Battle for Mosul Won't Be An Easy Victory

  • Trapped civilians mean quick victory is unlikely, analyst says
  • International community must support Iraq recovery after fight

Iraqi forces, backed by Kurdish fighters, are fighting to retake Mosul from Islamic State and effectively end jihadist control over territory in OPEC’s second-biggest producer. It was from Mosul that the group declared its self-styled caliphate in 2014, so defeat there would be a symbolic as well as strategic blow to the movement. Here analysts answer key questions.

How long is the campaign likely to last?

“It’s a question of months, not weeks, and it depends on how ISIS chooses to pursue this,” Firas Abi Ali, principal analyst at IHS Country Risk, said in a phone interview from Dubai using an acronym for the group. The presence of large number of civilians makes it hard to conduct a quick operation using overwhelming force, he said.

Renad Mansour, a fellow at Chatham House in London, said the decision to leave open an escape corridor leading west from the city suggests Iraq is attempting to avoid a drawn-out fight in densely populated neighborhoods. “The idea is it’s better to let the fighters flee, or at least fight them on the periphery,” he said. Islamic State gunmen might try to reach Syria, Mansour said, while others will fight an “existential battle.’’

“The actual taking of Mosul city itself won’t be as difficult as the approach,” said Stephen Royale, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks. “Obviously there will be remnants of mines, IEDs and things like that, as well as resistance, but it’s reasonable to think that such an operation could take 4 to 8 weeks.”

What of the challenges once Mosul falls?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi must prevent any surge in sectarian violence between resident Sunnis and the Shiite Muslims who make up the bulk of Iraq’s army units and their allied militias, according to Mansour. “The military battle is easy when compared with the political battle needed afterwards,’’ he said by phone.

Adding to the complexity is the potential for retribution against Sunnis who sided with Islamic State by those who didn’t, said Ali at IHS. Unlike other cities seized from Islamic State, Sunni-dominated Mosul was also home to ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, persecuted by the jihadist group. Those that fled are unlikely to return unless their security is assured.

What’s at stake for Iraq and Islamic State?

“Irrespective of what happens to Islamic State, there is a fight for influence over the north of Iraq,” Ali said. Turkey, which is demanding its army get a role in the liberation of Mosul, wants to avoid control by Shiite militias over a region where Kurdish PKK rebels fighting for autonomy within Turkey have well-established bases, he said. Iran is likely to present any Turkish intervention “as a conspiracy to aid ISIS.”

As for the jihadists: “Taking away Mosul, from which the caliphate was declared, discredits that project,” said Ali. And “discrediting the project is an important component of defeating the entirety of the jihadist narrative, not just that of the Islamic State.” Islamic State still controls large swathes of war-ravaged Syria and, analysts say, retains its ability to carry out terrorist strikes far from its remaining bastions.

Will refugees find a safe haven?

Neighboring regions and states such as Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey -- both of which have already accommodated large numbers of refugees -- will be reticent to take in those fleeing Mosul fearing they could have been infiltrated by Islamic State, Mansour said.

“Turkey clearly can’t handle a few hundred thousand new refugees on top of what it has,” Ali said. “Kurdistan is full and Baghdad is essentially shut to Sunnis through the kafeel (sponsor) program, which is an attempt to keep it Shiite dominated.”

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