Early on October 17, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the much-anticipated operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State had finally begun. “The hour has come and the moment of great victory is near,” he declared on national TV, thereby setting off the offensive that Iraq’s military and allied militias – backed by international airpower – have been preparing for ever since I.S. forces swept into Mosul over two years ago.
The operation includes tens of thousands of soldiers. Supporting the Iraqi Army are Peshmerga fighters, who are directly engaging the Islamic State east of Mosul, and a number of pro-government militias. The U.S.-led coalition is providing air cover, and helping the push on the ground with special forces.
Now into its second week, the offensive has captured a significant amount of ground south and east of Mosul. However, the Islamic State has fought fiercely against the Iraqi military and Peshmerga, conducting numerous suicide bombings to disrupt advancing troops.[i] I.S. fighters launched surprise attacks on Kirkuk and Rutbah, briefly seizing parts of both before being repelled.
The Mosul battle will test Iraq on several levels – especially the military effectiveness and cohesion between the various parties involved. The fall of Mosul in 2014 came as the Iraqi military largely collapsed in the face of advancing I.S. fighters. Notably, Iraq’s elite forces battled on against the Islamic State in various parts of the country, but the regular Army was handed a severe blow.
Retaking Mosul would be a matter of prestige and pride for the Iraqi Army; more so, perhaps, than the mission to free Ramadi.[ii] A successful operation would do much to overcome its demoralizing losses of 2014. In the two-and-a-half years since that defeat, the military has emphasized better training and incorporated new military hardware.
While the Islamic State’s control of Mosul is certain to end, the terror group is likely to drag out the fight. Competition among its opponents could hamper their cohesion during the battle, and more crucially, in the months and years ahead. As Tahrir Institute resident fellow Hassan Hassan put it, “[Islamic State] will probably fight in the hope that the current strategy – built on delicate sectarian, ethnic, and political balances – unravels.”[iii]
Dragging out the Mosul offensive could undermine the cooperation between the Iraqi military, allied militias, and the U.S.-led coalition. Similarly, attacks in Kirkuk and elsewhere challenged the joint responses of Iraqi military forces. Following the I.S. diversionary attack on Kirkuk, a security source complained to Kurdistan24 that I.S. fighters had exploited a gap between Peshmerga and local Shia militia fighters.[iv]
By undermining the forces aligned against it, the Islamic State may be looking to ease a return to the underground insurgency it waged prior to its 2013-2014 reemergence.
Fully eliminating the Islamic State will be made all the more difficult if bickering and political in-fighting between the Iraqi forces grow. While all are opposed to the I.S., the Iraqi military and its local allies are suspicious of one another’s intentions, as well. These tensions have boiled over at times, such as in April when Peshmerga and pro-government militias clashed in Tuz Khurmatu.[v]
Military cohesion is tied to a number of larger political questions. Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with Baghdad and the status of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – an umbrella of pro-government militias – with respect to the formal military command structure are just a few.
Iraqi Kurdistan has long chafed under Baghdad. In recent years, calls have grown for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to move forward with independence. KRG President Massoud Barzani insists that a referendum on independence may be held this year.[vi] Any move towards independence is likely to be highly controversial with Baghdad.
And, while the PMU is administratively beneath the Ministry of Interior, there is concern that this arrangement may give way, particularly if political ambition on the part of certain militia commanders leads to splits with the government. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Renad Mansour noted the strategies Abadi has incorporated to assert government control over the PMU in a November 2015 analysis,[vii] but government authority over all of the PMU is far from set in stone.
Underlying these political issues are sectarian and ethnic divides that contribute to an atmosphere of mistrust. The Islamic State has always been a sectarian actor, targeting Shia in particular in an effort to provoke a wider sectarian war. The PMU has been accused of “horrific, sometimes wide-scale abuses” against Sunni-majority cities by organizations such as Human Rights Watch.[viii] Tribal feuds among Sunnis that supported the Islamic State, as well as those that did not, have resulted in reprisals after the expulsion of the terror group.[ix]
These delicate topics will ultimately contribute to deciding Iraq’s future. Military cohesion alone will not solve the issues, but its lack is sure to exasperate them further and provoke mistrust between the parties. More specific to the fight against Islamic State, a breakdown in cooperation – at Mosul or elsewhere – will hinder efforts to dislodge the group and address the grievances that compel some to join or support it.
Despite being dealt a heavy blow from the U.S. troop surge and Sunni tribal uprising in 2007, Islamic State (then Islamic State of Iraq or ISI) was able to survive by going underground: conducting assassinations of opponents, bombing security forces, and carrying out prison breaks. In a recent piece for The CTC Sentinel, Michael Knights and Alex Mello noted how the group took advantage of sectarian schisms in Diyala province to continue its insurgency after being defeated in Anbar.[x] Sectarian and ethnic divisions plagued the response to ISI then, limiting the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts and alienating potential allies.
The Islamic State aims to recreate those circumstances to better its chances of survival and hasten a return of its territorial conquest. Though certain to lose Mosul, the terror group and its supporters continue to insist that “complete victory is coming.”[xi] Preventing this will require a combined effort from all of Iraq. Mosul’s results will serve not just as a key indicator of Iraqi forces’ commitment to fighting I.S., but of their commitment to each other and to their country.
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[i] Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State launches defensive suicide bombings around Mosul,” The Long War Journal, October 17, 2016. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/10/islamic-state-launches-defensive-suicide-bombings-around-mosul.php
[ii] Ahmed Rasheed and Maher Chmaytelli, “Iraqi army declares first major victory over Islamic State in Ramadi,” Reuters, December 27, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-ramadi-idUSKBN0UA06P20151227
[iii] Hassan Hassan, “The dangers of a protracted battle to retake Mosul,” The National, October 23, 2016. http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/the-dangers-of-a-protracted-battle-to-retake-mosul
[iv] Mewan Dolamari, “IS sneaked into Kirkuk through Peshmerga, Shia militia gap: Source,” Kurdistan24, October 22, 2016. http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/d930126a-f9ad-4fd9-81bd-f9355beb892b/is-sneaked-into-kirkuk-through-peshmerga–shia-militia-gap–source
[v] Mohammed Tawfeeq and Tim Hume, “Kurds and Shiite militias, uneasy allies in ISIS fight, clash in northern Iraq,” CNN, April 24, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/24/middleeast/iraq-shiite-peshmerga-clashes/
[vi] Alex MacDonald, “Barzani: Iraqi Kurds to hold independence referendum,” Middle East Eye, February 3, 2016. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/barzani-iraqi-kurdistan-will-hold-independence-referendum-soon-2106771596
[viii] Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Ban Abusive Militias from Mosul Operation,” July 31, 2016. http://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/31/iraq-ban-abusive-militias-mosul-operation
[x] Michael Knights and Alex Mello, “Losing Mosul, Regenerating in Diyala: How the Islamic State Could Exploit Iraq’s Sectarian Tinderbox,” The CTC Sentinel 9, no. 10 (2016): 1.
[xi] Charlie Winter, “How the Islamic State Is Spinning the Mosul Battle,” The Atlantic, October 20, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/10/isis-mosul-propaganda-iraq-kurds-peshmerga/504854/