Are we displacing or defeating Daesh in Iraq?


Picture of Paul W Hamill
Paul W Hamill

Paul W Hamill is Principal at Logan International Relations, a public affairs and public policy company based in Washington, DC

The last few weeks have seen military and paramilitary operations intensify in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. But is this liberation or a land-grab?

Daesh – the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ terror group – has kept a tight grip on Iraq’s second city for more than two years now, and it is clear they have been able to entrench themselves and prepare for the current assault.

Fortunately, Iraqi government forces have been able keep the perilous Mosul Dam from the clutches of Daesh. If the dam were to be destroyed, it would unleash devastation throughout Iraq, potentially killing more than a million people in a short space of time.

Since emerging from al-Qaeda and other terror groups around 2012, Daesh has led a campaign of torture, murder and subjugation across Iraq and Syria. It has enslaved thousands, created an unprecedented refugee crisis, and brutally killed anyone who disagrees with its retrograde ideology. They have inspired terror attacks all over the world and pushed policymakers into unprecedented international cooperation and action.

Over the last year Iraqi forces, assisted by international support, have been able to push Daesh back from the gates of Baghdad. Now they are ready to push Daesh out of Mosul.

This assault should not be called liberation – it is a seizure of land and the imposition of Iranian hegemony

While these simple facts should be welcome news in Western capitals, it is deeply concerning how these feats have been achieved, and what they mean for Iraq in particular and the region in general.

Iraq weaves together tribes, cultures, ethnicities and religions. Since 2003 the political structure has been based on cementing these differences rather than uniting disparate factions of Iraq under a truly national umbrella. It is this socio-political fact that has allowed Daesh to grow and expand its foothold in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the international community has allowed this problem to get worse in the pursuit of a quick so-called victory against Daesh.

The rejection of political compromise, devolution and power-sharing from Baghdad to Sunni Muslims in particular has left this community isolated, repressed and vulnerable to a Daesh takeover.

On many occasions Sunni leaders and other tribal chiefs pleaded with Baghdad to help them defeat Daesh. They called for military support and weapons, and for work on an inclusive non-sectarian political settlement. These Sunni groups know the area, know the people, and could gain wide support for a complete defeat of Daesh and its ideology.

Baghdad rejected this approach and rejected political inclusion. The Iraqi government, composed of Iranian-backed ethnic parties, instead sent in the heavily artillery of the Iraqi army and summoned airstrikes by the international coalition. More worryingly, they called on paramilitary groups supported by, staffed by and directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its leader, Qasem Soleimani.

Over the last year, many human rights groups have reported on and complained about the actions of these paramilitary groups. The Tehran-sponsored groups are causing destruction and starvation; they are displacing and terrorising local communities. News organizations have recently reported that tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians are fleeing Tal Afar, a city on the outskirts of Mosul, as a result of the onslaught of Iranian-backed groups.

Without concerted efforts to tackle the underlying causes of Daesh, we will only displace the problem – the threat will remain

Daesh will be pushed out of Iraq, probably at the cost of thousands of ‘human shields’. Iraqi government and Iranian-back forces will take Mosul and the rest of Iraq.

All of this means that this assault should not be called liberation. The Baghdad government will call it that; so will the voices from Tehran. But it is not.

Instead it is a seizure of land and the imposition of Iranian hegemony. Groups like Daesh will be defeated, but their ideology and their inspiration will be displaced and survive. Their threat will go on.

Western cities and interests will not be safe until that ideology and inspiration is defeated and we are able to stop recruitment and eliminate the core threat.

The challenge for all leaders in 2017 will be to understand two key elements about the true nature of the threat and how to work to rid the world of it.

First, we may think that Daesh survives only because it controls and occupies actually territory. In reality, we know groups such as Daesh survive because of ingrained resentment and ideological support.

Second, while many governments and organisations around the world support countering Daesh, their very actions feed and nurture the resentment and ideology of such groups.

Western policymakers face the huge challenge of pushing for and creating political inclusion in both Iraq and Syria. This would greatly help the region economically and support the resettlement of the millions of refugees locally and in Europe. But the West will also have to counter Iranian support of terror and destabilisation.

2017 will see Daesh pushed from Iraq. It will probably also be destroyed in Syria. But without concerted and real efforts to tackle the underlying causes of the growth of such groups, we will only displace the problem – the threat will remain.

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