How Iran closed the Mosul ‘horseshoe’ and changed the Iraq war
Baghdad - In the early days of the assault on the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul, Iran successfully pressed Iraq to change its battle plan and seal off the city, an intervention that shaped the tortuous course of the conflict, sources briefed on the plan said.
The original campaign strategy called for Iraqi forces to close in around Mosul in a horseshoe formation, blocking three fronts but leaving open the fourth — to the west of the city leading to ISIS territory in neighbouring Syria.
That model, used to recapture several Iraqi cities from militants in the last two years, would have left fighters and civilians a clear route of escape and could have made the Mosul battle quicker and simpler.
However, Tehran, anxious that retreating fighters would sweep back into Syria just as Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad was gaining the upper hand in his country’s war, wanted ISIS crushed and eliminated in Mosul.
The sources said Iran lobbied for Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) fighters to be sent to the western front to seal off the link between Mosul and Raqqa, the two main cities of ISIS’s self-declared, cross-border caliphate.
That link is now broken. For the first time in Iraq’s two-and-half-year, Western-backed drive to defeat ISIS, several thousand militants have little choice but to fight to the death and 1 million remaining Mosul citizens have no escape from the front lines creeping ever closer to the city centre.
“If you corner your enemy and don’t leave an escape, he will fight till the end,” said a Kurdish official involved in planning the Mosul battle.
“In the west, the initial idea was to have a corridor… but the (PMF) insisted on closing this loophole to prevent them going to Syria,” he said.
The battle for Mosul is the biggest in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003. About 100,000 people are fighting on the government side, including Iraqi soldiers and police, peshmerga troops of the autonomous Kurdish region and fighters in PMF units. A US-led international coalition is providing air and ground support.
Iraqi Army commanders have repeatedly said the presence of civilians on the battlefield has complicated and slowed their operation, restricting air strikes and the use of heavy weapons in populated areas.
They considered changing strategy to allow civilians out but rejected the idea because they feared that fleeing residents could be massacred by militants, who have executed civilians to prevent them from escaping other battles. Authorities and aid groups would also struggle to deal with a mass exodus.
Documents drawn up by humanitarian organisations before the campaign, seen by Reuters, show they prepared camps in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria for about 90,000 refugees expected to head west out of Mosul.
“Iran didn’t agree and insisted that no safe corridor be allowed to Syria,” said a humanitarian worker. “They wanted the whole region west of Mosul to be a kill box.”
Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi analyst on Islamist militants who was briefed on the battle plan in advance, also said it initially envisaged leaving one flank open.
“The first plan had the shape of a horseshoe, allowing for the population and the militants to retreat westward as the main thrust of the offensive came from the east,” he said.
About a week before the campaign began, Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, a close ally of Iran, accused the United States of planning to allow ISIS a way out to Syria.
“The Iraqi Army and popular forces must defeat it in Mosul, otherwise, they will be obliged to move to eastern Syria to fight the terrorist group,” he said. Hezbollah is fighting in support of Assad in Syria.
PMF spokesman Karim al-Nuri denied that Tehran was behind the decision to deploy the Shia fighters west of Mosul.
“Iran has no interest here. The majority of these statements are mere analysis. They are simply not true,” he said.
Nevertheless, securing territory west of Mosul by the Iranian-backed militias has other benefits for Iran’s allies, by giving the Shia fighters a launch pad into neighbouring Syria to support Assad.
If ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, Tehran’s allies would gain control of an arc of territory stretching from Iran itself across the Middle East to Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast.
Iran was not the only country pressing for the escape to be closed west of Mosul. Russia, another powerful Assad ally, also wanted to block any possible movement of militants into Syria, said Hashemi.
One of Assad’s biggest enemies, France, was also concerned that fighters linked to attacks in Paris and Brussels might escape. The French have contributed ground and air support to the Mosul campaign.
A week after the campaign began, French President François Hollande said any flow of people out of Mosul would include “terrorists who will try to go further, to Raqqa in particular”.
Still, the battle plan did not foresee closing the road to the west of Mosul until Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi agreed in late October to dispatch the PMF militias.
“The government agreed to Iran’s request, thinking that it would take a long time for the PMF to get to the road to Syria, and during that time the escape route would be open and the battle would still proceed as planned,” Hashemi said.
The PMF move to cut the western corridor was announced on October 28th, 11 days after the start of the wider Mosul campaign. Fighters made swift progress, sweeping up from a base south of Mosul to seal off the western route out of the city.
Abadi “was surprised to see them reaching the road in just a few days”, Hashemi said. “The battle has taken a different shape since then — no food, no fuel is reaching Mosul and (ISIS) fighters are bent on fighting to the end.”
Once the Iraqi Shia militias advance west of Mosul had begun, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told his followers there could be no retreat from the city where he proclaimed his caliphate in July 2014.
Those tempted to flee should “know that the value of staying on your land with honour is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame”, Baghdadi said in an audio recording released five days after Shia militias announced they were moving to cut off the last route out.
Since then his fighters have launched hundreds of suicide car bombs, mortar barrages and sniper attacks against the advancing forces, using a network of tunnels under residential areas and using civilians as human shields, Iraqi soldiers say.
A senior US officer in the international coalition that is supporting the campaign said waging war amid civilians would always be tough but the Baghdad government was best placed to decide on strategy.
“They’ve got 15 years of war (experience)… I can’t think of anyone more calibrated to make that decision and as a result that is why as a coalition we supported the government of Iraq’s decision,” said US Army Brigadier-General Scott Efflandt, deputy commanding general in the coalition.
“The opening and closing of that corridor, hypothetically, realistically, did not fundamentally change the plans of the battle,” he added. “It changes how we prosecute the fight but that does not necessarily make it easier or harder.”
The Kurdish official was less sanguine, saying the battle for Mosul was now “more difficult” and could descend into a long, drawn-out siege similar to those seen in Syria.
It could “turn Mosul into Aleppo”, he said.