It seems clear that pro-government forces in Iraq are preparing to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The Islamic State (ISIS), a Sunni extremist group, captured Mosul following a series of assaults in June 2014, an offensive that ultimately resulted in an embarrassing collapse of the Iraqi Army in northern Iraq. Since then, the Iraqi government has made the recapture of Mosul a key domestic goal in its fight to reclaim its territory and reassert its control over a restive minority Sunni population. Prior to the events of 2014, the Sunnis were agitating for greater regional autonomy, akin to the political status of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and strongly against the Shiite-dominated central government.
Mosul lies at a strategic juncture between a number of groups, including the Turks, Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Persian Shiites. It is also lies in close proximity to several states and territories, including Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the autonomous northern KRG. Which party controls this city is a significant determinant for all of these regional powers when considering their border security and foreign policy.
Following the 2014 capture of Mosul, ISIS moved to take advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the north and drove southwards toward Baghdad. Simultaneously, the group launched an offensive in Anbar governorate and made further gains in this Sunni majority region. In neighboring Syria, late 2014 proved fruitful for the new caliphate as city after city fell along the length and breadth of the Euphrates River. The ISIS charge was eventually halted at the border of KRG territory and in Baghdad, which serves not only as the country’s capital but also a dividing line of sorts between Sunni central Iraq and Shiite southern Iraq. In Syria, the ISIS advance ended in northern Aleppo governorate, where it faced a multitude of competing groups, including the Syrian military, moderate rebels, and like-minded Islamist militant organizations like the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front.
During 2014 and early 2015, ISIS made further headway. It collected ransoms for kidnap victims; began selling oil extracted from captured oil sites in Iraq and Syria; taxed local communities; and looted Syrian and Iraqi government coffers and state facilities. The tide, however, began to steadily turn through mid- to late 2015, as foreign intervention—notably from the US Air Force and Kurd armed groups—launched severe assaults against the group.
Air strikes limited the ability of ISIS to maneuver, and Kurd assaults successfully pushed ISIS forces away from the Turkish border in Syria and from disputed territory in northern Iraq. This pressure was increased by a rejuvenated Shiite Muslim community in Iraq which rallied around the government and mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. These highly motivated forces proved decisive in Iraqi government efforts to push back ISIS, first in Diyala governorate, then north of Baghdad towards Baiji, and finally in Ramadi in early 2016. The combined impact of these operations has undermined ISIS resource streams; deprived them of access and supply routes; removed many towns and cities under their control (critical for revenue collection and staging areas); and served to demoralize a force which had seemed unstoppable a mere year before.
All of which brings us to 2016 and a mobilization of forces in the vicinity of Makhmur, located south of Mosul. Iraqi military forces have begun deploying hundreds of fighters to this city in recent weeks in preparation for the long-awaited assault on Mosul. However, the force in place at the moment—roughly 2,000 to 3,000 men—is well below estimates required for a successful assault. Military leaders have estimated that the Iraqi Army needs between 25,000 and 30,000 men under arms to carry out a successful operation. Even with Kurd pressure north and west of Mosul and US air support, any eventual assault on the city would also require ISIS held villages and mined areas south, east, and southwest of Mosul to be cleared to make way for the main strike force. Early indications are that this could be achieved by June; however, there are several complicating factors.
ISIS remains a significant threat to central Iraq. This was no more starkly underlined on March 6, when an ISIS suicide bomber detonated at a checkpoint in Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing 60 people. This was the worst attack of the year, and, should further attacks be perpetrated, would lead Iraqi military planners to rethink deploying forces away from the country’s core around Baghdad. ISIS also still controls Fallujah. This city—which has essentially become a fortress, as it is surrounded by rows of unexploded mines—lies a short distance from the capital. While it remains surrounded mostly by Shiite militia, ISIS forces continue to mount raids into surrounding areas. ISIS also maintains a presence in Hit and Al-Qaim, located further west along the Tigris River. Should the Iraqi government approach readiness for an assault on Mosul, it is highly likely that ISIS forces will launch an intensified assault on cities and towns in the center and/or south to draw these forces away. For the government, they will need to work to reduce the influence of ISIS in central Iraq while also building its forces in Makhmur.
Shiite militias, which have played such a key role in the Iraqi government counteroffensive to date, remain a highly controversial force. These militias, which many Sunnis view as being Iranian proxies, have indicated that they wish to be part of any eventual assault on Mosul. While the use of these forces is tempting, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would be well aware of the potential human and political cost of such a move. These militia have been implicated in numerous atrocities against Sunni communities since 2014, and with sectarian tensions already elevated, any involvement of Shiite militia in Mosul proper could exacerbate Sunni-Shiite tensions countrywide and lead to a resurgence in support for ISIS.
Indeed, there are already indications that many residents of the Sunni majority in Mosul are either largely indifferent to the presence of Sunni militants in Mosul, or supportive of ISIS, preferring these forces over central government forces, which were led by Shiites and viewed as being largely corrupt and inept, a view underlined by the force’s rapid disintegration in 2014. The option for the Prime Minister may well be the use of Sunni tribal forces; however, this will require significant political capital and will. While Sunni tribal forces are entrenched in Anbar, they are not as widely available in Ninewa governorate. Any eventual Sunni tribal force would also likely make concessions from the government, something Al-Abaidi, who is coming under increasing political pressure from his Shiite rivals, may not be able to provide.
Once the offensive is underway, either in the coming months, or, if developments determine otherwise, in 2017 or later, the Iraqi military and its US and Kurd allies are likely to overrun ISIS frontlines and enter Mosul proper. The Kurds are unlikely to want to enter the street fighting, so militia and regular army forces will need to take the lead. US air support will be largely nullified by the cramped urban setting. This battle, as the recently concluded Battle for Ramadi proved, will be incredibly costly in terms of troops and resources, both of which the central government is already desperately short of. They are also likely to face a partly hostile local community, and the battle for the city, which is roughly double the size of Ramadi, could take several weeks if not months with no certain outcome.
Should ISIS be defeated, the city would need to be restored and defended. Prior to the 2014 Ramadi assault, approximately 50,000 Iraqi security personnel were stationed in the city. At present, the government can rely on only 25,000 to 30,000 personnel. There will be a partial security vacuum, and ISIS is likely to repeat its 2013 and 2014 activities with regular hit-and-run attacks against state interests.
While it is unclear when the battle for Mosul will begin, it is certain that the bloodletting in Iraq will not end until ISIS is fully eradicated or their ideology is challenged in a meaningful manner, not only by the state, but also by Sunnis themselves. It would be safe to assume that the Sunni minority in Iraq feel threatened by the regime, the Shiite militias, and the Iranian government, which is viewed as a supporter, funder, and ally of both. Growing Kurd nationalism and sentiment, buoyed by the KRG capture of disputed territory in the north and Kirkuk, is also a major concern for Sunni Arabs. Without significant political and territorial concessions to the Sunni minority and the various tribal and political groupings that represent it, both by the Shiite-dominated government and the KRG, insecurity in Iraq, specifically in the Sunni dominated provinces of central and northern Iraq, is likely to persist and could lay the platform for further ISIS-type assaults or conflict between the various peoples, countries, and regions that border Mosul.
Andre Colling is the Chief Analyst on the Middle East and North Africa at red24. Follow @andrecolling