Col. Jacques Neriah
A rolling artillery barrage fired by Iraqi, Kurdish, American and French gunners and air raids by the US-led alliance on Islamic State targets and military commanders in Mosul were launched on October 17. After long months of preparations, the long-awaited assault on Iraq’s second most populated city will develop into a major battle involving many players.
Mosul fell to ISIS cohorts in the summer of 2014. At that time 1,500 ISIS fighters at the most (at a ratio of one to five) dislodged and defeated three fully-equipped Iraqi regular divisions entrenched in the city which were supposed to protect Mosul.
Various sources report today that facing ISIS’s 5,000-10,000 combatants in Mosul, about 65,000 Iraqi troops from different units have massed to dislodge ISIS. Some Arab sources place the total number of combatants of the anti-ISIS coalition at almost 140,000 fighters including: five to six divisions of the regular Iraqi Army – about 35,000 soldiers including armoured and artillery brigades; commando and anti-terrorism division with fighting units of the Iraqi national police (around 8,000 fighters); and Kurdish Peshmerga forces (50,000 fighters).
Smaller fighting units include: Al Hashd el-Sh’aabi – the Shi’ite “Popular Mobilisation Units” (which claim to include Christians, Yazidis and Assyrians) also including units of the Hezbollah-Iraq militia; Al Hashd el-Watani -the “National Mobilisation”, Sunni Turkish-trained and supported units which also claim to include minority units (several thousand fighters); Dwekh Nawsha – the Sacrificers of the Assyrian Army.
These military formations are assisted by thousands of American, Western and Iranian advisers, some of whom will take an active role in the fighting on the ground. The US-led alliance will provide air cover with around 90 fighting aircraft.
However, the missions of the different components of the Iraqi campaign are not clear cut except for the Kurdish Peshmerga, who are apparently responsible for maintaining their presence up to a certain pre-fixed line on the eastern and north-eastern flanks of Mosul. The Iraqi Army, together with the National Mobilisation units, will attack Mosul from the north, northwest and southern parts of the city.
According to Kurdish sources, the agreement between the Kurds and the Iraqi Government stipulates that the Popular Mobilisation Units will not be allowed to enter Mosul. It is not clear whether the PMU will be taking part in the assault, since their ethnic identity and past brutal behaviour against the Sunni population in the reconquest of Ramadi and Tikrit could forecast a massive onslaught against the mostly Sunni population of Mosul. All Iraqi army units have been instructed to raise only Iraqi flags and no other pennant tinted with Shi’ite colors.
With this background, key points must be stressed:
- The Iraqi offensive against Mosul will likely create a wave of refugees of cataclysmic proportions. Some observers predict that the refugees will be in the hundreds of thousands (some even advance the number of one million), mostly Sunnis.
- ISIS is fighting for its life. According to various sources, ISIS has dug a seven-foot trench around the city, booby-trapped with IEDs every possible venue, and prepared itself for a chemical assault on the attacking forces.
- The Mosul siege could unravel into urban warfare with fighting on every street and sometimes house-by-house.
A key element in the battle of Mosul is the role to be played by Turkey. Since December 2015, Turkey has kept a tank battalion in Ba’ashiqa, a small Assyrian town 40 km east of Mosul in a Kurdish-controlled area, under the pretext it was part of an agreement with the Kurdish Autonomous Government with the silent acquiescence of the Iraqi government and meant to train Kurdish and anti-ISIS elements. With the battle for Mosul approaching, the Iraqis have raised the issue of the “illegal” occupation of part of their territory by Turkish forces, and Ba’ashiqa is the focal point.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkish forces will participate in the “liberation” of Mosul even if the Iraqi Government is opposed. The Iraqis have vehemently expressed their opposition.
The Iraqi decision to start the offensive on October 17 took the Turks by surprise and pre-empted a Turkish move toward Mosul. By doing so, the Iraqis have very clearly signalled that they do not intend to let the Turks participate in the liberation of Mosul.
In parallel, Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces captured on the same day as the Iraqi Mosul offensive the most symbolic icon of Islamic State – the city of Dabiq 40 km north of Aleppo and 10 km south of the Turkish border. According to the apocalyptic belief of ISIS, Dabiq is the place where the final battle between the West and Islamic forces will be waged and the place where the forces of Western civilisation (“Rome” in ISIS jargon and eschatology) will be defeated.
The Turks are pursuing their offensive in Syrian territory to reach their next target: the town of Al-Bab. By doing so, the Turks would accomplish the targets set in August 2016 in their military incursion nicknamed “Euphrates Shield” by creating a safe-zone of 90 km wide and 45 km deep into Syrian territory.
The battle of Mosul signals the last gasps of the Islamic Caliphate envisioned by Abu Bakr el-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph who promised his followers to rebuild the Muslim Empire stretching from Europe to the borders of China. This does not automatically mean an end to the Muslim radical movements. These will continue to flourish as long as they are fed with hatred of Western civilisation.
One thing is clear: the defeat of political Islam championed by ISIS will be translated into the defeat of the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and will transform Iraqi and Syrian structures and their regional and global alliances.
The main winner will be Iran with hegemony over two of the most important Arab states.
Col. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, was formerly foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head for assessment of Israeli military intelligence. © Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.