As the military battle over ISIL-controlled Mosul and Nineveh has begun, questions over the future of this vital province of Iraq are flowing thick and fast.
While there is confidence that the new US-supported coalition can
defeat ISIL (also known as ISIS), there are concerns that each faction
holds contesting views about what comes after.
It is becoming apparent, for example, that a number of elements have
well-vested interests in partitioning the province into a series of six
to eight ethnic or sectarian cantons with independent rights and
autonomy from Haider al-Abadi's government in Baghdad.
Back in Washington and Congress there is some support for such solutions if they are seen as a way of protecting the rights
of religious minorities such as Yazidis, Assyrians, and Chaldeans who
have been mercilessly persecuted and ethnically cleansed from their
ancient homelands by a genocidal ISIL.
Caution: Division Ahead
A note of caution should be sounded at this point as such
arrangements, while appearing attractive in the abstract, could make
matters worse, not better. Partition can deepen schisms in fragile
While power-sharing in Mosul before ISIL took over in 2014 was far from
perfect, it did represent forms of power-sharing which accommodated and
balanced minority interests. The 2013 governorate elections returned a
coalition of parties from the Kurdish KDP and PUK, Atheel al-Nujaifi's
tribal, Sunni-dominated al-Hadba coalition, and other tribal, Shabak,
Yazidi, Chaldean, and nationalist parties, reflecting the possibilities
of representation without territorial carve-ups.
Current proposals to develop those cantons, which emanate from Mosul
and Nineveh and are allegedly supported by Turkey, are not the product
of constructive approaches to managing long-standing sectarian and
ethnic problems, by the kinds of the elected coalitions described above
or wider community-based dialogue processes and consultations.
Nor, just as importantly, do they represent other marginalised
groups, namely young people, women, and community members whose
opinions, perceptions, definitions, and ideas do not have a strong voice
in current debates about Mosul and Nineveh post-ISIL.
Quite the opposite, such proposals are motivated by largely
undisguised sectarian, patriarchal, tribal, or ethnic interests at the
expense of the rights and protections of other parties.
Furthermore, the creation of such cantons is unlikely to result from a
consultative approach, and will therefore potentially result in more
problems than it solves, especially if the cantons' internal governance
and legal structures prove incompatible with Iraq's constitution.
Also, unless canton proposals are put to all Iraq's citizens through
referenda the implications and risks in terms of the territorial
integrity of the rest of the country could be disastrous.
It will be very apparent from the start that the viability of such
cantons depends on the level of cooperation between new neighbours.
The powers of individual cantons would have to be subject to lengthy
and reciprocal negotiations. These in turn would demand a myriad of
laws, treaties, and agreements to cover the gamut from the everyday to
One key concern around protection would be the residual threat from ISIL.
Would each putative canton in Nineveh have its own security, police, and
intelligence forces? Just what kinds of security-related policies and
coordination mechanisms will be in place to counter trans-canton crime,
terrorism, drug-trafficking, arms smuggling, and other serious offences?
Such proposals to demarcate Mosul and the Nineveh into cantons where
exclusive ethnic, tribal, and sectarian groups reside are likely to
weaken each area's ability to protect itself against ongoing challenges
from unitary jihadist threats.
No one is saying that there will be easy choices ahead for the
governing authorities in Baghdad. However, there is a question of
whether they are prepared to support reconstruction or whether they will
have to surrender to the demands of localised ethnic and sectarian
There may be little choice in the matter. Baghdad may well
capitulate, given that these local rivals are supported by strong and
well-funded outside powers with their own agendas.
The US should think twice about supporting the secessionist demands
of leaders such as Nujaifi and Massoud Barzani. The motives behind their
current alliance of interests should be questioned. Proposals which
break down power from the provincial level which are not truly
representative and harmonious will still leave vulnerable populations on
When Mosul is re-taken the reconstruction and re-governance phase will be long and arduous, and demand US involvement yet again.
After all, having a US-aided coalition embark on an offensive against
ISIL in Mosul and Nineveh implies a role for the US in the
Hopefully, the spoils of Mosul and Nineveh will not be divided among
the armed victors, but instead security and governance will be
implemented equally without favour.
Beverley Milton-Edwards is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
She is also a professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast. Her
research focuses on security sector governance in the Middle East and
the challenges of political Islam.