Over a month in, the battle for Mosul churns on at a sluggish pace. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are battling ISIS inside the city, struggling to keep civilians out of the cross-fire. Meanwhile, Shia militias (Hashd) and Kurdish Peshmerga are outside Mosul, taking, losing, and retaking territory from ISIS. The Iraqis are bound to recover Mosul eventually with this much support. But at what cost? Retaking ISIS’s Iraqi capital is not the same as eradicating ISIS. This terrorist organization is rapidly adapting to the offensive and causing more havoc in Iraq.
Iran is uniquely poised to take advantage of the turmoil in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq. The political conditions that let ISIS spread in the first place — especially, sectarian political opportunism — are still alive and well. This will pave the way for Iranian influence to expand from the bottom via proxy militias, and from the top via political opportunism. Losing Mosul will not be a decisive blow to ISIS but an opening for Iran and a decisive return to sectarian politics.
A Post-Mosul ISIS
Retaking Mosul is necessary to uproot ISIS from Iraq but it will not get rid of ISIS indefinitely. Instead, it may further destabilize Iraqi security. It does not matter how Mosul falls, because ISIS is adapting to the Iraqi offensive outside of the city. As soon as the ISF hit Mosul’s boundaries, ISIS began launching attacks across northern and western Iraq. Though these may look like the last convulsions of a dying insurgency, they are actually strategic attacks meant to draw Iraqi forces away from Mosul in hopes of keeping the city. The ISF has so far not taken the bait; its attention remains fixed on Mosul. Regardless, these tactics show that ISIS is still pervasive, effective, and motivated. Some attacks are in areas much closer to Baghdad than Mosul, demonstrating that ISIS still has active cells and can reconstitute itself in any one of them. Fallujah, which is just south of Baghdad, had been ISIS-free as recently as June 2016, until an ISIS suicide bomber targeted a wedding in mid-November, killing and injuring at least 70 people.
These diversionary attacks indicate that ISIS is reverting to classic insurgency tactics. Instead of holding territory, ISIS may again embed itself within sympathetic populations: dispersed, hidden, but still active. So long as there is social tension and a security vacuum, ISIS or some other kind of insurgency will exist. And so long as the insurgency exists, the insurgents are winning. Analysts have already noted that other Sunni extremist groups are resurging because Sunni Iraqi grievances have not been assuaged. Instead, Shia militia and political leaders have shut down efforts to include them in security institutions and politics. The Iraqi public recognizes this as well, as Iraqi community leaders blame the political class for feeding sectarian divisions. Recapturing Mosul may be a strike to ISIS’s morale, but in no way a decisive victory against insurgency.
Open Door for Iran
The persistence of instability caused by ISIS is opening the door for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq and the broader Levant (upper Middle East including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel). This does not bode well for Iraq’s political stability, as Iran’s self-serving game of realpolitik is not meant to promote Iraqi national interests.
Iran has two primary interests in Iraq. The first is to keep Iraq stable enough so that its security problems don’t spill into Iran. The second is to promote a Shia-ruled Iraq that is subservient to Iran, so as to prevent Iraq from ever challenging Iran as it did in the 1980 Iran–Iraq War. A Shia-ruled Iraq would also act as a pawn meant to counter Saudi power plays in the region, including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. This Sunni-Shia rivalry between Saudi and Iran dates back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The rise of Shia religious power in Iran emboldened Saudi’s Shia minority, threatening a monarchy legitimized on the basis of religion. Since then they have checked each other’s power throughout the Middle East.
None of Iran’s interests contribute to Iraq’s long term stability. While defeating ISIS is a common interest, Iran pursues this goal by funding, equipping, and training Shia militias, which stoke sectarian tension. Many of these militants refuse to listen to the Iraqi government and have been caught kidnapping and massacring innocent Sunni Iraqis. This is why the Iraqi government is not allowing powerful Shia militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Brigades to enter Mosul, a majority Sunni city. But they are still participating in Mosul operations because the ISF is too weak without them.
To be clear, not all militias are bad, and of the bad ones, some are Sunni. But Shia militias are the primary concern because they are more numerous and backed by a strong foreign power — Iran. These militias also have political wings which extend Iranian power into the Iraqi government. For instance, Badr’s political party (also called Badr) is one of the largest parties inside the Iraqi government’s ruling Shia coalition.
ISIS’s dispersed attacks will likely expand the need for Shia militias no matter how Mosul plays out. If the battle goes well, militias will gain popularity among their supporters for having fought ISIS and can turn that popularity into political power during elections. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are receiving so much support just to take Mosul that they clearly cannot hold the city alone, much less the country. Even with coalition forces, Kurds, local forces, and Shia militias, the ISF has only taken 20% of Mosul in over a month. If any kind of insurgency endures, the resulting security vacuum will increase the need for Iran-backed Shia militias. Iran will continue to pump money into them and they will continue to grow irrespective of their controversial behavior.
Iran’s political interests also worsen sectarian tension in Iraq by throwing its weight behind favored (and loyal) Shia politicians. It funds certain parties, helps organize strategic coalitions, and mediates disagreements between Shia parties. Such disproportionate weight puts all other political candidates at a disadvantage. This is very disheartening for democratic prospects because it makes a Shia coalition the most likely to win, not because Iraq is majority Shia but because such a coalition has a powerful foreign campaign manager. This wouldn’t be a such problem if the ruling coalition were inclusive, but Iran provides no incentive for politicians to practice good governance — it will accept any Shia leader who satisfies its main interests. Iran allowed former Iraqi Prime Minister and authoritarian aspirant Nuri al-Maliki to consolidate power for his Shia base for years. Only when Maliki’s marginalizing policies backfired and ISIS ran rampant did Iran pressure him to resign.
Who Wins Inside Iraq?
There is a serious danger that the fallout from Mosul will bring Maliki loyalists back into power. Maliki’s replacement, Shia PM Haidar al-Abadi, took power in 2014 with a fragile Shia base. He failed to garner support for administrative reforms, isolating himself and frustrating his base. Maliki has been channeling this anger to undermine Abadi’s administration and position himself for a return to power. Maliki himself would likely not become PM again, given his history with Iran. But he has enough powerful allies to gain de facto power.
Ideally, a Mosul victory would provide Abadi with some much needed political capital. But as ISIS continues to fight across Iraq, Abadi may be just as or even more vulnerable to the political machinations of political opportunists.
Maliki’s rule plunged Iraq into a repressive strain of Shia rule. There is no reason to suspect that a return to power would be any different. As long as insurgents are kept under wraps, away from the Iranian border, Iran will likely allow this to happen. For regular Iraqis, Iranian political influence thus means that Iraq will never become a true democracy. Make no mistake: it takes a lot of time to transition from years of authoritarian rule to a functioning democracy, and Iraq is certainly more democratic than it was a few years ago. But the deck is still stacked in favor of Shia rule for a Shia political elite.
The only winners in Mosul right now are ISIS and Iran. ISIS will likely lose some of its Iraqi capital, but either it or another insurgency will survive to cause more problems, undermining safety, stability, and ultimately democratic prospects in Iraq for years to come. This will only fuel the rise of Iranian backed militias and politicians, making Iraq a definite pawn in Iran’s regional power game.
Now is not the time for the incoming Trump administration to disengage from the Middle East, for the more we disengage, the more Russia gets involved. The whole world has by now seen how destructively Russia has responded to insurgency in Syria by indiscriminately bombing civilian sites. If America were to cede its influence in Iraq to Russia, Mosul would look more like Aleppo right now. Going forward, coalition forces should not mistake a victory in Mosul as a victory against ISIS. But they also should not give up. America has learned a lot about counterterrorism since 2003 and should continue working with Iraqi forces to build an effective ISF. Only then can Iraq become independent of militias and distance itself from Iran.
Tori Keller, a senior studying international relations, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.