THE start this week of the Iraqi army’s offensive to liberate the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) occupation has put governments and humanitarian organisations in the region on alert for mass civilian migration from the city. The UN Refugee Agency stated on Wednesday that hundreds of residents of Mosul had already started to flee across the border into Syria, said that the number might reach 100,000.
Turkey is another likely destination for refugees. The Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said that if the Mosul operation was “handled correctly, there won’t be a refugee wave into Turkey. But if something goes wrong, hundreds of thousands will put their migrant bags on their backs, they will be miserable and worn out, and come with their belongings.”
World Vision’s Response Manager for northern Iraq, Khalil Sleiman, said that the organisation was “now poised for another massive influx of children and families, who will have been through horrific experiences most of us could never imagine.
“They will arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back, and will be thirsty, hungry, and need urgent medical attention.” World Vision is already helping to care for half a million people who fled Mosul when it was taken over by IS in 2014.
The charity is particularly concerned about the cumulative effect on the very young, both of the IS occupation and the trauma of being forced to flee their homes. “The violence”, Mr Sleiman said, “will have taken a devastating emotional toll on children, many of whom will need years of specialist support to rebuild their lives, come to terms with what happened, and regain some kind of normality. Children always bear the brunt of the conflict, and we call for humane treatment at every stage of the Mosul operation.”
Another relief organisation, Samaritan’s Purse, said that its staff on the ground had been “working non-stop to pre-position supplies in order to respond to the looming humanitarian crisis and provide critical compassionate and life-saving assistance to families in Jesus’ name”. The group urged people to pray for “God’s guiding hand on the offensive and for the safe movement of families fleeing their homes”.
The Iraqi army is leading the assault on Mosul, supported by a small number of US special-forces ground troops and air cover. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are deployed to the east of the city, clearing remaining IS groups from towns and villages there.
The Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, has told the inhabitants of Mosul, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, that the Iranian-backed Shia militias involved in the anti-IS campaign will not enter the city. Mosul residents said that they feared sectarian clashes if the Shia fighters were allowed in.
Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered. It is not clear yet whether IS forces will put up a fight to the last, when the Iraqi military approaches the centre of the city, or will melt away, as has happened in previous such encounters.
If IS fighters are driven out, there is uncertainty about where they might go, raising the possibility of individuals’ carrying out attacks on targets around Iraq. Then, Turkey has said, its troops will ensure that the interests of Iraqi Turkmens in Mosul are protected, against the wishes of the Baghdad government, which has denounced the deployment of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil.
The decisive battle against IS also comes against the background of political uncertainty in Baghdad, which could have an impact on the future of Mosul. Mr Abadi faces a challenge from the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – both are members of the Shia Dawa Party. Mr Maliki and his supporters have been trying to undermine the Abadi government, forcing the resignation of leading ministers. Last week, a court ruled that Mr Abadi’s decision after taking over the premiership to scrap Mr Maliki’s position as vice-president was unconstitutional. So the latter is back in that post, and in an even stronger position to unseat Mr Abadi.
The prospect of Mr Maliki’s returning to the premiership alarms Iraq’s Sunni community, because it was during his time in office that the marginalisation of Sunnis became a significant factor in the rise of IS and its subsequent occupation of Mosul and other cities. Unless Sunnis are convinced that their future in Iraq is secure, with appropriate representation in the political process, then further sectarian tension and the emergence of another IS-style movement to protect their interests cannot be ruled out.