Many factors combine to make the triumph in Mosul a pyrrhic victory
ISIL has been defeated in Iraq and Syria but without a political safety net to fall back on
The battle for Mosul is over. ISIL has been dealt a major defeat as an organised military threat. The besieged civilians have been rescued and Haider Al Abadi, surveying the desolation that is Mosul, has declared victory. To paraphrase one of the most infamous statements of the Vietnam War: they had to destroy Mosul in order to save it. The Iraqi army and the Iran-sponsored Popular Mobilisation Forces, with major support from the American military, are in control of Mosul, but the city is hardly liberated.
The combined factors of the trajectory of war in Iraq, the sectarian settling of scores, the widespread abuse of human rights by elements of the Iraqi-armed forces and their Shia auxiliary militias, the massive civilian casualties, the corrosive role of regional powers in stoking identity politics and the enormous cost of rebuilding and resettling refugees and displaced civilians make for a pyrrhic victory in Mosul.
The abuse of the mostly Sunni civilians who were trapped in Mosul and its environs at the hand of the mostly Shia irregulars after the “liberation” have been visited before on the populations of Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and other Iraqi cities and hamlets following the defeat of ISIL. One can see the same tragic outcome following the inevitable defeat of ISIL in Raqqa in the next few months. What will prevail in Iraq and Syria is the triumph of unadulterated identity politics.
The United States won every single military battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, but lasting peace and political victories remain elusive. Sixteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, and 14 years after the invasion of Iraq, the United States, notwithstanding its immense military preponderance, is engaged in a rearguard action.
Washington has no viable strategy to prevent the Taliban from reconquering Afghanistan in the near future. In Iraq (and Syria) when the US achieves its immediate objective – the destruction of ISIL as an organised military force – the Trump administration will declare victory and beat a hasty retreat. The Iraqi Jeffersonian democrats that the George Bush administration was searching for at the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers were like Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. They were nowhere to be found. The doomed enterprise of nation-building gave way to a stoic recognition of Iraq’s fractured sectarian and ethnic identities. Today, few in Iraq, and probably no one in America, still believes or is willing to fight for a modern, civil Iraqi state. The flags fluttering over the rubble of Mosul and other cities are those belonging to Iraq’s various sectarian and ethnic tribes, their colours assert the defeat of the Iraqi state and the hegemony of identity politics.
Compared to its massive casualties in previous conflicts, America’s casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq stand at 6,808 killed in action. Ironically, this number is almost identical to the number of US marines killed in action on the tiny Island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific in savage fighting with the Japanese army in 1945. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were prohibitively expensive, and politically the cost has been staggering and enduring.
The world’s sole superpower has finally faced the limits of its military might in the harsh and cruel mountains of Afghanistan and the inhospitable and alien Iraqi desert and urban centres. What the US will leave behind in Iraq is a dysfunctional, beleaguered, fractured state dominated politically, strategically, economically and even culturally by an ascendant, aggressive Iran.
The defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria is occurring in the absence of viable political scaffolding needed to rebuild and resuscitate these societies, which will presage the ascendency of foreign powers (Russia in Syria, and Iran in Iraq and Syria) the retrenchment of a mass murdering regime in Damascus and a Shia sectarian government in Baghdad.
In recent years we have seen the collapse of the state system in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, accompanied by the deepening of sectarian, ethnic, tribal and regional cleavages leading to more death by identity. When a state system collapses, communities fall back on their bedrock certainties and primordial identities. In these conditions group identity is exaggerated, and all outside threats become existential.
The current Sunni-Shia conflict is not a continuation of “ancient hatreds” as some claim, but a recent political phenomenon, with roots in the Iranian Revolution, Iraq’s invasion of Iran, the ascendency of the minority Alawite community to power in Syria, the rise of Hizbollah in Lebanon and the American invasion of Iraq. It took years for identity politics, and the phenomenon of death by identity, to rise, and it will take many years before communal passions whipped up by the high priests of identity politics wind down. The United States cannot and should not get involved in this Sunni-Shia fight or even try to mediate it, but definitely the US should not pursue policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen that will make it exponentially more lethal.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist for the Lebanese daily Annahar and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington