Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the two major cities controlled by the Islamic State, will be the twin epicentres of the most crucial battle against the terrorist organisation's hold in West Asia. While the attack against Raqqa is hostage to political games between Turkey and the United States (US), everything suggests that the attack against IS (Islamic State) in Mosul will happen before 2016-end.
US secretary of defence Ashton Carter recently agreed to send another 600 special forces for training the Iraqi army before the attack on Mosul. The contingent will add to the 4,400 US troops already on Iraqi soil.
Last week’s military operations near Mosul succeeded in depriving the IS of its last oil wells. Iraqi oil minister Jabbar-al-Luaibi declared on Wednesday that the terrorist organisation no longer controlled any oil well in the country.
This is just the latest blow against the IS in Northern Iraq. A month ago IS lost the Qayyara oilfield to the Iraqi forces who are since then preparing to march northward. This is apart from the several villages that were liberated. In December 2015, IS lost the city of Sinjar to the Kurdish Peshmerga army and Yazidi fighters.
What Mosul's capture meant
Mosul fell to IS in 2014 and represented a crucial victory. It is the largest city under the control of IS, as well as the second largest Iraqi city.
Conquering a city means taking full possession of all its resources and Mosul was a “goldmine” both from a military as well as economic perspective
IS seized all weapon and ammunition left behind by the regular forces during their retreat, a precious arsenal that guaranteed control over Mosul and made further military operations in the vicinity possible.
Not losing Mosul is now as important to IS as it was once to conquer it. (WION)
Mosul had long been an operational base for the US forces and the weapons and vehicles left behind were relatively new and up-to-date. To add to this, a good number of arms and ammunitions could also be sourced from the city's many police stations that lay abandoned.
Immediate financial liquidity is also one of the fallouts of taking over a city. All the cash available in banks, post offices, government offices, hospitals and many other institutions contributed to the IS fund for paying soldiers and also compensated for losses incurred in war.
Oil, however, was the real booty to be won in Mosul.
Ammunition eventually runs out, as does cash. Oil does not. It is the most enduring economic resource of the whole region and every country in the world wants to buy it at half price – nevermind the seller. And IS capitalised on this.
'Iraqi HQ' key to IS hold over West Asia
IS does not control oil wells any more. This means it has to rely on other resources for sustaining an attack. The terror organisation is probably not running out of cash immediately, but in the long run they will be forced to increase taxation to sustain their expenses, which will likely undermine their relationship with the local population.
And more isolated a city gets, the more every sort of resource becomes expensive. If the main external supplies are then cut, cash becomes useless.
Not losing Mosul is now as important to IS as it was once to conquer it.
An IS defeat here will deprive them of what they call their "Iraqi headquarter". A loss which will deliver a huge psychological blow on IS affiliates and on the ambition of being a State. How can a State which claims to be willing to rule West Asia not have a “capital city” in Iraq? How can a State transmit an image of power and the capability to govern if it is not able to defend its major cities? And, without such major centres and their resources, how will this State economically survive and pay its soldiers and employees?
Many IS terrorists are believed to be fighting only for the pay rather than for a cause and economic difficulties are not likely to make brave warriors of them.
The combatants up for the final fight
The final fight for Mosul won’t be easy. All sides will fight till the very end.
US President Barack Obama would obviously like to close his second term with a big win against IS terrorists. A US victory could also improve the shaky chances of Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton finally making it to the White House after the elections in November.
Iraqi regular army and the government want to regain a crucial portion of its territory to restore their legitimacy, access to oil extraction, and the reputation of its forces that have often been perceived as victims of internal conflict and polarisation -- something that led to losses, not the least that of Mosul.
Kurdish Peshmergas are willing to secure their regional borders and get Iraqi Kurdistan back to the pre-IS economic boom phase, a time when the local media described its capital city, Erbil, as “the new Dubai”.
It is, however, not the only aim of the Kurdish Peshmergas, and talks between their President, Masoud Barzani, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi are to happen soon in Baghdad. The meeting is expected to decide the future of the Kirkuk oil plants that have been under Peshmerga control since they pushed the IS out. The oil plants were previously administrated by the central government of Iraq.
The IS, on the other hand, has a lot to lose and is definitely alert about an upcoming offensive. It has been preparing and this suggests the battle will be bloody and long, most probably involving a lot of house-to-house operations. The only advantage of the current situation is that the preparation for the defence of Mosul has slowed the IS's political proselytism.
Organisations under attack are often forced to redirect their resources and energies in preparing the defence phase and this leaves less time for consensus building, the very pillar of every organisation and of every resistance against a siege.
From strategy to ethnicity: Challenges in the aftermath
If the US air force, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga storm Mosul together from any direction, an Islamic State’s victory is very unlikely.
Open battle is not the strategy IS prefers most. There is a concrete risk that cells active all over the world will be ordered, or will independently decide, to carry out as many attacks as possible against civilians.
This will internationalise the conflict and open several fronts in the mainlands of all the countries taking part in a possible attack against Mosul.
However, military challenges are not the only expected outcomes of this offensive. A massive surge of civilians is expected to reach Iraq and Kurdistan and the many non-governmental organisations on the ground are already at work to set up emergency camps.
The complex social fabric of Iraq poses several challenges for a Mosul aftermath even before the battle has begun. Who will eventually rule the city and how is a crucial decision.
Mosul’s residents are predominantly Sunni as it is located in western Iraq, but the country’s army has relied heavily on Shiite militias to win their battles against IS in the area.
If these militias play a crucial role in the battle of Mosul, residents of the cities will probably not show their solidarity, and in an urban battle the support of the local population counts more than anything else.
It could be that Sunni inhabitants of Mosul decide to shelter and help IS terrorists - who are also Sunni - in order to avoid a Shiite supremacy in the city government.
There are several other unofficial armed groups willing to take part in Mosul’s battle, with or without official invitation. These include Sunni local tribes, Assyrian Christian groups and Iran-backed Shia groups who will not hesitate to open minor fronts within the battle to avoid rival control of neighbourhoods. A war-within-the-war scenario similar to what has been going on in Syria’s Aleppo.
The mix of participants, all eager to claim their part in the liberation of Mosul, poses a major threat for the future stability of the city if a shellproof and binding political agreement is not secured before the attack.