As we enter the tenth day since the Iraqi military began its assault to capture the western half of Mosul, it would perhaps be useful to remind ourselves that the war against Daesh extremists is far from over. Although the noose appears to be tightening around the militant group’s last major holdings in western Mosul, they will make the fighting as costly and bloody as possible for advancing Iraqi units, and it will be the people of Mosul who will bear the heaviest cost in blood and misery.
The reason why the Iraqi offensive will do little to help the people of Mosul is because Daesh extremists are themselves being fought by Iran-backed and Iraqi government-sanctioned extremists of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), one claiming to represent the Sunnis and the other the Shia. In such an environment of extremities grappling with each other for supremacy, the battle for western Mosul will represent just another phase in a savage sectarian struggle that will continue until the Iraqi authorities, and political and social actors find a long-term solution that puts Iraq first and excises the malevolent effects of international actors, such as the United States and Iran, from the Iraqi agenda.
The Iraqi army’s assault is being spearheaded once again by the US-trained and equipped Counter Terrorism Service, as well as units from the 9th Armoured Division and the Federal Police (an organisation that is itself infested with Iran-backed Badr Organisation Shia jihadists) holding areas in east Mosul and freeing up other military units to be committed to the attack.
The current operational plan appears to be the capture of Mosul Airport (now accomplished) to open up a future logistic base once Daesh units capable of shelling the airport are pushed out of range. Iraqi forces will then push northwards while sticking close to the western bank of the Tigris River, which bisects Mosul almost in two, in order to secure one of the city’s many bridges. Although the bridges were all bombed out of commission by the US-led coalition in the early months of the Mosul operation, securing both sides of the river on one or more bridges will allow quick repairs to take place, and will create a bridgehead for an Iraqi presence in western Mosul.
Once the bridgehead is secured, supplies and reserves can move freely between the eastern government-held side of Mosul to the western Daesh-held side of the city. If this was to take place, Iraq could more easily make use of the 100,000 man force it has amassed for the largest single operation to take place on Iraqi soil since before US troops departed in 2011.
In addition to forces pushing in from the south, troops crossing over from the east and Kurdish and Iraqi units holding the northern reaches, Daesh will also face significant pressure from the west emanating from the PMF Shia jihadists near Tal Afar. Tal Afar is a large ethnic Turkmen majority town, divided between both Shia and Sunni though favouring the latter in terms of proportion, about 60 kilometres west of Mosul sitting between the city and neighbouring Syria. It is a highly sensitive area that has been besieged by the PMF, with occasional weak objections coming from Turkey, and Daesh will try to inflict costly losses against the Shia militants before they are inevitably forced to withdraw. In fact, just yesterday they managed to kill the second PMF commander in a week.
Showdown in west Mosul
With Daesh’s focus being drawn across all axes, it will have an extremely difficult time defending what remains of its Iraqi holdings, especially with diminishing manpower. British Major General Rupert Jones recently stated that, since the US-led coalition against Daesh began in late 2014 and up until August 2016, airstrikes had killed some 45,000 Daesh militants. Nevertheless, and although the general’s claims cannot be accurately assessed, Daesh has proven itself to be a tenacious, wily adversary and its fighters are not stupid. They know that they will lose Mosul.
Daesh has already succeeded in making Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi break his promise of recapturing the major northern city by the end of 2016, and forcing him to admit that it will take three months or more to finally dislodge the extremists. It has inflicted crushing fatalities on the Iraqi military, quite possibly up to 7,000 dead and many thousands more wounded, resulting in the loss of more than a division worth of manpower – an unacceptably high casualty rate of more than ten per cent against a numerically inferior Daesh of about 5,000 men.
Daesh will now capitalise on western Mosul’s geography, something that it has been fortifying for the past two years by preparing defensive positions, tunnels and ambush sites as a force multiplier. Western Mosul is an older part of the city, and many of its streets are suffocatingly narrow, meaning that Iraqi armoured vehicles will severely struggle to move down them. This means that armoured units will have to dismount and proceed on foot, or in lightly armoured vehicles that can be more easily taken out by Daesh explosives.
As a result, the fighting in Mosul from now on will begin to have more in common with the Wild West with armed men engaging in gun battles in the streets, and the Iraqi military will probably have an extremely bitter taste in its mouth when the dust finally settles later this spring or early in the summer. Daesh will not go out without a fight, and the Iraqi authorities will then have to contend with a lower intensity conflict organised by not only these extremists, but other groups opposed to the Iran-backed Green Zone regime that have been laying low for more than two years now. Combined, these groups will continue to sap Baghdad’s already stretched resources in mosquito-type attacks, particularly as the sectarian policies that led to Daesh’s rise are unlikely to end any time soon.