Showdown in Mosul: Why it could be transformative for both ISIS and Iraq

If ISIS loses the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in the coming battle, its visions of a caliphate would fade, while the government in Baghdad would have the chance to rewrite Iraq's national narrative.

Bram Janssen/Associated Press
An Iraqi soldier looks toward Islamic State group territory outside Qayyara Tuesday Oct. 4, 2016. Qayyara has become an important staging ground for military and humanitarian efforts ahead of the Mosul operation.

For the government in Baghdad, there is no bigger prize than recapturing Mosul, Iraq’s second city, which fell ignominiously as the Iraqi Army crumbled in the face of an onslaught from the so-called Islamic State (IS) in June 2014.

And with the offensive looming in coming weeks, the jihadists are facing what could be the greatest blow to their vision of a caliphate that stretches from across North Africa, through the Middle East, to Pakistan.

Mosul was where that state was first declared, with a call for the Islamic nation to “wake from its sleep … and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace.” Muslims were told: “Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared.”

“We’re not just talking a symbolic victory [over IS in Mosul]; this is going to be the death blow for IS the caliphate,” says Hayder al-Khoei, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in London, who nevertheless cautions that the jihadists will not disappear.

“They are still going to be a very powerful, a very relevant terrorist organization,” Mr. Khoei says. “And if anything, the loss of their state will increase the frequency of their attacks, both in the West and certainly in Iraq and Syria. This is simply for them to say, ‘We are still relevant. The loss of our capital in Iraq isn’t going to make us go away.’ ”

The battle for Mosul may be just as pivotal for Iraq. Analysts say that seizure of the last major IS stronghold in the country – following government recapture of the cities of Tikrit, Ramadi, and, most recently, Fallujah in June – may also help change the narrative of a weak and helpless centralized state by convincing Iraqi citizens of a resurrected military capability.

Iraqi counter-terrorism units and the Iraqi Army are now marshaling for the battle, the culmination of 2-1/2 years of promises from Baghdad to force IS out of Mosul. Kurdish peshmerga forces are also deployed near the city, which once had an estimated population of 2 million, winnowed down now to perhaps 700,000.

A purpose-built “Nineveh Liberation Operations Center” is meant to organize the offensive, reportedly with the help of dozens of US and British advisers, who are backed up by American artillery and US air power some 40 miles south of Mosul at Qayyara.

Messaging Mosul

Any anti-IS military operation is fraught with risk, since the jihadists have become adept at booby-trapping entire districts, masking their movements from the eyes of drones and surveillance aircraft with burning oil, and deceptively – and lethally – using Humvees and other captured Iraqi military vehicles as car bombs in multiple, back-to-back strikes. But Iraqi officials exude confidence over the end result.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi this week made a first broadcast to the residents of Mosul, who have reported an uptick in IS violence in recent weeks against alleged fifth columnists.

“We will celebrate the big victory of Mosul with you soon,” said Mr. Abadi, promising that the Iraqi flag would fly over them again and ticking off the names of “liberated” cities “which have been reunited with our home, Iraq, and our people.”

Iraqi forces dropped leaflets south of the city in late September, which read: “Protect yourself, don’t be human shields for the enemy, leave the town immediately,” CNN reported.

IS has stoutly defended some towns and territory in Iraq, but in the most recent stand-off in Fallujah, outnumbered and outgunned IS fighters appeared in many cases to melt away, leaving Iraqi forces with a relatively cost-free victory that has bolstered confidence among Iraqi commanders that Mosul may present less of a fight, too.

Expectations after the battle

If IS loses its grip on its last large city in Iraq, different players have different expectations.

If you are a native of Mosul, “it’s the end of a nightmare and the start of a new era – for the first time, Iraqi security forces are coming into the city as liberators, rather than occupiers,” says Michael Knights, an Iraq expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

“If you are the US, you’re always looking for that Tokyo Harbor moment, so it looks like victory, and allows the president to sort of wipe his hands of this Iraq mess and walk away, as if everything worked out the way he planned,” Mr. Knights says.

“And if you are the Iraqi government and the Abadi guys, then this is a major political victory that might strengthen your hand to fight off all these Shiite militias from taking over the country,” he says.

One key variable will be the role of the Shiite militias and their tens of thousands of men, who were mobilized in mid-2014 to defend Baghdad and Shiite shrines from IS. They have played a key role in the anti-IS fight, but have also deepened sectarian divisions with allegations of abuses against Iraq’s minority Sunnis, who were in wide rebellion against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad in 2014, and in many instances welcomed and even facilitated the IS arrival.

Need for sectarian balance

Atheel al-Nujaifi, the Sunni governor of Nineveh province, with Mosul as its capital, when IS took control, warned this week of the sectarian stakes.

“The biggest fear is that Iraq will [fracture] if they don’t control this fight in a wise manner and they don’t give the Arab Sunnis real authority,” Mr. Nujaifi told Reuters from his base in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil. “Kurds are partners on the ground. We have no problems with them. But in terms of the Shiite militias, they are an alien or strange entity in the governorate.”

Aware of the need to strike that balance to minimize sectarian friction in the post-Mosul era, the Shiite militias “have been given very clear commands, ‘You’re not going to assault the city. You are going to stay on the perimeter,’” says Khoei of ECFR.

That frees up federal troops for the actual battle, he says, where they will find a population subjected to years of hateful, anti-Shiite indoctrination by IS that has been further fed by reports of Shiite abuses of Sunnis elsewhere.

“It’s bound to have an effect on the psyche of the people of Mosul, who say, ‘Oh my God, if these people come in, there’s going to be a bloodbath,’ ” says Khoei. “But that didn’t happen in Fallujah, it didn’t happen in Tikrit, and I’m pretty certain it’s not going to happen in Mosul, despite the fact there might be rogue elements, isolated incidents. Nobody can deny this, some pretty awful stuff has happened.”

Canadian Brig. Gen. Dave Anderson, who heads Iraqi force training for the US-led coalition in Baghdad, says victory in Mosul is “inevitable” and likely to be a turning point against IS in its existing format. But he offers the caveat that losing Mosul “does not mean that [IS] is defeated by any stretch of the imagination."

“It is the beginning of the end. And [IS] knows that,” Anderson said in a Pentagon conference call Wednesday. “We’ve already seen signs of leaders abandoning their posts in Mosul, because they know what’s coming. They know that Mosul is going to fall.”

Better story for Abadi, US

But how it falls may determine the shape of politics in Iraq for years to come, analysts say.

“If Abadi can do this without the Shiite militias, it’s another feather in his cap for him, for the Counter Terrorism Service, for the Iraqi Army – and it begins to rebuild faith in the state,” says Knights of WINEP.

“The reason why the Shiite militias got so strong is because people said, ‘In Iraq’s time of need, the state collapsed, and the militias and the people were the ones who saved Baghdad.’ Well, that was true,” says Knights. The US was seen as “twiddling its thumbs” while the enemy was at the gates of Baghdad.

“Now the narrative is a little different. What did the government do? It took back Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji, Geyara, and Mosul,” says Knights. “And what did the US do? It did a lot. What we’ve done is manage to change the narrative over the past year, and that’s really important.

“I think a lot of salutary lessons have been learned out of this war,” adds Knights. “The Shia are tired of fighting [and] the Sunnis know the government in Baghdad is the legitimate government … that came and liberated them. They might not love it, but people in the Deep South of the US don’t love Washington, either, but they deal with it.”

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