Beyond Fallujah

Salah EB

Beyond Fallujah

The world is rightly worrying about the prospect of missteps in Fallujah, but anything less than a victory uprooting the Islamic State group and pacifying Iraq could be just as troubling, writes Salah Nasrawi

As Iraqi soldiers continued their battle to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group out of the city of Fallujah, a great deal of media attention is being focused on the war’s sectarian implications, human cost and side effects.

Things like the role played by Shia paramilitaries, Iran’s rising influence, the pace of the advance, and warnings of a possible humanitarian catastrophe have been stealing the headlines since the operation began more than two weeks ago.

Certainly, these are essential elements of how to analyse the failures and successes of the campaign against IS. Yet, the broader policy of the impact of the Fallujah battle on Iraq’s long-term stability and regional geopolitics and the future of the world’s war on terrorism is not being given careful reflection.

The offensive in Fallujah will almost certainly bring the city back under the control of the Baghdad government, but a fundamental question remains: should that be the only prize Iraq has been desperate to win, or should it be part of one final blow to eliminate IS in order to make both Iraq and the world safer?

Iraqi troops started the offensive to recapture Fallujah on 22 May, with Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi promising that the city, under IS control since January 2014, would be taken back soon.

Since then Iraqi forces  a combination of the army, police, local tribesmen and the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF)   have been making some headway in pushing forward. The US-led international coalition has also been supporting the operation with air-strikes, intelligence, weapons and training.

However, more than two weeks into the start of the offensive the city’s centre remains under IS control.

Sceptical reports in American and some Arab media say that the Iraqi military operation in Fallujah has been stalling largely because of poor military and political strategies, key shortcomings that could undermine the campaign against the radical group.

While some have said Iraq’s forces remained bogged down on the southern edge of Fallujah amid fierce fighting with IS militants, others suggest that the delay has come amid controversy over the role of the Shia forces and their Iranian backers.

The negative feedback has even gone as far as speculating about the widely expected operation to retake the IS stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq.

On Saturday, the New York Times quoted American and allied officials as saying that an exhausted and ill-equipped Iraqi army faced daunting obstacles on the battlefield that would most likely delay for months a long-planned major offensive against Iraq’s second-largest city.

Iraqi officials, however, have denied any delay in the Fallujah operations, and Al-Abadi has said that there has been steady progress in the fight and that commanders have focused on minimising casualties both among their forces and civilians.

He said the media suggesting otherwise was only serving IS purposes.

But just beyond worries about the prospects of a humanitarian crisis and fear of risks of atrocities by the Shia militias in Fallujah or concerns of growing Iranian influence in Iraq lies one key question: how to prevent abuses and the regional manipulation of the sectarian card while at the same time denying IS the opportunity to win the propaganda war and recruit new followers?

Unfortunately, the battle for Fallujah has become entrenched outside the city itself. While part of this battle is over hearts and minds in Iraq and in neighbouring countries, much of the bickering over the Fallujah battle conceals sectarian and geopolitical agendas.

One of the arguments being widely used is that Iraq risks losing the war against the IS jihadists if it lets the Shia paramilitaries into Fallujah. Some in the media have expressed concerns at possible atrocities being carried out in vengeance should the PMF forces storm the city.

Pundits and sometimes self-proclaimed analysts who probably rely on feedback from PR firms working on behalf of stakeholders have been hyping fears that the Shia militias are building sectarian tensions and could ignite a communal mess.

According to the proponents of this theory, defeating IS will solve nothing if the politics are not got right, which means finding a political solution that will put the minority Sunnis on equal footing with the majority Shia.

Furthermore, the Shia-led Iraqi government is being warned that its campaign to “conquer” Fallujah could lead to a further rise in IS. Advocates of this scenario say that as happened with Al-Qaeda in Iraq IS will merely resurface after the campaign, perhaps in an even more vigorous form.

One major problem with the argument that the Fallujah offensive, even if Iraqi forces win, will not translate into lasting stability is that its upholders have not provided a viable alternative strategy or one that ensures uprooting the vicious terror group.

In general, these recipes for ending Iraq’s chaos have become mere clichés, precisely because they are oversimplified formulas that are inadequate when dealing with a much more complicated conflict.

It is only a matter of common sense that Iraq needs a political solution for its admittedly civil war, but this approach makes a cult of simplicity if it is taken out of context.

Since the sectarian bloodbaths of 2006-2007, Iraq has descended into an acute sectarian struggle, and the offensives to take cities back from IS are only a renewed cycle in that civil war.

It is generally agreed that most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not negotiated settlements. Iraq, therefore, may not be the exception to this rule, and its civil war will not end in a political settlement but will rather end on the battlefield.

Whether that is Baghdad’s plan or not, the amount of political, moral and human resources invested in the war and the momentum in the campaign against IS suggests that it is Baghdad’s only option to sustain and prevail in any long-term strategy.

Given the strategic importance of Fallujah, recapturing the city could also be more than a victory for Baghdad. It would be a complete game-changer in the Iraqi conflict that would affect not only the country’s wobbly internal political dynamics but also the fragile regional order.

Although the government and PMF leaders have been sending conciliatory messages of reassurance to the population of Fallujah, the general mood among Iraqi Shia and Sunnis is one of mutual distrust.

While most Shia believe that the majority of Arab Sunnis will remain opposed to their empowerment and will continue to provide support for the extremists, most Sunnis think that the Shia will never let them share power and wealth with them on an equal footing.

If a drastic shift in the balance of power between the two main communities in the country is not achieved, a political settlement will do little to allay each other’s concerns and end their mutual mistrust.

That is the context in which the Baghdad Shia-led government has launched its assault on Fallujah, which is the insurgency’s last major bastion close to Baghdad and a jumping-off point for IS attacks on the capital.

In many ways, the taking of Fallujah will underscore the very real political realities of Iraq that the Shia and their allies in Iran want to see materialise after the defeat of IS.

It will pull the Sunni-populated city back into the sphere of Baghdad through the cooperative relationship of a portion of the population and Sunni politicians who have been working closely with the Shia-led government.

It will also be a strategic advantage that will put the government and the Iran-backed Shia-led PMF in control of Anbar Province, which sits astride the Iraqi border with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Having the whole of Anbar Province in hand will not only protect western approaches to Baghdad, but will also establish “strategic depth” for the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.

It will also reopen the vast desert border areas to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two Sunni-dominated neighbouring countries that have never hidden their anxiety at the rising power of the Shia and Iranian clout in Iraq.

For many Shia political and militia leaders, there is now a momentum which cannot be reversed. They are already speaking of the huge sacrifices and the blood that have been invested in the fight against IS which they hope will make post-Fallujah Iraq different from the country it was before and be paid back fully in victory.

That will probably inflict a heavy blow on IS,  which the international community is eager to see, but whether it will also be the Iraqi Shia’s road to a final and lasting victory receiving regional consent remains in doubt.

This article first appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on June 9, 2016