The liberation of Mosul will be a victory for Iraq — and its international partners

With Western help, Iraq has rebuilt its armed forces and ISIS is on the verge of defeat in the country. Michael Petrou on why this week’s progress shows there’s still a role for Western military intervention in the Middle East. 

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October 21, 2016
An Iraqi special forces soldiers waves an Iraqi flag from top of a church damaged by Islamic States fighters in Bartella, east of Mosul, Iraq, October 21. 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

A popular assertion among those who tend to oppose dropping bombs on people has it that there is “no military solution” to a given conflict. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said as much last year when he pledged to pull Canada out of the fight against the so-called Islamic State if elected. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the phrase verbatim to describe his own attitude toward the Islamic State—but he then increased Canada’s overall contribution to fighting the group, so maybe he never really meant it.

For outright non-interventionists, though, Iraq’s just-launched assault on Mosul—once Iraq’s second-largest city, and the place from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new caliphate—must surely be futile. What’s needed is reconciliation.

There is more than a germ of truth in that. The Islamic State initially thrived in part because many Sunni Arab Iraqis resented the Shia chauvinism of their government and saw ISIS as a more palatable alternative. Its non-denominational bloodlust has changed a lot of minds since, and it must not be forgotten that hundreds of Sunni Arabs have been murdered because they defied the group. Nevertheless, an enduring victory over ISIS depends on the engagement of Sunni Arabs in Iraq’s body politic.

And yet there will be no chance of securing such a victory until ISIS is smashed on the battlefield. Iraqis appear to be on the brink of achieving this. It’s worth pausing to consider the scale of this accomplishment—and the role that Western militaries, including Canada’s, have played.

Two years ago, the Islamic State rampaged through much of Iraq, slaughtering and enslaving thousands. Iraq’s armed forces dissolved and fled before it, giving weight to arguments that all America’s post-invasion efforts to help build a stable nation in Iraq had been for naught.

American President Barack Obama, who had campaigned on ending America’s war in Iraq, was reluctantly pulled back in, and since 2014 has steadily increased the scale of American military assistance to Iraq. There are thousands of American troops there now, and America leads a multi-nation air campaign against ISIS. 

Canada was part of that campaign until Trudeau ended Canadian airstrikes earlier this year. He’s never offered a coherent explanation as to why—but the fact that he’s kept surveillance and refuelling planes in theatre and has tripled the number of special forces on the ground amounts to an implicit acknowledgment that his promise to end Canada’s combat mission was foolish.

Since then, Iraq has turned the tide against ISIS, eroding its grip on the country and pushing it from town to town. There are collateral risks to this success: the Islamic State’s foreign fanboys may choose to focus on terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere rather than joining a losing fight in Iraq. But territorial losses also undermine the Islamic State’s narrative that it is building a new caliphate. Without land, ISIS is just another grubby bunch of terrorists—al-Qaeda without the wherewithal to pull off an attack on the scale of 9/11.

The West’s role in all this has been mostly supportive, although part of that is spin. Canada’s claim that its troops are involved in training but not combat, for example, requires some semantic gymnastics to accept. Still, this is a cooperative relationship rather than a soft occupation. 

While the U.S.-led coalition is the primary Western actor in the fight against ISIS, NATO is also participating. It is sending AWACS surveillance aircraft to the region (a Canadian Forces spokesman said Canadian pilots will not be flying them). It is also training Iraqi troops in Jordan and will soon be doing so in Iraq itself.

The alliance, which when the Cold War ended a generation ago seemed without a clear purpose, has of late been spreading its presence and network of partnerships into the Middle East and beyond—most notably through combat and training missions in Afghanistan and Libya, but also through cooperation and capacity-building efforts involving Iraq, Tunisia and Jordan.

“We understand that without security for our neighbours, we cannot be secure,” a NATO official said during a recent briefing to reporters in Brussels, explaining the alliance’s expanding footprint. 

“If the international community doesn’t help those countries [in the Middle East], you’re going to have a new wave of Arab revolutions and you’re going to have millions [of migrants] coming this way,” another NATO official added.

Jordan, where NATO’s presence is well-established (and which is a close ally of Canada’s), welcomes the tightening of ties.

“We think of ourselves like a NATO member,” Brig. Gen. Mekhled Al-Suheim, director of joint training in the Jordanian armed forces, said during a briefing in Amman.

“If Iraq is in chaos,” he added, “it will send problems to us.” 

These various pieces of military assistance—from the U.S. and its allies, from Canada, from NATO—are small compared to previous interventions in the region. It must also be said, again and again, that outside help has been shamefully lacking in Syria.

But Iraq, although it still faces enormous challenges, and will continue to do so even after Mosul is liberated, is a more hopeful place today than it has been in years. Most of that is due to the Iraqis themselves. Some of it is because of Iraq’s allies. Western military intervention hasn’t solved everything, but it sure has helped.