With the Islamic State (ISIS) having lost more than 40 percent of its territory in Iraq since its height of control in January 2015, all attention has turned to ousting the group from its stronghold in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in a televised statement on Sunday that the campaign has officially begun and several groups, including the Iraqi army, U.S. Special Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militias, and Sunni tribal groups, have joined to formulate a coordinated assault on the city.
“There is a great deal of work left to do, and we will not put a timeline on the Mosul operation,” stated Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL at a July testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But with momentum now on our side, it is safer to say that ISIL’s days in Mosul – where it proclaimed its phony caliphate to the world – are numbered.”
Mosul carries strong symbolic significance for ISIS. The group captured international headlines after overrunning Iraqi forces in Mosul and conquering vast amounts of territory across Syria and Iraq in early 2014. In June 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate in Mosul’s Great Mosque, and the city has served as a center for ISIS operations alongside the group’s headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.
With support from the U.S., Iraqi forces have worked to encircle the city. In July of this year, the Iraqi army was able to recapture al-Qayyara air base, a key staging area about 65 kilometers (40 miles) south of Mosul.
Recent news reports suggest that ISIS has attempted to bolster its defenses around Mosul, surrounding the city with oil tanks that can be set on fire to halt advances made by the Iraqi army and allied forces. It is also suspected that the city is laden with ISIS planted booby traps, bombs, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
But the effort to retake Mosul extends far beyond a military endeavor. Several issues, including the response to the impending humanitarian crisis, as well as what will happen the “day after” in Mosul, remain unresolved.
“How the Mosul battle and its aftermath play out will determine whether the country holds together,” writes Jim Jeffrey, Cipher Brief expert and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. “It will also determine the U.S. role there after ISIS.”
One of they key questions facing U.S. and Iraqi officials centers on the level of control the Iraqi central government will ultimately maintain over Mosul. Iraq’s government, headed by Prime Minister Abadi, is currently dominated by Shiites, while the majority of citizens residing in Mosul are Sunni. Tension between the two helped spawn the rise of ISIS and the group’s eventual seizure of Mosul.
There is also a need for significant coordination between the various groups participating in the Mosul offensive, both during the operation and after ISIS is pushed out. U.S. and Iraqi officials must manage the competing interests of the hodgepodge of groups – otherwise the resulting chaos may throw the city back into the situation from which it will have just emerged.
“Once Mosul is taken, these political divisions in Iraq are going to rise in importance, and will challenge the effectiveness of the Iraqi government going forward,” explains Cipher Brief expert General Jack Keane. “And we must understand full well that Iran has their hands all over preventing the reemergence of political unity,” he continues.
As the effort to liberate Mosul jumps off, careful consideration must be devoted to developing a long-term strategy that answers several important questions. Will the Iraqi government find a way to incorporate Mosul back into its jurisdiction? What role will the U.S. be expected to play in Iraqi affairs? How will the U.S. work to mitigate Iranian influence in the country?
Even upon answering those questions, the future of Iraq and the region at large remains complicated. “The U.S. is focused on defeating Islamic State, by whatever means and with whomever wants to join the fight,” cautioned Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan just prior to the recapture of Fallujah by Iraqi forces. “We employed similar tactics against the Soviets in Afghanistan – the means don’t matter, only the end.”
“But there are no ends in the Middle East,” he continued. “Islamic State will be defeated in Fallujah and eventually in Mosul. The consequences are likely to be worse.”