Strategic implications of Mosul operation: what is the future of Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic state?

Iraq can face new ethnic and religious conflicts, complicated with geopolitical calculations of the US, Turkey and Iran


Andriy Karakuts

Ukrainian version

Operation for the liberation of Mosul, which enters a crucial stage, will have far-reaching consequences for Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. From the course of this military campaign depends not only the fate of Islamic state. In fact, the future of Iraq is also decided now. And the geopolitical struggle for influence over some Iraqi territories begins, which involves leading world and regional powers.

Mosul operation is the greatest battle in Iraq after 2003 and unites multiple different actors against the Islamic State:

– Iraqi government army, special operations forces and police – the total contingent of 40-50 thousand personnel;

– Kurdish Peshmerga – totaling 10-20 thousand militants according to various estimates;

– Turkish-trained Sunni tribal militants – up to 15 thousand;

– Iranian-backed Shiite forces – three divisions of about 20 thousand militants;

– Turkish troops located in the north of Mosul and the border with Iraq;

– US military and some member countries of the coalition against IS coordinating offensive in the south and east of the city (the USA have approximately 5000 armed contingent in Iraq, of which about 1000 is located south of Mosul at the Qayyara air base). Supporting forces involve soldiers from France, Great Britain, Canada and other Western countries.

Each of these players has their own interests. As a result, after the expulsion of IS the competition for control of northern Iraq will start, where the large reserves of oil are.

Considering the ambitions of the above mentioned forces, we can outline a number of potential future confrontations. There is already conflict between Baghdad and Ankara, which is still held back by US diplomatic mediation. But in parallel with intergovernmental rivalries there is unfolding confrontation at lower levels – inter-confessional, ethnic and clan.


The main problem after the liberation of Mosul will be balancing the interests of various forces and their foreign allies involved in the operation. Potentially this could exacerbate ethnic and religious conflicts, complicated with geopolitical calculations of the US, Turkey and Iran.

The most rigid is the position of Ankara. In October 2016, President Erdogan said that his country is not reconciled to the loss of Nineveh province (centered on Mosul) one hundred years ago by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Thus he confirmed the suspicion that the intention of Turkey is not about protecting Turkmen and Arab Sunnis minorities. Ankara also wants to return to power a former governor of Nineveh Atheel al-Nujaifi (in 2009-2015), seen as Turkish proxy.

In early October 2016 the Iraqi government refused Ankara in participation of Turkish F-16 aircraft in the liberation of Mosul operation. After that, the statements of Erdogan and the Turkish Parliament repeatedly emphasized the right of independent action. To the north of Mosul in Iraqi territory there is the Turkish training military camp, where are about 600 soldiers from Turkish army prepare Sunni and Kurdish units.

The main security issue for Ankara nowadays is the question of southern border with Iraq and Syria. Decades of war with Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey led to a resolved decision to stop opportunities for movement of Kurdish Workers’ Party members across the border. In this context, the military conflict in Iraq and Syria has allowed Turkey to move fighting with Kurdish groups into these countries. But at the same time Erdogan starts a dangerous game with the historical territorial claims that could ignite the entire Middle East.

Iran is another important player in this operation. Tehran supports Iraq’s Shiite militias, numbering thousands of seasoned fighters, located in the west of Mosul. Their task is to cut the lines of communication between the city and the capital of the Islamic state in Raqqa (Syria). These Shiite forces, known as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) are located in the region with the predominantly Sunni population. But at the same time their interests conflict with Kurdish groups and armed forces of Turkey (these territories are also inhabited by a large number of Turkmen community that have historical cultural links with Turkey). Washington and Ankara are concerned about the possibility of increasing role of Iran in northwestern Iraq.  The presence of  Hashid Shaabi in the region will mean completing the “Shia crescent” from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. At the same time, Shiite military presence in the province with a predominantly Sunni population may lead to a new uprising against the government in Baghdad.

Another dispute is continuing between the central government and Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) currently has de facto independence from Baghdad and supports the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq, because of established oil trade with Turkey. Ankara is interested in setting off different  Kurdish entities  to address effectively the problem of Kurdistan Workers’ Party”. At the same time, there is a strong Iranian lobby inside KRG, headed by former Iraqi President Celal Talabani. As a result KRG’s ruling Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Barzani clan (Turkish influence) has an open conflict with Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is controlled by Talabani clan (Iranian influence). Talabani accuses Barzani of monopolizing power, but above all, their dispute is mainly about control over the sources of oil. Add to this that the external debt of Iraqi Kurdistan, with a population of 5.5 million people is about 18 billion US dollars, the picture of future conflicts emerges clearly, with involvement if Turkey, Iran, the USA, and even the Russian Federation and Israel.

In this situation, Washington, which since 2003 has tried several times to finally withdraw its troops from the country and reduce its presence in the Middle East as a whole will continue to play a mediating role and regulate the internal affairs of Iraq. The main task for the new US presidential administration is to overcome internal religious and ethnic conflicts in the country and avoid a new Sunni uprising in the territories now under Islamic state.

For our country the stabilization of the situation in Iraq opens up the possibility to increase the export there, especially agricultural products. Rising of Iraqi oil production will reduce the price of hydrocarbons and contribute to the weakening of the Russian Federation. But the Mosul operation is especially interesting experience considering the conflict in eastern Ukraine. How the advancing forces will avoid civilian casualties? How will be coordinated unrelated offencive units? How special operations forces will fight militants in populated urban areas? And how the police will handle the situation aftermath? Time to watch closely.