Analysis |

Mosul: A Glimpse Into the Future of War in the Middle East

Many players are closely watching the battle for Mosul. One of them is Hezbollah, who's playing a two-sided game.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Kurdish Peshmerga military vehicles drive during a battle with ISIS at Jarbuah village, near Mosul, Iraq, October 28, 2016.
Kurdish Peshmerga military vehicles drive during a battle with ISIS at Jarbuah village, near Mosul, Iraq, October 28, 2016.Credit: Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

By the end of the second week of the battle for Mosul, the forces of the coalition have yet to enter the Iraqi city itself. The Iraqi Armed Forces from the south and the Kurdish forces from the north are advancing slowly and cautiously, anticipating strong opposition as they prepare to expel Islamic State fighters from Iraq’s second-largest city.

Special reports from Mosul front line: Iraqi forces marching toward bloodbath with ISIS | The inconvenient reality behind the long, messy battle for Mosul.

Until then, there is likely to be substantial destruction and many civilian deaths, accompanied by military losses on both sides. Thousands of refugees are already fleeing from the city, managing to evade ISIS forces. Military experts believe that Mosul’s fate won’t differ much from that of the smaller city of Ramadi, which was liberated from ISIS rule in January – but only after major destruction. In the words of an American officer during the war in Vietnam, in order to save Mosul it will have to be destroyed.

The battle in the densely populated urban area, full of tunnels, booby-trapped buildings and suicide bombers, is being observed closely by professionals, including those who aren’t participating directly. To a great extent, this is how future battles in the Middle East will look: Close contact in built-up areas, with a large civilian population trapped between the combatants and serving against its will as a human shield.

Hezbollah, which has advisers working with the Shi’ite militias helping the Iraqi army, is watching events from up close, including the air activities of the international coalition led by the United States.

Hezbollah is observing another urban arena as well: the siege of Aleppo, in Syria, where Russia is leading a military alliance with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian advisers against the rebels. This week, a Twitter account identified with the Syrian regime posted a picture from a joint war room in the Aleppo region. It shows several commanders from various militias and, in the background, the flags of Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

Thus the Shi’ite terror organization is at present a leading member in a coalition of one great power and an active partner, even if marginal, in a coalition formed by the competing great power. On both fronts there will be something to learn.

The lessons of Mosul are also relevant for Israel, whose coming wars, if they erupt, are likely to be conducted in densely populated areas in Gaza and South Lebanon. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who according to his associates has ordered the army to update its operational plans for occupying Gaza, should keep track of what’s happening in Iraq. Except that the great powers have advantages that Israel won’t have in the tough urban battles.

The diplomatic clock works faster when it comes to Israel (as proven by the inactivity of the international community in the face of the ongoing slaughter inflicted by the planes of Russia and Assad in Aleppo.) Pictures of dead children won’t stop the bombing from continuing in Aleppo and Mosul, as happened to Israel twice: in Kafr Kana during Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon in 1996, and a decade later in the Second Lebanon War. Nor do the Americans and the Russians have to deal with the threat of missile and rocket fire against their civilian populations during combat.

Parallel to the battle in Mosul, senior U.S. Armed Forces commanders are preparing for the start of the battle for Raqqa in northeastern Syria, the capital of the ISIS-declared Islamic Caliphate. Here, too, the terror organization is expected to be defeated, but at the same time it will increase its efforts to carry out terror attacks in the West, most of which receive guidance and occasionally funding from its headquarters in Syria.

The awakening of sleeper cells and isolated terrorists inspired by ISIS is also relevant in Israel, mainly among Arab citizens. Last week, an indictment was served against a couple from the Galilee village of Sakhnin, who infiltrated Iraq with their two small children about a year ago so that the husband could join the organization as a fighter. The family left Mosul in June in advance of the attack on the city, and the parents were arrested upon their return to Israel.

The IDF tends to downplay the importance of the ISIS threat, because its military activity on Israel’s borders in southern Syria and in Sinai are not directed at Israel. The Shin Bet security service is more concerned, because ISIS influence is beginning to penetrate and has already affected several dozen Israel Arabs.

Increasing hooliganism

In the internal Israeli arena, the trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier from Hebron who shot an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist, is reaching its final stage. Summations in a trial that continues to attract considerable public attention are scheduled to begin on November 7. Israel television’s Channel 2 even devoted a special hour-long broadcast to it during prime time. It was hard to avoid the frequent promos for the program, in which one of Azaria’s supporters is seen chasing and cursing journalist Amnon Abramovich as he left the military court during one of the hearings.

The media coverage of the incident emphasized the disparity between the military past of the demonstrator – who served on the home front and who shouted “it’s a shame you weren’t burned to death in the tank” at Abramovich – and the journalist, who is a disabled IDF soldier and who received the Chief of Staff’s Medal of Appreciation for his courage under fire in the Yom Kippur War.

But violence and threats have been a part of this trial from the first day. Journalists have been cursed and spat on during the proceedings at the Castina army camp (where Avigdor Lieberman, at the time still an opposition MK, came to show solidarity with Azaria.)

Such hooliganism is not new to Abramovich. He was the target of curses when, as a columnist for the daily Maariv, he criticized the handling of the first Lebanon war. And he was threatened when he appeared in an open studio near the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces two years ago, during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

Even former MK Sharon Gal (Yisrael Beitenu), who has incited fury against the military establishment from the start of the Azaria trial, felt that a line had been crossed this time and posted a condemnation of the attack on Abramovich. There was a degree of irony (and, undeniably, an iota of pleasure) in observing the reaction on Gal’s Facebook page of right-wing activists, who accused him of collaborating with the hated left-wing establishment (i.e. with the IDF, the judicial system and the media.)

The day after the program was aired on Channel 2, Military Prosecutor Lt. Col. (res.) Nadav Weisman revealed correspondence between a witness for the defense, the Hebron settlers’ security coordinator Yoni Bleichbard, and Eyal Besserglick, one of Azaria’s defense attorneys. It turns out that Besserglick, in a WhatsApp message, asked the coordinator whether he could help the defense to “destroy the brigade commander.” There’s no question that the defense attorney didn’t mean physically destroying Col. Yariv Ben- Ezra, commander of the Hebron Brigade during the incident for which Azaria is standing trial, but rather destroying his version of the events.

In the eyes of hard core Azaria supporters, no holds are barred. The decorated journalist should be burned, the brigade commander can be destroyed. The unrestrained tumult surrounding Azaria continues. If the trial ends in a conviction – a result that seems definitely reasonable, in light of the proceedings until now – it will get even worse.

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