The battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group continues to rage. The group, skilled in guerrilla and asymmetric warfare, will fight hard, not so much to retain the city, but to cause as much damage as possible to the forces of the global coalition.
It has prepared traps and ambushes, designed both to slow oncoming forces down and to inflict maximum casualties upon Iraqi government, Kurdish and other forces.
The battle for Mosul will be more protracted than some predicted, and involve a great deal of difficulty. After the dramatic successes at the beginning of the operation, expectations were high: villages were rapidly overrun; IS fighters were killed in their droves by airstrikes; the Iraqi government was confident enough of success to take the unusual step of allowing the operation to be broadcast live on Facebook.
That early optimism has not been borne out by subsequent events. Capturing a major city is different; it is not like advancing rapidly through villages and other settlements. There are new challenges, new obstacles, and IS has certainly had enough time to prepare for a protracted fight for the city, building walls and barricades, as well as digging ditches and networks of tunnels.
This was always going to be a hard fight, but it has been rendered harder by the policies of the United States government. Indeed, the battle for Mosul, though it is progressing, could have been conducted better. And this represents something deeper about the legacy of Barack Obama’s term as president of the United States.
The attempt to recapture Mosul from IS encapsulates many unfortunate aspects of the Obama foreign policy: namely, an attempt to reconcile enemies, foster unworkable alliances and talk instead of acting.
Though Mosul will eventually be recaptured, the continued presence of Iranian-sponsored Shia militias remains concerning. There are Shia elements within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) which have been levied to assist the Iraqi army. This is well known. What is also understood – both by those Sunnis living under IS rule and worldwide – is that these forces have been committing sectarian crimes in the course of their military operations.
Shia militiamen have committed war crimes, including murder, ethnic cleansing, and torture of Sunni civilians, including children. The use of sectarian slogans by these militias, while not as grave as the preceding, cannot help but set an unproductive tone in the operation to recapture Mosul.
Without adequate assurances that they will not be killed, persecuted or demonised, Mosul’s residents, especially Sunnis, have little reason to welcome their would-be liberators.
The news which arrives from the front can hardly allay these fears. With reports of people such as Abu Azrael, something of a sectarian symbol who is alleged to have mutilated corpses, arriving to assist the PMF fight IS, even those most decidedly opposed to the Islamic State cannot but worry about what the future holds. This blatant promotion of sectarian figures and sectional interests can only enflame tensions in the course of an attempt to recapture a majority Sunni city.
The unwillingness of successive US administrations to combat increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, culminating in Obama’s outstretched olive branch, has no doubt assisted the rise of this sectarianism.
At the same time, the Kurdish Peshmerga, though they are effective fighters and have had some success in their part of the campaign, remain unpopular in Mosul. Sunni Arabs worry about being pushed out by Kurdish settlers; they worry about being rendered second-class citizens. Even if these fears are overblown, it would be foolish to dismiss the effect they can have. Much like in the heavily trailed Raqqa offensive, perceived indulgence of Kurdish expansionism could prove an aid to IS recruitment.
It is in a different country, but it is not an entirely separate issue: the almost fanciful suggestions of a swift conquest of Raqqa, which is forever prophesied, but never delivered, represent a symptom of the same policy.
What the battle for Mosul represents, then, is not a coherent, cohesive campaign, but rather a collection of different actors, each with different objectives, paying lip service to a shared goal. Such things stoke anxieties among the civilian population; and these concerns are hardly immaterial in attempting to liberate a city with a population of over a million.
This can be seen, in sum, as the result of an Obama administration policy to lead from behind and obfuscate at every turn.
Despite the fact that the United States has deployed hundreds of troops in varying roles in the Mosul offensive, there has been no acceptance that this means America has “boots on the ground”. The phrase is avoided; for a president committed to ending wars, to acknowledge a serious role in this conflict would seem an admission of failure.
This may seem a matter of semantics, but it is important, and emblematic: the president is so committed to his image as a man of peace that he is unwilling to acknowledge a war when it appears, and prefers to fight it through proxies – proxies the United States denies.
Perhaps Mosul will fall before Obama leaves office; that would represent a propaganda victory for him, and it may create a false impression that the system he has created to retake IS-occupied territory is working. But at the same time it could represent something different for Iraq: a pyrrhic victory, inflicting such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.
If the battle is hard, and Mosul is destroyed as Ramadi was destroyed – most of Ramadi was levelled in the battle to liberate it from IS control – and sectarian violence is allowed to take place, all while IS withdraws into the deserts and consolidates its strength, this will not represent a victory at all. It will not represent a victory worthy of the name.
The fact remains, however, that President Obama is almost uninterested in victory, so far as he can delegate the business of fighting to other people. This is not the way to defeat IS and it poses serious problems both in the short and long term. But the president will be out of office by then, ready to pass responsibility for these issues off onto his unwanted and unprepared successor.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.