Is Mosul lost forever?
BAGHDAD - For now, there seems to be very little the Iraqi government and a US-led coalition of regional and Western countries can do to dislodge the battle-hardened militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) from Mosul. Iraq’s second largest city has been under the control of ISIS since June 2014.
The coalition and the Iraqi authorities spoke of launching a large-scale operation to win back the city in April or May. Now, in June, the militant, ultra-extremist group has turned the story upside down, proving that it was on the offensive and capable of carrying out daring and effective attacks. ISIS’s latest conquest was the seizure of the strategically important city of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province of Anbar.
A few days after sweeping into Mosul, ISIS militants imposed their unyielding doctrines on the residents who had not managed to escape. ISIS has complete dominion over the people. Women are to stay indoors and in public wear head-to-toe black garments known as niqab, couples in public have to show proof of marriage at militant checkpoints and thieves are punished by amputation.
The militants further imposed tough measures on residents who wanted to leave Mosul as they apparently feared that a city void of civilians would allow for massive US-led air strikes. Anyone wants to leave must submit the title deeds for their family home for a temporary departure. The property will be confiscated and stamped as “Property of the Islamic State” if they fail to return within the agreed period.
“It was an open-air prison controlled by wicked people,” one Mosul resident, who now lives in Erbil and preferred not to be identified, said over the phone.
This resident was lucky to escape the harsh and violent version of the self-styled caliphate. “I just wanted to lead a normal life.”
The militants went on a rampage of cleansing against the city’s ancient Christian population. Tens of thousands of people were forced into a panicky flight to the Kurdistan region and Baghdad. Those who remained have been forced to choose between conversion and execution.
If that was not enough, extremists attacked the religious and ethnic minority of Yazidis in the north-western district of Sinjar, which is close to Mosul, driving them into the mountains without food or water. They reportedly captured thousands of Yazidis and divided families: Men were forced to convert and women taken into slavery.
They used their favourite choice of propaganda, posting gruesome videos online showing the beheading and hanging of captives, including Western journalists.
Other videos on militant websites showed ISIS extremists with sledgehammers destroying ancient artefacts at the Mosul museum and dynamiting holy shrines. They used heavy military vehicles to bulldoze the Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud, which dates to the 13th century, claiming such priceless masterpieces promote apostasy. The destruction sparked global outrage and the United Nations described it as an act of “cultural terrorism”.
But, why is Mosul so critical for ISIS? Beyond its symbolic value as the largest city the militants control in Iraq, Mosul is a key conduit of weapons coming from cities seized by ISIS in neighbouring Syria. Defending Mosul is crucial for them to maintain the supply lines. The vast area from Raqqa in northern Syria to Mosul is a sanctuary for ISIS militants. The border between Iraq and Syria in that region may have effectively disappeared.
Pentagon officials hope to launch the invasion of Mosul with a force of 20,000-25,000 Iraqi soldiers to face well-armed, well-financed and battle-hardened militants. But with Iraqi Army personnel whom US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said have lost the will to fight, can ISIS be defeated? The last time Iraqi forces faced this enemy in May in Ramadi, they dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms and abandoned their positions in a humiliating retreat captured on phone cameras and circulated widely on the internet.
Is there a military answer to ISIS insurgency then? “No,” Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told The Arab Weekly.
For Gerges, the root problems fuelling the support of ISIS militants in the Sunni heartland of Iraq are political not military.
“The answer to ISIS is social and political not just military because the group would have not been able to made such progress with the ability to blend in the persecuted Sunni communities in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s strength lies in the fact that it has been able to co-opt many Sunnis in both countries who feel marginalised and oppressed by the sectarian regimes in Baghdad and Damascus,” he said.