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Victory in Mosul is almost certain. So is the crisis that will follow

Lessons that should have been learned in Iraq haven't been, leaving a disaster after Mosul is liberated all but inevitable

The military success of the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group that began this week in Mosul is almost certain. Unfortunately, so is the humanitarian and political crisis that will follow the city's liberation.

The areas that were recently recaptured from IS – including Ramadi (the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province), Tikrit (the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein), and Fallujah (an important incubator for Sunni extremism) – have all been left in varying degrees of devastation. All are contaminated with explosives.

Undoubtedly, in terms of devastation and contamination, the fate of Mosul will be similar.

At least one million civilians are expected to flee Mosul amid the military offensive, adding to the 3.3 million Iraqis already displaced in their country.

Furthermore, the IS defeat in the city will leave a political vacuum that several actors will be competing to fill.  

The present coalition against the terrorist group is composed of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Kurdish peshmerga, the Iraqi Shia Hashd ash-Shaabi (or Popular Mobilisation Units) and an assortment of local militias. While they all share a common enemy in IS, they have different – and often opposing – political interests.

Little has been done to address these imminent challenges. Focused on neutralising IS militarily, the Iraqi government and international community have ignored a potentially graver threat to the region's stability: the creation of a new humanitarian crisis, and the renewal of civil war in Iraq.

Not prepared for the day after

“Every victory on the battlefield creates another humanitarian crisis,” Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said at a conference held at the State Department in July.

Indeed, so far, the stabilisation and governance efforts of the Iraqi government and the international community have lagged behind their military progress against IS, a phenomenon that has generated humanitarian crises across Iraq.

As with the previous military victories against IS, the aftermath of the Mosul battle will also increase the number of displaced Iraqis in the country. From Mosul, they will flee to Sunni-dominated and Kurdish areas neighbouring the city.

These areas are still struggling to host the millions of fleeing civilians that arrived in the summer of 2014. A new wave will undoubtedly increase the pressure on the already scarce resources as well as the funding needed to cover the humanitarian needs that will soon arise.

In his latest statement, Stephen O’Brien, the UN emergency relief coordinator, outlined efforts currently underway including shelter for 60,000 people in camps, construction of new sites that will hold 250,000, food rations for 220,000 families and 240 tonnes of medication.

However, he said, despite generous contributions from donor countries, "funding has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario".

The lack of funding will make it difficult for humanitarians to provide assistance, aggravating the existing humanitarian crisis in the country.

And lamentably, in the rush to determine who governs Mosul the day after IS loses power, this situation may only worsen in the near future.

Lessons not learned

In the past, the Iraqi government has failed to understand that, in order to guarantee the country’s long-term stability, the full integration of Iraqi Sunnis is of vital importance.

Unfortunately, the Iraqi government continues to fail in this regard. The recent sacking of Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni from Mosul, is an example.

The Iraqi government – as well as the international community – has also failed to understand that it is essential to avoid creating political vacuums if it wants to translate military success into actual success. 

Yet today the Iraqi government and its international allies still lack a serious proposal for a political and security framework to address the fundamental governance challenge of a liberated Mosul, the biggest Sunni-dominated city in Iraq.

This will undoubtedly generate a new power vacuum and confrontation among different political actors attempting to fill it. Tensions over who would govern were clear even as the military campaign was prepared.  

It is expected that, in the aftermath of the battle for Mosul, two of the most influential Sunni leaders participating in the liberation of the city – the current Nineveh governor, Nofal Hammadi, and the former governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi – will want to translate their respective military gains into political control, creating a complex political situation. 

Also, the leaders of the Kurdish forces that are participating in the liberation of Mosul insist that they will retain control of any land they liberate from IS, even if the land was not originally under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government.

Once again, the Iraqi government and its allies are failing to address this political challenge in advance.

Many have attempted to design a proposal. Among them is Dylan O’Driscoll, from the Erbil-based Middle East Research Institute. In his recent report, he supports the creation of a federal region for Nineveh. He also advocates further decentralisation at the sub-regional level to empower and protect the numerous ethnic and religious minorities that live in that area.

Variants of this federal model have been proposed before, but ultimately such a structural change is highly unlikely without serious domestic and international willingness.

Hopefully, that willingness will flourish soon. 

- Tania Ildefonso Ocampos is a Spanish political analyst who specialises in EU strategy in the Middle East. She is a former Schuman trainee (Euro-Med and Middle East Unit of the European Parliament's Directorate-General for External Policies), and holds an MA in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University, Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Young Iraqi men who fled the violence in the northern city of Tal Afar watch as others play football at the Bahrka camp for internally displaced people, some 10km west of Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on 2 September 2015 (AFP)

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