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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Battle for Mosul and Its Aftermath

Filed under: Iraq, ISIS, Syria, The Middle East, Turkey, U.S. Policy

A rolling artillery barrage fired by Iraqi, Kurdish, American, and French gunners together with air raids carried out by the U.S.-led alliance on ISIS targets and military commanders in Mosul was launched on October 17, 2016, at 01:00 hours. After long months of preparations, the long awaited assault on Iraq’s second most populated city, Mosul, began. Mosul had fallen to ISIS cohorts in the summer of 2014. At that time, an estimated 1,500 ISIS fighters at the utmost (at a ratio of one to five) were enough to dislodge and defeat three fully equipped Iraqi regular divisions entrenched in the city, which were supposed to protect Mosul. 

Map of Mosul Campaign
(Map: Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team, Institute for the Study of War, October 24, 2016)

Various sources have reported that facing ISIS’ 5,000 to 10,000 combatants in Mosul, are about 65,000 Iraqi troops from various units have been massed in order to dislodge ISIS from the city. Some Arab sources carry the total number of combatants of the anti-ISIS coalition at almost 140,000 fighters including:

  1. Five to six divisions of the regular Iraqi Army – about 35,000 soldiers (7th Division, parts of the 8th, 9th, 10th, 15th, 16th), including armored and artillery brigades;
  2. Commando and anti-terrorism division (nicknamed the “Golden Division”) together with fighting units of the Iraqi national police (around 8,000 fighters);
  3. Peshmerga Kurdistan armed forces (50,000 fighters);
  4. Al Hashd el-Sh’aabi” – The Popular Mobilization Shiites Units (which claim to include Christians, Yazidis, and Assyrians) also including units of the Hizbullah-Iraq militia;
  5. Al Hashd el Watani” – The National Mobilization Sunni Turkish-trained units which also claim to include minority units (about 10,000 fighters) and headed by Atheel Al-Nujayfi, the former Governor of the Nineveh Governorate;
  6. The Assyrian contingent or Army (Dwekh Nawsha – the “Sacrificers”);
  7. Turkmen mobilization units.

These military formations are assisted by thousands of American, Western and Iranian advisers, some of whom will take an active role in the fighting on the ground.  The U.S.-led alliance will provide air cover with around 90 fighting aircraft. 

However, the missions of the different components of the Iraqi campaign are not clear cut except for the Kurdish Peshmerga who are apparently responsible for maintaining their presence up to a certain pre-fixed line on the eastern and northeastern flanks of Mosul. The Iraqi Army, together with the National Mobilization units, will attack Mosul from the north, northwest, and southern parts of Mosul.

According to Iraqi sources the assault towards Mosul is being waged from five directions:

  1. Al-Khazer axis (east of Mosul)
  2. Mosul Dam axis (northern axis)
  3. Baashiqa axis (eastern axis)
  4. Al-Qayyarah axis (southern axis)
  5. Talul el-Baj- Al-Khadr axis (southwestern axis)

According to Kurdish sources, the agreement between the Kurds and the Iraqi government stipulates that the Popular Mobilization Shiite units will not be allowed to enter Mosul since their ethnic identity and past brutal behavior against the Sunni population in the re-conquest of Ramadi and Tikrit could forecast a massive onslaught against the mostly Sunni population of Mosul.  All Iraqi army units have been instructed to raise only Iraqi flags and no other pennant tinted with Shiite colors.

Psych Warfare Too

The preparations for the campaign to re-conquer Mosul were accompanied by a massive psychological warfare directed at the Mosul population and at the ISIS combatants. At the eve of the offensive, the Iraqi Air Force dropped 16 million leaflets on Mosul warning the local population to avoid the fight and including instructions on how to save their lives. News items of ISIS executing fighters running away from the battle, a failed coup against ISIS by prominent military chiefs meant to hand over the city to the Iraqi government, or information about the redeployment of ISIS militias towards the Syrian Capital of the Islamic state, Raqqah, were published in the media on a daily basis as a means to discourage the ISIS fighters and undermine their morale.

With this background, key points must be stressed:

  1. The Iraqi offensive against Mosul will likely create a wave of refugees of cataclysmic proportions. Some observers predict that the refugees will be in the hundreds of thousands (some even advance the number of one million), mostly Sunnis.
  2. ISIS is fighting for its life. According to various sources, ISIS has dug a seven-foot trench around the city, booby-trapped with IEDs every possible venue, and prepared itself for a chemical assault on the attacking forces.
  3. The Mosul siege could unravel into urban warfare with fighting on every street and sometimes house-by-house. It is likely to become one of the deadliest and bloodiest battle since the U.S. invasion of Iraq and possibly the longest, U.S. military commanders stated.

After the first days of the Iraqi campaign against ISIS in Mosul, the Islamic State has shown a clear resolve to fight back even after losing almost 800 fighters, 80 villages and 1,000 square kilometers to the attacking forces (mainly in areas which were pre-dominantly Christian). The Islamic State commanders in an effort to disrupt the offensive waged counter-attacks in Kirkuk, Sinjar and the border town Rutba commanding the axis between Iraq and Syria. The boldness of these attacks, their ingenuity, and the fact that parts of Rutba are still in the hands of the Islamic State, show that the battle for Mosul is ferocious and merciless.

Turkey’s Controversial Involvement

Moreover, there is no doubt that a key element in the battle of Mosul is the role to be played by Turkey. Turkey seeks to duplicate in the Mosul area its success in “Operation Euphrates Shield” in Syria by creating a Turkish-controlled area that will, on the one hand, contain the Kurdish PKK movement active in the eastern part of Turkey and western parts of Kurdistan so that Turkish troops can infiltrate the area. On the other hand, Turkey seeks to present itself as the ultimate patrons of the Iraqi Sunnis.

Turkey still considers Mosul to be historically part of its territory even though it was detached following the Lausanne Peace conference of 1926 and the subsequent agreement between Great Britain and Turkey of the same year recognized by the then League of Nations. Since December 2015, a Turkish tank battalion and a special forces unit have been based in Ba’ashiqa, a small Assyrian town almost 40 kilometers east of Mosul in Kurdish controlled area, under the pretext of an agreement with the Kurdish autonomous government, with the silent acquiescence of the Iraqi Government. The Turkish forces were meant to train Kurdish and anti-ISIS elements.

With the battle for Mosul approaching, the Iraqis have raised the issue of the “illegal” occupation of part of their territory by Turkish forces, and Ba’ashiqa has become the focal point of dissent and crisis between the two countries. Furthermore, the Turkish President has repeatedly said that Turkish forces will participate in the “liberation” of Mosul even if the Iraqi Government is opposed and will be present at any future negotiation of the future status of Mosul. The Iraqis have vehemently expressed their total opposition, transforming the issue of the Turkish presence to a battle cry to use after the likely fall of Mosul if/when Turkey continues to claim that its presence is legitimate and refuses to withdraw its forces from Iraqi territory. The first signs of the deteriorating relations have appeared in the vitriolic verbal exchanges between the parties (Turkey versus Iraq and Iran) followed by announcements by Turkey of the intermittent suspension of Turkish airlines flights from Istanbul to Erbil and Baghdad and the news reported by Iraqi sources about the advance of a Turkish armored column towards the Iraqi border.

There is little doubt that the Iraqi decision to start the offensive on October 17, 2016, took the Turks by surprise and pre-empted a Turkish move towards Mosul. By doing so, the Iraqis have very clearly signaled that they do not intend to let the Turks participate in the “liberation” of Mosul. On the other hand, an attempt by the United States to bridge the differences between Turkey and Iraq has failed, and, without further notice, the Turks have expressed their readiness to assume their role facing Iraq and Iran.  Subsequently, Turkey ordered its artillery to fire in support of the Peshmerga offensive in Ba’ashiqa.

Military Action in Syria

In parallel, Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces captured on the same day of the Iraqi Mosul offensive the most symbolic icon of the Islamic state – the city of Dabiq 40 kilometers north of Aleppo and 10 kilometers south of the Turkish border. According to the apocalyptic belief of the Islamic State, Dabiq is the place where the final battle between the West and Islamic forces will be waged and the place where the forces of Western civilization (“Rome” in the Islamic State jargon and eschatology) will be defeated.

Islamic State’s official magazine
Dabiq, also the name of the Islamic State’s official magazine.

The Turks are pursuing their offensive in Syrian territory to reach their next target: the town of Al-Bab. By doing so, the Turks would accomplish the targets set in August 2016 in their military incursion nicknamed “Euphrates Shield” to create a safe-zone of 90 kilometers wide and 45 kilometers deep into Syrian territory.  The zone would prevent ISIS infiltrations into Turkey, hinder any Kurdish attempt to create a territorial continuity from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean Sea, and, most importantly, establish a zone that would not allow missile attacks on Turkish soil.

The battle of Mosul may signal the last gasps of the Islamic Caliphate envisioned by Abu Bakr el-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph who promised his followers to rebuild the Muslim Empire stretching from Europe to the borders of China. This does not automatically mean an end to the Muslim radical movements nor that the Islamic State abandoned its territorial vision. News of the ISIS intention to create an alternative ground base circulating recently indicates that the choice might fall on Afghanistan (“Khurasan” in the Islamic State jargon) where the Islamic State has been very active in the past year or in Western Africa (the Sahel area).  These movements and currents will continue to flourish as long as they are fed with hatred of the Western civilization.

One thing is clear: the defeat of political Islam championed by the Islamic State will be translated into the defeat of the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and will transform Iraqi and Syrian structures and their regional and global alliances. The main winner will be Iran with hegemony over two of the most important Arab states, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar will have to concede their political defeat facing Iran.

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An earlier version of this paper appeared in the Jerusalem Post on October 19, 2016.