War on the Rocks published an interesting article today by the National Defense University’s Denise Natali about all the things that need to be worked out before the Iraqis are going to be ready to attempt to liberate Mosul from ISIS. Truth be told, the actual military campaign is going to be the most straightforward (if not the easiest) part of that operation; it’s all the political machinations that have to be performed beforehand that are really complicated:
Liberating Mosul is more difficult than the recent Ramadi offensive largely due to demographics, geography, and politics. Known by Iraqis as the “city of a million officers,” Mosul retains the large presence of Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist generals and officers. These influences are Sunni Arab, Iraqi nationalist, anti-Iranian, and divided between secularist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups. Mosul also has mixed urban and tribal groups, as well as minorities (especially Yezidis, Assyrians, and Kurds) in the city and outlying areas. It is over three times the size of Ramadi and has nearly 700,000 civilians still living inside the city, making the use of coalition airstrikes (which were critical to Ramadi’s success) a less likely option. Further, Mosul’s proximity to Syria means that local populations need to be assured that ISIL will not return. If the Syrian border and outlying areas are not secured, then people will not volunteer to fight or support anti-ISIL efforts, even discreetly.
Given these conditions, Sunni Arabs must play a critical role in the Mosul offensive, alongside and part of the ISF and its elite counter-terrorism forces. Sunni Arab personalities are leading this effort, to include Gen. Najim al-Jibouri, head of the Iraqi Government’s Operational Command for the Liberation of Mosul. The command includes Sunni Arab battalions within the ISF and distinct Sunni Arab mobilization forces, some of which participated in the liberation of Ramadi.
The problems are many, ranging from rivalries within Ninevah’s Sunni Arab population to what role the Kurds and their inconveniently assertive Turkish allies should play (if you’re scratching your head right now, just know that Ankara only bombs Syrian and Turkish Kurds; they get along quite well with Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders), and Dr. Natali does a good job of illustrating them. I would add one other thing to her list though: the fact that the Iraqis haven’t really consolidated the gains they’ve made in Anbar yet. Ramadi is still being bombed by ISIS fighters, suggesting that they might make a try at retaking it. Fallujah is surrounded by Iraqi forces but is still held by ISIS, much to the grief and suffering of Iraqi civilians trapped there. It’s probably not advisable for the Iraqis to start taking new ground away from ISIS before they’ve secured the ground they’ve already taken.
And there’s also the matter of rebuilding Ramadi, which was virtually destroyed by ISIS and by the coalition airstrikes in the campaign to retake it. That has two implications for the upcoming Mosul campaign. First, Natali is right in that American/coalition airstrikes simply can’t be used in Mosul the way they were in Ramadi, or else you’ll have potentially tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians as a result. Second, somebody needs to at least put a firm plan in place to rebuild Ramadi and resettle its people before we all move on to the next big project. If this kind of stuff doesn’t get taken care of now, there’s a risk it won’t get taken care of at all. Failure to address the aftermath of the Ramadi operation and take care of the Sunni Arabs who live/lived there would ensure that Ramadi (and the rest of Anbar) will continue to be vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence.