Analysis

With Next Gaza War in Mind, Israel Keeps Close Eye on Iraq's Battle With ISIS for Mosul

Defense officials say the difficulties Israel will face in Gaza if another war breaks out are even greater than the Iraqi army's challenges in Mosul.

A sniper fires at targets during clashes with ISIS fighters in Mosul, Iraq, March 5, 2017.
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP

The Iraqi army’s takeover of Mosul’s main government complex, which was announced before dawn on Tuesday, brings Baghdad closer to ousting ISIS from its last major stronghold on Iraqi soil. When the recapture of Mosul is finally complete, it will constitute an important achievement in a greater effort, planned and assisted by the Americans, whose goal is to completely destroy the caliphate declared by ISIS in northern Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014.

The international coalition Washington forged for the war on ISIS has been joined by no fewer than 69 countries. The Americans are aware of their slow progress on the obstacle-strewn path toward their goal, but they have patience, and they’re confident in the logic of their plan.

A senior general involved in the effort recently told a closed forum that once Mosul is cleansed, the drive to capture the capital of the caliphate, the Syrian town of Raqqa, will begin. He predicted that Raqqa would fall by this summer.

The ongoing aerial pounding of ISIS targets, alongside progress by the ground forces and a fairly effective campaign of assassination against senior ISIS and Al-Qaida operatives, represent a success, albeit a gradual, limited one, in the international war on jihadist terror. ISIS will evidently have trouble repeating its peak achievement – the takeover of huge swathes of Syria and Iraq less than three years ago.

The main threat it continues to pose is ideological – its ability to inspire lone-wolf terrorists and small terrorist cells into committing terror attacks that reverberate around the world. Moreover, ISIS' loss of territory is liable to result in many Islamist volunteers who came to the Mideast to join the fighting in Iraq and Syria going back home.

Nor is the West their only target. Russia estimates that about 6,000 of its nationals have joined the fighting as members of radical organizations.

Israel’s defense establishment is following these developments for two reasons. The first is that the challenges Iraq faces in Mosul resemble the difficulties Israel faces in fighting in dense urban areas in the Gaza Strip. The Iraqi forces have suffered heavy losses in the ongoing effort to retake Mosul; thousands of civilians have also been killed by the battles and the airstrikes.

Nevertheless, senior Israeli officials say the difficulties Israel will face in Gaza if another war breaks out there are even worse. Hamas has had more time to organize, and it apparently also has more troops. The Iraqi army claimed on Monday that only about 1,000 armed ISIS fighters remain in Mosul.

The second reason relates to developments along Israel’s borders and even among its own citizens. Two ISIS affiliates, one on the Syrian border and one in Sinai, receive orders and sometimes funding from Raqqa. Thus the caliphate’s collapse will also affect them.

Yet if ISIS succeeds in creating a mythos of heroism out of its battles for survival in Mosul and Raqqa, this could also persuade more young Muslim men to follow in its footsteps. As Haaretz reported last week, Israel is currently holding no fewer than 83 Arabs – some Israeli citizens, others, Palestinians – with links to ISIS, Al-Qaida or other Salafi organizations, up from just 12 a year ago.

The expected victory in Mosul will surely be leveraged by the Trump Administration, which currently needs any evidence it can find that the president knows what he’s doing. At least with regard to ISIS, there’s so far little difference between Donald Trump’s policy and that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

At the same time, the U.S. president and senior administration officials will continue talking about Iran, just like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said on Monday that Iran is responsible for 80 percent of Israel’s security problems. The intensive focus by both Trump and Netanyahu on the danger posed by Iran has two reasons, common to both of them.

First, Tehran truly is testing America’s patience right now, by comparatively frequent missile tests, incessant subversion and aiding terrorist and guerrilla organizations throughout the Mideast (some of which directly threaten Israel). Second, nurturing awareness of an outside threat enables both leaders to divert attention from problems at home, where both face heavy criticism, each for his own reasons.

While the American president is continuing to make headlines at a dizzying pace that almost matches the frequency of his tweets, it’s worth remembering one thing: All the scandals Trump has dealt with in the six-and-a-half weeks since he took office have been entirely his own making. They erupted because of his hasty statements and poorly thought-out moves – or because of revelations about his senior officials’ behavior during the election campaign.

In contrast, the administration has yet to encounter a serious international crisis that takes Washington by surprise and erupts for reasons beyond its control – tensions between two countries with nuclear weapons, a large-scale major humanitarian crisis in a Third World country, or a major wave of terror attacks in the West. Had Trump not offended Obama by claiming (apparently falsely) that the previous administration was wiretapping his conversations, he might have been able to hear about such crises at length from his predecessor.