The much-heralded offensive against ISIS in Mosul by the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shiite militias may succeed in capturing Iraq’s second largest city. It is unlikely to result in the destruction of the Islamic State’s fighting capacity, however. It is even less likely to lead to the establishment of stable and permanent government control over Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, which has Mosul at its northern tip.
The importance of Mosul is clear. It is a major population center of over two million (before the war) and the pivot that intersects the east-west line of communication from the Syrian border to the north-south axis that leads to Baghdad, 250 miles to the south. The first question, which has not been adequately considered in mainstream media reports, concerns the battle readiness of government forces. In June 2014 the Iraqi army collapsed and fled without a fight when ISIS attacked Mosul, although it was vastly superior to the attackers in numbers and equipment. The high command in Baghdad was unable to maintain any semblance of command and control, even though the U.S. had spent some 20 billion dollars on arming, training and equipping it in preceding years. Its mostly Shiite soldiers were uninterested in fighting for Sunni-majority areas which they did not regard as their own. It was unable to develop any sense of loyalty or common purpose among its non-Shia recruits, who deserted en masse.
It is unclear what if anything has changed over the past two years and four months to shift the balance. The personnel, equipment, training and doctrine are still largely the same. Early signs were not encouraging. On the first day of the current offensive it took the Iraqi army six hours of fierce combat to push back a platoon-sized IS unit from Ibrahim Khalil, a village 20 miles south of Mosul. The jihadists came back and retook the village during the night: “No reinforcements showed up so when they attacked we had to retreat from the five villages we captured on Tuesday. We ended up right back where we started,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammed Hadi. “We took back three today but we can’t advance further towards Mosul until the others arrive.” This episode bodes ill for the future of a complex operation which requires precise planning and coordination. Subsequent army claims of battlefield successes, such as the taking of the city of Bartella on October 21, may reflect the unwillingness of ISIS to give battle in open plains south of the city where its fighters would be at an obvious disadvantage.
Another known unknown is how well the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army will coordinate their operations, considering their abiding mutual distrust and divergent political objectives. Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq have been engaged in a regional struggle for land and power. Mosul was 25% Kurdish before the war, and the Peshmerga has the unstated but clear objective to reestablish their co-nationals’ presence in eastern parts of the city after their mass exodus before the ISIS onslaught in June 2014. If the Kurds establish a partition line on the eastern bank of the Tigris and effectively extend their rule to the ISIS-held area they already claim, then the battle for Mosul may well pave the way for the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s independence. Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, supports full statehood and has not given up on eventually organizing independence referendum. A survey conducted last August indicates that close to 85% of people in Iraqi Kurdistan would vote for independence.
That scenario, of course, is anathema to the government in Baghdad. It is also likely to cause alarm in Turkey, which started its own limited military intervention in Syria on August 24 ostensibly to fight ISIS but in reality to curb the northern Syrian Kurds whose YPG militia was well on the way to establish a mini-state south of Turkey’s border. Having provided invaluable assistance to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign, Syria’s Kurds felt betrayed by the U.S. which supported Ankara’s action. By contrast Iraqi Kurds have developed a solid working relationship with Turkey, but any formal striving for independence is certain to be a red line for Erdogan.
Even if the government in Baghdad resolves its differences with Barzani, at least temporarily, its ability to extend effective control over Mosul is in doubt. The remaining population of Mosul, now overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim (70% before the war), may well be weary of ISIS rule, but it will not greet Kurdish and Shiite fighters as liberators. It was a Ba’ath party stronghold before the war and home to a very large contingent of Saddam’s officer corps who subsequently formed the core of the Sunni insurgency in the area. In April 2003, when the U.S. Army captured the city, Mosul descended into chaos with armed Kurds looting the stores and evicting thousands of Arabs out of their homes. In November 2004 many Sunni Arab civilians supported the insurgents belonging to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) who briefly captures most of the city following partial withdrawal of U.S. forces. In the ensuing years Mosul had been a center of the Sunni insurgency. Most Sunni Arabs fear and loath the Kurds no less than they despise and hate the Shia. The government in Baghdad has no stick to impose order by force, but it has no carrots either: with oil prices at just $40 a barrel, it does not have the billions that will be required to rebuild Mosul and it is ill prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis that the fighting may create.
Last but not least, the recapture of Mosul will be a tactical success but strategic failure if ISIS fighters are allowed to retreat from the city and move west to Syria. This is undoubtedly the preferred scenario of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other jihadi abettors. It may well be the hidden agenda of some planners in Washington as well, who are likely to see an influx of seasoned Islamist fighters into Syria as a neat ploy to make life even harder for Bashar and his Russian backers. If Mosul falls without much of a fight, and if the retreating ISIS columns are not bombed to smithereens on their way west . . . and if its capture is used by the Obama Administration to advance Hillary Clinton’s campaign, we’ll know the score.
[Image Credit: By Boris Niehaus (Own work)/Wikipedia Commons]
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.