Battle for Mosul can shape or break Iraq
Battle for Mosul could be fierce, long and costly, and its outcome may determine militants’ future
Erbil - It has taken two years of training a demoralized army, and the backing of the air cover and special forces of the world’s greatest powers, for Iraq to mount an offensive to recapture Mosul from ISIS.
Almost a week into the US-led onslaught, many of those running the campaign say the battle to retake the city could be long and hard. But they have also identified what they think is a chink in the militants’ armor.
If local fighters in Mosul can be persuaded to drop their allegiance to ISIS, there is a chance that the battle can be brought to a more speedy conclusion, and that could have major implications for the future of Iraq.
Against a background of splits and rebellions in ISIS ranks in Mosul, some opposing commanders believe that a successful attempt to win over those local fighters could mean the battle will last only weeks rather than months.
Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, is where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his Sunni caliphate in 2014, after his alliance between millenarian Islamists and veteran officers from the disbanded army of Saddam Hussein roared back into Iraq from bases they set up in Syria. Five Iraqi army divisions melted away in the face of a few hundred militants.
Now the battle to retake Mosul pits an unwieldy coalition of a 30,000-strong Iraqi regular force backed by the United States and European powers, alongside Kurdish and Shi'ite militias, against militants who have exploited the Sunni community's sense of dispossession in Iraq and betrayal in Syria.
The political sensitivity with which the battle is handled could determine the future of ISIS and of Sunni extremism, as well as the shape of this part of the Middle East, which is being shattered into sectarian fragments.
ISIS fighters, estimated at between 4,000 and 8,000, have rigged the city with explosives, mined and booby-trapped roads, built oil-filled moats they can set alight, dug tunnels and trenches, and have shown every willingness to use some of Mosul’s 1.5 million civilians as human shields.
ISIS seems to have a plentiful supply of suicide bombers, launching them in explosives-laden trucks against Kurdish Peshmerga fighters converging on Mosul from the east and northeast, and against Iraqi forces, spearheaded by
counter-terrorism units, advancing from the south and southwest.
“Mosul will be a multi-month endeavor. This is going to take a long time,” a senior US official said in Iraq.
Karim Sinjari, Interior Minister in the self-governing Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq, said IS would put up a fierce fight because of Mosul’s symbolic value as capital of its self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate.
“If Mosul is finished, the caliphate they announced is finished. If they lose in Mosul, they will have no place, just Raqqa (in Syria),” Sinjari said.
ISIS is adept at exploiting divisions among its enemies, and last Friday’s dawn assault by its fighters on Kirkuk, for example, was not just an attempt to divert Iraqi and Kurdish forces and relieve pressure on the main front.
It was also intended to galvanize Sunni Arab opinion against the Kurds, whose Iraqi Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish militia are the most effective ground forces deployed against ISIS.
That is why many of those involved in the battle for Mosul stress the need to break the cohesion of IS and the allegiance it has won or coerced among alienated Sunnis, in Mosul and beyond.
The opportunity is there, they say.
They believe that while foreign jihadists will fight to the finish to protect their last stronghold in Iraq, the Iraqi fighters, many from Mosul itself, may lay down their arms.
“Most of the (ISIS) fighters now are local tribal fighters. They have some foreign fighters, they have some people from other parts of Iraq and Syria, but the majority are local fighters,” says a senior Kurdish military intelligence chief.
“If we can take this away from them, the liberation of Mosul is a job of a week or two weeks.”
Fissures are widening inside the ISIS camp, with Iraqi, Kurdish and Western sources reporting resistance in Mosul and a spate of attacks on the group’s leaders.
Sinjari, also the KRG’s acting defense minister, says there is growing resentment against ISIS brutality.
“There is information that many people are revolting and carrying out attacks against ISIS. A number of Daesh members were killed on the streets at night,” Sinjari said. This was confirmed by the US official but could not be independently verified.
But it fits with accounts of a recent abortive uprising against ISIS, led by a former aide to Baghdadi, that ended with the execution of 58 Daesh dissidents.
Crucially, more than half ISIS’s fighting strength comes from Sunni tribes who were initially relieved they were being freed from sectarian persecution at the hands of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and a corrupt and brutal army.
Some strategists believe those tribes could turn against the brutality of ISIS rule - just as the Sunni tribal fighters of the Sahwa or Awakening turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago - if Baghdad guarantees their lives and livelihoods.
In Mosul, there are Iraqi tribal people in ISIS who pledged allegiance when the group arrived, a Kurdish intelligence chief said.
“If the Iraqis send a message and reassure these Sunni Iraqis that they will be given a second chance, I think it is wise to do so, because if they put their weapons down you are definitely taking out 60 percent of their (ISIS) fighting force.”
The official emphasized the need for the coalition’s close involvement in Mosul, especially after the experience of the recapture of Falluja, Ramadi and Tikrit, ISIS-held cities where refugees and local Sunnis suffered at the hands of Shiite militias.
In the battle for Mosul, it has supposedly been agreed that neither Shiite fighters nor Kurdish Peshmerga will enter the city when it falls to avoid stoking a sectarian backlash.
While the anti-ISIS coalition has gained momentum, military strategists and intelligence officials say the closer the Iraqi forces get to Mosul, the harder it will be.
“If they decide to defend the city then it will be more difficult and the process will slow down,” the intelligence chief said.
Once inside Mosul, Iraqi special forces would have to go from street to street to clear explosives and booby traps set up by ISIS.
“The roads are very narrow. You can’t use vehicles or tanks, so it will be a fight, person by person,” Sinjari said.