ISIS in 2015: All eyes on Mosul
It was the fall of Mosul in 2014 that granted the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq its moment of glory
It was the fall of Mosul in 2014 that granted the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) its moment of glory and it will be the fate of the “City of Prophets” again in 2015 that will ultimately determine the fortunes (or lack of) for the radical group. ISIS owes Iraq’s second largest city its skyrocketing rise in June, and any talk about defeating the self-proclaimed Caliphate must involve recapturing Mosul.
In more than one way, ISIS’s litmus test in 2015 will be the fate Mosul, says Bruce Riedel a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the center’s Intelligence Project. Mosul is the largest territory governed by ISIS, and is the bread and butter for the group. In a nutshell, Riedel says if ISIS loses Mosul “it will be all decline from here...and if they hold it, then the group and its state are here to stay for the foreseeable future.”
ISIS’s formidable rise in 2014
Riedel was one of few counterterrorism experts who warned about ISIS and did not underestimate the magnitude of its threat regionally upon its rise last summer. When the group seized Mosul on June 10, Riedel told me on the margins of a Brookings conference in Doha that ”ISIS is outflanking the old al-Qaeda” and the “Ghost of Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi is stalking the Middle East.” Six months later this success is on display with the extremist group generating “almost $2 million a day in oil revenues and extortions” and attracting over 15,000 foreign fighters from as far as Australia and China.
The “Iraq-first” strategy will remain the mantra of the war against ISIS in 2015Joyce Karam
ISIS remarkable rise in 2014 controlling an area almost the size of the United Kingdom, and inspiring “small groups from Algeria to Libya to Pakistan” and a larger one in Egypt, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, makes it the most consequential political development of the year. Its emergence or resurgence in Iraq after being contained in 2008, forced a review inside the Obama administration and in regional capitals, leading up to a return of U.S. military to Iraq in the form of hundreds of advisers, then launching air strikes in August, and in Syria end of September. The U.S. military and a coalition including Jordan, Saudi and UAE has carried so far more than 1000 air strikes targeting ISIS, and the campaign is expected to intensify in the coming year especially in Iraq.
Iraqi and U.S. officials agree on the consequential nature of the battle to restore Mosul, but disagreements over the timing of such operation and the preparation that should precede it are prevalent between Washington and Baghdad.
U.S. envoy in the war against ISIS General John Allen has cautioned in October that when it comes to retaking Mosul “the right kind of planning and preparation will have been done to make sure the outcome will favor the Iraqis,” expecting that such operation will not to start until next October. These preparations involve reconciling political differences with the tribes and Sunnis who dominate the city, and readying the Iraqi security forces which collapsed and fled “the hunchback” city last summer.
The Iraqi government, however, seems to be running out of patience and might opt not to wait a whole year before attempting to recapture Mosul, or for the formation of a tribal force under the helm of the Iraqi army. Retaking Mosul will deal a significant blow to ISIS and cut its recruitment and revenues, but the implications could be catastrophic warns Riedel if such an effort is carried out prematurely and fails at liberating the city. “The worst option would be to try and fail” he adds because such an outcome “send a signal that ISIS is even more powerful than what is being projected right now.”
The timing of the battle of Mosul, however, might not be up for Washington to decide. “Washington is not calling the tune, the tune is called in Baghdad and Iran” argues the expert who spent three decades working in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Iran has ground troops fighting in Iraq, and has also invested money and manpower in Iraqi Shiite militias fighting ISIS.
Relocating to Syria
The increasing pressure on ISIS in Iraq following the exit of former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the coalition strikes, and clashes with the Iraqi forces, the Peshmerga and Shiite militias appears to be forcing ISIS to look west and relocate into neighboring Syria. Since air strikes have started in Iraq, ISIS has taken more interest in battles in Northern Aleppo, and on the border area between Syria and Lebanon.
Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported this week that ISIS is relocating family members from Mosul to Syria. The political and military terrain in Syria carries much less risk for ISIS than in Iraq. Riedel points out that there is “no boots on the ground in Syria fighting ISIS” at the moment. The Assad regime is preoccupied in its own survival, and al-Qaeda’s affiliated group Nusra is prevailing in the north against the more moderate rebels.
The Obama administration is “in no hurry in Syria” says Riedel, pointing out that it is “content to live with the current status-quo”. Obama himself could not have put it more bluntly pointing out on November 5, that ”our focus in Syria is not to solve the entire Syria situation, but rather to isolate the areas in which [ISIS] can operate.”
The “Iraq-first” strategy will remain the mantra of the war against ISIS in 2015. Its success, however, will be contingent on the battle of Mosul, whose timing and outcome, will chart the course of regional countries growing more anxious about ISIS.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam