Political disputes appear to be the major obstacle to getting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of Mosul by the end of 2016. The experience in taking the smaller city of Ramadi from ISIL in December 2015 made it clear what could be expected when Iraqi army troops go after ISIL fighters in an urban setting. This makes it possible to calculate how many troops, trained to what levels, will be needed in Mosul as well has what kind and quantity of support forces (supplies, medical, artillery air power). One thing is clear, the Iraqis can do it, especially if they have sufficient air and artillery support. Air power has become increasingly useful. Since mid-2014 the American led coalition aircraft have carried out over 10,000 air strikes against some 16,000 targets. The number of attacks are increasing as government and Kurdish troops receive more help in calling in attacks and the anti-ISIL informant network in ISIL held areas provides more information on suitable targets. Most of the air strikes are still carried out by American aircraft and helicopters.
The main obstacles to retaking Mosul are political. The government needs all the forces it can get to take the city quickly and with the fewest casualties. That is turning out to be a political problem because two of the primary sources of troops are the Iran backed Shia militias and the Kurds from the north. The Shia militias want to take the lead in the battle for Mosul but are not prepared for such a task and the government is not willing to give Iran an opportunity to claim credit for liberating Mosul. The much more experienced and battle tested Kurds make no demands, except for a sensible battle plan. But the government is concerned about the Kurds demanding more autonomy in the north (and control of oil there) if Kurds prove key in retaking the city.
American advisors point out that the government got away with telling the Shia militias to back off and follow orders outside Ramadi and that the United States will back the Iraqi government in dealing with Iranian pressure over the role of Shia militias in Mosul. The Iraqi government does not want that kind of confrontation because the Iranians have made it clear that the Iraqi Shia militias are willing to overthrow the elected Iraqi government when this is all over and the Americans have lost interest. Iran portrays the U.S. as an unreliable ally and one that is far away. The Americans counter by pointing out that Iran will be a threat no matter what happens, Americans will stay involved because of the oil and what Iran does in the future has more to do with internal Iranian politics that Iraq has little influence over. As for the Kurds, they will also make the same demands no matter what happens. In short, demand that the Kurds and Shia militias follow orders and proceed with the battle preparations. The Kurds will cooperate and some Shia militia leaders will protest but ultimately fall in line rather than be left out. Unfortunately elected Iraqi officials are not known for decisiveness. But in this case delay aids ISIL and that is in nobody’s interest.
It Is Not So Simple
Taking Mosul is much more complicated than liberating Ramadi. ISIL has controlled Mosul since June 2014 and most (all but about 700,000) of the original three million inhabitants have fled. Not only is that still more than ten times what was in Ramadi before the final assault but the Ramadi population was almost all Sunni Arab. Mosul is a much more complex place with Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Turks and so on. Moreover Ramadi was on the Euphrates river in the relatively barren western Iraq while Mosul is on three times larger Tigris (by water volume) river in an area with more vegetation and hills. This benefits the defenders. Finally Mosul is a much wealthier place than Ramadi, largely because of the local oil fields. This makes Mosul a much more valuable asset for whoever holds it. Politics is more of an issue in Mosul than Ramadi. Mosul involves Sunni, Shia, Arab, Kurd and Turkish militias among the attackers and each of these groups have still more factions. In Ramadi it was mainly Sunni ISIL versus Shia Iraqis aided by some pro-government Sunni. ISIL had less than a thousand men in Ramadi for the final battle. Most of these defenders fought to the death. ISIL is apparently planning to have five to ten times as many fighters in Mosul for the final battle. Nearly all civilians still in Mosul are openly hostile to ISIL, which is suffering from increasingly frequent and accurate air attacks. This is apparently the result of a more effective informant network in the city.
Government forces south of Mosul and Kurdish troops (and non-Moslem militias) north of the city and government forces and Shia militias south of the city are already preparing for the final attack on the densely built city center. This “approach battle” is meant to cut the city off from other ISIL forces in Anbar and Syria. The main road to Raqqa was cut in late February with the capture of the town of Shaddadi. That followed the continuing advance into western Anbar since the liberation of Ramadi in December 2015. Another important success has been government forces becoming as effective as the Kurds in regularly defeating ISIL counterattacks. You rarely hear of successful ISIL attacks on Iraqi security forces anymore.
Reports from inside Mosul indicate growing panic and declining morale among ISIL personnel (at all levels). This has led to growing internal violence, like public executions of misbehaving ISIL members. Recently 21 ISIL men were publicly executed for refusing to fight. ISIL leaders are executed for corruption, incompetence or bad behavior (booze, drugs or saying the wrong things). Hundreds of civilians are being arrested each month for refusing to cooperate with ISIL in defending the city. That sort of thing should make it clear to ISIL that they have few allies among the remaining city residents and growing discontent within their own ranks. Mosul has become a fortress of fear and will remain so as long as there are enough ISIL men there willing and able to fight to the death. While ISIL capabilities inside Mosul are crumbling they do not appear in danger of sudden collapse.
When Mosul falls it will be all over for ISIL in northern Iraq. ISIL rule in the north has been harsh and has created more enemies than followers. Ramadi was a different story. Ramadi, the largest city in of Anbar province (which is most of western Iraq) was as far to the east as ISIL got in Anbar. West of Anbar was lots of ISIL controlled territory and beyond that ISIL controlled eastern Syria. Thus the fighting in Anbar continues as ISIL is pushed back to the Syrian border. There were some other useful lessons from Ramadi. While the human cost from fighting ISIL for six months to retake the city was relatively low the property damage to Ramadi was enormous. The air and ground campaign left 5,700 buildings damaged and about a third of those were completely destroyed. Worse 64 bridges were destroyed. This is particularly troublesome because the city is built along the Euphrates River. Most of the electrical distribution system was destroyed along with many major government buildings and the main railroad station. Much of the damage was done by the thousands of bombs planted by ISIL both to simply destroy stuff and cause losses to the attackers. Iraqi, American and other allied aircraft caused a lot of damage, especially in areas where ISIL took a stand and the advancing troops called in air strikes. Despite that victory declaration Iraqi troops are still slowly moving through some areas of the city where ISIL planted lots of booby-traps and landmines. These explosive devices were meant to “punish” the disloyal (to ISIL) population of the city and cause maximum losses to advancing troops and Shia militia. The militias let the soldiers use their training and special equipment to find and clear the explosives. Meanwhile Iraqi troops have moved past Ramadi and are advancing deeper into territory controlled by ISIL for a year or more. So far ISIL counterattacks have slowed but not stopped this advance. It is estimated that it will take several billion dollars to repair the damage in Ramadi.
For civilians in Mosul the situation is bad and getting worse. This was noted by the ISIL occupation force over a year ago. In early 2015 some ISIL men from Syria who had brought in their families were caught sending them back to Syria. By mid-2015 Mosul residents who had not fled the city regretted it. ISIL has become increasingly strict with the population and for that last year has not let anyone leave the city for any reason (unless they are ISIL or have ISIL permission). Smugglers are expensive and don’t always succeed. ISIL has shut down cell phone service although residents have found that at night they can sometimes get a signal if they go up on the roof of tall buildings. So information about life in Mosul still gets out. By mid-2015 the Iraqi government stopped paying civil servants in Mosul. That brought in about $16 million a month and it was sorely missed. Food is trucked in from Syria and is expensive. The local economy is in bad shape and residents can see growing dissention between Syrian and Iraqi members of ISIL as well as declining morale and confidence among the Islamic terrorists. A growing number of familiar ISIL faces have disappeared from the city, indicating desertions and fleeing to Syria with or without permission. There is a lot to run away from, especially the growing number of air strikes by coalition (mainly American) and Iraqi aircraft. Remaining residents fear ISIL will eventually make regular use of involuntary human shields. While ISIL prefers to use captured government or Kurdish fighters for this, local civilians will do. Despite the growing losses from the air strikes (and the target information obviously supplied by locals) ISIL leaders know that heavy use of human shields would backfire as the remaining city residents became more desperate and violent about getting out.
Meanwhile In Anbar
Since the end of December 2015, when most resistance in Ramadi ceased and government forces were able to move past the city this advance has gone about 150 kilometers further west. The main objective now is the city of Hit, northwest of Ramadi and also on the Euphrates River. ISIL has held it since October 2014. Meanwhile the last ISIL holdouts in Ramadi were hunted down and killed or captured by the end of February. A growing problem for the government is taking care of all the refugees fleeing their homes to get out of the way. ISIL men tend to fight to the death and the government prefers to accommodate them with bombs and artillery shells, not costly (in soldiers’ lives) infantry attacks. All those explosives cause lots of property damage and are fatal to any civilians who stuck around. Managing all these additional refugees is complicated by the ISIL tactic of trying to slip Islamic terrorists pretending to be refugees into government controlled areas. ISIL boasts of using this tactic and that makes handling the refugees more costly in terms of security forces required.
Jordan is joining a growing number of Middle Eastern nations (like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) and following the example of Israel by building high-tech security fences along their borders to keep out Islamic terrorists, illegal migrants, criminals and smugglers. With the United States covering most of the half billion dollar cost Jordan will put up this barrier along its 442 kilometers of borders with Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have already done this along their Iraqi borders. Jordan has been the most successful of the Arab countries at protecting itself from Islamic terrorism. But the civil war in Syria and the growing ISIL and Iranian presence in Iraq led Israel, in late 2015 to begin building a security fence on its last unfenced border, the 307 kilometer Jordanian frontier. This project will take several years and cost $1.6 billion, plus millions a year to maintain. Israel and Jordan have long cooperated closely on counter-terrorism issues so the Israeli fence also assists Jordan since any Islamic terrorists inside Jordan who are seeking to get into Israel are more likely to be detected and caught.
The Chemical Threat
Medical aid groups believe there were at least 69 chemical weapon attacks in Iraq and Syria during 2015 and some are still occurring in 2016. Most of these attacks used toxic industrial chemicals rather than stuff designed to be a weapon (like mustard or nerve gas). It is believed that the Syrian Army used mustard gas in July 2015. Most of the other attacks were apparently the work of ISIL, which appears to have used mustard gas during August. A recently captured (by American commandos) ISIL technical expert on chemical warfare confirmed this and provided useful information about where these weapons are made and stored. So far ISIL has only been able to develop crude and not-very-effective chemical weapons that are more useful to terrorize than kill. But they are working on more lethal stuff.
March 19, 2016: In the north, about 70 kilometers southeast of Mosul an ISIL rocket killed an American marine and wounded several others. The marines were part of the effort to train, advise and otherwise assist Kurdish Iraqi forces. This incident took place within Kurdish controlled territory. Since the U.S. got involved in Iraq again after mid-2014 two American military personnel have died in Iraq.
March 18, 2016: In far west, at the Syrian town of Tanf on the Iraqi border, FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels continue to battle ISIL for control of the border crossing that connects western Anbar province with largely ISIL-held eastern Syria. The FSA forces here are based in Jordan, where they have the support of Jordan and the United States. This effort is, for all practical purposes, part of the preparations for liberating Mosul.
March 14, 2016: Turkish F-16s bombed suspected PKK bases near the Turkish border in northern (Kurdish) Iraq. This was in retaliation for a suicide bombing in the Turkish capital the day before that left 37 dead. While ISIL also tries to make attack like this it was indeed PKK this time and the Turks are out for revenge.
March 6, 2016: South of Baghdad an ISIL suicide truck bomb was stopped at an army checkpoint but was able to detonate, killing at least sixty and wounding over 80 people nearby. Most of the casualties were civilians. The casualties were so high because the truck used was a fuel tanker full of fuel in addition to the explosives. The truck was trying to get into a densely populated Shia neighborhood where it would have hurt a lot more people. It is rare for such a large ISIL vehicle bomb to get so deep into government controlled territory.