Tigris River and bridge in Mosul. US Army Photo/Michael Bracken. Public Domain.The Syrian city of Raqqa is regarded as the operational headquarters of ISIS. But Mosul, the second city of Iraq, is far more populous. And ISIS's rapid expansion from 2013 culminated there, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the existence of an Islamic caliphate in Mosul's chief mosque on 4 July 2014.
ISIS propaganda greeted this event as the distinguishing feature of its whole movement. The announcement, the violence of the movement's expansion across northern Iraq that preceded it, and the strong western response, together led to the western air-war that started the following month (see "ISIS against, and in, the west", 22 September 2016).
More than two years later, the sheer intensity of that war is rarely discussed in western media. Airwars reports that there have been over 15,000 airstrikes, about two-thirds in Iraq and the rest in Syria, with 54,600 bombs and missiles dropped. Airwars puts the minimum estimate of civilian loss of life at 1,612, while the Pentagon estimated in in March 2016 that 30,000 ISIS supporters, paramilitaries and others had been killed.
The air-campaign's initial aim was to limit further ISIS advances, especially to counter any risk to Baghdad itself. Over the past year this has extended to supporting Haider al-Abadi's government in its effort to regain control of territory overrun by ISIS. The Iraqi forces' operations have been unexpectedly protracted: in Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and other urban areas, they have often taken months rather than days or, at most, weeks to complete.
Will Mosul be different? The coalition forces are moving slowly towards the city, with predictions for the start of the main assault varying hugely between mid-October and early next year. At the end of 2015, the Iraqi prime minister announced on state television that Mosul would be retaken within a year, but few analysts now expect this (see Derek Henry Flood, “Objective Mosul”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 2016). Furthermore, there is much uncertainty over how security will be maintained if ISIS is defeated.
A diverse array
The attackers face several problems as they make their plans. The composite nature of the disparate forces likely to be involved is prominent among them. Most media coverage, limited as it is, focuses on the Iraqi army, some of whose units have had American-sourced retraining and re-equipment aid since 2014. But there are many other groups involved, including large numbers of Kurdish peshmerga troops. Whereas the al-Abadi government’s aim is control of the city and the complete defeat of ISIS, the Kurds seek more to subdue any threat to its own territory to the east of the city than to take part in any occupation of Mosul itself.
In addition, numerous Shi’a militias drawn from many parts of Iraq are present. Some of these have already been active in the advances towards Mosul, often acting largely on their own initiative. For example, the recent operation to take the town of Shirqat near Mosul from ISIS forces was mainly dependent on Shi’a paramilitaries.
Further, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel are said to be active in advising and training elements of the Iraqi army, and quite possibly engaged in combat as well. Then there is the western contribution: mainly from the United States army and marine corps, as well as special forces from the US and Britain (and probably Australia and other coalition states). It was reported on 29 September that the Pentagon is sending an additional 615 troops, described by al-Abadi as a "final increase" of American forces.
All these contingents are ostensibly commanded and organised by Iraqi military leaders advised by US personnel, and substantially backed by coalition air power. Even here, though, there are likely to be complications. Iraqi air units are active too, and even Iranian airforce planes have been in action in recent months (see Andrew Tilghman, "U.S. plans big military expansion at Iraq's al Asad air base", Military Times, 28 September 2016).
A longer view
The coordination between all these agencies, each with its own tactics and aims, is one formidable problem. Another is the issue of American forces being seen to work with Iranians. This is not much discussed in polite circles because of the considerable risk of upsetting the Saudis. The latter see Iran as the only major regional rival to their own position, and their worry extends beyond US-Iran links to the potential growth of Iranian influence in Iraq once ISIS is suppressed.
Moreover, whether security can be guaranteed is a post-ISIS environment is hard to foresee. The parts of Iraq where ISIS has already retreated, such as Anbar province, are predominantly Sunni and are now nominally controlled by Iraqi police and army units. But in practice, Shi’a militias have often taken over, acting with brutality and impunity. There are now serious concerns about the potential for post-defeat stability; some analysts argue that the al-Abadi government should not even aim to suppress ISIS until it has adequate security personnel to be able to ensure order with fairness (see Daniel L Davis, "How Mosul's Liberation Could Lead to Another Iraqi Civil War", Politico, 17 September 2016).
If Mosul does fall in the coming months, the event will be proclaimed loudly as a success by the Iraqi government and the western coalition as a whole. Whoever occupies the White House will also embrace it. Wise observers, though, should wait at least six months and quite possibly a couple of years before judging its true success. This long war has much further to go.