Sectarian, ethnic and political divisions in the city will give the jihadis hope of a return to power
Islamic States doctrine of survival is based on a simple notion: defeat on thebattlefield must always leave behind the seeds for a comeback. Whether the operation to retake Mosul will be the beginning of the end for Isis or the beginning of a new cycle hinges largely on understanding this basic fact.
The security and political vacuum in Mosul will be the likely seed that could enable an Isis regeneration. Unless the government in Iraq allows a situation in which local Sunnis fill the void, a new cycle is almost certain. That much seems to be accepted by Iraqi and American planners directly involved in the effort to dislodge Isis from its most populous and prestigious stronghold. The current strategy stipulates that Shia and Kurdish militias will not fight inside the city, a way to reduce local concerns about political ambitions.
The question, though, is who will fill the void? Can the government in Baghdad empower a Sunni alternative to isolate Isis? Even if Baghdad has the desire and the ability to do so, who is this alternative?
The northern parts of Iraq stretching from Anbar to Nineveh are a microcosm of the problems that plagued the country for a decade. Isis was able to emerge out of the ashes in 2014 but the country is significantly more fractured today than when the group was driven out of the urban centres in 2007. Deeper wounds have opened over the past two years and many sectarian, ethnic and political stakeholders are vying for influence in this particular region of Iraq.
Yet there is cause for guarded optimism amid todays bleak landscape. The battle for Mosul is so far led by professional Iraqi forces, which include thousands of local Sunni fighters keen to retake their areas from Isis. New dynamics have emerged since Isis seized Mosul more than two years ago. Some of the changes present historic opportunities for the government in Baghdad to redraw the social contract, while others will serve as disrupters to any such effort.
These changes include the reconfiguration of the Sunni divide in the country into three broad categories. The first includes the insiders who have worked closely with pro-government forces battling Isis in their areas. They tend to focus on rebuilding their own homes and see merits in a government presence that prevents the return of a vile militia that caused the destruction.
Second are the politicians already part of the government in Baghdad. They have little leverage over their communities, but some believe in pushing for change through political engagement. The politicians ability to fill the void in Sunni areas is minimal. They are often busy fighting each other rather than working together to help their communities.
Political rejectionists form the third category. They dismiss the existing political order as inherently disadvantageous to Sunnis. They perceive the government in Baghdad as beholden to Iran, and the only way out is an overhaul of Iraqi politics. Any Iranian influence in the country is viewed with profound suspicion. When Isis took over a third of Iraq in 2014, some of this group welcomed the insurgents but many gambled on the development to reverse the political situation in the country for ever.
Rejectionists might not have direct influence in their communities, but they have the ability to undermine any Sunni political engagement. Similarly, many Shia politicians and militants believe that they should be exempted from any outreach effort. Even politicians in Baghdad who have called for an end to the old game of authoritarian and sectarian Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister, indicated that Baghdad has no place for such individuals after they have lost their bet.
Conflict between the rejectionists and Baghdad will likely worsen, unless the current thinking of both sides changes. But the common denominator between the three Sunni categories is local governance. The ability of Sunnis to govern their localities will resolve, with time, much of the political stagnation in the country. Maliki, whose policies directly enabled the rise of Isis in 2014, opposed the empowerment of local actors to rule their areas.
Today the stakes are even higher than before. Only if the old way of Maliki is replaced with a true desire to strengthen Sunnis to fill the void in their towns can Iraq be sure to end the cycle.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and co-author of New York Times bestseller Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. Follow him on Twitter: @hxhassan