By Patrick BAHZAD
This is it then. The battle for Mosul, which had first been announced (a bit hastily) by Iraqi government officials in mid-2015, has finally begun. An improbable alliance of Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Sunni tribesmen and Shia militias, some of them supported and trained by Western advisers, is now besieging IS' Iraqi capital, with Coalition aircraft ruling the skies over Northern Iraq. Considering the various forces involved, there is not much doubt left over the outcome of the battle. The combined might of Western air forces and Special Ops, regular Iraqi units and various ethnic and sectarian militias will prevail against the armies of the Caliphate, at least what is left of them inside Mosul. Yet, the careful optimism displayed by many in the media could be proven wrong somehow, especially with regardsto the prospects for long term survival of the "Islamic State".
The high plains of Northern Iraq have probably not seen anything like it since the Mongol armies arrived in the region and pretty much smashed anything that got in their way in their late 13th century. Back then, they destroyed Mosul after its ruler sided with their ennemies, the Egyptian based Mamluks. Now, in late 2016, tens of thousands of troops have gathered again in Nineveh, mostly to the East and South of Mosul, and have begun closing in on the defenses IS' has had two years to build up, both around and inside the city.
The Symbolism of Mosul
The highest priority for those involved in retaking Mosul will be to avoid the scenario that the Jihadis are probably bracing themselves for: a protracted siege dragging on for weeks or months, involving heavy civilian casualties and featuring the kind of doomsday narrative that IS used to prophesize for its Dabiq outpost in Northern Syria, now lost to Turkish sponsored groups.
The highly symbolic nature of the coming fight cannot be overstated. What is at stake, is not just the future of Mosul, not even the destruction of the territorial and economic base of the Caliphate in Iraq. It is actually the future of the whole country that will probably be shaped along the lines of the events to come. Actually, there is no lack of symbolism when it comes to Mosul's recent past and its significance for its immediate future.
Mosul is the city where Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday ("Ace of Hearts") and Qusay ("Ace of Clubs") were taken out by members of TF20 and the 101st Airborne, on July 22nd 2003. They did not go easy though and it took a four hour gunfight –with an A-10 and an OH-58 involved – to level their safehouse to the ground. But instead of Mosul turning into the place of death for the heirs to the Baathist "monarchy" of Iraq, the city became the place of birth to the "Caliphate" of Abubakr al-Baghdadi, a somewhat bizarre, yet not totally unlikely successor to Saddam Hussein.
Proclaimed by IS' spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, on June 29th 2014, the "Caliphate" had Mosul as its first capital, after the city fell in IS' hands, in an operation that stunned the world and had everybody waking up to the dangers of the reborn Jihadi threat coming out of Iraq. Five days later, on July 4th, al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance at the balcony of the Great al-Nuri Mosque, calling onto all "believers" to rally to him and join him in his global Jihad.
Those years, between 2003 and 2014, have probably shaped Iraq's destiny for years to come still. In hindsight, in 20 years or so, the so-called "Caliphate" proclaimed by Adnani and incarnated by Baghdadi will probably look like just one more event in a sequence of highs and lows that is likely to carry on for an undetermined period of time. However, the battle that is about to begin has the potential to impact on these long term trends in various, opposing ways. This could be "the beginning of the beginning of the end" to a vicious circle of violence or, on the contrary, the last nail in the coffin of the Iraqi State.
The plains of Nineveh are a place where local and regional actors are heavily involved, which bears testimony to the geopolitical context in which the battle is taking place. Mosul is at the junction of several areas of influence. Beyond the Iraqi State (meaning the Abadi government), countries like Turkey and Iran also have a stake in this fight, and they are actively supporting their proxies in Mosul. As far as Ankara is concerned, neo-Ottoman dreams of past grandeur – when Mosul province was part of the empire – as well as concerns about Kurdish national ambitions, are the main drivers. Tehran, on the other hand, has been taking part in the grand game that is played in Iraq ever since the start of "Operation Iraqi Freedom". Regional powerplay, support for their Shia brethren in Iraq and the confrontation with the Saudi arch-enemy all play a role in Iran's plans. Finally, the Kurds of Iraq, as well as other minorities, also have an interest in seeing this battle through.
But as if that was not enough, the situation is further complicated by the other war that is being fought in the region, in neighbouring Syria, on the other side of a now almost non existant border. Whether or not Mosul will turn into Aleppo's Iraqi twin remains to be seen, in all likelihood it won't, but the implications of Mosul for the war in Syria are obvious. The outcome of the battle will translate into effects onto the players there, notably the Kurdish YPG or AQ's franchise in the Levant, formerly known as "Jabhat al-Nusra". But the wrangling for influence between the US and Russia will also be affected. Therefore, the various constellations that could emerge depending on the outcome of Mosul are hard to predict, even and in particular for the West.
Another refugee wave of even modest proportions could tip the balance in more than one EU-country, and so could Jihadi returnees staging attacks against Paris, Berlin or London. When we are dealing with Mosul, we are treading on very thin ice and one can only hope that the Powers that be are well aware of all the facets to the problem they set out to solve. Of course, driving out the "Islamic State" is the highest and most immediate priority. It is a legitimate one. The complexities of such an undertaking should not be underestimated however.
On paper, this looks like an uneven fight. The forces assembled at the gates of Mosul look quite formidable indeed. Various Iraqi government outfits – including the much vaunted "Golden Division" (a part of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service), Federal police and Military Intelligence, as well as regular army units – are positioned at different locations to the North, East and South of Mosul. Also moving in on the city are Sunni tribesmen ( "Hashd al-Asha'ri" and "Hashd al-Watani"), sponsored either by Baghdad or the Turks. Shia PMF militias are present en masse, with their sectarian flags on top of almost every vehicle, as are Kurdish Pershmerga and armed groups formed by smaller Northern minorities (Christians and Yazidis for example). Western Specials Ops roam the frontlines, and they are probably not just there in an advisory capacity. Last but not least, US and French artillery is ready to pound IS positions and Coalition aircraft is flying CAS missions and carrying out targeted strikes on the outskirts of Mosul.
Overall, there could be as many as 60 000 to 80 000 men encircling the city and its Jihadi garrison, estimated at roughly 5 000 to 7 500 fighters. This ratio of 10 to 1 in favour of the Coalition should leave no doubt as to the likely end result of the operation. However, there are various aspects that need to be factored into the equation, slightly changing its terms. The issue is not so much about whether or not Mosul will be freed from the head-choppers. It will. But what is unclear at this point is under what circumstances, how long it will take and what aftermath lies in waiting for the Iraqis, and quite frankly, for all of us.
Militarily, it is an open secret how the Coalition intends to proceed. Shaping operations are mostly over and the forces are now regrouping before the push into Mosul. In the South, Qayyarah with its strategic airbase and bridge over the Tigris is firmly at the hands of the Iraqi army and Federal police. This is a major disruption to the territorial continuity of the "Caliphate" in the area, as IS forces around the city of Hawija (South-East of Mosul) are now isolated. Much of the Tigris valley up to Qayyarah is also controlled by the Coalition, which means the logistical trail up to Qayyarah is pretty safe.
Probable COA ?
The North and East of Mosul has been secured by Kurdish Peshmerga units which are also moving into Nineveh plains, but they will not take part in the assault on the city. So far, the circumvallation has not been completed, as a corridor to Western Anbar has been left open. One possible explanation is that the Coalition wants to "offer" a potential exit to IS' fighters not willing to die inside the city. Once in the open, they would however become much easier targets for Coalition aircraft. Another reason might be the city of Tal Afar, which lies West of Mosul and could potentially erupt into sectarian violence if Shia PMF clash there with Turkish sponsored groups. The latest news is that PMF units have already begun moving towards Tal Afar, which could delay the entire timeline for the assault on Mosul.
However, the Tal Afar sideshow set aside, and with most of the surroundings South, East and North of Mosul already secured, the assault should begin quite soon, but this is also where the dynamics of the battle could change. Most likely, there will be a multipronged assault on the Eastern part of Mosul: the various axis of advance will probably coincide with the major LOCs leading into the city (Highway 2 in the North and East, highway 80 in the South-East and Highway 1 in the South).
The forces involved in the operation will then sweep through the city, trying to get as quickly as possibly to the centre and the Tigris river bridges, possibly with the help of Western Special Ops and local anti-IS fighters already inside the city. When the Tigris river bank will be reached, forces might possibly regroup before launching the second and last phase of the assault, i.e. liberating the Western parts of Mosul and mopping up IS "leftovers".
The Western corridor could possibly stay open for the entire duration of the operation, if the Coalition is in a position to prevent IS reinforcements from entering the city from that direction. If that is the case, this corridor might well turn into a "kill zone" once the less determined Jihadis chose to leave and our aircraft can pick their targets. But that is the theory. In practice, there many contingencies that need to be taken into account and the number of potential difficulties that will need to be overcome is quite staggering.
(to be continued)