US President Barack Obama’s announcement on September 11 of increased air strikes against Islamic State group targets in both Iraq and Syria has led to speculation about the length and success of this campaign. The debate has focused on whether air strikes can destroy the Islamic State group; the role of various European and regional allies, such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia; Syria’s response to air strikes on its territory; and whether actors on the ground, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Iraqi army can effectively combat the group.
A major issue that has not been raised in this debate is how the people of Mosul, whose population after the events likely remains at around a million inhabitants, factor into this dynamic. To assess the short term and long term viability of Obama’s strategy, the civilian population of Mosul and their relationship with the Islamic State group has to be taken into account.
The rise of the Islamic State group and its leader, the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has invariably lead to articles comparing him to the Abbasid caliphs of Iraq, such as the illustrious Harun al-Rashid. I find such comparisons interesting for nostalgia’s sake, comparing how the the Islamic State’s “caliphate” is a far cry from the Abbasid caliphs’ legacy. For the sake of a more apt historical analogy, we ought to consider the rule of firebrand preacher Girolamo Savonarola from 1494 to 1498 over Florence, which he declared as the New Jerusalem.
Mosul is Savonarola’s Florence. Both Savonarola and Baghdadi envisioned their territory as the nucleus of a new puritanical proto-state and used street armies to purge both cities of its vices, from art or architecture considered pagan to banning behaviour considered immoral. Both created powerful enemies, denounced by leaders whose religious monopoly had been challenged, whether it was the Borgia Pope Alexander VI or the king of Saudi Arabia, custodian of the two holy sites.
Eventually the people of Florence turned against Savonarola and celebrated his hanging in 1498. This is where this thought exercise brings up the variable that has been ignored in the policy debates: How the civilian population of Mosul fare under Baghdadi’s rule and how they will respond during a sustained air campaign.
The Mosul variable
Mosul, known as the “city of officers” for the numbers of its citizens who served in the Iraqi military, grew restive under the rule of Nouri al-Maliki. The people of Mosul on the eve of the Islamic State takeover in the summer of 2014 faced two options: accept the rule of the Iraqi security forces that often resulted in the sweeping arrests of its citizens, or continue to turn a blind eye to the presence of Islamic State cells and their extortion rackets. In June, this dilemma became a moot point, as the Iraqi security forces fled, along with a good number of its own population. Those in Mosul who stayed either actively gave support to the Islamic State entry or acquiesced to its rule.
It is hard to gauge the mood in Mosul but the Islamic State group has provided security and stability. With a renewed US air campaign unfolding, the question remains as to how this will affect daily life. If air strikes, which have already occurred, continue to target Islamic State forces outside of Mosul, the city’s inhabitants will remain ambivalent. If the strikes destroy water and electricity facilities, preventing the Islamic State from providing basic services, or attack the city itself, where targeting the Islamic State fighters will surely result in civilian casualties, some in Mosul will either rally behind the Islamic State or feel anger at a group that brought upon the air campaign.
Unlike Savonarola, Baghdadi controls a combat-tested, disciplined military force that has been able to project fear into areas it controls and beyond. What remains to be seen in the following weeks and months is whether life will become unbearable for the citizens of Mosul. The Islamic State fighters could withstand an aerial campaign as long as they melt into the urban fabric of a large city like Mosul. To expel them from this city would require street-to-street urban combat, which the Iraqi military at this stage lacks the proficiency in waging. However, it remains to be seen if the Islamic State can hold out against US attacks amid an uncooperative civilian population, unwilling to house and feed them.
If citizens of Mosul resist the Islamic State in terms of providing material support, or actively protest the Islamic State, demonstrating that Baghdadi has lost his legitimacy among the Muslims that he seeks to represent, this could serve as an example to other smaller urban centres involved in this conflict, which include Raqqa, the Syrian city that serves as the operating base of the Islamic State group, and other Iraqi towns such as Fallujah and Tikrit. It is these four cities that gives the Islamic State group the appearance of a state.
Even if civilians in any of these urban centres perceive a weakening of the Islamic State group’s strength as a result of air strikes, they will also be wary of a return of their government’s forces and the victor’s justice that will ensue. In Iraqi cities and towns the population might enable other tribal forces or the neo-Baathists to take over the city, and citizens in Raqqa, if suffering under an air campaign, could enable the takeover of the town by the FSA. An aerial campaign in this regard does not guarantee immediate gains for either Damascus or Baghdad in terms of reasserting its strength.
The only way to judge the effectiveness of an air campaign against the Islamic State is to examine past US or Nato campaigns, coordinated with local groups conducting ground combat. The Kosovo air campaign of 1998 aided the forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav armed forces, but only after air strikes hit Belgrade itself, forcing the Milosevic government to concede.
However, the Islamic State group is not in control of an entire country. A more analogous situation would be Nato’s Afghanistan aerial campaign, in coordination with fighters from the Northern Alliance, leading to the Taliban’s withdrawal from Kabul. Nevertheless, the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban escaped and survived, and the Taliban shifted from ruling from the cities to taking over swaths of the rural periphery and launching attacks within the cities, particularly through the use of car bombs and suicide attacks.
This campaign will not destroy the Islamic State group. The Islamic State is an idea, just like al-Qaeda represents an idea. The only successful scenario in this campaign will be to scatter the Islamic State group’s forces from Iraqi and Syrian urban centres. An intense aerial campaign, combined with civilian unrest, may force the Islamic State to withdraw from Iraqi cities and operate from the peripheries, or retreat into the chaos of Syria. It would still be able to launch suicide bomb attacks in Iraqi cities like it did from 2011 to 2013.
When I have been asked during media appearances over the last decade how al-Qaeda could be defeated, my answer was it is impossible to defeat. Terrorist groups usually are only weakened when they suffer from rivalries from within and compete against each other. Al-Qaeda has already suffered from this schism, and the question remains if the Islamic State group will remain cohesive if suffering a defeat, or in fact take their fight to the US directly.
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