Recapturing Mosul from ISIS will not be easy
LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi has promised “Mosul will be liberated in 2016”. The clear message behind the declaration is that the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) will soon be over.
However, observers should be wary of Abadi’s optimism. After all, this is not the first time he and his Green Zone apparatchiks have made fantastical predictions only for them to blow up in their faces, sometimes quite literally.
In March 2015, Karim al-Nuri, a top commander within the sectarian Shia militia umbrella group the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), made a risible claim that it would take them no more than 72 hours to clear Tikrit of ISIS fighters. However, the city was not recaptured by government forces and their allies until mid-April, despite US air power and the presence of controversial Iranian al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
Baghdad’s wishful thinking was repeated in the battle for Ramadi, which took almost three months to recapture — and then by levelling it to the ground. More recently Falluja was repeatedly declared to be under Iraqi government but was not actually taken until the final days of June after more than a month of combat operations.
Falluja was snatched out of Baghdad’s grasp in early 2014 and remained under ISIS control until recently; it was also immediately besieged and shelled repeatedly for more than two years.
As if these other major urban centres under ISIS control were not difficult enough, Mosul will be tougher to liberate.
Mosul fell to ISIS in June 2014 and, due to its position to the north far from Baghdad as well as its proximity to the Syrian border, it was relatively free of the ill effects of sieges imposed on other ISIS-held Iraqi towns and cities. Mosul could be readily supplied through ISIS’s smuggling from Syria and it came with an enormous stockpile of arms and armour when the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) fled the city. As such, ISIS has had more than two years to plan its defence and entrench itself in Mosul and the surrounding vicinity.
Adding to Abadi’s woes is that ISIS fighters are committed, well-trained in urban warfare and infantry combat, disciplined and know very well that they are cornered. They will harden their defences and will do their best to exhaust ISF and PMF forces as well as the Kurdish peshmerga by engaging them in a defence-in-depth strategy. This means that they will have multiple predetermined lines of defence in towns and villages surrounding Mosul.
A prime example of this is the town of Qayyarah, on the west bank of the Tigris about 60km south of Mosul. The ISF and its allied militias took Qayyarah Airbase, 20km west of the town, in early July but they are still fighting to take Qayyarah itself despite being in the neighbourhood for quite some time.
Not far to the south-east lies Hawija, another “defensive” town that Baghdad will have to commit forces to before attacking Mosul. If it fails to do so, ISIS could conceivably sally out from Hawija to attack ISF forces to the south and west of Mosul or the peshmerga further to the east.
On the subject of the Kurds, and before any operation to recapture Mosul can begin, Abadi will have to contend with Kurdish territorial ambitions. The peshmerga has been holding Kirkuk since June 2014 and is extremely unlikely to let its oil rich prize go once ISIS withdraws. The Kurds also covet what they deem to be Kurdish regions of Nineveh province and Mosul.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party’s head of foreign relations, Hemin Hawrami, recently claimed that the peshmerga would not withdraw from liberated areas because “we shed blood in defeating ISIS, protecting 1.8 million IDPs [internally displaced persons]”.
This means that, short of the United States involving itself and forcing the Kurds to stay out of the Mosul operation, Baghdad will face an extremely delicate situation, which is something ISIS will exploit.
ISIS commanders certainly know that nothing short of a miracle will prevent them from eventually being dislodged from Mosul. As such, their strategy will be to make the recapture of Mosul as deadly and as costly an enterprise as possible and they will seek to capitalise on infighting between the various factions arrayed against them.
Even once it has been removed from Iraq’s cities, ISIS will not be defeated. Its fighters will revert to guerrilla warfare and terrorism that are far cheaper to maintain over a protracted period than administering cities is.
This highlights the need for Iraq’s military strategy to be married to an effective political solution that successfully unites all Iraq’s ethno-sectarian communities against the common enemy of extremist terror. Anything less than this will mean that this cycle of violence will rejuvenate itself in the coming years and perhaps produce an even greater evil than ISIS.