By Makhan Saikia
12 November 2016
The situation in Iraq must change. Prime Minister Abadi, in the wee hours of starting the Mosul battle against ISIS, said, “The hour has struck. The campaign to liberate Mosul has begun. Beloved people of Mosul, the Iraqi nation will celebrate the victory as one.” Hope this come true
Mosul is the second biggest city of Iraq which was overrun by the jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) in mid-2014. Over the last two years, the city has witnessed mass exodus of people, genocide of the minority communities and holy seat of the ‘Caliphate’. Alas! This city has set the final stage for the elimination of the once powerful and dreaded Sunni Islamists who were literally creating havoc across the world. Still they are no less than a global menace. But their reach, speed and volume of atrocity have substantially come down in the recent months.
The battle for retaking of Mosul by the Iraqi Army is already making international headlines, but for some very serious reasons. This battle has been termed as one of the most complex military operations in Iraq since the country was invaded by America in 2003, during the heydays of its President Saddam Hussein. As international experts opine, whoever loses and whoever wins, will matter so much that it will set the future course of action of Iraq. A fight to finish battle from the ISIS is absolutely on the move. The challenge for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is to secure Mosul and provide a stable governance system, once the ISIS is out from the city.
Why is the battle so significant? It bears significance as it was the place from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself as the global ‘Caliph’ of all the Muslims of the world. Thereby he called on all followers to ‘do jihad in the cause of God, incite the believers, and be patient in the face of this hardship’. And from then, the Sunni rebel group, which was earlier known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant changed its name to Islamic State.
This was indeed very significant for the Islamists as they were keen on forming a Caliphate across the borders of Iraq and Syria. Forming a state of their own within the already existing boundaries of the sovereign nations was remarkable and first in the modern world history for a terror outfit. From the grand mosque of Mosul, Baghdadi proclaimed that the ISIS Empire will extend from Diyala in Iraq to Syria’s Aleppo. Around the same time, the ISIS’ spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani stated that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations null by the expansion of the Caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas”. So he urged people: ‘Listen to your Caliph and obey him. Support your State, which grows every day’.
This declaration has a historical significance, as it had an appeal for uniting all the Muslims of the world. This was an unprecedented move since the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty in Andalusia by Abd al-Rahman al-Dakhil in 138 A.H. (Year 756). From then no Muslim has ever proclaim himself as the Caliph in a span of 13 centuries. Hence, Mosul remains at the heart of the ISIS propaganda, strength and global reach. With Mosul falling, the ISIS will eventually be erased from the minds of its followers and sympathisers who have always been viewing it as a “super state”. So, the battle of Mosul has many ramifications for the faithful.
Besides, losing Mosul will pose a potential threat to the survival of the jihadists’ capital in Raqqa. The opponents of the ISIS will find it much easier to capture the city. As the major supply routes to Raqqa come from Iraq, recapturing of Mosul will finally help the Government forces cut the vital links to the city. Raqqa was a quiet city before falling into the hands of the ISIS. Initially when the anti-Government protests broke out against the Assad regime in Syria in March 2011, protesters slowly left major Syrian cities like Aleppo, Holms, Idlib, etc. and moved to Raqqa.
This had made the city a nerve centre and gathering point of thousands of revolutionaries over time. Raqqa, situated on the northern bank of the Euphrates River, soon became a hub for regular meeting ground for rebels where they planned for future course of action against the establishment at Damascus. But then the ISIS fighters were not seen in the city. What helped them capture the place was no other than the massive exodus of the al-Nusra fighters who were controlling it since 2013. This had provided a big boost to the ISIS and thus, quietly the city went to the group without much global attention. It came into international focus when the ISIS started posting videos of the victims and showing how they were imposing the Sharia law over the residents of Raqqa as part of their regular administration. So now if they had to leave Mosul, their barbaric capital may easily fall to the opposition forces.
Now the question is how well-prepared are the ISIS fighters for this decisive battle? Till now, it seemed that nearly 5,000 ISIS rebels had an elaborate plan to defend its last bastion in Iraq. Reports reveal that the ISIS has placed IEDs underneath roads and big buildings across the city. They had already destroyed around five important bridges in the city to prevent the Iraqi Government-led forces.
A Reuters report says that six feet wide, six feet deep moat has been dug around the city, which will be filled with oil and set on fire, creating massive smoke to make it difficult for the warplanes to identify the targets. Just to avoid air strikes from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the ISIS will supply men and material through underground tunnels. Many news reports say that the jihadists are constantly shaving their beards to blend with the commoners around the city.
This will help them even flee with the refugees and plan for future actions. It has been reported by various sources that the ISIS is forcefully recruiting child soldiers to boost its strength. They are infamously known as ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ who are armed with sophisticated weapons. However, the ISIS has been providing training to the teens since 2014 when they captured the city and now they are being used for fighting the allied militias and the ISF. Whatsoever it may be their plans, but it would be a decisive battle for the reclusive jihadists for sure.
When it comes to the ISF, the plan is quite clear. The offensive is being started on two major fronts. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are struggling hard to reclaim the ISIS-held villages in the east of Mosul. They are given support by the American warplanes, artillery and special operations commandos. The main battle is being launched from the Qayyarah airbase from the south of Mosul. The airbase is equipped with 560 US military advisers, 22,000 ISF personnel and around 6,000 Sunni tribal fighters. As per the plan, the liberation forces are advancing along the Tigris River. This will help them clear their ways while moving towards the Mosul city centre. Though the ISIS men are supposed to play their own mischievous tactics, yet it is widely believed that most of the battles will be fought on the streets. The reason behind is — the old city lanes of Mosul are so small that war tanks and other heavily armed vehicles will not be able to enter there.
As the war is raging, the concern is that what will happen to the millions of refugees and how the Iraqi Government will run the administration of the city once the ISIS leaves. The international humanitarian agencies predict that it will be like a tsunami. It seems that the relief organisations, including the UN teams, will find it too difficult to manage the mass exodus. The aid organisations are already overstretched as they are dealing with nearly 3.3 million displaced Iraqi refugees. Depending on the intensity of the conflict, as many as one million people may flee Mosul. Therefore, organisations like Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council have floated the idea of providing safe exits for the civilians from the city. Else, the civilians have the bleakest choices there in front of them: either surrender to the ISIS for becoming human shields or face attacks from all sides and finally, flee at the risk of their lives.
How to govern post-ISIS Mosul? The insanity of the ISIS and the imperative that the monster be rooted out from Mosul, are fairly unambiguous matters by now. But how to handle post-ISIS Mosul where rival interests of the majority Sunnis, the aspiring Kurds and the Shia’s Baghdad syndrome will play the rounds in the days to come. Most importantly, Iraq lacks the capacity and the resources to hold on to the ground in Mosul. For now, the western backed and trained ISF may complete the Mosul assignment with much fanfare, but once the American assistance comes to an end, what will happen? The Iraqi Government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must start preparing the long mission to bring peace and tranquillity to the country’s resource rich city.
But the victory in Mosul will not solve the crisis in Iraq. As the country continues to suffer the consequences of corruption, sectarianism and dysfunctional governance system. The plethora of Shia militias and an extremely fragmented security establishment of Iraq will not simply allow permanent peace to come to the country.
The ruptures within and outside the Iraqi society and polity needed to be addressed carefully. The fault lines are growing deeper in Iraq. This may spiral beyond Mosul. The fear and anxiety of Shia-Sunni divide is an old game played in and around West Asia in particular and around the Muslim-dominated nations in general for centuries now. But with the rise of Al Qaeda and the ISIS, the spectre of Islamic militancy has come to its pinnacle. And these two global monsters are simply buttressing the claims of the Sunnis across the claims over their land, polity and influence over the years. Herein, the fight between the Shias and the Sunnis has grown bitter. And the global players like America, Russia, the European Union, etc, have taken their sides as per their convenience. This has worsened the current political conflicts in the West Asia. With the coming of Donald Trump as President in America, Barack Obama’s laid back approach towards the raging conflicts in West Asia may take a different turn. This may help in changing the scenario in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and in many other places where war and violence have a taken a huge toll on the ordinary citizens. Trump must bring back the confidence of the traditional friends of America in the troubled Middle East.
The situation in Iraq must change. Prime Minister Abadi, in the wee hours of starting the Mosul battle, said, “The hour has struck. The campaign to liberate Mosul has begun. Beloved people of Mosul, the Iraqi nation will celebrate the victory as one.” Hope this come true.
Makhan Saikia is Senior Editor, The Pioneer