Mosul operation will be fateful for ISIL


The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. The most interesting sections from the comprehensive analysis of the events related to the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) entitled “Mosul operation will be fateful for ISIL” are published below.

Mosul operation will be fateful for ISIL

Mosul is the provincial capital of Nineveh Governoratein northern Iraq. With a population of 2.5 million it is the second largest city in Iraq.  Besides Sunni Arabs which are the majority population there are about 400,000 Kurds as well as Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Christians, Yazidis, Turkmens, Armenians etc.


Rich oil deposits and the Qayyarah refineryare located in the vicinity. The city was built on the banks of the Tigris River. Only 50 kilometres north of Mosul is the largest dam in Iraq (Mosul dam) and the fourth largest dam in the Middle East.


Mosul is a historical city where several prophets from the Old Testament were buried: Jonah, Daniel and others, and where even prophet Abraham lived for some time.


After the First World War and establishment of the state of Iraq in 1921 Mosul was the subject of dispute between Turkey as the successor of the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain as the mandate authority in Iraq.


Only when the agreement was concluded with the official Ankara in 1926, the province of Mosul became a part of Iraq under the condition that Iraq gives a 10 percent royalty on Mosul's oil deposits to Turkey for 25 years. Under that agreement Turkey had a right to protect Turkmens in Mosul. Although Turkey is able to interfere it should be stressed that Turkmens in this area (Mosul and Tal Afar) belong to Shia branch of Islam and are loyal to the Shia authorities in Baghdad and Iran rather than to the mostly Sunni Turkey.


When Iraq was the Kingdom (1921-1958) and the Republic (1958-2003) most of the officers and generals in Iraqi Army came from Mosul – from 1931 to 2003 they provided a strong support to the Sunni government.

Sunnis are left on their own

With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and dissolution of Iraqi Army and the security apparatus most of the Sunni were left on the streets without any income. In Mosul Sunnis became potential followers of Al-Qaeda and a symbol of resistance against American occupation and the Shia government in Baghdad. Their resistance spread from the north to the provinces of Tikrit in the central part of the state, Diyala in the east and Anbar in the west.


After a fierce sectarian war between the Shia and the Sunni, the Americans established the Sunni militia called Sahwa in 2007. 60,000 persons in the Sunni area were thus given jobs and regular salaries. Their status was not regulated in the U.S.Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on the withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq. By the end of 2012 they fell out of favour with Prime Minister Nouri Al–Maliki's Shia government which not only reduced the funds for the citizens but even accused some Sunni tribes of taking part in overthrowing Iraqi central government. The withdrawal of the last American soldier in fact represented the beginning of the second Sunni uprising which still lasts today. Those uprisings were sponsored by Al-Qaeda, various radical organisations and eventually even ISIL.


After two years (2012-2014) of political crisis between the Shia government in Baghdad and the Sunni Arab minority, Nouri Al–Maliki's government carried out an armed attack on peaceful protesters in those provinces, using airplanes and helicopters to raid a protest encampment in the cities of Fallujah and Hawija (50 km from Kirkuk). In April 2013 this was the most fierce attack on civilians with 221 protesters killed.  


Meanwhile a political war was fought in Baghdad between the government and the democratically elected representatives of the Sunni. Prime Minister and the Court issued arrest warrants for Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al–Hashimi in 2012 and for Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rafi Al–Issawi, and in 2013 an MP of Iraqi Parliament Ahmed Al–Alwany was arrestedduring a raid on his home when his brother and five of his guards were killed. Al–Alwany was sentenced to death penalty which has not been executed yet.


Witch-hunting still continues. Whoever has opposed the government in Baghdad is stigmatized as a supporter of Al-Qaeda and the former regime.


The Sunni have now their MPs and a few ministers who practically have no power since they became just ordinary officials with no right to represent their voters.  With the arrival of ISIL they lost contact with their base and with the areas where they come from.  

Sunnis accepted ISIL with delight?

In such polarised atmosphere with total political and social distrust Sunnis accepted ISIL with delight as it filled the vacuum that occurred after their elimination from political life and started to represent their interests. They believed Abu Bakr Al–Baghdadi to be their saviour. Al–Baghdadiwas formerly in charge of Al-Qaeda military operations in Iraq. Since 2010 he managed to unite several rebel and radical groups in the territories of Syria and Iraq. He subsequently broke up with Al-Qaeda's branch called the Al–Nusra Front. On 8 April 2013 he formed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (historical name for Syria) with the capital of Al-Raqqah, Syria.


In early 2014 ISIL managed to recruit massively and spread like cancer all over the Sunni-populated areas of Iraq from Ramadi in the west to Mosul in the north.


It then carried out a massive coordinated attack and celebrated the great victory when it conquered Mosul after one-week offensive that lasted from 4th to 10th June 2014.  Only 1,500 ISIL members forced 30,000 Iraqi soldiers armed with modern American weapons to retreat from their military quarters and withdraw towards the Kurdistan region (30 km from Mosul). North of Mosul ISIL continued its offensive towards Baghdad and on 11 June 2014 occupied the largest Iraqi oil refinery Baiji which is 200 km from Baghdad.


On 29th June 2014 Abu Bakr Al–Baghdadi declared the establishment of a caliphate and named himself as the caliph. He thus erased all state borders and internationalised his Islamic State which was to unite all Muslim states in the world and liberate Rome and Mecca (but not Jerusalem), the cities of symbolic importance for Christians and Muslims. With this internationalisation he opened the door to all radical Islamists from all over the world.


In Mosul ISIL gained heavy weapons from the Second Corps of Iraqi Army, a few helicopters, four million USD from Mosul Central Bank and the whole public infrastructure and administration.


Iraqi Parliament afterwards established an investigation commission to examine the reasons for the fall of Mosul and withdrawal of 30,000 trained Iraqi soldiers against 1,500 members of ISIL. Some commanders accused Prime Minister Al-Maliki that he issued the order for withdrawal.  The commission never concluded its mission due to strong pressures from the government and the questionable defeat was never cleared up.   

Mosul offensive

A US-led international operation against ISIL called Comind Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) which unites 67 countries was launched on 10th October 2014.


During 18 months of the offensive ISIL lost or was forced to withdraw from 40% of Iraqi territory. It still controls a part of the border with Syria and a large part of the desert in western Iraq. Mosul is the only large city that is still controlled by ISIL. The operation is therefore of great psychological importance for the coalition, Iraqi government and ISIL.


On 24 March 2016 Iraqi government launched the Fatah (“conquest”) operation in agreement with the US. The greatest achievement of that operation was conquering the town of Qayyara and the airport located 60 km from Mosul. The US sent another 560 soldiers to renovate the airport and make the preparations for Iraqi Army attack on Mosul from the south. In Makhmur American soldiers and instructors from the coalition states trained two brigades of Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) as well as the 15th and 16th brigades of Iraqi Army for simultaneous attack on Mosul from the north and northeast. The west part of Mosul is surrounded by the desert and Syria, so theoretically it is not possible to besiege the city on the west.


The majority of the offensive would be led by two Peshmerga brigades with 10,000 soldiers, the 15th and 16th divisions of Iraqi Army with 20,000 soldiers and 6,000 members of pro-government Sunni tribes trained by the US as well as 200 marines and about 500 foreign advisors and instructors who will help those forces.

A disputable question remains the potential participation of Shia militias (Hashid) and Turkish army whose soldiers are deployed 30 km from Mosul without the permission of Iraqi government. Analysts expect that attack on Mosul will be launched in October 2016 or at the latest by the end of 2016.


ISIL offered stiff resistance in some areas; for example in May 2016 in Fallujah (50 km from Baghdad) where fights lasted 76 days and 70,000 civilians were used as human shield to block aviation and artillery operations. ISIL's withdrawal from the city was strategically planned – they managed to evacuate people and equipment without any major losses. However, they left some cities, for example Ramadi, Baiji and Tikrit, with practically no fight.  

The fateful Mosul operation

The Mosul operation opened a polemic on ISIL's reaction. Will they retreat after the first attack and leave for the desert and Iraqi-Syrian border on the west? Or will they fight to the last man? Will they use civilians as human shield, as they did in Fallujah?


In early September 2016 ISIL started to dig a two-metre wide trench around Mosul and placed large tanks filled with oil in its vicinity.  During attack those tanks would explode and cause fire, which would no doubt stop or at least slow down the infantry. Thick smoke would impede reconnaissance activities and prevent efficient aerial bombing. Iraqi generals are expecting a very difficult battle for Mosul. This city has a population of over one million, mostly Sunni Arabs who are not enthusiastic at all about the arrival of Iraqi Army and the US forces.  


Any irresponsible activity or unselective assaults on civilian targets in the city could imperil the whole operation. Iraqi Army must first of all win the sympathy and favour of the local population, which is important not only for defeating ISIL but also for future co-existence in this city. Any other approach or revengeful acts would trigger resistance that would soon spread over the whole Sunni-populated area. Iraqi government and the US have not had complete control over Mosul since 2003.


ISIL, which is mainly composed of trained soldiers, officers and intelligence agents of the former Saddam Hussein's regime, is aware of Iraqi Army's military and psychological weaknesses and prepared to fight to the end. It will use civil victims for the media war which has been quite successful. In the worst-case scenario ISIL will withdraw from Mosul to the west towards the desert and the Syrian border. 

ISIL's military (in)capabilities

In Iraq ISIL has at its disposal over 500 pieces of artillery weapons and a few thousand mortars, 2,300 light military vehicles, several thousands field vehicles, about 100 tanks, T55, T72, M1A1M Abrams, over 20 rocket systems (Gvozdika, BM–21 Grad), Mohajer drone etc.


In terms of unconventional weapons it uses car bombs, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and chemical weapons – especially Yperite which has already been used in Iraq and Syria, the last time on 22 September in the attack on the Qayyarah  airport.


The UN Security Council estimated in its report that ISIL has 22,000 foreign fighters from 100 different countries. However, different sources have come to different estimates. Perhaps the most realistic one is from CIA whose estimate is between 19,000 and 25,000 soldiers in Iraq and Syria.


According to Kurdish information there are about 15,000 domestic fighters and 10,000 foreign fighters in northern Iraq, including Mosul. These estimates do not take into account their police forces, religious police forces, tax administration and other administrative staff.


The IFIMES International Institute believes that Mosul will be liberated. However, a more important question is how the winners (Iraqi Army and Kurdish units) will behave afterwards. They have already been warned by Americans that they must treat civilians very carefully, especially at control points where they will have to differentiate between civilians and ISIL members. It was at such control points that most severe violations of human rights and massive executions of innocent civilians happened in the past.


Iraqi government must finally start to integrate the Sunni population in the political process. The battle for Mosul should not be the battle for conquering this city but the battle for winning the sympathies of its inhabitants – Sunni Arabs. This is the only formula for defeating ISIL and uniting the severely divided state of Iraq.

Ljubljana, 10 October 2016