Mosul Invasion 2016
In 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) announced that it had taken the city of Mosul, a victory that would allow it to accomplish its primary goal: establishing an Islamic caliphate in the area currently occupied by Iraq and Syria. On October 17, 2016, two years after the beginning of ISIS’ occupation, coalition forces led by the U.S. announced their intention to retake Mosul through concentrated efforts of Iraqi-led forces in that specific area. The battle has enormous potential to diminish the unquestioned control that ISIS maintains over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Still, according to many sources, the fall of Mosul does not represent the end of ISIS, and it might not even represent the beginning of the end. What we are seeing is, rather, the end of the rise of ISIS. The costs of this battle will, according to all accounts, be astronomical. However, the fall of Mosul is indispensable to halting the expansion of the caliphate of ISIS.
Given the city’s population of roughly two million people, Mosul’s initial fall did not inspire confidence in the ability of the Iraqi government to control ISIS or reinforce perceptions of strength of the local security forces. In fact, many officers abandoned their posts and fled during the initial battle with ISIS, inspiring significant doubt in the capacity of the Iraqi police force. The Iraqi security forces’ lack of determination was emblematic of the morale deficiency crippling the fight against ISIS. The episode in Mosul demonstrated that the effort required to fight ISIS would far surpass the efforts required in previous battles in the War on Terror, in terms of the scale of involvement and dedication, both by Iraqi forces and by Western powers.
Two years after its initial fall, ISIS’ hold over the city of Mosul represents an enormous threat to the peace and stability of the surrounding region. Indeed, ISIS presence in Mosul represents one of the largest hurdles to routing terrorist organizations from Iraq and Syria. From a strategic standpoint, given their control of Mosul, ISIS is able to cause more damage to the area than they would as a pocketed, fragmented insurgency movement. Their domination of the city also implies that they are centralized and organized enough to govern, a feature of their group that terrifies sovereign states in the region as well as Western leaders and citizens.
As the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul is of paramount importance in disabling ISIS and establishing some semblance of stability. Additionally, Mosul, on the banks of the Tigris River, has access to essential water supplies. In a region as arid and dry as northern Iraq, that access is essential to the lives of the one million civilians suffering inside the city borders and the thousands more that live in villages surrounding the city. Furthermore, the Mosul Dam is in critical condition. Without repair of the dam, the city is likely to flood, potentially leading to a death toll of about 500,000. It does not seem likely that ISIS will make the necessary investment to save the dam, further proving the need for the Iraqi government to regain control over the city.
Perhaps even more significantly, Mosul is host to pipelines that take oil from raw production in Iraq into Turkey. As seen in World War II, the Cold War, and the 1973 Oil Crisis, control of oil is paramount to the success of coalition forces in vanquishing ISIS. To ISIS, oil is not only fuel for war or for industry; it also represents its ability to finance its organization. Cutting ISIS off from oil supplies is critical to blocking the organization’s funding, which would limit its capacity to launch attacks.
Mosul is also less than 100 miles from Iraq’s border with Syria. As such, it has been used as a base from which ISIS has been able to expand into Syria, though they have not yet been able to take control of the entire region. It is not unforeseeable that, given continued control of the city, ISIS expansion out of Mosul into Syria will continue. The farther that ISIS is able to expand, the more entrenched it becomes, thus rendering any coalition efforts to dislodge it more challenging. Alternatively, if coalition forces can take Mosul, the power of ISIS in Syria could be greatly diminished. While this battle does not mean that the entire governmental and power structure of ISIS will be eviscerated overnight, it does mean that ISIS may be forced to halt expansion and return to Iraq in order to consolidate their original holdings. Halting the expansion of ISIS is not in and of itself victory, but it could potentially be the beginning of one. In spite of positive rhetoric on behalf of the coalition forces, citizens of Iraq and Syria are perpetually aware that, while the group may be losing territory, they remain deadly and destructive in their treatment of the occupied city and its citizens.
The invasion of Mosul is, while risky and likely very costly, essential from a humanitarian standpoint. In 2014, following the invasion by ISIS, 500,000 civilians were classified as ‘displaced persons’ as they were ejected from their home and city. Those refugees have not been appropriately cared for either by Baghdad or by the U.N. There are some that have called the recent flight from Mosul and displacement of individuals across Iraq as a result of the ISIS occupation the largest man-made humanitarian crisis in recent times. Despite the harsh conditions experienced by refugees, it would have been far worse for them to remain behind. Those who did were at the mercy of unchecked ISIS brutality and only a slight hope of escape. ISIS fighters have used civilians as human shields in combat, separated families, overtaken homes, and, most grievously, killed and raped masses. Most recently, a suicide bomber killed 300 civilians in Baghdad. These attacks are not limited to the capital city but are spread across the country. Hundreds of bodies have been uncovered in mass graves during the battle for the city of Mosul. Families are unable to recover the bodies of lost loved ones that fell to the hands of brutal ISIS fighters. The horrors that have been uncovered in the past weeks affirm past speculations that the humanitarian circumstance in Mosul is among the most depraved worldwide. While there may be a humanitarian cost to the invasion itself, such a choice can only serve to liberate the city from the control of an organization that has dedicated itself to levying brutality and torture on innocents.
This invasion has been publicized as the largest military mobilization in the country since the Iraq War of 2003. U.S. special forces and Elite Iraqi troops called the ‘Golden Division,’ will approach the city from the South, the Kurdish Peshmerga will approach from the North and the East, and Shia’ militia will approach from the Southwest. The coalition fighting to liberate Mosul is not there for “altruistic reasons.” Mosul lies in the northern portion of Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. As a result, one of the largest uncertainties for post-Islamic State Mosul will be the reaction of its citizens to the orders and initiatives undertaken by the Shia Militia and the Kurdish Peshmerga.Regardless of the decisions made following the invasion, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which the people of Mosul suffer through situations more deplorable than the current environment.
The encirclement of the city by coalition forces is completed by a corridor of ‘safe passage’ to the Northwest, that, in theory, will funnel ISIS fighters through a specific escape route and take the fighting outside the city bounds and away from civilians so as to limit civilian casualties. However, this tactic did not play out as planned in the month following the beginning of the invasion. As a result, civilians have been caught, quite literally, in the crossfire. Overall, 25,000 liberation forces will be pitted against anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 ISIS fighters. Despite the overwhelming majority of the liberation forces, the course of the battle is very much unpredictable. There are still many unknowns, namely what kind of defenses coalition fighters will encounter once they battle their way through the outlying villages (as they have been doing for some time now) and reach the city border. Among the more creative additions to the city’s fortifications was the construction of moats filled with oil that can be set on fire in order to obscure sight-lines of coalition air support. These sort of unknown factors will determine not so much who wins, but rather how long it will take Mosul to fall and thus what cost the allies and the people of Mosul will incur in undertaking this offensive.
Part of the reason that the predictions have been so vague and nonspecific, is that the tactics employed by ISIS differ so greatly from those of other groups like Al Qaeda. ISIS, unlike Al Qaeda, employs, for the most part, conventional military tactics, in that it seizes land and defends the territory with automatic guns and armed convoys. ISIS’ control of Mosul means that the coalition fighting ISIS in the city will have a very different experience than those that fought in earlier city battles, like Fallujah.
In earlier battles between Iraqi and coalition forces and terror groups, the fighting was preceded by civilian evacuation. In Fallujah, between 70 and 90% of the city’s 300,000 civilians fled in the weeks leading up to the bloodshed. The lack of civilians meant that coalition forces could be fairly certain that the individuals they were fighting were not bystanders, but were actively engaged in the conflict. By contrast, there was no large evacuation movement before the battle in Mosul, so civilians are forced to look to coalition forces and their own ingenuity to escape the heat. Ironically, though one aim of the invasion was to alleviate the humanitarian crisis perpetrated by ISIS, the battle itself and the involvement of civilians could precipitate the largest humanitarian crisis of this year. Many find themselves caught in the midst of a battle, unable to escape. Those that can escape are often become traumatized or are physically injured in their attempts to flee. One 56 year old woman named Hasnaah Mohammed described her experience of “running among bullets. Walking and crying. Running and crying.” Those who remain behind find themselves trapped by the continued control of a regime that continues to perpetuate the human rights offenses from before the battle and whose soldiers use those innocents as human shields. Furthermore, according to the U.N., the ‘worst-case scenario’ would be the displacement of one million people. It admits that its organization, even in conjunction with NGOs like the Red Cross, will not be able to effectively handle such a disaster and is equipped to cater to only about 600,000 refugees. While given that estimate, the costs of the invasion in terms of infrastructure, supplies, and civilian as well as military casualties will be enormous, Mosul is too significant a city to bypass in the war against ISIS.
If Mosul falls, ISIS will find its control of the region greatly shaken. It sees Mosul as the second most important capital of its Caliphate, after Raqqa. The fall of Mosul, combined with the losses ISIS is currently experiencing in Syria, could precipitate an enormous territorial loss in the next two years. After two years of fighting, destruction, and demoralization, the organization has been placed on the defensive. This attack could mean that ISIS would lose its unquestioned preeminence in the region. It will be a long slog before coalition forces are able to take Mosul and it will be still longer before ISIS is crippled, fragmented, and ultimately defeated. Yet, as Michael Knights, a scholar on Iraqi militancy and security, said of Mosul, “is a place that nobody can write off.” It is a city that is essential to the fall of ISIS and the return of stability and basic standards of living to a region that has been mired in conflict for much of the memory of those living within its walls.
While the invasion does not foretell immediate victory for the coalition forces, success will be hugely symbolic and will, at the very least, set back efforts at expansion. Furthermore, while liberation does not mean automatic salvation, the citizens of Mosul will be reminded that Mosul—as well as the larger regions of Iraq and Syria—belong not to the Islamic Jihadists who call themselves ISIS warriors, but to the millions of men, women, and children who have gone to work andschool there, who have bought their homes, who have constructed mosques and prayed without regard as to how others chose to worship, who have participated in peaceful, ordinary, simple society. They will be able to regain control of their city and their lives and they will start to rebuild so that the circumstances faced by the next generation are not quite as dire as those faced by their parents.