mosul the opportunity of wide decentralization will make it a model for what is possible in rehabilitation and reconstruction.
- Work on radical solutions for Nineveh Governoratethrough resettlement of the clans in western and southern Nineveh that will revive the agricultural sector in the region, particularly as western Nineveh is a haven for terrorist groups and conflicts. The creation of a green area that is capable of returning the tribes to their traditional way of life and allowing their resettlement gets to the heart of the conflict. Greater desertification will increase in the likelihood of further conflicts in the region. This is particularly relevant to the tribes located along the tribal border famous for smuggling operations that has become part of their composition. After the collapse of the situation in Syria––the Western border of Nineveh––the tribes moved inward, having a negative impact particularly in Nineveh. The solution of a vast agricultural investment in their areas will ensure their disarmament.
- Reconnect Mosul to its regional surroundingsthrough train lines that link directly with Turkey and the city of Basra. The presence of trains will result in stability in the areas of transit because it will return their economic usefulness with an extended line between Mosul, Kirkuk and Basra. It also restores Mosul to its natural position and therefore grants greater power to Baghdad in the face of the Iranian tide.
- Increase the Western presence in Mosulthrough the setup of cultural centers and educational institutes inside the city and other parts of Nineveh. One of the biggest problems Mosul is experiencing is the absence of any international presence in which the exception is the uniqueness of the Turkish Consulate years after the U.S. invasion. Greater Western representation in Mosul increases stability and gives the population of Mosul an opportunity to connect with the West directly through these centers. The British Institute in Mosul during the 1940s was very important, but it was closed in the late 1950s after the 1958 rebellion. Now it’s time to repeat these experiments in the city and give the population of Mosul new perspectives.
- More support to the youth and civil society in Mosul. Since the battle to liberate the city from ISIS began, a sizeable and exciting youth movement has been in continuous development, and investment in this burgeoning movement will benefit everyone. The problems in Mosul are not only related to ISIS or religious issues. Investment is needed in the energies of the massive youth in Mosul, particularly that the youth movement was a reaction to ISIS, but has already begun to take a more prominent, organized form. It’s a civil society movement in need of ongoing support from the international community. And this support should start before it’s too late! Iraq is on the doorstep of the elections, and the funds for candidates will find a place to recruit the youth quickly and easily in violent activities. And Mosul will lose once again the valuable opportunity to invest in the youth for the building of stability and peace.
In short, maybe the solutions posited above are too fanciful or impossible to come about. But any attempt to repeat the errors of the past without an urgent correction that begins with radical solutions will leave everything as it is, and leave open the path to more violence, displacement and war.