The Balance of Shia-Sunni Conflict in the Middle East: The Mosul Operation

The Balance of Shia-Sunni Conflict in the Middle East: The Mosul Operation
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The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the eruption of Arab Spring in 2010 have disrupted security, economic and strategic structuralism the Middle East. Competition among the great powers and the regional actors to gain influence in the Middle East has turned the region into an arena of proxy war during this process. The systemic powers like USA and Russia have taken advantage of the existing artificial structures divided along local, ethnic, sectarian and political fault lines to re-establish alliances with certain regional actors against the others; and thus, created a link between the regional and the global conflict areas. From this perspective, the regional conflicts of the Middle East have become intertwined with the conflict of the international system.

In the context of international system, the period of peace and stability produced by the dominant bipolar power structure ended with the collapse of this system and the competition among the great powers has begun to resurface in other localities – particularly in the Middle East.[1] As suggested by the neorealist writers like Mearsheimer, international politics involves a relentless process of competition in which war, like rain, is always a possibility.[2] Likewise, the wide spread instability and conflict in the Middle East produced by the conventional multipolar balance of power politics operating since the end of the Cold War has turned the situation into an endless chaos today.

The period after the Cold War to date can be divided into three systemic categories. According to this, the first stage can be described as the period prior to September 11. During this period, which extends between the fall of the Berlin War and the tragedy of Twin Towers (1989-2001), Western powers intended to promote rapprochement among each other and to develop plans for wider cooperation in the globalizing system.[3] Further disintegration of Russia, introduction of china to the system and deepening of the European integration were common anticipations of this period. However, these expectations have not been realized. Instead of strengthening the institutional infrastructure of a durable and fair "new world order" after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the continuous provocation providing impetus for a relentless competition in the regional fields of tension led to the emergence of new problems in these areas after the second destruction. Thus, the quest for a positive and optimistic nature of the global order that could have not been substantiated after the first demolition is once again focus of debates through the lens of the negative and pessimistic effect of the second destruction.[4]

The second stage that extends from September 11 to US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the period of consensus among the parties about threat in the form of terror and the geographies breading terrorism. The USA did not experience significant problems and received the support of allies in this period for initiating fight against Al-Qaida–9/11’s main culprit– and the Taliban regime backing it by intervening in Afghanistan in October 2001.[5] We are currently in the third stage starting with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and extending beyond the period of popular uprising named the “Arab Spring” starting in Tunisia on December 17, 2010 and spreading across many countries causing overthrow of leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. This process, which has transformed the Middle East into an inescapable filed of chaos, is a period in which the pursuit of new balance of power by putting terrorism to a secondary status has become the crux of the issue. Moreover, there are significant differences among the parties in this period characterized by the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric on who is terrorist and how to combat terrorism.[6]

ISIS, which is actually a continuation of Al-Qaida in Iraq that had been designated a terrorist organization by the international community, has emerged as a new global terrorist organization due to the gap of authority generated by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as well as due to chaos created by post-Arab Spring developments in the region. ISIS has availed the chance to increase its strength in the region by effectively utilizing the gap generated by the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011; the exertion of pressure on the Sunni groups by the Shia Government in Baghdad; and the evolution of the popular movement into a civil war in Syria. In fact, the process starting with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that has continued with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011toproduce three significant legacies. Accordingly, the Shia population of the Iraq’s Southern axis has become uniform; the Northern Iraq region has become significantly disconnected from the central government; and the acts of terror staring in the occupation period have become the key dynamic of Iraqi politics. The first of these dynamics has drawn Baghdad close to the Iranian axis; the second has brought Erbil near to Turkey; and the third that rests on the ISIS axis has dramatically changed the regional politics. In this context, the exclusion of Sunnis from Iraqi politics with Iranian support has produced negative results for the region when it comes to the domestic politics of Iraq and allowing space for the growth of an organization like ISIS. Iraq, which has been unable to attain stability and order in any form despite of the passage of more than a decade since the occupation, continues to be a source of serious concerns for the region.

The chaos in the region, in parallel to the stretching domain of ISIS, has led to the expansion of Iranian sphere of influence that represents itself as an antidote to the Wahhabi ideas producing terrorists like ISIS. As one may recall, the inability of the US administration to ensure stability in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and the conflict of interests of various actors in the subsequent chaotic situation has made Iran advantageous in Iraq. The USA was forced to deal with Iran after understanding its indispensability in the steps taken for ensuring the post-occupation stability, providing security, and rehabilitating the political process in Iraq. Additionally, the puzzle of ensuring security and political stability after the ascent of the Shia majority to power in Iraq and the withdrawal of American troops during the term of President Obama has made the issue of US-Iranian cooperation even more critical.

During this process, Iran has found the opportunity to expand its sphere of influence in the Middle Eastwith the tacit support of the USA by particularly utilizing Shia actors. On the other hand, the nuclear deal with the US administration has paved way for Iran to play a more active role in the region – especially as a counterbalance against Sunni states and groups. Iran's has successfully expanding its Shia influence in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a in a period extending from the US invasion of Iraq to the Arab Spring. Therefore, Iran sectarian attitude on Syria, Yemen and Iraq as well as its harsh and belligerent rhetoric is particularly alarming for the Gulf countries.

One of the most obvious grounds for Shiite-Sunni conflict in the region is undoubtedly Mosul. From this point of view, desertion of Iraq's second largest city Mosul by the Iraqi Central Army without any significant resistance against ISIS in 2014 and the resumption of military operation with the support of the USA and Iran after a hiatus of two years should be read as a part of a greater strategy that has been discussed above. However, Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki interpreted the fall of Mosul as a “conspiracy” at that time and announced punishments for the deserting soldiers. At the same time, Maliki had talked about the mobilization of volunteers in many regions, establishment of brigades in every province and the desire of hundreds of thousands of volunteers to counter the threat their country faces. Furthermore, the governor of Mosul Atheel al-Nujaifi who had escaped to Erbil after the occupation of Mosul by ISIS had announced the establishment of public committees to take Mosul back and restore law and order. However, it became clear after a while that none of these preparations announced by the authorities were accurate.

In this context, the struggle of Mosul’s Sunni tribes against the central government before the ISIS occupation and the inability of the central administration to fully establish its authority are well known. The resistance of the local groups on the side of Iraqi Central Army against the ISIS during the occupation is also significant from this point of view. The words of Sunni tribal leader Al Zubaidi, "We had to choose between a comprehensive confrontation with IS, or ceding control of that area and keeping a low profile. We decided to stand down, because we are not ready to fight IS in the current circumstances - who would we be fighting for?" summarize the reason of these group for not putting up a fight before. Therefore, the military operation launched on 17 October to retrieve Mosul from ISIS, which is also joined by Iranian-backed Shia militia called Popular Mobilization Forces[7], portrays the withdrawal of 2014 as a strategic move. This retrieval operation is also aimed at winding up or at least pacifying the Sunni opposition groups that had chosen ISIS over the Baghdad administration. However, this situation will add a new dimension to the Shia-Sunni conflict in the region.

[1] Robert Gilpin, “The Theory of Hegemonic War”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No 4, (Spring 1988), ss,606-610.

[2] John Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions”, International Security, Vol. 19, No 3, 1994, ss. 5-49.

[3] Ahmet Davutoğlu, Küresel Bunalım, İstanbul, Küre Yayınları, 2002, s.x

[4] Ibid., s.ıx.

[5] Tayyar Arı, Irak-İran ve ABD: Önleyici Savaş Petrol ve Hegemonya, İstanbul, Alfa Yayınları, 2004, s. 495.

[6] Beril Dedeoğlu, “Transatlantik İlişkiler”, Avrupa Birliği’nde Değişen Dinamikler: Türkiye Ekonomi Politikaları Araştırma Vakfı Çalıştay Raporu, Ankara, TEPAV Yayınları 2006, s.23.

[7] Abdussattar al-Jabur, a resident of El Kayyar town 60 kilometers away from Mosul's city center, told the reporters of AA, “Hummer vehicles belonging to the security forces came to the village for operation.  They had sectarian flags on most of them. We hardly came across the Iraqi flag. We learnt after the announcements and assurances made by Iraqi officials that these people were Popular Mobilization Forces joining the operation.” He said, “We recalled what they did to us while entering Fallujah, which filled us with fear. They stormed our houses in Fallujah. We got trapped in Popular Mobilization Forces while escaping from ISIS.” See (21.10.2016).