In a significant development, the US-backed Baghdad administration on Monday launched a massive offensive to drive the Islamic State terror group out of its stronghold in Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. The attack, which has taken months of planning, was announced in an address on state television by Iraq’s Prime Minister.
After significant strategic victories in recent months, anti-IS forces have zeroed in on Mosul in what is being seen as Iraq’s biggest military campaign since the United States forces left its soil in 2011. “I announce today the start of the heroic operations to free you from the terror and the oppression of Daesh [a local term for the militant group],” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
“We will meet soon on the ground of Mosul to celebrate liberation and your salvation.” Reports indicate that the offensive is a joint operation involving more than 30,000 soldiers from the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and a Shia militias. Aiding this offensive, the US, British, and French special forces will play a significant role in directing airstrikes against IS inside the city. Before the group’s invasion in 2014, the city was under the control of Iraqi forces who were mostly Shia. Their brutal hold on the city had alienated the local Sunni majority.
By mid-2014, the city was quickly taken over by the IS forces in an audacious campaign. It was in Mosul that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a caliphate in June 2014. “Since then, the terror group’s ‘caliphate’ has shredded state authority in the region’s heartland, led to a mass exodus of refugees, attempted genocide of minorities and created grave doubts over the future of Iraq,” according to a report in The Guardian.
“The formation of a caliphate across the borders of already existing countries is essential to IS ideology, and the terror group is the first in modern history to control its state in such a way. Without a caliphate, IS would find it significantly harder to call on recruits to join in its war against the rest of the world.”
The city has been central to the group’s ambition in disseminating its brutal and reactionary interpretation of Islamic doctrine throughout the Middle East and beyond. As the group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, the campaign in Mosul presents the most significant offensive against the caliphate since the war began. Experts contend that the fall of Mosul, which is central to the group’s supply routes into Syria, will significantly hasten the fall of the group’s Syrian capital of Raqqqa. It is indeed a fight to the finish.
It is hard to talk about the latest offensive without taking into consideration the sectarian forces at play. Reports indicate that Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga forces will not enter the mainly Sunni Muslim city. In the event of a successful offensive, which could take months to accomplish, one of the biggest challenges for the Baghdad administration will be to restore governance in the city and in extension, the entire country. US forces, which had maintained an occupying presence in Mosul till 2010, will not provide further troop support to Iraqi forces in their bid to regain control of the country. The protracted war in Iraq has opened up sectarian wounds between the US-backed Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and Sunni majority regions. The Iraqi government has a small presence in these areas.
However, the biggest concern emanating from Monday’s offensive is the fate of approximately 1.3 million refugees. In the past, the IS has shown itself to be more than capable of using civilians as human shields. The group’s fighters have already moved into residential areas to deter US air strikes, which are now landing near the homes of innocent civilians. Speaking to The Guardian, an Iraqi security official, said:
“When you have one million people you have to be precise with each attack; it requires excellent intelligence that will slow things down. Anyone who says it is going to take two weeks or two months does not know. We will see early on when the process has started, but we do not want to end up like Ramadi with 80 percent of the city destroyed, and then mass unemployment because that is a breeding ground for terrorism. You could just end up with a more brutal version [of IS].” Aid agencies will be hard pressed to tackle what could be the largest refugee exodus since the start of this protracted battle.
“More than 700,000 people are likely to require shelter and other life-saving assistance,” said UNICEF Middle East and North Africa spokesperson, Farah Dakhlallah. “Families are undertaking terrifying journeys through active conflict zones littered with unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive devices, often at night, sometimes walking up to 60km to escape to safety.” With aid agencies hard pressed for funds, the consequences of the Mosul offensive could be a lot more deleterious. Instead of celebrating a major victory against the Islamic State, the international community will have to step up its efforts to provide much-needed aid and prevent future hostilities. Brutal war zones are the breeding grounds for violent and extremist ideologies.