Isis expected to lose Mosul battle, but the war still up for grabs

Even if the Islamists are defeated militarily, what comes next has coalition jittery

Iraqi forces hold positions about 45km south of Mosul on October 17th. Some 30,000 federal troops are leading the offensive against Islamic State, backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition. Photograph: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi forces hold positions about 45km south of Mosul on October 17th. Some 30,000 federal troops are leading the offensive against Islamic State, backed by air and ground support from a US-led coalition. Photograph: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

 

After two years scraping back territory lost in a humiliating defeat to Islamic State, Iraqi forces are now advancing on the city where the drama all began. The battle of Mosul is the most symbolic and important military struggle in the war against the jihadi militants, and the riskiest fight yet.

Iraqi prime minister Haidar al-Abadi launched the offensive to retake the country’s second city late on Sunday, following weeks of political wrangling among the mix of unlikely regional and international allies that have come together for the battle.

“We come to rescue you and save you from the terrorism” of Islamic State, Abadi said in a televised statement, addressing the estimated 1.5 million people inside Mosul. “God willing, soon we will meet in Mosul to celebrate its liberation and your deliverance.”

Some Iraqi security officials insist it will be a quick and decisive offensive. Others fear a long, gruelling campaign.

For Islamic State, which is also known as Isis, the fight for the de facto capital of its territory in Iraq could be a last stand in the country. For Iraqis, it is a chance to reverse the blow of June 2014, when several hundred jihadists routed up to 30,000 Iraqi forces, who fled Mosul and melted away across the country.

“This is the decisive battle against Isis. What happens here will decide our fate,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who studies Isis.

Battle fallout

Today, Islamic State holds only about 10 per cent of Iraqi territory after defeats in cities, including Ramadi and Fallujah, over the past year.

Most military and political observers see the defeat of the Islamists in Mosul as an inevitable outcome, but huge questions about the fallout of the battle remain. These include concerns over whether Islamic State could release poison gases, or if an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mosul civilians could overwhelm humanitarians.

Most worrying is the highly combustible mix of political rivals who will fight on the same side against Islamic State, but who could yet spark another regional conflagration.

Under a US-led air campaign, and supported by hundreds of American special forces, the campaign for Mosul will be spearheaded by Iraq’s counterterrorism and federal police forces. The elite brigades of some 10,000 Iraqi fighters have fought in nearly every battle against the jihadists in Iraq.

Kurdish peshmerga forces from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, just north of Mosul, will hold territory on the outskirts. The most contentious issue is the role of Iranian-backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, whose role could spark tensions in the mostly Sunni northern city, which is wary of sectarian retribution.

Another pitfall could be the potential participation of Baghdad-supported fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by neighbouring Turkey and most western countries.

Tensions with Turkey

A war of words has already erupted between Abadi and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the latter’s insistence on Turkey having some role in the battle for Mosul. Tensions have simmered for months over the presence of 2,000-3,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Baghdad wants Turkish forces out, while Ankara demands that Iraq stop supporting the PKK.

“The tensions will begin the moment these forces go in to Mosul,” said an Iraqi security official. “The more the [Islamic State] threat diminishes, the more these partners will grow further apart . . . It’s going to get ugly.”

The humanitarian crisis could also be staggering. Aid workers say fighting around the jihadist-held town of Hawija, 50km south of Mosul, has sent civilians fleeing, sometimes barefoot, on a 36-hour journey through territory riddled with explosives.

Many arrive hungry, thirsty and on the verge of collapse – and aid workers worry these scenes could be replicated on a far larger scale as people flee Mosul.

“We fear the humanitarian consequences of this operation will be massive,” said Wolfgang Gressmann, country director at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

He said coalition and Iraqi forces have not done enough to secure exit routes for civilians from the city.

“Unless the warring parties provide safe exits for them, they will be faced with the bleakest of choices: stay behind and risk their lives under attack, or risk their lives trying to flee,” Gressmann said.

Hinder offensive

Isis has had months to prepare, with an estimated 5,000-10,000 militants inside Mosul.

Iraqi security officials said the jihadists have been working to divide city roads with concrete blocks in order to split neighbourhoods and hinder any ground offensive. Local activists say Islamists have conducted mass arrests and executions to prevent an uprising inside the city. The internet has been cut for months and mobile phone services rarely work.

Islamic State has dug long trenches around Mosul that could be filled with oil or gas canisters to cause devastating fires and also blur the vision of coalition aircraft, said a regional security official.

Hashimi said coalition jets were already trying to destroy targets seen as critical, including suspected storage sites of chemical weapons, militants’ tunnels and sniper defensive lines.

Analysts say the goal of the Iraqi forces is likely to be to encircle the city and force the militants to flee westward towards Syria.

Such a strategy could put civilians trapped inside the city at risk of starvation if the battle drags on, but also give Iraqi forces an opportunity to advance without a devastating bombing campaign.

Privately, security officials say they are bracing themselves for what Islamic State might have in store.

“They surprise us all the time. That has been their biggest tactical and strategic advantage so far,” said a regional security official.

Governing Mosul

Coalition officials also caution that some of the most difficult issues will arise after the city is liberated – in particular, how the city will be governed.

Brett McGurk, US special envoy to the coalition, said plans for the city after Islamic State is defeated will lean heavily on existing Iraqi political institutions. The governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, will work closely with someone appointed by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north.

But political disputes over who should run the province, and how, have long worried Iraqi and regional leaders, who fear it could lead to future clashes.

Washington has been determined to launch the Mosul campaign before next month’s presidential election, while Abadi has sworn to liberate the city before the end of 2016.

“If you try to resolve all of those issues,” McGurk said, Islamic State “will remain in Mosul for the foreseeable future, and perhaps forever.”

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)