Mosul: Beginning of the siege
The strategy is to advance towards Mosul from every possible front in order to surround the city and then start the siege. Photograph: (WION)
The campaign to reconquer Mosul, the Islamic State’s (IS) stronghold in Iraq, has officially started. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga Forces will be the major actors involved in the offensive, which can arguably be considered the most important one in the past five years.
On October 17, Peshmerga forces launched a frontal attack on the villages surrounding Bartella, a town to the east of Mosul, which was conquered by the IS in 2014. The Iraqi army is currently attacking from the northeast, and has seized the town of Qaraqosh, a Christian majority area which was stormed by IS more than two years ago. The army is soon expected to launch a massive offensive from their base close to the small town of Qayyarah, located south of Mosul.
The strategy is to advance towards Mosul from every possible front in order to surround the city and then start the siege.
Millions of leaflets have been dropped by helicopters and planes on the villages to raise the population's awareness and ask them to avoid crowded places, keep distance from any IS building or military warehouses as those will be privileged airstrike objectives.
The major military issue in reaching the city of Mosul is the “terror belt” surrounding the area. Before being able to attack the city, an approximately 20 to 40 kilometre area encompassing hundreds of villages under IS control needs to be reconquered, and secured in order to guarantee the advance.
Many of these small centres are not inhabited anymore, and serve mainly as bases for terrorists who use them to hide and carry on unconventional guerrilla-style warfare.
The terrain itself presents a challenge militarily. The low hills that are a prominent feature of the local Iraqi landscape around Mosul forces any army to advance through an open field and become clearly visible and vulnerable to long-distance firing. On the other hand, airstrikes and artillery are more likely to be successful.
The IS is giving its all to resist the Peshmerga, right from day one of the offensive. For instance, on the outskirts of Bartella, clashes started well before the offensive entered the first village, with mortar firing targeting the Peshmerga line advancing through the hills.
Shortly after the armoured vehicles reached the first village, an explosive-laden vehicle started speeding toward the Peshmerga convoy in an apparent suicide attack bid. Heavy firing was able to deflect it, but such weapons are potentially highly destructive and the IS is expected to use them frequently.
The Golden Division, the Iraqi elite forces, is expected to reach the outskirts of Bartella soon in order to support the Peshmerga, and advance further in the remaining villages that become bigger as Mosul approaches.
The role of the Turkish troops is still a matter of political tension between Ankara and Baghdad, but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim declared on Tuesday that the country’s warplanes have joined the coalition forces and are participating in airstrikes.
There is a certain lack of clearness regarding the participation of the Shia militias active under the umbrella organisation, Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi. The major concern regarding their presence is the possible hostile reaction of the Mosul population, mainly Sunni, if these militias enter the city. Many are afraid of the past abuses reportedly committed by some of the militia groups.
War's affect extends beyond the people fighting it: the most important factor regarding the Mosul operation is the impact it will have, both in the short and in the long run, on the lives of the many Iraqis who are still living in many centres close to the city.
Civilians are fleeing the operations, but this is not something new. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are currently 3.3 million internally displaced people in Iraq, refugees in their own country. Many of them have been constantly leaving their homes since the IS took control of large areas.
The exodus in anticipation of the ambush of Mosul started a few months ago in March, as the manager of the Debaga-1 refugee camp, Rizgar, told WION.
The many non-governmental organisations active in Iraq and in the largely autonomous region of Kurdistan have been preparing for a long time for this moment. However, no effort will be enough if hundreds of thousands of people seek refuge at once, especially since the battle to liberate Mosul promises to be difficult and long-drawn.