Victory Against ISIS in Mosul Requires More Than Just a Military Triumph

The fate of the northern Iraqi city is impossible to call if and when coalition forces succeed in ousting Islamic State.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Pro-Islamic State demonstrators in Mosul, Iraq, June 16, 2014.
Pro-Islamic State demonstrators in Mosul, Iraq, June 16, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The recent triumph of the Iraqi army and its allied Shi’ite militias over Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) militants in Tikrit was called a successful operation that may have heralded a turning point before the upcoming battle for Anbar Province. However, the victory was also a nightmare that could sabotage the ongoing struggle against the jihadist group.

Numerous horrific images were provided by two Reuters correspondents who entered Tikrit after its capture on April 1. Fighters from the Shi’ite militias immediately began a looting frenzy, loading their pickups with anything they could get their hands on – from fridges and air conditioners to household items. They also marked houses with their own names as a sign of ownership. One pickup dragged a rope-bound, dead ISIS fighter behind it. Meanwhile, two men suspected of aiding ISIS were hauled from a pickup belonging to the Iraqi army. One of them, an Egyptian citizen, was thrown on the sidewalk, whereupon a Shi’ite militiaman pounced on him and slit his throat, calling on onlookers to bring him a new knife so he could decapitate the man.

Tikrit has a Sunni majority and after its recapture from ISIS – which first took control of the city last June – the governor called on the city’s residents to return home. However, the right of return is not automatic: any resident wishing to return must undergo an investigation (including by Shi’ite militiamen), in order to confirm that he wasn’t an ISIS supporter. This provides an opportunity for settling scores with neighbors, transferring property ownership and for some thinning of the Sunni population.

While tempers flare in Baghdad over the brutality exhibited by the Shi’ite militias, Western coalition forces – along with the Kurds and Iraqi leaders – are preparing for the important battle to liberate Mosul, which was also captured by ISIS last June. The timing of the operation has not yet been set, and Iraq and the United States are split over the strategy that should be adopted in order to defeat ISIS there. In the meantime, Sunni forces currently being trained by instructors from Turkey and the United States have said they won’t participate in the battle for Mosul if Shi’ite militias also take part.

No weapons, poor food

The events in Tikrit have reduced the number of volunteers coming from among Sunni tribesmen, and the target of 10,000 volunteers now seems unachievable. At Camp Speicher, where some of the forces are training, volunteers complain that the Iraqi government is not providing them with adequate arms or ammunition, and that the food is insufficient. They add that the government is actually opposed to the formation of a Sunni force, concerned that it will become an independent militia that will operate to protect the Sunni minority in Iraq. Photojournalist Matt Cetti-Roberts visited the camp, and he described the battered Chinese Kalashnikov weapons – bought on the black market – with which these volunteers are training. They rarely use live ammunition during training, due to its scarcity. At the same time, arms supplies from the United States are not arriving, making it difficult for the volunteers to construct effective fighting units.

In contrast to the battle against Houthi rebels in Yemen – in which Arab troops are taking part – the Western coalition is not intending to dispatch forces to the battle for Mosul, but only to provide air cover for local ground forces. According to U.S. plans, combined Iraqi forces will first have to mop-up areas close to the northern city, before entering Mosul itself. This means the battle for liberating Anbar Province in western Iraq, and the planned retaking of Tal Afar, will precede the main campaign.

Another stage of the operation will come from the Kurdish region adjacent to Mosul, with Kurdish forces attacking the city from the north and east. This will enable Mosul to be surrounded from all sides, preventing the arrival of any help from Syria or the south. The plan does not elaborate on how all these forces will be coordinated, with Shi’ites worried that Kurds may take control of Mosul in a manner that may later make it impossible to sever it from the Kurdish autonomous region. The Sunnis, meanwhile, are threatening not to collaborate with Shi’ite militias, who don’t exactly follow orders from the government in Baghdad.

The one million inhabitants of Mosul are anxious about the commotion that will erupt when the battle for the city recommences. They mainly fear that the bombs falling from above will not be able to distinguish between innocent civilians and ISIS fighters.

It’s still not clear what role Iranian forces will play in this complement of players. They are currently training and supervising some of the Iraqi units, as well as the Shi’ite militias. Thus, any victory in Mosul will consist not only in capturing the city or the uprooting of ISIS. The political battle for control the city is no less important than the military campaign. Will the Iraqi army be in charge again after its disastrous rout last June? Or will it be the Shi’ite militias along with Iranian forces? What will the Kurdish portion of the booty be?

In addition to these dilemmas, the honor of the coalition forces – particularly the American ones – hangs on this operation. Paradoxically, the prestige of the largest world power will be judged by its ability to help conquer one city in Iraq.

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