Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

In the fog of Mosul’s war

Prediction by the US top general in Iraq that liberating Mosul from IS will take two years has raised questions on who is in charge of the war, writes Salah Nasrawi

Displaced Iraqi civilians flee the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul (photo: Reuters)
Displaced Iraqi civilians flee the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul (photo: Reuters)

On 19 September, Pentagon officials and Iraqi army commanders sat with Kurdistan Region’s President Masoud Barzani at his office in the mountainous resort of Salah Al-Deen to hammer out a military plan for the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

The offensive to recapture Iraq’s second largest city from the militants was hampered by disagreements between the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish forces, the Peshmergas over military and political details of the operation and the future of territories to be taken back from IS.

The gathering was pushed by the Obama administration, which was eager to get the operation under way apparently to be timed for the US presidential election in November to help democratic nominee Hillary Clinton win and boost President Barack Obama’s standing before the end of his term in January.

At the conclusion of the tripartite meeting, the Iraqi security forces, the Peshmergas and the US commanders agreed to coordinate their efforts to drive IS from Mosul and declared that “defeating IS” and dismantling of its self-declared caliphate is their common goal.

Though details of the agreement had not been made public but it was commonly understood that an allied Iraqi force of army, police, Kurdish Peshmergas and Shia militia will take part in the offensive with the US-led coalition providing air-cover, intelligence and logistic support.

Nearly four weeks later, the Iraqi allied forces staged the battle for Mosul with the initial advance onto towns and villages surrounding the city followed by the fight to actually penetrate the IS’s defenses.

Though the operation was expected to go on for months, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi pledged that the northern Iraqi city, which has been held by IS since June 2014, would be liberated by the end of 2016.

So far, that promise has remained unfulfilled. Worse still, the positions of allies in the anti-IS campaign have emerged as being far from identical throwing doubt about the offensive and its consequences.

After having rapidly making headway to oust IS from the city’s outskirts and gained ground at approaches to Mosul in October, the Iraqi forces had later slowed down as they tried entering the city center.

Progress slowed after the Iraqi forces encountered massive resistance put up by the militants holding out in the city. They were also targeted by snipers, suicide bombers and shellfire and delayed by bad weather.

But the deadlock was also the result of bad military and political planning. Since the offensive to capture Mosul began on 17 October most of the fighting against IS militants was conducted by Iraq’s US-trained counter-terrorism forces.

While the forces succeeded in retaking significant territories from the group progress was halted nearly two months into the offensive as they began showing signs of exhaustion, increasing losses and replenishment of equipment and resources. 

Other troops had made little progress on other axes in the multiple-front battlefield. While Kurdish Peshmergas sufficed with seizing land they assigned to take back from IS, the Shia-controlled Popular Mobilisation Force which is generally believed to have showed resilience in the fight against IS was restricted to block routes from Mosul towards Syria for fear of sectarian backlash.

In addition, the failure of the Iraqi government to ask the Mosul population to leave the city ahead of the bloody battle has left hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped while hindering troops advancing into IS’s strongholds.

On the other hand, the election of the Republican candidate Donald Trump has cast doubt about the Obama administration’s enthusiasm to end the Mosul campaign before the new US president takes office on 20 January.

All in all, these factors combined to push the allied forces battling to retake Mosul from IS to make a pause of the campaign leading to speculations about a successful conclusion of the offensive.

Iraqi and US officials described the lull as only an “operational refit”.

Last week the Iraqi security forces resumed their offensive against IS pushing from three directions into Mosul’s eastern districts where the battle has been deadlocked for nearly a month. 

On 29 December more than 5,000 soldiers and militarised federal police troops who had redeployed from Mosul’s southern outskirts they began the second phase of the offensive, without defining the targeted objective of this phase.

This week, the Iraqi forces bolstered by US-led coalition air campaign, entered more neighbourhoods and pushed towards the city center’s limits. On Sunday Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab Al-Saadi, a top Iraqi commander said Iraqi forces are now controlling around two thirds of the eastern half of Mosul.

Despite initial success, however, the renewed offensive has underlined significant differences between the partners and highlighted the challenges ahead.

Just to name a timeline for the conclusion of the campaign, Baghdad and Washington seem still far apart on when Mosul will be liberated from IS, making it difficult to draw a clear picture of the battle of Mosul.

On Monday French President Francois Hollande, who toured the Mosul battlefront, told reporters afterwards that the operation to oust IS from Mosul may not be completed until the summer, echoing assessments by many analysts.   

US Army Colonel John Dorian, the spokesman for the US-led anti-IS coalition, has described the Mosul campaign as a difficult one and insisted that “It would be very difficult to accurately predict how long it will take to liberate either the eastern part of the city or Mosul in its entirety.”

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition forces battling IS told the Daily Beast last week that the coalition may need as much as two years to rout IS from Mosul.

Yet, Iraqi premier Al-Abadi who describes the Americans as “very pessimistic” has said it will take Iraqi army another three months to flush out IS fighters from the city.

On the face of it the differences seem to be on the timing of the end of the campaign, but in reality it is on the agenda as the world tries to piece together the fate of Mosul following its liberation from IS.

For Al-Abadi, a victory over IS will establish him as the Shia leader who liberated Mosul and triumphed over the terror organization. As the general elections in 2018 approaches, Al-Abadi would hope to guarantee re-election.   

As for the Obama administration, efforts to delay the liberation of Mosul could be another move to “box in” Donald Trump and hand him the Iraqi crisis. It could also be motivated by the US military desire to keep thousands of American soldiers in Iraq to serve the long term US Middle East security strategy and its regional interests.

Iraqi Kurds, who have expanded territories under their control by about 50 per cent since IS’s advances in 2014 and have called for partitioning the Nineveh province, might not be sympathetic to an Iraqi victory in Mosul that will deny them their territorial gains.

Kurdish leaders, therefore, will remain skeptical about the ability of the Iraqi security forces to achieve victory in Mosul and to succeed in stabilising the province after its liberation.

A long-term failure of the Iraqi government to restore sovereignty over Mosul and stability in Arab-populated provinces will serve the Kurdish leadership’s agenda to declare the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq an independent state.

Of course, there are others who have stakes in the battle of Mosul which will determine their stances on Iraq’s future when dust of the war settle. Both Iran and Turkey which are key players in neighbouring Syria also have their eyes on the Mosul campaign.

What is not clear, however, is how these two Iraq’s powerful neighbours which support different competing communities (Iran is allied to Shia and Turkey backs Sunnis) will go about defining their interests in post-IS Iraq.

At the heart of their strategy there will an effort to secure more interests and geopolitical gains in Iraq. But, meanwhile, the uncertainty shrouding the future of Mosul will add to the fog of politics around the military campaign to retake the city from IS.

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