The battle for Mosul: What lies ahead

The battle for Mosul: What lies ahead

A few days from now, the Iraqi armed forces will start their biggest operation yet: The liberation of Mosul from ISIL forces. Here are five key elements to better understand the upcoming battle. A guest post by former insurgent Roland Bartetzko.

The combatants

The self-proclaimed “Caliphate” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has approximately 3000 to 5,000 fighters in the city. After they took Mosul in June 2014, they had ample time to construct a network of bunkers, trenches and tunnels. Although a great number of these fighters are said to be unmotivated and opportunistic, (even clashes between different factions have been reported) ISIL remains a formidable force and it can be expected that they will put up a fight.

The Iraqi armed forces have an estimated strength of 272,000 soldiers. Only a portion of them are combat ready and will take part in the Mosul operation. Their 18,000 strong Special Operations Forces are well equipped and trained and will probably lead the assault on the city.

Another 20,000 so called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are under the command of the Iraqi prime minister’s office. Often called“tribal militia”, they have been bearing the brunt of the fight against ISIL in the past. They are efficient and capable soldiers, but not very eager to cooperate with Iraqi government or US forces.

The United States has about 6,000 military personnel in Iraq. About 500 of them will participate directly in the Mosul operation and will be “in harm’s way”.  US forces will also provide Close Air Support to the Iraqi government forces on the ground.

The importance

In 2014, the Iraqi armed forces lost Mosul to ISIL in a crushing and humiliating defeat. To win the city back is therefore considered a moral necessity. Smaller victories against ISIL in recent weeks have been primarily achieved by Special Forces or the PMU, and the Iraqi army has yet to prove that it is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

The United States, their closest ally, has put billions into the building up of Iraq’s security structures. Due to the high level of corruption, many think that investing in the Iraqi army was essentially a waste of time and money, therefore a victory in Mosul would be very welcome in terms of silencing the many critics at home.  

The Islamic State, on the other hand, is mainly interested in keeping the revenues of Mosul’s oil fields to finance their war. Nobody likes to lose territory, especially with the desire to build a caliphate that stretches across the Arab world and beyond, but for ISIL, this city has much more economic and financial value than it has morale or strategic importance.  

Should the government’s forces prevail and defeat ISIL swiftly, this operation could very well be the decisive battle in a long counterinsurgency campaign and mark the beginning of the end for ISIL in Iraq.

The outcome

There is no doubt that this battle will be a long one, even if the Islamic State’s resistance turns out to be weaker than expected. Mosul is a big city, and every suburb, house and cellar has to be cleared of the enemy. This extremely dangerous task will be made even more difficult through the frequent presence of IEDs and suicide bombers.

However, should the “Caliphate” decide to fight it out until the end, then the battle of Mosul might well become one of the bloodiest battles that we’ve seen in years.

The fact that an estimated number of 3,500 to 5,000 ISIL fighters face almost 300,000 Iraqi government soldiers plus Kurdish and US allies might lead people to believe that this will be a walk in the park for the Iraqi army, but nothing could be further from the truth; in urban warfare, the defender has an enormous advantage over the attacker and it’s possible to keep up an effective defence even with a very small number of soldiers.

ISIL had ample time to prepare for the upcoming battle. They have an extensive tunnel system that will protect them from air strikes and heavy artillery fire. They will further use civilian hostages as human shields to prevent the Iraqi armed forces from making full use of their heavy weaponry.

In the worst case scenario, ISIL will attack anyone who wants to enter the city with chemical weapons. The presence of oil refineries with adequate laboratory facilities to produce large quantities of poison gas certainly has been noticed by ISIL’s chief strategists.

Despite the fact that ISIL has some tactical advantages, the Iraqi armed forces will prevail and take the city. The only question will be at what price.

The casualties

A war in the city means that heavy weapons and tanks are only of very limited use. It will be up to the infantry to enter and clear the city and this means heavy losses on both sides.

ISIL will lose most of its fighters. They are fully aware of this fact and have already evacuated their most valuable personnel assets, which are higher ranking commanders, bomb-makers and other “experts”. The ones that were left in Mosul are there to die.

The Iraqi armed forces will also sustain heavy losses, not only from enemy fire, but also from their own artillery and Close Air Support. House to house combat is a messy affair and taking casualties from friendly fire is not uncommon. Many days after the main fighting, operations will be concluded but soldiers will still fall victim to land mines, IEDs and suicide bombers. 

A number of American soldiers who support Iraqi ground forces will be exposed to enemy fire and might get hurt.

Fortunately, only a few soldiers will fall victim to chemical weapons. ISIL hasn’t yet shown that they have the capability to use these types of weapons to their fullest extent. Their mustard gas attacks in the past were executed without much sophistication. Furthermore, the Iraqi army has been issued with a sufficient number of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) protection kits prior to the assault.

As in most wars, the civilian population will pay the highest price. It’s estimated that there are still up to one million civilian citizens trapped in the city. Forbidden to leave, thousands of them will die from artillery shelling and aerial bombing, while hundreds more will meet their death as human shields. It’s highly probable that the Iraqi government forces won’t feel much restraint when it comes to shooting at Islamic militants that are hiding behind civilian hostages.

Others will die of thirst and starvation and a few might succumb to exposure from chemical weapon agents.

The environment will also be severely harmed. Oil spills from destroyed refineries, a poisoned atmosphere through burning oil tanks and cisterns, and maybe even contamination caused by chemical weapons will be the headaches for a future civil administration in the years to come.

The aftermath

There will be no “mission achieved” statement by the Iraqi government and their US allies after the battle.

Many ISIL fighters that left the city prior to the assault will have gone underground or escaped to the remaining ISIL strongholds in Syria. Terrorist activity in Iraq and the region will increase for a while, but the most important issue is how this victory will be managed by the Iraqi government and its US allies.

Mosul’s oil riches are an important financial resource and many groups in the Iraqi armed forces,  the PMU and the government will want a piece of the pie. Being left out and dissatisfied, some militaries might join up again with radical groups.

Already a lot of tension exists between the PMU and the Iraqi army; once there is no common enemy to fight, these groups might turn against each other.

On the other hand, if managed well and with caution, a possibility presents itself to the US: to profit from the new strategic situation on the ground and to start a new effort to thoroughly reform the Iraqi military. If this happens, then the Battle of Mosul might enter the history books as the decisive battle that ended the war.

However, an overhaul of the Iraqi military demands time, money and especially the political will and determination of a future US administration to raise troop levels and funding. This is not likely to occur as there will be many voices in and outside of Baghdad and Washington demanding that the US pulls out.  Dropping troop levels or a total withdrawal, however, would be disastrous, especially in regards to the chaotic situation in Syria, which constitutes a constant threat to the security even of a pacified Iraq. Without peace in Syria, there will be no stability in Iraq.

Should the US repeat its mistakes from the past and pull out again after a short period of relative stability, then the Battle of Mosul will be ranked as just another episode in an ongoing insurgency and the bloodshed will continue for years to come.

Roland Bartetzko served in the German Army, the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) during the Bosnian War and with the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) during the 1999 Kosovo War. Last year he published a study about radical Islam in Kosovo. Roland has a university degree in law and is currently working for a law firm in Pristina, Kosovo.

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