The dangers of a protracted battle to retake Mosul

Hassan Hassan looks at the challenges faced by the forces and the US in Mosul.

Peshmerga forces prepare to launch a mortar during an operation to attack Islamic State militants in the town of Naweran near Mosul. Azad Lashkari / Reuters

The thing about military strategies, an American general said recently, is that they tend to crumble once soldiers begin to engage the enemy. This can apply to the Mosul strategy: protracted fighting could lead to the collapse of a relatively promising strategy to expel the group from its most significant stronghold.

As the battle for Mosul began last Monday, many wondered whether ISIL would stay to defend the city or choose to live to fight another day. After all, the determination of Iraqi forces and their international allies to expel the group from the country’s second largest city means the outcome is almost certain, even if the stronghold is a symbolic and strategic priority for ISIL. The group chose to withdraw in Fallujah when it became apparent it was overwhelmed militarily, while it fought until the end in Ramadi and Manbij.

The binary choice, however, may not apply to Mosul. ISIL will, most likely, choose to fight until the end. But even if it does not do so, the alternative will not be withdrawal to preserve its forces. Instead, it will probably fight in the hope that the current strategy – built on delicate sectarian, ethnic and political balances – unravels.

The group will choose this path because the stakes for it in this battle are too high. If the current composition of Iraqi forces fighting ISIL expel it from Mosul with relative speed and minimal damage to the city, the win could be a true game-changer for the country and the future of the group. If we know one thing about ISIL, it is that it will not allow this to happen. Typically, it excels at political tradecraft rather than military operations. This ability will be brought to bear in the defining battle for Mosul.

So far, Iraqi forces appear to have the upper hand. The division of labour in the battle and the demand for Kurdish and Shia militias to stay out of Mosul proper are encouraging signs that a victory will have far-reaching consequences for the group. Yet, will the current strategy hold? What happens if the battle drags on for several months? Will the forces continue to show restraint? What if professional forces inside the city feel compelled to seek the help of militias fighting in the vicinity?

The forces fighting on different fronts against ISIL around Mosul are the definition of strange bedfellows. Competing agendas in an area seen as vital for each side to ensure their long-term interests mean that it will be only a matter of time before rivalries start to cause trouble. This trouble might be minor for the overall battle, but it could be disruptive.

Iraqi forces expect the fight to end soon. If the battle drags on, overconfidence can turn into frustration and overreaction. As The Washington Post reported on Friday, Iraqi forces on the front lines are complaining about the slow and sparse close-air support provided by the United States-led coalition. Tal Afar, north-west of Mosul, could become a flashpoint. Turkey continues to insist on having a role in the battle, as Shia militias operating under the banner of Hashd Al Shaabi seem set to launch an attack to retake the city.

Hawija is emerging as another issue for the international coalition. The city is an ISIL stronghold that many wanted liberated before Mosul given its location west of Kirkuk. There are disagreements between Kurdish and Shia militias over who fights in the city. Leaders of Hashd Al Shaabi visited Kirkuk on Saturday to discuss the issue with Kurdish officials, especially after ISIL stormed into Kirkuk and clashed with the Kurdish peshmerga in half a dozen locations inside the city.

As these cases show, fault-lines that might undermine the fight seem to have been temporarily stitched to speed up the Mosul operation. Turkey is still in discussion with the US about its role in the fight, while Kurdish and Shia authorities are debating their roles in two critical cities near Mosul. A few days into the battle, an arrest warrant was also issued against Atheel Al Nujayfi, Nineveh’s former governor and the current leader of a tribal force participating in the battles.

Militarily, ISIL still has cards up its sleeve. The hit-and-run operation in Kirkuk is an example. Such attacks, a hallmark of ISIL’s fighting since February, would further stretch the international coalition’s ability to provide air support to the Iraqis. When ISIL launches quick attacks to distract and confuse its enemies, it usually employs highly mobile units of suicide attackers, snipers, sleeper cells and a small number of fighters, as it did in Kirkuk on Saturday and the Syrian city of Tal Abyad in February. ISIL has also rigged the city with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

But aside from the military challenges facing the advancing forces, Nineveh is replete with “political and social IEDs” that could blow up in the face of the international coalition if the operation is protracted. And ISIL will surely seek to activate those before it considers preserving what is left of its forces.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan