Iraqi forces, backed by Sunni militias and Kurdish Peshmerga units, have steadily advanced into the eastern half of Mosul. At the same time, Shiite militia units have besieged the town of Tal Afar to the west and held the perimeter to the west of Mosul to cut off any escape routes.
The Mosul campaign is the final chapter in a broader campaign that began on March 24, 2016 to take control of the region around Mosul, and to surround and isolate the northern Iraqi city in anticipation of its eventual liberation. The Tigris River splits Mosul into two parts, requiring two phases: first to liberate eastern Mosul and then to free the western side of the city.
The coalition has held together so far. Iraqi troops, especially the elite Special Forces units, have performed well. The campaign has not suffered the disorderly withdrawals of past engagements by the Iraqi army. That’s a tribute to its improved professionalism and the stabilizing influence of NATO advisers.
Islamic State (IS) militants have engaged in a protracted, street-by-street, building-by-building, scorched-earth retreat. They are using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), stationary and vehicle borne (VBIEDs), along with snipers and mortars, to blunt the Iraqi advance. As usual, IS has been remarkably creative in weaponizing household items, in this case using inexpensive civilian drones to guide VBIEDs to their targets or deliver IEDs. So we can add DBIEDs (drone borne improvised explosive devices) to the lexicon of modern urban warfare.
As expected, IS has used civilians as human shields to protect their militants from aerial attack. But IS has stopped short of using civilians as a buffer between it and the Iraqi military. And the mass civilian uprising that Iraq hoped for has not occurred. The Islamic State has moved quickly to execute suspected opponents. Either event may still occur, although it’s more likely to happen toward the end of the campaign.
It’s unlikely that IS forces in Mosul have the manpower to deal simultaneously with a civilian uprising and the Iraqi military advance. An uprising would be met with indiscriminate violence and mass executions. Approximately 120,000 of Mosul’s civilian population have fled. The balance of the city’s inhabitants, about one million, remain.
Significantly, despite numerous reports that Islamic State manufactured and stockpiled large quantities of poison gas in anticipation of the Mosul campaign, such weapons have not yet been used.
By early January, about 70 percent of eastern Mosul had been liberated from IS forces. U.S. commanders on the scene expect to be in complete control of the eastern half of the city around the end of January. IS militants embedded in the civilian population, however, will likely continue to attack Iraqi forces and civilians there.
The second phase of the campaign, liberating western Mosul, will prove harder. The older portions of the city are rabbit warrens of narrow twisting streets. Many buildings are connected by underground passageways. Older streets have buildings overhanging them, creating a tunnel-like character and making it more difficult to attack from the air. And IS militants have dug scores of new tunnels. There are approximately 200,000 buildings in Mosul. Virtually all will need to be checked and verified as clear.
The U.S. commander on the scene, Brig.-Gen. Rick Uribe, expects that Iraqi forces will control Mosul within three months. That will depend on the ability of the coalition to hold together and the impact of increasingly desperate IS measures. Moreover, once the campaign shifts to western Mosul, Shiite militias may get more directly involved, disrupting the campaign.
One significant difference from past operations is that IS hasn’t been able to mount a significant counter drive. Historically, Islamic State operated along two fronts in Iraq: the Euphrates and Tigris River valleys. The bulk of Iraq’s population lives in these valleys, which host its largest towns and cities. Iraq lacked sufficient military strength to go on the offensive in both theatres simultaneously. Often, Iraqi military operations in one would leave the other theatre undermanned, leading to an IS counterattack.
IS has stepped up terrorist attacks in Baghdad and has repeatedly cut off Hwy 1, the main road from Baghdad to Mosul, for short periods. But IS has been unable to mount a sustained assault elsewhere, since its manpower has been depleted.
But the Mosul campaign is far from over. If the coalition hangs together, it’s likely the city will be secured in three to six months and that Raqqa and the last Islamic State enclave in Syria will fall by sometime in 2018.
The fall of the Islamic State will end a bloody, brutal and genocidal chapter in the history of the Mideast, although it will not mark the end of the organization.
What the Islamic State does next, and what jihadist organization will attempt to fill its role, remains to be seen.
Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.