An immense U.S.-backed offensive is underway to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State militants that occupy it. Tens of thousands of troops from various government forces and militias are involved in the push, which finally began this week after a lengthy preparation.
The battle for Mosul is seen as one of the most important steps in regaining the Syrian and Iraqi territory which ISIS seized during its rapid advance in 2014. Iraqi forces fled en masse when the militants entered the city in July of that year, leaving their uniforms littering the streets and allowing ISIS to seize control.
The Iraqi government has been on a slow path to retake the land it lost since the security forces’ humiliating collapse. Aided by militias and U.S. airstrikes, Iraqi forces have managed to retake the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from ISIS. But Mosul, which has an estimated population of 1.5 million people, poses a far greater challenge.
Retaking Mosul would deal ISIS its most significant loss to date, and leave the terrorist group without control of any major cities in Iraq. The city is extremely important to the group for both symbolic and practical reasons. Mosul is where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared the group’s self-described caliphate, and is the largest city under its control.
Who Is Involved In The Fighting?
The offensive on Mosul is composed of an array of groups that are all currently united in the goal of defeating ISIS, but whose interests don’t necessarily align beyond that. Each are set to play a different role in retaking the city.
An estimated 54,000 Iraqi Security Forces are involved in the offensive and began the operation moving toward Mosul from the south of the city. The U.S. is providing these troops with air support and other aid as they advance.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, which are key U.S. allies, make up the second-largest fighting force. There are around 40,000 Kurdish forces, which are pushing into Mosul from east of the city.
In addition to these two major fighting forces, smaller but still significant armed groups are also participating in the battle. There are thousands of Sunni tribal fighters, as well as minority groups such as Yazidis and Turkmen set to play supporting roles. Iran-linked Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are also stationed to the south. The U.S. doesn’t offer support or work with the PMF, American officials say.
Finally, a force of around 6,000 troops from the U.S. and other western nations are outside of Mosul in an advisory and training capacity. Despite their purported role away from the front lines, U.S. troops have engaged in combat and died while serving in Iraq in recent months.
The collection of forces in the Mosul offensive will be fighting against up to 5,000 ISIS militants, although estimates vary on exactly how many fighters are still in the city. The group has been preparing for the attack and has allegedly built a series of tunnels to avoid airstrikes. ISIS fighters have also launched suicide attacks in an attempt to slow the advance.
Aid Agencies Brace For A Humanitarian Crisis
The fight for Mosul poses a huge threat to the civilians still in the city, and aid agencies are making plans to provide services for the hundreds of thousands that may flee the fighting.
The United Nations is warning that up to 100,000 refugees from the fighting may arrive in Turkey and Syria. Even more people may seek safety in internally displaced persons camps outside of Mosul, where the UN and partner groups are preparing shelters that can hold up to 600,000 people.
Civilians also face the danger of getting caught in airstrikes and fighting as the offensive approaches urban areas. As the battle started, some Mosul residents reported ISIS was using human shields and preventing civilians from leaving the city. The fate of Yazidis held as sex slaves by the militants is unclear, as relatives fear for their safety.
Mosul has been largely cut off from communication since ISIS took over, adding uncertainty to state of the humanitarian situation within the city and making it difficult for aid groups to prepare accordingly.
What Happens If Mosul Is Retaken?
Returning Mosul to a functioning state will be an immense task, and it’s unclear exactly what the plans are for the city if it’s liberated.
There are also fears that the alliance between the various forces involved in fighting ISIS will start to break apart once Mosul is freed. The initial plan is for only Iraqi government troops and police to enter the city, in an attempt to avoid sectarian killings or fighting between the groups.
Kurdish leaders have pledged that Peshmerga forces will not to enter Mosul, and Shiite militias are expected to be ordered to remain in the surrounding countryside. Despite these promises and the current goodwill, the multitude of armed groups with differing agendas is worrisome for Mosul’s long-term stability.
For ISIS, losing Mosul would be a huge blow to its narrative of a “lasting and expanding” caliphate. The group has lost significant territory since the start of last year and seen many of its top leaders killed in airstrikes. While ISIS has proven to be an extremely adaptive organization, it will be hard for the group to claim it’s a state if it doesn’t control any land.