The operation to recapture the key northern Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIL’s control is now underway. Last October 17th around 30,000 coalition forces started the advance towards the last stronghold of ISIL in Iraq. Operation Conquest (AKA Operation Fatah) is probably the largest military operation on Iraqi soil since 2003, and it is expected to go on for weeks. As the battle for the strategic Iraqi city moves forward, UNHCR estimates that more than 1 million people could become displaced as forces seek to retake Mosul. On the one hand, the Mosul offensive will bring about fundamental answers for the uncertain future of a unified Iraq. On the other hand, the battle for Mosul will show ISIL’s will to either fight a conventional battle or use asymmetrical tactics.
The contingent of the unprecedented coalition is formed by Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga troops, with the addition of US air strikes and ground British and French special forces supporting both. Initially, the Shia militias did not take part in the offensive due to reticences on how it could undermine efforts of aligning Sunni Muslims of Mosul against ISIL. Adding tensions to an already complex myriad of forces, last week the Shia militias opened a new front. Moreover, Turkey has insisted on a role in the military campaign, as Erdogan stated “We have a historical responsibility in the region.” Despite of Iraqi Prime Minister officially rejected an offer of Turkish involvement, Turkey joined the battle directing artillery fire at ISIL positions in Bashiqa a week after the beginning of the offensive.
The Pentagon said about 5,000 American military personnel are in Iraq. The weakness of Iraqi institutions implies a patent dependence on American and coalition military assets to achieve the liberation of Mosul. This exposes a feeble political position in a scenario with many different centers of power. The statement “the operation is lead by the Iraqi government forces” seems only an official announcement, and it does not appear a military campaign likely organized and inducted by the Iraqi government. Moreover, a Mosul offensive has not only required military preparations but also a long negotiation between the different factions so as to achieve an agreement for Mosul’s future. Attempts to build up the necessary consensus and pave the way for the attack have taken more than a year. Nevertheless, antagonistic political and territorial disputes among most of these parties present serious challenges to ensure a long-term peace in the aftermath. The necessary political understanding between the coalition forces are not public, and speculations are rife. Last Saturday, October 29th the first controversial announcement took many by surprise. In an interview with the German daily Bild, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani reaffirmed “the time has long been ripe to break free. But, we are focusing on the fight against ISIS for now. Once Mosul has been freed, we will sit together with our partners in Baghdad and talk about our independence.”
The campaign is in its initial stages, and experts assure the advance onto the city itself will take some weeks. However, ISIL’s military weaknesses are being quickly exposed. Along the first week of the offensive coalition, gains are significant, Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have already cleared dozens of villages on the far outskirts of Mosul. Most recently Shia militias have opened a new front on the west side of the city, the frontier with Syria and a very strategic position. This pre-assault to the western part of Mosul may indicate a bigger role than observers had anticipated for the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, adding complexity to the operation. The involvement of Shia militias potentially risks an increase of sectarian tensions.
However three weeks after the offensive began, ISIL is conspicuously losing military. Arguably the most important aspect of the operation has shifted to: what happens after Mosul is retaken? The outcome of this battle is of extreme importance. It may significantly shape the future of Iraq and greatly influence the neighboring Syrian conflict. The Mosul offensive may be essential for the future political configuration of both countries. Political battles for the control of the city will revolve around the Shia-Sunni-Kurdish triangle and the interests of Turkey, Iran and the US. Governing a post-ISIL Iraq and post-conflict security issues are the focus of a parallel battle for Mosul. The main challenges ahead are the resettlement process and reintegration of territory that ISIS held. Secondly, Iraqi borders (internal or external as an independent estate) with the Kurds. And thirdly, the cohesion of a state divided upon sectarian conflicts.
The Mosul offensive brings to the civil population the same as any warfare action: fear, desperation, and suffering. The campaign may cause a severe humanitarian crisis of uncertain magnitude. The inhabitants of Mosul are de facto hostages of ISIL and at the same time fear the sectarian militias approaching the city. Moreover, the situation have raised concerns over displacement of civilians. William Spindler, spokesman for the United Nation’s aid agency stated “There are real fears that the offensive to retake Mosul could produce a human catastrophe resulting in one of the largest man-made displacement crises in recent years”. The humanitarian crisis is arguably far from solution even after Mosul is recaptured, if the city is contested by the different groups even humanitarian organisations might encounter difficulties to access people in need. Estimations mention a potential one million people fleeing their homes, one of the largest humanitarian crisis of recent times.
In a nutshell, the reality on the ground is more ambiguous than often portrayed by media. The Mosul offensive is not simply a battle between good guys and bad guys. It is a conventional warfare offensive in which a coalition formed by antagonistic factions fights against a common brutal enemy. At the same time that violence takes the streets of Mosul districts, an underlying struggle for power takes place at a political level. About a million civilians are believed to remain in the city, and consequently, entire families are in danger in this moment. Air strikes, heavy artillery, and actions of the ISIL militants against civilians will possibly bring about a large number of victims. Mosul offensive will likely result in decisive geopolitical implications in the region and subsequently in the planet, but to the ground, it will bring war, death, and suffering.