Despite reports of imminent success, Mosul is still a dangerous flashpoint

Getting on with it. EPA/Ahmed Jalil

President Trump has long made it clear that destroying the so-called Islamic State (IS) is one of his main priorities, and that one plan being considered is to deploy a US Army brigade to help defeat IS in its main base of Raqqa in Syria. That, though, depends on the success of another operation: the Iraqi-led offensive to expel IS from Iraq’s second city of Mosul. If that crucial battle isn’t won, Trump’s plans may be knocked back just when he needs to demonstrate that his already troubled administration really can wield global authority.

The Mosul operation began in autumn 2016 with an assault on the eastern half of the city. It was spearheaded by the Iraqi Army’s Special Forces group, the Counter Terror Service (CTS) or “Golden Division”. The plan was to drive out IS by the end of the year. For the first month, things seemed to go well, but then the CTS and other units faced more resistance as they tried to move into the more dense urban areas towards the river Tigris.

There ensued a stalemate that lasted until early January 2017, when the Iraqi government declared that eastern Mosul was finally cleared of IS forces as far as the river. More heavily populated western Mosul, however, remained in IS’s clutches, and it has done ever since.

The Iraqi government now saying that operations to clear the rest of the city are getting underway, with the CTS and three army brigades committed to the operation, supported by coalition air strikes and artillery. This might signal that IS faces imminent defeat – but there are other indicators which suggest otherwise. The worry is not just that it will take months to complete the task, but that the consequences for Iraqi security may be severe.

Coming apart

Barely three weeks into the operation, back in early November 2016, Reuters was reporting that regular Iraqi Army units were finding it very difficult to maintain control of districts in eastern Mosul that were thought to have been cleared by the Special Forces. By the middle of the month, Associated Press was reporting that “the sheer scale of IS defences and counterattacks in Mosul has stunned Iraq’s military”.

A month later, a detailed assessment from Mark Perry in Politico reported that sources in US Central Command were greatly concerned that the Iraqi Army’s elite forces were taking such a pounding that they would not be able to control conflicts elsewhere in Iraq, even after Mosul had been freed. As Perry put it:

With the division suffering ‘horrific’ casualties every day, senior US [Central Command] officers are worried that the grinding battle is slowly destroying the division itself. If that happens, which appears likely, Iraq will lose its best guarantee against civil war – the only force capable of keeping the peace when Iraq’s sectarian divisions, temporarily dampened by having to fight a common enemy, re-emerge.

East Mosul life. EPA

For the past two months, there have been few reports about the current state of those forces; instead Iraqi government sources are talking up the prospects for the clearance of the rest of the city. In the past week, though, there are other indications that the problems are far greater than the government in Baghdad is prepared to acknowledge. If that is so, then Trump’s aim to “crush” IS is heading for major problems.

Trouble ahead

It has lately been reported that IS “sleeper cells” are present in eastern Mosul, but of much greater immediate concern are the frequent attacks being mounted in the supposedly liberated part of the city. Although supposedly under government control, the east is frequently subjected to attacks by mortars, suicide bombs and armed drones.

More worrying in the long term is that in its efforts to maintain control, the Iraqi government appears to be relying not on regular army units but on Shia militias, who already have a reputation for harsh treatment of Mosul’s mostly Sunni civilians. This puts the CTS units in a bind: reluctant to hand over their garrison role to the militias, but unable to rely on the regular army to replace them.

To make matters worse, there has been a recent surge in attacks in other parts of northern Iraq, extending down to Baghdad itself. Indeed some reliable sources indicate that there is now a more general Sunni insurgency developing, most likely being made worse by the violence of the Shia militias. Some worry that even if IS fully loses its grip on the city, a number of al-Qaeda-linked groups are organising to take its place.

It’s becoming apparent that even if Mosul does fall, it will be very far from the end of extreme anti-government forces opposing the Iraqi government. The idea that Trump could simply pour in enough forces to suppress IS and solve problem at one stroke is nonsense – but it may be months or years, with much more violence and suffering, before he realises it.