Standing in the Shadows of Mosul

Joint clearing operation in MosulDVIDSHUB/Flickr

On June 10, 2014, Bakr al-Baghdadi stood in Mosul’s ancient Grand Mosque and declared the caliphate of the Islamic State of the Levant (Daesh). Now, three years after Baghdadi’s speech, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have recaptured Mosul’s old city from Daesh, further closing in on the now limited territory that the extremist group controls.

But what does this victory mean in the long-term, and what can it tell us about the struggles that lie ahead?

As the dust continues to rise from Mosul both literally and figuratively, a picture is emerging of what the city endured under Daesh and the difficult future that awaits it. While the Battle of Mosul represents a definitive point in the fight against the extremist group, the city itself suggests what a post-conflict future might look like in both Iraq and Syria. The uncertainty of this future has implications for both a war-weary people and the plethora of NGOs and humanitarian aid agencies that have flooded into the city, unsure of how to provide long-term assistance.

Despite Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s declaration that the liberation of Mosul indicates “the end of the ISIS state,” the reality remains far more complicated. There are still reports of fighting across the wider parts of the city as combatants emerge from a network of underground tunnels. Though the swathe of land that Daesh controls is dwindling, the Battle of Mosul was lengthy and gruelling. With the cost of human life estimated at 40,000 people, the liberation of the city suggests how difficult future battles will be.

In order for the international community to understand and respond to the challenges ahead, it is essential we understand what life was like under the caliphate. More specifically, a close examination of the different gendered experiences of men, women, boys and girls is vital both to understand and to assist survivors. The sex-slavery industry that Daesh has been operating throughout Iraq and Syria, as well as the group’s repeated use of gender-based sexual violence as a weapon of war, have devastated the region and its people.

Lessons from Mosul can also help inform effective counterterrorism strategies. We have learned a considerable amount about the techniques that are used to incentivize predominantly young men to join the caliphate (and the tension that this causes inside the organization). The international community can build on this knowledge in order to counter recruitment efforts.

But there are other, larger specters looming over Mosul. The Mosul Dam, located just 40 miles from the city, is at risk of breaking. The fragile security situation around the dam has prevented necessary maintenance and repair work. Interviewed in January, Professor Nadhir al-Ansari of the Environmental Engineering Department at Lulea University in Sweden said of the threat of the dam breaking: “It is just a matter of time. It will be worse than throwing a nuclear bomb on Iraq.” Both E.U. and U.S. experts predict that if the dam breaks, a wave as high as 36 feet could reach Baghdad 250 miles away, endangering the lives of over 1.5 million people. The threat remains so high that United Nations agencies are developing early warning systems, so that in the event of a break, civilians would be able to move to safe locations. But these suggestions have fallen under harsh criticism for being unrealistic.

On a political level, too, the situation remains incredibly delicate. Kurdistan’s upcoming independence referendum in September is sure to strain the Peshmerga’s relationship with the Iraqi security forces, who have been working together to push Daesh out of the country.

As Daesh’s influence in Iraq begins to fade, Iraqi policy makers must shift their attention to the country’s future. Mosul may be a victory, but the region needs a realistic, long-term strategy to address the damage that’s been done. For the local and international NGOs and aid agencies on the ground, work must begin immediately to provide relief that is tailored to the different gendered experiences of Mosul’s residents. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Government must immediately begin the critical work that’s required on the Mosul Dam in order to avoid a humanitarian disaster beyond anything Daesh has accomplished.

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