Early on Monday morning Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of the operation to retake Mosul. In the largest operation so far in the battle to reverse the Islamic State’s territorial gains, a diverse coalition of forces has been built to confront the group.
The operation features an array of forces including Kurdish peshmerga fighters, the Iraqi Army, Sunni tribal fighters and Hashd al-Shaabi (A.K.A Popular Mobilisation Forces) militia, primarily composed of Shia fighters. Uniformed U.S soldiers are alongside these ground forces and will provide artillery and aerial strike capability.
The diverse make up of offensive forces and their cooperation, including a joint operations room, is a promising development in a conflict often framed by sectarianism.
Preparations for the battle have been lengthy and the Iraqi Army has been bolstered by two years of support from United States forces in the form of airstrikes, aid and training.
The Iraqi government has pledged 45,000 troops will take part in the offensive.
Most encouragingly the composition of forces fighting to liberate Mosul has at the tip of the spear Iraqi armed forces, including the U.S created Counter Terrorism Services – likely to feature heavily in fighting contained within urban areas of the city – and the elite U.S trained Special Forces (A.K.A. Golden Division) alongside Sunni tribal militias.
Kurdish peshmerga forces are expected to provide significant numbers and firepower. Several reports on the ground have noted peshmerga forces displaying their enthusiasm and commitment to the mission.
Forces are conducting two separate, but complimentary lines of attack. Kurdish peshmerga forces are advancing from east of Mosul, whilst Iraqi soldiers are launching their attacks from the south of the city, applying pressure on Islamic State defences from two fronts.
Estimates of IS force capacity are varied. Top end estimates from analysts and the U.S military predict the number of fighters inside Mosul between 4,500 and 5,000 whereas IS sources place it at 7,000.
A Wall Street journal piece alleges a mid-ranking IS commander declared a tactical decision to partially abandon Mosul, suggesting that outside estimates may be on the high side. The commander said “there will be no big great epic battle in Mosul…the tactic no will be hit-and-run”.
It is possible that IS has maintained a smaller cadre of fighters in the city, acting as a nimble force of those prepared to die whilst inflicting as much damage as possible on opposing forces. However it is just as possible this statement is intended to manage expectations and create misplaced optimism in liberation fighters.
While it is difficult to specify the number of IS fighters present, it is easier to quantify the importance of Mosul to the Islamic State.
The city has great strategic value and moral boosting power for followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Mosul represents of significant human capital for the group. Not only is controlling and managing a city of its size a significant display of capability, the large population – placed into the millions – serves as a deep recruiting pool.
The location of the city is strategically important as it provides a link between the group’s Syrian and Iraqi operations. Losing the city would cut supply routes to Raqqa and inhibit ability to transfer goods, money, men and weapons. This would not represent a completed strangling of movement between the two states, as there are deeply entrenched smuggling routes that be utilised, but would create increase danger and inconvenience.
Mosul was the site of arguably IS’s most stunning military victory, when it seized the city in 2014.
After years of holding influence in the city, including longstanding extortion of business IS fighters defeated two Iraqi Army divisions – many fleeing in anticipation of the fight – and seized U.S. supplied weapons. It was a moment of notoriety for the group and humiliation for the Iraqi Army.
Most importantly, Mosul serves as the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate. Although Raqqa is oft mentioned as the de facto capital and possess its greatest strategic depth, Mosul is recognised as the capital by the group. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his one and only recorded public appearance in Mosul, ascending to the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri to proclaim the establishment of the caliphate, with Mosul as its capital, during Friday prayers. The announcement cemented the importance of Mosul, as well as confirming the primarily Iraqi-orientation of the group – which retains a senior leadership mainly populated by native Iraqi’s, despite the groups multinational army, and contains scores of former-Baathists.
In the build up to the operation Islamic State brutally crushed an uprising within the city. A plot lead by one of the group’s commanders in the city, intending to switch sides and help deliver Mosul to government forces, was discovered and resulted in the execution of fifty-eight people. The scheme challenged the IS-driven narrative of support from the city’s inhabitants and will serve as a further confidence boost to forces participating in liberation operations. It is possible that further organised opposition to IS exists within the city undetected and may activate once the noose tightens around the group’s control of urban areas.
The nature of counter-terrorism operations in a densely populated urban battleground– engaging in close quarter warfare and clearing house by house – means progress is likely to be slow, steady and contrast the dramatically swift circumstances in which the city fell to Islamic State forces in June 2014. There are several explanations for this. Firstly, IS forces have had two years to prepare for this offensive and have planned accordingly. The group will likely employ methods utilised in other cities including dug trenches filled with oil that can be set alight, the widespread use of IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) and booby traps throughout the city alongside a network of tunnels. The initial two inhibit quick progress, as forces must take considerable caution not to activate disguised explosives and cause unnecessary casualties. The latter allows IS fighters to return to areas believed to be cleared and launch hit and run attacks on occupying forces – a hallmark of IS that has been utilised with effect in Kobane and Fallujah. Maximum effort will be made to stymy to offensive, decrease morale and spill blood.
As the second largest population centre in Iraq, there has been concern regarding the welfare of the millions inhabiting Mosul. IS has alienated the population of Mosul with its brutality, but a central aim of the offensive is to ensure casualties and disruption are kept to the minimum possible in order to maintain popular support for the operation. Outside of the military battle to control the city, it is a battle for the hearts and minds of Mosul’s citizens. Aerial and artillery strikes will be limited inside the city in order to avoid destruction of property and infrastructure.
The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Lisa Grande, stated “The U.N estimates that in a worst case scenario, Mosul could represent the single largest most complex humanitarian operation in the world in 2016.”
The organisation estimates that at least 200,000 people will flee the city, and have raised concerns about the prospect of one million fleeing.
Residents in the city are presented with two difficult options; remaining in IS-controlled territory risking violence, food shortages and potential use as human shields or trying to escape through minefields, escalating violence and lack of access to water supplies.
Oxfam has cautioned that not only is the prospective volume of civilians fleeing enormous, but that preparations to accommodate them have fallen short. Of the 13 sites identified by Baghdad as suitable locations for refugee camps, little progress has been made in building tents and providing basic infrastructure to support internally displace people (IDP’s).
To exacerbate concerns over deficiencies facing civilian care, the humanitarian undertaking faces financial shortfall. A U.N appeal on behalf of Mosul raised $136.8 million, just under half (48%) of its $283.7 million target. In spite of having months to do so, some donor governments have failed to honour spending commitments.
The volume of citizens returning to the city depends on the painstaking progress of dismantling booby traps within the city. It is likely this will take months rather than weeks, being compounded by destruction of residential areas. Alex Milutinovic, director of the International Rescue Committee in Erbil, expects that civilians could spend up to a year living in camps outside the city.
Ultimately, Mosul faces both short and long-term humanitarian problems that appear to be poorly addressed at present, and which may contribute to future disgruntlement.
Sectarian concerns have played a central part in the planning of the mission. After oppression and neglect from the Shia-dominated government of former President Nouri al-Maliki, sections of the Sunni population initially saw IS as a positive rebuttal.
At the heart of IS’s strategy is fomenting a sectarian conflict between Sunni’s and Shia’s. Numerous videos presenting Shia’s as takfir – and glorifying their execution – and a multitude of suicide bombings in Shia holy sites and districts have heightened a sectarian atmosphere that was toxic even before the meteoric rise of IS.
The participation of Hashd al-Shaabi forces in the operation, following accusations of war crimes and indiscriminate violence whilst fighting in Sunni areas, has been a cause of apprehension. These fears were stokes by Asaib Ahl Al Haw, leader of a Shia militia involved in the offensive, who proclaimed that the conflict in Mosul would be revenge against the killers of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. The invocation of an act at the heart of the Sunni/Shia divide, and implication of revengeful violence against Sunni’s is deeply damaging.
However, communal concerns have been taken into account in operation planning. While Hasdh al-Shaabi forces are present, they are likely to be confined to the peripheries of the conflict. Public commitments have been made that their forces will not enter the city of Mosul and that stabilising major population centres will be the responsibility of Iraqi government forces and Sunni tribal fighters. It is impossible to rule out reprisals, and acts of extreme violence committed by Shia’s against Sunni’s would undoubtedly damage the operation. Even if Shia forces are prevented from entering the city, acts of retribution will take place absent of the sectarian dimension. The citizens of Mosul, who have suffered under IS, are best place to know and identify those who have aided and abetted the organisation and will certainly seek redress.
A diplomatic spat between Turkey and Iraq has further complicated the matter.
Having directly entered the anti-IS conflict via sponsorship of forces across northern Syria, Turkey has emphatically stressed its desire to engage in Mosul. The controversy centres around the presence of Turkish troops in Ba’ashiqa camp, located thirty kilometres from Mosul. Turkey recently took the decision to reinforce the base leading to consternation from a Baghdad unwilling to see expanded Turkish influence in its territory. Turkey has had a presence in the area since 1994 when several front-line outposts were constructed by Ankara as part of the campaign against PKK forces. The bases allow Turkey to contain PKK influence outside of Turkish territory and act as a training point for Turkey’s allies in the Kurdish Regional Government.
The Iraqi government has concerns over Turkish motives and fears the strongly nationalist Turkish government may be attempting to expand its sphere of influence on the basis of historical claim. Upon the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I, Turkish nationalist forces signed a peace treaty that maintain their control of Mosul, Kirkuk and Sulaymaniya. Turkey later withdrew from these regions in favour of a British contingent after diplomatic intervention. However the status of Mosul and Kirkuk were left unresolved in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. The agreement recommended the claims should be settled bilaterally between Britain and Turkey. Subsequently, the League of Nations decreed that Turkey had no legitimate claim and the areas were awarded to the British, despite several uprisings in opposition to British rule. This historical dispute outlines why Turkey continues to see Mosul as part of its sphere of influence, if not under its physical control.
Erdogan’s government may seek to use the operation to reclaim Mosul to secure a greater physical presence in the territory, stoking its historical claims and serving a tactical purpose in his conflict against the PKK. Abadi’s Iraq is steadfastly opposed to increased Turkish influence and officials in both governments have released blunt statements. It is likely that the United States is prepared to expend significant diplomatic capital to support the Iraqi government.
Though the result may be a soon forgotten war of words, it is an unwanted distraction and source of insecurity as Iraq prepares to repair the damage sewn across the region.
To consider briefly the external impact of the Mosul operation, security agencies across Europe will be on alert. Though it is flawed to imply there are scales in IS’s desire to target European citizens and cities, the group has had success in obscuring defeats in Iraq and Syria with external operations. Facing a loss as significant as the proclaimed capital of its caliphate, cells or sympathisers will make renewed attempts to strike in the West. Additionally the European Union’s Security Commissioner, Julian King, has warned that the E.U should prepared for an influx of jihadists if IS is driven out of Mosul.
Capturing Mosul would be a boon to President Obama’s Iraq-first strategy that has sought to push the Islamic State out of Iraq and contain it within Syria. Coming to the end of his term, Obama no doubt has his eyes on including the liberation of Mosul by local forces as one of his legacy achievements. However concerns over the preparedness of humanitarian plans and long-term strategy have led to some questioning whether this has been hastily rushed forward by the President.
At one point in the recent past the Islamic State controlled as much as 40% of Iraqi territory. This figure has shrunk to 10% currently and much of the population living under IS control are concentrated in Mosul. In establishing the caliphate IS leadership sought to attain credibility and authority via its ability to hold territory. Fundamentally an Iraq-focused organisation, the group will want to maintain a significant foothold in the country to assure that credibility. Although it may complete a tactical retreat – possibly aided by columns left open by attacking forces to encourage flight to Syrian safe havens – IS will seek to make reclaiming Mosul as difficult as possible. The group must be seen as competently defending its capital in the eyes of supporters in order to prevent disillusionment. To do so it will deploy insurgent style tactics rather than conventional territorial hold techniques. This will include the use of suicide attackers, both individuals and suicide vehicle attacks, IED’s and booby-traps as well as snipers among the city’s residential areas.
It is hard to imagine that IS will stake its lot on Syria alone. But in the face of considerable firepower the organisation may see its greatest opportunity in disrupting post operation planning and slowly re-exerting influence in the city. As previous postulated in an article about the loss of Dabiq, the loss of both Dabiq and Mosul may prove to be the watershed moment when IS transformed from a proto-state back into an insurgency focused terror organisation. In the announced plan to hold and maintain Mosul after liberation, only Iraqi Army and Federal Police will be employed to maintain law and order and security. By falling back into Syrian heartlands and desert regions in Iraq the group will focus on reorganisation and utilising tactics such as hit-and-run attacks, clandestine operations and building shadow control over districts of the city that served it well before occupying the city.
It is so often remarked in debates on terrorism that the operation to clear fighters from cities is the least difficult task that is feels like a cliché. However, whether the battle to reclaim Mosul is a success will be defined less by the capturing of the city and more by the strategies employed to rebuild and re-engage the city.