Mosul After ISIL: The Stability Challenges Ahead

By: Andrew Watts, Columnist

Photo Credit: Yahoo

The four-month operation to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is at a critical juncture. As the Iraqi-led security forces push through the neighborhoods west of the Tigris, the civilian-led push to return the neighborhoods on the eastern bank to a state of normalcy begins as well. Though this civilian-led effort has received little attention, it would be a mistake to assume that Mosul will stabilize on its own after the military operations have concluded. The United States and other parties invested in the future of Mosul must recognize that striving to return to the status quo is unacceptable. It risks a short-term pyrrhic victory and a return to the conditions that enabled an ISIL takeover.

Before ISIL took control in June 2014, Mosul was Iraq’s second largest city with an estimated 2.4 million residents. Over the past two years, civilians have fled in droves to the point where less than 750,000 remain. More than 160,000 residents have fled in the last four months alone and, according to Matthew Saltmarsh, a spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 250,000 Iraqis could be displaced in the upcoming battle for the densely-populated western Mosul.[i] Accommodating their return will likely be the greatest challenge for those involved in the post-battle effort.

In the short term, the humanitarian crisis and security must be the top priorities. Before the internally displaced persons (IDPs) can leave government-run emergency camps, basic public services, such as water and sanitation, must be restored. At present, even the most basic humanitarian needs cannot be consistently met in eastern Mosul. The electric and water grids are largely destroyed and six of Mosul’s 12 hospitals were leveled in the fighting. [ii] Bottled water distributed by the Iraqi Security Forces often remains the only source of clean drinking water. In a testament to the growing severity of the humanitarian crisis, the UNHCR requested $578 million for its efforts around Mosul in 2017 compared to the $196 million that it requested in 2016.[iii]

However, the security situation must be addressed before even basic humanitarian needs can be met. ISIL continues to strike recently liberated eastern Mosul neighborhoods with weaponized drones and suicide car bombers. ISIL snipers are targeting civilian and security personnel alike in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Tigris. The security situation has forced the UN to stop aid deliveries to some of these eastern neighborhoods, where nearly 50,000 IDPs have returned over the past several weeks.[iv] Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, noted that certain neighborhoods in the east remained so dangerous that some IDPs have even returned to the overflowing emergency camps.[v]

While the humanitarian and security situation must be resolved immediately, there are political challenges that must be addressed to help maintain stability in the long run. The first of these is the reconstruction of state institutions. This includes incentivizing capable public servants—health care workers, educators, bureaucrats, and police officers—to return and help rebuild critical institutions. It is troublesome, however, that while US officials have claimed that a force of 45,000 police and members of tribal factions will secure Mosul, no clear plans for governing the city have emerged.[vi]

Regardless of how the Mosul government is formed, the new top officials must encourage reconciliation over retaliation. Though Mosul has a Sunni majority, there are also sizable Kurdish, Shia, Chaldean, Assyrian, Turkmen, and Yazidi communities. Discontent among the Sunni population over perceived mistreatment from Baghdad and its largely Shia security forces helped enable the ISIL takeover in 2014. To minimize the likelihood of renewed conflict based on ethnic or sectarian lines, the government must remain vigilant against those seeking to disrupt the peace. Early reports of Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militias, and Iraqi federal police torturing civilians in the recently liberated eastern Mosul neighborhoods are disconcerting for the prospect of reconciliation and long-term stability.[vii]

On a similar note, Baghdad must resolve its political battles with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces. Both groups played significant roles in the liberation of Mosul and consequently seek political concessions from Baghdad. KRG leader Massoud Barzani insists that areas skirting the semi-autonomous Kurdistan, including areas around Mosul, will not be returned to Iraqi control as “these areas were liberated with the blood of 11,500 martyrs and wounded from the Peshmerga.”[viii] Similarly, some Shia militias seek to take control of the predominately Sunni city once the fighting is over. Localized turf battles and political disputes will undermine the Baghdad-appointed administration from governing effectively.

There are a myriad of challenges, ranging from an ongoing humanitarian crisis to eruption of sectarian conflict, which could return Mosul to the conditions that precipitated the ISIL takeover in 2014. Because it is unclear if Baghdad will be able to address these challenges on its own, the United States and other parties invested in the future of Iraq must continue to support stabilization efforts in the wake of military operations. Baghdad requires significant financial, human, and political capital investments to stabilize Mosul. The liberation of Mosul from ISIL will be a pyrrhic victory if Baghdad is left alone to navigate these humanitarian, security, and political challenges.

[i] “Iraq: UN Fears New Wave of Displacement as Fighting Escalates in Mosul and Hawiga,” UN News Centre, February 3, 2017,

[ii] Shelly Culbertson and Linda Robinson, “Stabilizing Mosul After the Battle Against ISIS,” RAND Corporation, February 9, 2017,

[iii] “Iraq: UN Fears New Wave of Displacement.”

[iv] Nahib Bulos, “In the Half of Mosul Freed from Islamic State, Life Returns to Not-Quite Normal,” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2017,

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Missy Ryan, “Mosul Offensive Poses Key Test for US Strategy Against Islamic State,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2016,

[vii] “A Fiercer Fight to Come in Mosul,” Stratfor, February 22, 2017,

[viii] “Baghdad, Kurds at Odds Over Control of Post-ISIL Mosul,” Al Jazeera, November 16, 2016,

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