On October 17, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced the start of the long anticipated offensive to emancipate Mosul. The city was first captured by the Jihadists in 2014, and is the only major town they still have a stronghold over. The leader of the IS, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi is reported to be among the thousands of hardline militants still in the city. Should the leaders choose to stay in the city, the jihadists’ desperate defense would turn the fight for Mosul into something much worse than what has been seen recently in Aleppo.
The battle for Mosul is being fought from multiple fronts. From the Southeast come the Peshmerga, Kurdish forces from the largely autonomous region of Kurdistan while from the South, the Iraqi Special Operation Forces (ISOF)advance under the control of Baghdad. Then there is the Ninevah Guard- ground troops trained by the Turkish Army made up of all segments of Iraqi society. The common mantra is: “Daesh we come with death, we won’t wait for revenge”. Also on the ground are US, British and French Special Forces, which have been advising the troops and conducting airstrikes against IS targets inside the city. This battle marks the start of a rare moment in Iraqi history with Kurds and Arabs fighting side by side – two historic enemies coming together with the support of the West to push the IS out of Iraq.
Even though heavy casualties have been inflicted on the IS soldiers it is not an easy battle. IS has had two years to prepare their defense forts. In the words of Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend “It’s a pretty significant (resistance)”. The IS have dug kilometers of tunnels all over the besieged areas. These function like a maze of corridors with links from one village to another. The surrounding land has also been rigged with explosives.
To add to what many have cited as an “ugly fight”, the Daesh have started to use civilians as human shields. The tens of thousands of people, who have been taken hostage, arebeing herded towards the center of Mosul which is most susceptible to airstrikes. There are also fears that the Iraqi Government has not done enough to prepare for a mass exodus of civilians. According to the UN, approximately 20K people have been displaced since the Mosul operation began- UNICEF reports that 9K of these are children. The airwaves of Al Ghad radio station are open to callers inside the beleaguered city. The Mosul residents state ‘We want liberation, not destruction’.
Callers also say they are in danger not just from IS but from the airstrikes as well because the rockets are falling on people inside civilian areas. Adding to concerns about those trapped near the frontlines is the usage of white phosphorus according to reports by Amnesty International. This chemical burns at an extremely high temperature on exposure to air and can sear through flesh and bone and is illegal in areas with a civilian population.
Nobody knows what the balance of power post-Mosul operation will be. However a few basic principles must be followed. Firstly, since no region is ethnically pure, sub entities must respect minority rights. Secondly, all groups should have a share of power in the central government. Thirdly, natural resources such as oil must benefit the entire region and the lastly, there is a need to find a right balance of armed force between national armies and local police forces so that the minorities feel protected and local warlords are discouraged from rebelling or breaking away. The Battle for Mosul will require both a military plan and a political one. Militarily, the battle for Mosul can be won without having a political solution in place, but it will make fighting such a battle harder, longer and far more complicated than it would otherwise be.
Baghdad needs to be aware that there will be an absence of order in the newly liberated areas. Many blame a dysfunctional government for the ease with which IS captured Mosul in the first place. Presently, people in these areas have no water, food or electricity. In the long term, once the initial relief has worn off much will depend on the confidence that Mosul’s citizens have in Baghdad’s willingness and ability to secure and rebuilt their city. Unless politics can be got right, the liberation of Mosul could mark the end of one horror and the beginning of something almost as bad.
The loss of Mosul would deal a blow to IS; it was from there that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader declared his caliphate. Losing Mosul would also make it easier for IS’s opponents to recapture the group’s Syrian capital of Raqqa, because major supply routes from Iraq would be cut. “Liberating Mosul for the Iraqi government is like Aleppo for the Syrian government,’’ states Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and adviser to Iran’s supreme leader.
The future of the region is being decided in two venerable cities, Aleppo the last urban redoubt of the Syrian rebellion against Mr Assad and Mosul, IS’s most prized possession in Iraq. These cities roughly mark, the western and eastern edges of the Islamic State and are presently the scenes of important battles for control that will help determine the future of the Islamic State, and by extension, the current Syrian and Iraqi governments. The city is not only a test of maturity of Iraq’s politics but also of the responsibility of outside powers. What happens in Mosul matters beyond Iraq; it could even give hope to poor benighted Aleppo.
— The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-bank based in Islamabad.