A newly displaced woman grabs humanitarian packages as smoke rises from a burning oil refinery south of Mosul. (Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
A U.S.-backed campaign to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is underway, with the Iraqi military and the peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s fighting force, getting closer. The urban combat required to take back the city will be complicated by the panoply of armed groups gathering to fight the Islamic State. “These fighters don’t have experience coordinating with one another, and, in many cases, are mortal enemies,” says CFR Senior Fellow Philip H. Gordon. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, at the helm of an Iraqi army that has been rebuilt from its collapse in 2014, is poised to tamp down these rivalries during the battle, but restoring a stable order in its aftermath will be more challenging, says Gordon, a former National Security Council official in the Obama administration.
The battle for Mosul has been anticipated for months now, with the Obama administration framing it as the culmination of U.S.-backed efforts by Iraqi forces to roll back the Islamic State. Why is Mosul so important?
It’s a city of nearly two million people, and ISIS got its hands on a lot of resources there, so substantively it’s highly valuable, but symbolically even more so. This is where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate in June 2014, and Mosul symbolized the group’s purported ability to hold a major “capital” city and to be a state. ISIS has lost nearly half of the territory it held in Iraq over the last eighteen months, but Mosul is where it all started. To take this jewel away would be a devastating psychological setback to the group.
How is the Islamic State reacting to this string of setbacks?
It appears that the more that ISIS loses territory and fails in its desire to create and maintain a state, the more it lashes out externally. If it can’t win over recruits in Europe and elsewhere by showing successes on the battlefield and claiming to restore seventh-century glory to the region, then it will look to attack elsewhere. It will seek to provoke Western governments into measures that radicalize populations further, as we’ve seen with attacks in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, and the United States.
Another likely consequence is that ISIS fighters and leaders will flee to Syria; some have probably already fled, and others will manage to sneak out during the battle. They will bolster the ISIS presence in parts of Syria.
The campaign to retake Mosul has involved many irregular forces in addition to official Iraqi ones. How does that affect the battle?