Analysis

Why the Battle for Mosul Is So Critical to All Sides

How the fight for the city plays out will make Islamic State decide whether to persist with its current strategy or scatter its forces across the Middle East and operate like Al-Qaida.

Iraqi forces advancing towards Mosul airport, on the southern edge of the Islamic State stronghold, February 23, 2017.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

The battle for western Mosul is intended not only to liberate the city from the clutches of the Islamic State group, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared recently. It is also the battle that could be the turning point in ISIS' status in Iraq and the entire region.

When Mosul is completely freed, after 2.5 years of ISIS control, the organization will have to make a strategic decision, perhaps the most important in its brief history: Should it regroup in the areas it controls in northeastern Syria? Or should it start scattering its forces into other Arab countries and revert to Al-Qaida’s modus operandi – a method that relies on a structure of branches and cells, and drops the strategy of occupying territories?

According to the most recent estimates in Iraq, it seems that ISIS forces in Mosul number no more than 2,500 fighters (compared with earlier estimates that ranged from 5,000 to 7,000). The earlier estimates may have been erroneous due to intelligence difficulties. But it is more reasonable to assume that Islamic State has already thinned out its forces and transferred some to Syria.

At the same time, many fighters – mostly Iraqis – have dropped out of the organization; they have simply taken off their uniforms, hidden their weapons and become ordinary citizens.

Despite the lower ISIS numbers, the expectation is that the war in western Mosul will last for many weeks, if not months.

Iraqi forces celebrating while holding an Islamic State flag as they enter Mosul airport, February 23, 2017.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

This is a difficult urban arena: Some 750,000 civilians live in crowded conditions, in narrow lanes amid dozens of neighborhoods. These make it difficult to wage an air or artillery war, and hamper the ability of armored vehicles to maneuver.

The Iraqi strategy, coordinated with the U.S. Army, is built on sending in many infantry soldiers and pushing ISIS into neighborhoods where it is easier to attack it from the air.

If the usual desired ratio between attacking and attacked forces is 5:1, in Mosul the Iraqi army is aiming for a ratio of 20:1. So, even if the number of Islamic State fighters stands at 2,000, the Iraqi force could number between 40,000 and 50,000 soldiers.

The Iraqi army, which is working together with local militias, does not have any great difficulty in achieving this numerical advantage, and the air cover at its disposal will be nearly unlimited. However, what remains to be seen is the nature of the fight ISIS will put up.

In eastern Mosul – which was liberated last month – the level of resistance was relatively muted. Even so, it still took three months of fighting to liberate that part of the city. From reports on civilian websites, it appears that the organization is well prepped for the second part of the battle: It has reportedly set up high concrete roadblocks; laid mines in hundreds of locations; placed sniper positions along essential routes; and stockpiled shoulder–launched anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft machine guns.

Iraqi special forces advancing in western Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 24, 2017.
Khalid Mohammed/AP

The major concern is about the use of civilians as human shields, which could lead to an unprecedented number of dead. However, there is also the possibility that ISIS will not fight to the last bullet, and will instead withdraw its forces in early stages of the fighting.

To allow for this possibility, the Iraqi army has started using intensive psychological warfare, including radio and television broadcasts, distributing photos of slain ISIS fighters lying in the streets, and disseminating information about the magnitude of the deployment expected to enter the city.

In the meantime, it is not clear which of the options the Islamic State leadership will choose.

The actual war inside the city has yet to begin. However, on its northern and southern outskirts, the Iraqi army has successfully taken some important strategic positions. According to statements by high-ranking Iraqi commanders, the army is expected to enter the city within a week.

But as the end of the military campaign draws nearer, concerns are increasing about happens the day afterward.

A member of the Asaish Kurdish security force looking at an ISIS tunnel in Bashiqa, Iraq, February 23, 2017. The town in the Mosul district was liberated last November.
Ryan Remiorz/AP

The inhabitants of the western part of the city are extremely frightened by events in the eastern part, in which there were many cases of soldiers abusing civilians. There are also reports of accounts being settled with people suspected of having collaborated with Islamic State. Many civilians are trying to flee from western Mosul, but are afraid to return to the eastern part because of unbridled rampaging by militia members and even soldiers from elite units.

Last week, the separatist Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced his plan for stabilizing Mosul after its liberation, thereby forcing the Iraqi government to start examining the questions of the future of the city and surrounding area.

In Sadr's 29-point plan, he stresses the need to preserve the unity of the state; to bring about a national reconciliation between all religious and ethnic groups; and make law and order subject to the authority of the state, not local militias. He also demands that all foreign forces leave after the war ends – not only the Americans, but also the Iranians and others. He also calls for establishing international bodies to supervise the rehabilitation of the city and raise the tremendous amounts of money needed for this.

This fascinating document even proposes putting together delegations of heads of tribes, which will move from southern Iraq to Mosul in order to bring the different groups closer together. Sadr is demanding that the Shi’ite militias (which operate under the auspices of Iran) are absorbed into the regular Iraqi army, in order to prevent a situation in which there are a number of different armies operating in the region.

If the retaking of Mosul will, to a large extent, determine the fate of Islamic State, the way the city operates after the war will determine Iraq's political future. Thus far, apart from Sadr’s document, no orderly plan has been formulated that clarifies the arrangements for rehabilitation, sources of funding and, above all, the division of control within the city.

In comparison to Syria, where at least one world power – Russia – is able to dictate at least the structure of government, dealing with these questions in Iraq will fall exclusively on the shoulders of the government. And although it is showing unity and determination in the war against ISIS, it has yet to succeed in enlisting the trust of the Sunnis.