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The Battle for Mosul

Challenges to liberating the last bastions of ISIS in Iraq

20 August 2016

The battle for the liberation of Mosul bears significant importance for the various relevant Iraqi, regional, and international parties as it means restoring the Iraqi state’s control over the remainder of lands seized by ISIS, eradicating their last strongholds and wiping them out of the Iraqi scene.

The city of Mosul, located in the province of Nineveh, is Iraq’s second most populated city and has an important geopolitical location as it is bordered by Kurdistan on the East and Syria on the West. It was among the first cities which ISIS gained control over on June 10, 2014, and from there, the organization went on to seize several other Iraqi cities and towns. Mosul is ISIS’s last bastion in the country after Iraqi forces were able to liberate and oust ISIS members from most of the territory and cities seized by the group in the provinces of Salahuddin, Anbar, and Diyala.

Preparing for Battle

The importance of liberating Mosul grows even greater when we factor in the need to reach political understandings and concessions both domestically and abroad as well as the military preparations needed for the attack. The political preparations involve meetings and visits between Iraqi and American officials to coordinate and prepare the launch of the operation to liberate the city, in conjunction with talks carried out by the Iraqi government with the leadership of the global coalition against ISIS regarding the battle plan for the support of Iraqi forces.

Iraqi military preparations, on the other hand, involve restoring Iraqi forces in several towns and villages south of Mosul, and most importantly near Qayyarah, as well as in Sinjar, after the Kurdish Peshmerga forces successfully eliminated ISIS in the region. Many police regiments in Nineveh, trained at the Camp Speicher in the Salahuddin province, eventually reached the Qayyarah military base, which they began to rehabilitate to utilize as a forward operating base for forces as soon as it was recovered from ISIS.

Military preparations also included the formation of an operational command in Nineveh concentrated in the area of Makhmur and strengthened by the 15th regiment which consists of combat regiments and brigades, as well as several federal police brigades which are expected to participate in the military operation to liberate Mosul.

Regarding preparations made by American forces, US Army Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, announced in March that the battle to regain Mosul has begun moving forward, and that his forces were coordinating with Iraqi forces to establish a plan to liberate the city and provide training and military counsel. Dunford noted that American forces would be responsible for leading more than four training centers for Iraqi forces in order to prepare them for the battle.

Of course, for the US, liberating Mosul provides a gateway to influence and power in Iraq, proving  merit in leading the international coalition to fight terrorism, and also serves to mitigate US policy of withdrawal from the Middle East. This battle is a significant factor in the fight against ISIS, particularly with regard to tightening the noose around the organization and facilitating the process of liberating Raqqa, the group’s main stronghold in Syria.

The Participation Controversy

The battle to liberate Mosul has precipitated an ongoing controversy between relevant parties regarding the composition of the forces set to participate in the attack. All parties involved strive to achieve their own interests by participating in the military operations and establish a presence on the ground at the expense of their local rivals.

Although a consensus has been reached on granting a primary role to the Iraqi army, Federal Police regiments, and the local Nineveh police throughout the battle, a dispute has emerged around the participation of other groups, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Peshmerga. Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced that all combat troops would participate in the process of liberating Mosul, including the Popular Mobilization Forces. Those opposed to the announcement included representatives from Nineveh in Iraq’s Parliament, most members of the Provincial Council, and several Arab tribes located in the province.

At the same time, the State of Law Coalition warned the Iraqi government against bowing to pressures to prohibit the Popular Mobilization Forces from participating in the battle: doing so would mean that that the Union of Iraqi Forces will also refuse to participate. But this was not the only objection. Various Iraqi parties are also opposed to the Peshmerga involvement, however the government of the Kurdistan Region is insistent that they participate in light of the Arab-Kurdish tension surrounding the administration of the Province of Nineveh and disputed territories therein.

Parties Participating in the Battle

Given the great importance attached to the battle to liberate Mosul for several parties, as well as the city’s large size and population, a significant number of forces with high combat capabilities must be involved to liberate the city successfully. Many actors have expressed their willingness to participate in the battle and perhaps the most important parties which are expected to participate, regardless of the size of their contribution, include:

  1. International forces: The global coalition against ISIS will participate in the battle to liberate Mosul with up to 4,000 soldiers from 18 countries according to some sources. This includes British, Canadian, and French forces which will carry out a variety of tasks. British combat troops will maintain a direct presence close to the Iraqi-Syrian border, Canadian troops will provide military advisors and trainers, and French troops will conduct air raids on ISIS locations in areas under the organization’s control. This is in addition to the coalition countries which will participate in the final battle for Mosul, most prominently in securing air cover and providing logistical support to attacking forces. These elements are of great importance to the success of the battle.
  2. US forces: These forces will participate both as part of the global coalition and will also work independently with Iraqi authorities. US forces represent an essential part of the process of liberating Mosul, with their having sent combat troops to Iraq. The US most recently deployed 560 soldiers and a number of advisors and trainers to several military bases, including the Ain Al-Assad Airbase in Anbar, Camp Speicher in Salahuddin, and the Qayyarah military base which represents the launch point for the battle to regain Mosul. American forces will train Iraqi forces and prepare them to fight ISIS in order to liberate the areas under their control, in addition to providing logistical and intelligence support and securing air cover throughout the war.
  3. Forces from the Iraqi Army, the Federal Police, and the Counter Terrorism Bureau: These forces have proved their capabilities in liberating most areas in the provinces of Anbar and Salahuddin. They will play an essential role in liberating Mosul, and have garnered satisfaction and support from various parties in taking on this task.
  4. Popular Mobilization Forces and groups of armed minority factions such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, and Turkmens, as well as national and tribal mobilized forces: These forces are unique to the province of Nineveh and are insistent on participating in the battle. While some groups’ desire to participate has been controversial, others have not encountered any opposition.
  5. Peshmerga forces: Despite the fact that statements have been issued by various parties and political blocs against Peshmerga participation in the battle to liberate Mosul, the reality is that these forces were able to restore several administrative centers and villages in the Province of Nineveh. Their most notable achievement being removing Sinjar from ISIS control until they eventually reached the outskirts of Mosul. Peshmerga forces enjoy support from the US, who has provided them with air cover for all battles waged against ISIS. Thus the Kurdish government has insisted that the Peshmerga participates in the upcoming campaign to retake Mosul.

Post-liberation challenges

Iraq has experienced complicated political, economic, and social circumstances as well as several crises over recent years, all of which were exacerbated by the most recent security crisis which has pervaded since mid-2014. This is added to the complications associated with the period that follows liberation, especially in the province of Nineveh where several local, regional, and international factors are also at play. The most important challenges which may arise for Mosul following liberation may be summarized as follows:

  1. Administering the province may become difficult due to escalating sectarian disputes resulting from racial and ethnic diversity in the province. The province is home to the Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian, and Shabak ethnic groups. In terms of religion, Muslim Sunnis and Shiites as well as Christians and Yazidis all reside in the province. Complications in this regard have also widened since ethnic and racial groups have developed their own armed factions.
  2. The issue of areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds is expected to worsen. The disputes mainly involve areas with a mixed population where each party has sought to gain control. Peshmerga forces imposed control on several such areas during the most recent security crisis, exacerbating the issue which could reach a boiling point soon.
  3. The issue of reconstruction in liberated areas has become a thorny one due to the decline in oil prices, the cost of the war waged by Iraqi forces to liberate areas under ISIS control, and rampant financial and political corruption. This is especially applicable for liberated areas which have suffered grave damage to infrastructure, service, educational, and health facilities, and residential neighborhoods. These areas are in need of significant reconstruction and services must be implemented quickly to ensure that the original inhabitants may return.
  4. The phase following liberation requires significant and expedited humanitarian aid, especially as the city of Mosul is home to more than 1 million civilians. This is not a small figure, and the people of Mosul will be in need of many services such as housing in the event that they are displaced, and especially if the process of returning to Mosul is delayed.
  5. Providing security and ensuring that ISIS or other terrorist organizations do not return to liberated areas is a critical point which requires military, political, economic, cultural, and media solutions in which all governmental and popular parties must participate.

In conclusion, the battle to liberate Mosul bears vast importance and represents a top priority for various local, regional, and international parties, but the degree of importance will vary according to the interests of each party involved. Because this battle is so significant, it will impact the future of Iraq if current political, economic, and social circumstances prevail in light of the projects proposed to address chronic issues such as establishing federal regions and the Kurdish statements on implementing their right to self-determination and independence from Iraq. Iraq will bear witness to all of these issues following both liberation and the eradication of ISIS.