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Op-ed: Liberating Mosul From ISIS Is Just The Beginning Of An Even Longer Battle

October 18, 2016

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On February 1, 1945 Germany was on the brink of falling and the race to Berlin was on. The Russians had entered Germany and were closing in on Berlin from the Eastern Front. The Americans had just broken out from the Ardennes and the Allies were advancing on the Rhine from the Netherlands to the Swiss border. Germany was going to fall, it was just a matter of when.

Today, efforts to rescue Mosul from the grasp of Daesh, the Islamic State(ISIS), intensified as the Kurdish Peshmerga have begun to advance from their well-entrenched positions towards Iraq’s second largest city. The Peshmerga are being assisted by U.S. air support. It is only a matter of time before the Iraqi Army as well as the Shia dominated, and Iranian backed, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) join the fight in Mosul. Mosul is going to fall, it is just a matter of when.

Mosul is a largely Sunni Arab city along the Tigris River in northern Iraq. It fell to Daesh, a takfiri Sunni organization, in 2014. During the US occupation of Iraq, Mosul had been restive since General David Petraeus’ 101st Airborne, the heroes of Bastogne, rotated out in February 2004. When Petraeus left the counterinsurgency tactics he employed were put aside. The were employed again when he took control of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq during 2007. All of which was part of the troop surge that brought an influx of Soldiers into Iraq and changed the coalition approach to warfighting in Iraq.

As the Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, and PMFs prepare to retake Mosul there is no General Petraeus leading the charge. That is not to take anything away from Lieutenant General Townsend, the current commanding general of Operation Inherent Resolve, but he will be operating “by, with and through regional partners” which is different than the approach in 2007.

The Peshmerga, by far the most effective fighting force to face Daesh, is Sunni like many of the Moslawi’s they seek to liberate. However, they are Kurdish. The Kurds though are not participating in the liberation of Mosul for altruistic reasons. The Kurdish capital, Erbil, is a mere 50 miles to the east. Whoever controls Mosul will be in a position to affect the security perceptions of Kurdistan. The Kurds want to have a say in the future of Iraq generally, and northern Iraq particularly.

The Iraqi Army and other Iraqi Security Forces have been trained and equipped by the US and coalition forces ever since the US ouster of Saddam Hussein. Much as Bremer ordered the de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi military and government in 2003 former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki took measures to remove Sunnis from positions of power in the military. This made it a largely Shia led force that was viewed with suspicion or outright fear among Iraq’s Sunni populace.

With the PMFs there is no suspicion, just fear. The modern PMFs carry the unmistakably sectarian Shia banners first hoisted by al Sadr’s Jaysh al Mehdi and al Hakimi’s Badr Brigade in the early years of the US occupation in Iraq. The PMFs are comparable to Hezbollah in that they are a capable non-state fighting force within a state and are loyal to their Iranian backers within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – Quds Force. The PMFs have been accused of atrocities against Sunni civilians during their campaigns against Daesh.

In addition to the forces on the ground there is also the issue of international actors seeking to affect the future of Mosul and the region as a whole.

The US seeks to retake Mosul and restore the idea that Iraq can exist as a single sovereign state and maintain the status quo in the region. Iran seeks the same outcome as it has come to have greater influence in Iraq since the fall of Hussein. Any split on ethnic or sectarian lines in Iraq could have dire effects on Iran domestically if minority communities seek autonomy. Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism would make instability in northern Iraq beneficial to Turkey if it seeks to gain influence or more in its old provinces. The same provinces they were stripped of by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. These complications are not factoring in Russian or Chinese interests in Iraq and the wider region.

As the amassed forces rush to take Mosul the important question is not will they succeed, but who takes what when. What is taken from Daesh is just the beginning of the long battle for Mosul. Mosul’s future will be fought for among the winning parties and unlike Berlin it is unlikely a division into zones of influence will suffice for the competing interests of the parties in the highly diverse ethnic and sectarian battle field of Mosul.


Kenneth Depew is a retired Army NCO and served as an Infantryman and Human Intelligence Collector. He is an alumnus of Tel Aviv University (MA Security and Diplomacy ’16) and the University of St. Thomas (BA Political Science ’13). He served on Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s 2012 campaign staff and senate staff.