October 18, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Battle Much Larger Than the Islamic State

• As the largest Iraqi military campaign since 2003 begins near Mosul, the complexity of the battle is exceeded only by the complexity of the politics surrounding it.

• Deep internal sectarian and ethnic divisions will play a significant role in the long-term outcome in Mosul, with the added complication of Turkish and Iranian intrigue.

• The importance of Mosul to the long-term stability of Iraq may help ensure some level of sustained foreign support in the difficult months and years ahead.

• If handled successfully, Mosul could mark the beginning of the end of the Islamic State; if handled poorly, it could be yet another pause before an inevitable resurgence of terror.


With the long-awaited campaign to retake Mosul from the so-called Islamic State now under way, the Iraqi government has a chance to show that it can win a battle while also winning a war. The Islamic State has lost battle after battle as it has withdrawn from much of the Iraqi territory it held for more two years. Yet, the group has always steadied itself in the midst of the losses with two realities: it had a secure grip on Iraq’s second largest city, and the Iraqi government had not shown itself to be capable of effective governance—a critical requirement in order to further drive a wedge between the Islamic State and the terrorized civilians it claims to represent.

Thus, Mosul presents a unique opportunity not just for the Iraqi military, which was rightfully criticized for its abysmal performance in the first half of 2014 when the Islamic State took over large swathes of the country; it is also a chance for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government—and its regional and international supporters—to show an effective ‘whole of government’ approach to what has always been a multi-causal crisis. At almost every critical stage since the 2003 invasion, Iraq has experienced division instead of cooperation—destructive sectarianism instead of healthy nationalism. Mosul represents the best chance in thirteen years for a relatively cooperative Iraqi government to act decisively, yet intelligently, towards a goal that transcends other parochial and factional concerns.

It is difficult to overstate the level of planning and support that has gone into the Mosul campaign. The military challenges of removing an entrenched foe in an urban warfare environment, while simultaneously protecting as many as one million civilians caught in the cross fire would be daunting in the best of circumstances. But lacking unified combatants and commands, Iraqi military considerations must always include every level of sectarian and ethnic concerns that could turn a military victory into a strategic defeat. Up to this point, such concerns have not materialized into the doomsday predictions of mass sectarian bloodletting and violence, though incidents of sectarian violence have occurred in previous campaigns in Tikrit and elsewhere. The Mosul campaign calls for the Kurdish Peshmerga to clear villages to the east of Mosul, while the actual assault on the city will be left to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Federal Police, and the Counter-Terrorism Forces (CTF). The Hashd’—or Popular Mobilization Forces, which are primarily Shi’a—will be used as blocking forces in an effort to encircle the city before the final assault.

On the regional front, even as the campaign gets underway with notable advances on the first day, tensions between Baghdad and Ankara have blown up over Turkish insistence that its forces—and those Iraqi forces it supports—play some role in the outcome. Mosul is vitally important for the Turkmen, as well as the Kurds, who are far from unified over the Mosul campaign, and suffer divergent long-term goals for northern Iraq and Syria. Turkey and Iraq will need to come to some level of agreement in order for the military campaign in Mosul to have lasting political and social impacts.

Given the sheer size of Mosul—and its experience of savage rule at the hands of the Islamic State—revenge killing will likely be an issue in the days and months ahead. The level of atrocities and outrages perpetrated against minority communities such as the Yazidi and Christians, as well as to the population at large, rank among the worst war crimes in recent history. A massive effort will be required to begin to heal what is a truly fractured city and society.


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