By Md. Muddassir Quamar*
In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured Mosul, the capital of northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, and later in the month, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose the city to proclaim the establishment of a global Sunni caliphate. The way ISIS had run over the city with Iraqi forces meekly surrendering to the militants had underlined the fragility of Iraqi armed forces.
The ISIS continued to govern the city as its prized possession in Iraq and was brutal with religious minorities, especially the Yazidis and Assyrian Christians. Demographically one of the most diverse cities in Iraq, the area is rich in oil and minerals and the Mosul refinery had become one of the major sources of revenue for the ISIS. The second largest city in Iraq lies at a strategic location close to Turkish and Syrian borders and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The city served as the political base of ISIS in Iraq and provided it with a strategic location to expand in all directions and to control the supply lines for weapons and other resources to ISIS-held territories in northern Syria and Anbar province.
Before the takeover by the ISIS, the city was one of the major trading and economic centres in northern Iraq and was the hub of business. For Turkey, the region has political importance because of its domestic Kurdish question and hence it has coordinated with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to seal its borders to prevent ISIS or Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from launching attacks inside Turkey. Further, the small town of Bashiqa has been used by Turkey as a base for training Kurdish Peshmarga fighters since December 2015 and it also led to frictions between Ankara and Baghdad.
The post-ISIS scenario is not clear as major stakeholders, including the KRG, Baghdad and allied militias and Sunni tribal fighters and their external backers US, Iran and Turkey have not yet agreed upon the future of Mosul. Ideally the KRG might take over the city and allow for reconstruction and return of Christians and Yazidis who had migrated due to ISIS oppression.
Before the October 2016 offensive by Iraqi armed forces and allied militias along with Kurdish Peshmarga and limited US ground forces and air support, attempts in January 2015 and March 2016 to retake the city had failed.
The battle launched on October 16, 2016, has made fast advances and has put the ISIS on the back-foot evoking hope of liberation of Mosul. The ISIS, however, has not given up and has continued to fight and, according to some analysts, might prefer to engage in a protracted urban warfare. It has continued to fight on both fronts opened by Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmarga on the northeastern and eastern sides, respectively, and has used suicide bombings and put up mines to prevent the advances of pro-government forces. It continues to clutch on to the city and even opened a third front by attacking Kirkuk to divert the offensive on Mosul.
One of the most significant aspects of the battle for Mosul has been the fear of use of chemical or other lethal weapons by the ISIS. Media reports suggest that on October 22 the ISIS set a sulphur plant on fire leading to fear of toxic fumes hampering advancing forces.
Further, the differences among the allies, especially with Turkey wanting to have a role in the battle and the Iraqi government’s refusal in this regard, have created fissures and fears of the ISIS taking benefit.
Mosul is largely a Sunni city and fears have been expressed that the use of Shia militias in the offensive can lead to the Sunni population turning their back to the government and supporting the ISIS. Turkey has demanded that Shia militias be not allowed to enter the city after its liberation to prevent the massacre of its Sunni population. Such differences cast a cloud over the battle and underscore the sectarian divisions afflicting Iraq since the US invasion in 2003.
Nevertheless, the ongoing offensive seems determined to retake Mosul and quick early advances have created hopes that the battle will end soon. It is expected that the ISIS under pressure from the advancing forces will abandon the city and flee to its other strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
If it otherwise tries to engage in a long urban warfare and takes civilian hostages, it can also lead to a humanitarian crisis. Early signs indicate that unlike the case of Dabiq in Syria that was retaken by the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels without much resistance earlier this month, the ISIS is determined to fight in Mosul.
The battle for Mosul is important because it will determine the future of the ISIS and the retaking of Mosul will send an important message that the terrorist groups have no place in the future of Iraq and Syria.
It is significant in many ways.
Firstly, it comes after several reverses for the ISIS in the past few months in both Iraq and Syria where it has lost territories to the Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Secondly, its sources of finance and supply have been choked leading to build up of pressure and reports of many foreign fighters abandoning the group.
Thirdly, it indicates that both within Iraq and among external forces involved in the Iraqi theatre there is clarity on how to fight the ISIS. Fourthly, it also exposes the weakness of the terrorist group against a sustained and determined attack.
Finally, it also underlines the need for a coordinated effort to strike the vital stakes of the ISIS that has so far evaded the actors involved. In fact, the major countries involved in Iraq including Iran, Turkey and the US as well as their Iraqi partners in Shia militias, Sunni tribal fighters, Kurds and the Iraqi government have in the past hardly agreed on any political or military step to fight the ISIS.
With the advances made by the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, it is hoped that the battle for Mosul will not be prolonged. However, it would be futile to undermine the ISIS and its destructive machinery as it has the potential to unleash a reign of terror to prevent its rout from the city.
Reports suggest that its leadership, including ‘Caliph’ al-Baghdadi, has abandoned Mosul and are based in Raqqah in Syria. It also means that it can be working towards completely abandoning the city under intense pressure.
The retaking of Mosul will give impetus to the coalition working to oust the ISIS from Iraq and can pave the way for further operations to liberate all ISIS-controlled territories.
A swift victory over the ISIS will be ideal but with the ISIS determined to fight, it may take longer. Even though the liberation of Mosul may not lead to immediate advances in other areas under ISIS control and the post-ISIS scenario not yet clear, it will have far reaching ramifications for the future of Iraq and will be a symbolic victory over the ISIS.
*Dr. Md. Muddassir Quamar is a researcher at the Middle East Institute, in New Delhi. Tweets @mmqmudy