Fire in Mosul, Iraq, on March 26, 2017. Iraqi forces renewed their assault in Mosul's Old City, resulting in heavy civilian casualties. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The fall of Mosul to Iraqi government forces may still be weeks away. As it draws near, huge and unforeseen consequences are becoming steadily clearer, whose consequences will have an impact for years to come. These relate to two factors: the greatly increased use of firepower by United States forces at the behest of Trump's White House, and ISIS's current decisions about its future strategy and tactics.
Some context is needed. When the coalition moved towards eastern Mosul in mid-October 2016, early progress was followed by heavy losses for the Iraqi army’s elite counter-terror service (also known as the "golden division"). Those losses were one reason why the army took three months, until late January 2017, to retake that less significant part of the city. There followed a month’s pause while the forces regrouped and were reinforced for the assault on western Mosul. It began in the third week of February.
The operation continues a trend seen towards the end of the battle for eastern Mosul: a marked increase in the tempo of artillery-support and aerial-bombing raids. These have undoubtedly inflicted losses on ISIS, but they have also caused many more civilian casualties.
Many hundreds of civilians are being killed, the use of air-power is intensifying and the US is pouring more troops into Iraq and Syria.
Now, that sequence is being repeated in western Mosul, but on a far larger scale. On one side, ISIS's firepower and intensive use of suicide-bombers; on the other, a great escalation of coalition airstrikes, especially by the US airforce. The latter came to a head on 17 March when air-raids on residences killed at least 160 people and possibly over 200, the great majority of them civilians. That incident, and the change of coalition tactics it reflects, was sufficiently serious to be picked up by the western media. The New York Times gave it frontpage coverage, and reports by experienced foreign correspondents such as the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen have been given much more prominence.
The use of greater firepower, with all its risks to civilians, is a response to Iraqi forces' inability to handle the "irregular war" being waged by ISIS. But something else is at work: the US administration's willingness to hand the military much more leeway in fighting the war and seeking a quick victory. Trump himself said this week that US forces in Iraq are “fighting like never before” and that the war is going well for America.
Pentagon sources are claiming that there has been no change in targeting practice or in efforts to avoid civilian casualties But this rubs against Trump's repeated emphasis – both before and after the election – on the need to expand use of US military firepower and the associated belief that ISIS can be bombed into defeat. A repeated message to this effect from the commander-in-chief inevitably reaches all the way down the chain of command. The military can rest reasonably assured that if mistakes are made and many civilians killed, those responsible will not themselves face censure.
The rules of engagement may not have changed. But the interpretation of those rules is a different matter, especially when it may be impossible to defeat ISIS in Mosul by any other means. Moreover, expanding use of firepower is not restricted to Mosul – it is spreading across Iraq and Syria, causing panic among civilian populations.
The rules of engagement may not have changed. But the interpretation of those rules is a different matter...
An additional ingredient has been largely missed – renewed deployment of US combat-troops into Iraq. The presence of “boots on the ground” is now inescapable, six years after Barack Obama ended the main US combat-troop presence. Moreover, as defence secretary James Mattis told a Senate hearing last week, they are back in Iraq for the long term.
The recent expansion has been substantial, bringing the total of US ground forces in Iraq and Syria to around 10,000. Units of the 82nd airborne division were the latest to depart from their Fort Bragg base on 28 March; 300 are being assigned specifically to Mosul to reinforce Iraqi army units.
That is significant enough, but the explosive power being rained down from the air is currently even more so. It will have an effect for years to come (see Robin Wright, "The Bodies of Mosul", New Yorker, 30 March 2017). As so often, the details – including the sheer intense impact of the bombs missiles being used – rarely get into the general media. But some are available in the more specialist defence outlets. An account from one of these deserves extended quotation (see Stephen Losey, "With 500 bombs a week, Mosul airstrikes mark 'the most kinetic' phase of ISIS air war so far", Air Force Times, 28 March 2017):
“The last three weeks of airstrikes in Mosul have been 'the most kinetic three weeks in the campaign in Iraq' against the Islamic State, the top Air Force general in Iraq said Thursday.
Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, deputy commanding general for Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, Operation Inherent Resolve, said in an interview that coalition aircraft above Mosul have dropped more than 500 precision-guided munitions a week so far in March — even hitting as high as 605 weapons in one week. The weapons released were all in support of Iraqi Security Forces pushing further into the western part of Mosul, Isler said.
The increased airstrikes over Mosul come as the number of weapons released against ISIS overall continues to grow. According to Air Force statistics, military aircraft from the U.S. and other coalition nations released more than 7,000 weapons against ISIS in January and February — the most of any two-month stretch since the ISIS war began more than two and a half years ago.”
How is ISIS reacting to this use of force? A lesson from eastern Mosul is that when ISIS finally concedes in a particular locality, it goes underground to re-emerge when the elite forces are replaced by regular troops or by the Shi’a militias on which the Iraqi government depends. Such tactics are spread across northern Iraq, and extend even to Baghdad where over twenty people were killed in an attack on 20 March and fifteen more lost their lives at a police checkpoint in southern Baghdad on 29 March. Dozens more, inevitably, were wounded.
In that sense the wider post-Mosul civil war in Iraq is already underway. The real significance of the tactics being used in the city, however, goes well beyond this. It relates specifically to the onset of the Trump era. Many hundreds of civilians are being killed, the use of air-power is intensifying and the US is pouring more troops into Iraq and Syria.
When Mosul falls, Trump will no doubt declare a great victory as he "makes America great again". But Islamist propagandists will relish being able to present themselves as the true guardians of Islam, under violent assault from the crusader forces of the far enemy. For them, even now, times are really rather good.