Two years after Islamic State captured and declared the city of Mosul in northern Iraq part of its expanding caliphate, US-backed Iraqi forces have finally commenced a massive joint offensive to take it back.
In their victory, they will strip the militant jihadist group, which has been losing ground across Syria and Iraq for months, of its final major stronghold in the latter country, liberating the city’s besieged 1.5 million residents from an IS reign characterised by violence and terror.
The ideal outcome minimises civilian casualties and ushers in a new peace for the city and, over time, Iraq as a whole. The grim reality is far more complex. The battle for Mosul, while an important step in defeating IS, will result in further tragedy, the scale of which depends on how relevant forces approach both the immediate conflict and its aftermath.
The battle in a nutshell:
Over the coming weeks and possibly months, Iraq and its allies, a force of 30,000 combatants made up of Western trained and advised Iraqi military, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Sunni tribalists, will march on Mosul in Iraq’s largest military operation since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The plan is to attack the city from virtually all sides, bottlenecking the force of an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 IS extremists that remain inside its limits and cutting off all their potential supply routes.
In the days leading up to this offensive, the Iraqi military dropped tens of thousands of leaflets over the city, informing residents that they would “not target civilians” and warning them to stay away from areas known to be frequented by IS members.
Undoubtedly, the 1.5 million people still trapped in the city, around half of which are children, face a tough and dangerous future. Many have stocked up on essential supplies, but it is unsure exactly how long the fighting will go on for.
At the same time, they are in danger of being caught in crossfire or used as “human shields” by desperate IS fighters who have been known to employ such tactics.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has urged civilians to hold on nonetheless.
“I am announcing today the beginning of these heroic operations to liberate you from the brutality and terrorism of ISIS,” he said in a televised speech before the commencement of the assault.
“God willing, we will meet soon on the ground of Mosul where we will all celebrate the liberation and your freedom.”
A potential humanitarian disaster:
As the wheels start turning, the United Nations and numerous aid groups are preparing for what may become one of the largest and most complex humanitarian relief efforts this year.
The hundreds of thousands of civilians expected to flee the city and its surroundings will require urgent medical and humanitarian aid, including food, water, shelter and security, calls for which have been ongoing for months.
In late September, representative for the UN’s refugee agency in Iraq Bruno Geddo warned that funding would be needed before the conflict began to keep up with relentless demands as it unfolded.
“The first lesson is: It is too late when you receive funding when the crisis hits the television screens, which has normally been the pattern in the past in dealing with humanitarian crises,” he said.
“It is going to be a huge challenge but we are planning to try our best to meet this.”
While some refugee camps have already been set up around Mosul, there are concerns they will not be able to accommodate everyone.
Some of those displaced will likely join the millions of others who have crossed into nearby countries like Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria in search of safety, and possibly push on further into Europe, where a recent spate in refugee numbers has led to controversy and division.
As the battle wages, humanitarian groups will need extensive support from the international community to help the civilians caught up in all of this.
When the battle concludes, likely with an IS defeat, concerted efforts must be made to rebuild the city and ensure it does not fall again. This is easier said than done for a number of reasons.
A majority of Mosul’s population identify as Sunni Muslims, a group historically at odds with their Shiite counterparts.
In Iraq in particular, Sunni Muslims have often felt disenfranchised and discriminated against by the Shiite-dominated government and military, raising concerns that sectarian conflicts could break out between Mosul’s residents and the liberating Iraqi forces either during or after the battle.
This risk is exacerbated further by the inclusion of Shiite militias, separate from the Iraqi army, in the offensive, according to local Sunni politicians and representatives of Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Prime Minister al-Abadi, who replaced his controversially divisive predecessor Nouri al-Maliki in 2014, has stressed this will not be the case.
Whether or not he’s right to be so optimistic is yet to be seen.
IS will retaliate:
This year has seen IS lose large swathes of territory in multiple frontline skirmishes against big military opponents.
While the US believes the extremist network will suffer a definitive and “lasting defeat” in this coming battle, the groups resilience against ongoing Western coalition air strikes over the past few months suggest it won’t go down easily.
Losing Mosul, its last remaining major stronghold in Iraq, may instead see the group further revert to using the guerrilla and terrorist tactics with which it terrorised the world to begin with.
This includes ramped up indiscriminate shootings and suicide bombings, the most of recent of which killed 55 people across Iraq last week.
In summary: post-battle uncertainty
It is not guaranteed that Iraqi forces will be able to maintain control of Mosul after it falls, given that post-battle plans concerning the governing of the city have not yet been completed.
These efforts will need to focus specifically on rebuilding but also ensuring the continued security of the city’s residents.
“Even the best-executed military operation could unleash new [sectarian or other] tensions,” noted the editorial board of the New York Times last week.
“It it also not clear whether the allies are prepared to handle the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of civilians who might flee the fighting.”
In bigger picture terms, the liberation of Mosul from IS will not in itself destroy the jihadist organisation or diminish the terrible effects corruption and sectarian violence have had on countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria post US-intervention.
When the dust has cleared, reliable and inclusive institutions will have to be rebuilt alongside the ruins of Mosul, especially if peace in greater Iraq is ever to become a certainty again.