By Morgan Deane
Mosul fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. Led by armored bulldozers set to explode they poked holes in defensive positions. ISIS soldiers followed the initial assault with determined small arms fire until the much larger Iraqi force fled in panic. The Iraqi forces left behind millions of dollars’ worth of US equipment and hundreds of millions of dollars in the banks. After several years ISIS has dug in, with well manned anti-tank berms, fortified positions, several miles worth of tunnels and a legacy of draconian rule. But the battle for the city is coming soon and there is reason for limited optimism based on battles over the last two years.
The government already performed several operations in Anbar province and their performance there can tell us what the future operation for Mosul will look like. By November 2015 the government forces captured the last bridge in ISIS hands within Ramadi and captured the city center by December 28. They faced significant, close-range small arms fire and had a difficult time clearing fortified positions, but they advanced steadily with the heavy use of artillery and air power to soften the opposition. Unlike previous attempts to capture the city (such as the US led effort in 2006), the army used less restraint with artillery during the conflict. There were fewer civilians in the city to begin with, and much of it was bombed out from years of fighting. In the early months of 2016 they had to clear the rest of the city and outskirts. When all was said and done approximately 80% of the city was destroyed, but on the whole Iraqi forces performed competently.
In the battle for Ramadi, the Iraqi government utilized a complex mixture of units with varying backgrounds, skills and goals. A similar force will take the fight to Mosul. The bulk of the force remains the national army units numbering almost 25,000 soldiers. These units are trained and advised by thousands of American soldiers, as well as Australia and other coalition members. The French and Belgians both have aircraft in the area that are pounding ISIS positions around the city. The Iraqi forces will include Iranian backed Shia militia. They are well trained and equipped due to their Iranian allies, but that will inflame the largely Sunni and Kurdish population in the area, and lead to a danger of ethnic killings and reprisals in the middle of a tough and complex fight. Kurdish fighters control fortified positions north and East of the city. Both Finland and the Netherlands have provided advisers to this force. They are competent fighters that can offer a valuable flank attack, but there is a strong danger they will take advantage of the battle to seize more territory for their autonomous region at the expense of the army and central government under nominal command of the operation. Additionally, the forces include almost a thousand-person militia led by Christians who oppose ISIS.
The plan is to advance slowly. The main forces of Iraqi army soldiers will advance at a steady pace per day. They will aim to seize key positions such as road intersections, commanding buildings, and bridges. These positions will be softened by the overwhelming firepower of coalition airstrikes. The forces will then absorb the ISIS small arms and improvised explosive counter attacks. Once the key nodes are seized and control consolidated they will expand at a steady pace and seize more territory. The steady operations and methodical approach will help to negate the typical advantage of defenders that use the dense urban environment to attack advancing forces from unexpected angles. There is an even greater danger of that because of the ISIS use of tunnels. But the slow approach will take that into account, provide ample defense, and hopefully thwart fighters that attempt to maneuver behind the invading forces.
Contrary to assessments of a fierce battle, there are already reports of desertion and the possibility that, despite the fortifications, many ISIS fighters will flee. American air commanders are preplanning for the likely egress routes, which will be used to escape, and plan to hit them hard. They were criticized in the run up to ISIS gains for not attacking the approaching columns of ISIS forces, and they performed air strikes but still missed key leaders when they retreated from Anbar province.
The military operation might progress smoothly enough and be successful but there is still a looming humanitarian crisis in spite of and perhaps because of military operations. ISIS regularly beheads dissidents, and kills its own fighters who step out of line. Mosul is under a virtual economic blockade, hospitals are short on medicine, food is scarce with prices sky rocketing, and ISIS will continue to use atrocities and fear to keep the population in check. Humanitarian groups from the Red Cross to the UN agency can secure historic sites and are ready to step in and rebuild the town, but they can only do so once the fighting abates. However, the situation may worsen before that stage if ISIS in fact utilizes mustard gas, chlorine and other chemical weapons to blunt U.S. supported attacks, an effort that no doubt will have an effect on the local populous. To date ISIS has used chlorine against Kurdish forces on the front line and in the past week they fired a rocket that had traces of mustard gas onto a U.S. military installment in Iraq. Fortunately, no U.S. personnel were injured in the attack.
The operation to retake Mosul has been a long time coming. Iraqi forces fled in disgrace, but with U.S. assistance and help from Kurdish and Shia militias they have regained a good deal of territory. The coalition is assembling troops to finally take back the city. The mix of soldiers will bring its advantages and problems, but, to date, they have been moderately successful in removing ISIS from several previous strongholds. Local citizens are eager to resume their normal lives and allow humanitarian groups to enter the city should the Iraqi forces strike a critical blow to ISIS’ caliphate.
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Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.