Recapturing eastern Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS) represents a notable achievement for Iraq’s security forces. This presents a marked contrast to the disorder with which the Iraqi Army fought the sudden advance of ISIS in 2014. Then Iraq’s armed forces fell back and ISIS advanced to within 64 km of Baghdad.
Now ISIS is in full retreat and it is, slowly but surely, losing control of Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq. However, the offensive aimed at recapturing Mosul has sustained criticism.
There are worries about the effectiveness of elite Iraqi troops after months of hard fighting and attritional warfare. The operation has taken longer than was suggested by optimistic politicians and analysts and it has cost more than many expected. For example, the elite Golden Division, an Iraqi counterterrorism force, has taken many casualties. Some have suggested that it struggles to be combat-ready.
Iraq’s Federal Police and Emergency Response Division has taken an increasingly central role in the campaign to liberate Mosul, possibly because of the heavy toll sustained by counterterrorism units.
The assault on the ISIS-controlled western part of the city is viewed as likely to be a harder fight. Gareth Browne, a journalist who has reported from the Mosul offensive from the beginning, said: ‘Casualty rates have climbed since the west bank operation started, largely due to it being so densely populated’.
‘As forces enter the old city, they won’t be able to rely on air power and armoured vehicles’, Browne said. ‘Much of the fighting will have to be done on foot’ and will be dependent on ‘skill and bravery’ rather than technology, where ‘Iraqi forces undoubtedly have the upper hand’.
Summing up the progress of the offensive, Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think-tank, said ‘the offensive in Mosul has proceeded, basically, according to plan, though not without difficulties and given that eastern Mosul was the “easy” part, it does mean there are worries about western Mosul’.
Part of the reason the offensive has not made lightning progress is the attitude of the United States, whose leaders have been unwilling for their forces to be seen as being deeply involved in the battle in Mosul.
American forces’ rules of engagement have been recently amended to allow more of the parties that make up the coalition to request US air strikes and expanding the role of US troops on the ground. This signals a change in policy: American troops could begin to carry out more combat missions, rather than merely offering ill-defined support in addition to the air campaign.
At the same time, the Iraqi Air Force has recently undertaken air strikes in Syria. This represents an acknowledgement that the border between those two countries, for years frequently crossed by ISIS fighters and other forces, is largely a fiction. Browne surmised that the strikes suggest that ‘more and more actors, both regional and global, recognise that isolating themselves from ISIS won’t necessarily lead to a better security situation; in fact, the opposite is likely’.
Orton suggested the moves are ‘more politically important than they are militarily’. The effects of these strikes in the anti-ISIS campaign will be negligible but ‘being coordinated with the Assad government, almost certainly via Iran, it is one of the small data points as Tehran and Moscow press towards the legitimisation of Assad’, he said.
Shia militias from Iraq have sent fighters into Syria to assist and to prop up the Assad regime. Other militias have vowed to do so in the near future. Many see this being part of a wider Iran-organised attempt to protect its ally and proxy.
This complicates matters in an already convoluted conflict and makes it more difficult to forecast the future of ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria.
American willingness to allow others to do the fighting compounds this lack of clarity.
Victory in Mosul was enthusiastically expected to begin with and, though this remains almost inevitable, there is little said about what to do afterward. After ISIS loses its stronghold, it will continue to resist, retreating into the deserts and returning to the guerrilla campaigns favoured by its predecessor organisation during the aftermath of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Events in Syria also affect this picture. Ambiguity clouds who will attempt to capture Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital. Until that happens, Orton said: ‘The Islamic State will be harboured in its desert sanctuaries in Deir ez-Zor and Anbar’ where ‘local coordination is needed’ of the sort that will not easily be available to the Kurdish forces, which look most likely to be tasked with the Raqqa offensive.
ISIS is in retreat. Mosul will eventually fall. These things are encouraging but nothing is certain. The casualties taken by Iraqi forces could yet have unfortunate long-term consequences and a lack of American decisiveness may lead to a failure in planning for after the Mosul offensive — the post-civil war stage when ISIS retreats into the desert and begins another insurgency, as its leaders have been forecasting and its propaganda channels increasingly see as the future of the retreating caliphate.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.