Battle for Mosul is emerging as a lost opportunity
The battle for Mosul resumed on Thursday after a two-week operational pause. During the pause, according to Arabic reports, Baghdad came under increased pressure to allow at least two militia organisations to join the operations inside Mosul. Banning such militias from fighting in Mosul has been a critical pillar of the commendable strategy to retake and stabilise Iraq’s second largest city.
The fighting is taking a heavy toll on the country’s elite forces, particularly the Counterterrorism Service (CTS). Meanwhile, ISIL is turning the battle into a source of propaganda. The damaging impact of the eventual loss of the city on ISIL appears to be increasingly minimised, as the militants slowed down the government forces on the eastern flank – originally thought to be a relatively easy front.
Last week, a Lebanese newspaper, Al Akhbar, reported that some Iraqi officials had complained that the campaign in Mosul was going too slowly. The officials asked the prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, to allow the Badr Organisation and Kataib Hizbollah to participate in the fighting, despite fears over the role of sectarian militias in a predominantly Sunni city.
Al Akhbar’s report aligns with familiar calls for the Hashd Al Shaabi to be given a fighting role in the eastern parts of the city. For now, the recently-formalised militia organisation is assigned mostly to the areas west of Mosul. Hashd Al Shaabi commanders have also complained that the government in Baghdad has not given them the green light to attack Tal Afar, a major ISIL stronghold west of Mosul, despite their preparedness to storm it.
Frustration follows reports that the fight against ISIL in its most populous stronghold is burning out the CTS and elite Iraqi forces. The Rapid Intervention Division (RID), which typically operates alongside the federal police, has had to supplement the CTS. On Saturday, RID fighters reached the northern edge of Al Intisar neighbourhood and linked up with the CTS on the southern side of Al Quds neighbourhood.
Despite first-class professionalism, such forces have been ambushed by ISIL in a terrain the militants know too well. Last month, the Associated Press reported that an ISIL ambush led to the deaths of nearly 100 soldiers.
Even if Mr Al Abadi continues to refuse permission for the militias to fight in the city, the fact that such pressure is mounting indicates that the battle is facing critical tests. It also suggests that the entry of Shia militias into the city might be inevitable if the current patterns persist.
Fighting against the militants will become harder as the government forces navigate deeper into the city, close to the Tigres river’s left bank. More forces will be needed to secure the outskirts where elite forces have already faced deadly ambushes. Additionally, fighting in Mosul’s western flank is expected to be tougher. If so, it might be logical to seek the help of the Hashd Al Shaabi militias already stationed west of the city.
A number of curious gestures point to an effort to appease Sunni fears over the battle in and around Mosul.
On Saturday, a spokesman of the Nineveh Guard, a Turkey-trained Sunni militia led by Nineveh’s former governor, Athil Al Nujayfi, confirmed that the force had formally merged with the Hashd Al Shaabi. Ankara also announced on Friday that the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, will visit Baghdad later this month – following two months of heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries over the role of Turkish forces and their allies in the Mosul operation. On the same day, the PKK, a Turkish-designated Kurdish militia, announced that its militants would withdraw from Sinjar, west of Mosul.
Given these developments, the controlled entry of a select size of Hashd Al Shaabi militias into Mosul to fight alongside the professional forces might now face little opposition. Turkey has fiercely opposed the participation of the Hashd Al Shaabi and insisted that only local fighters join the battle. This demand and the presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq led to great diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
The situation between Baghdad and Ankara seems to be changing, and de-escalation and cooperation might lead to a closer understanding in Mosul. The involvement of the Hashd Al Shaabi may become necessary. But it would add another layer of uncertainty to the fight for Mosul and diminish the value of the largest battle Iraq has fought in more than a decade.
The battle in Mosul could have been much more significant; it could have been part of a national project to rewrite Iraq’s social and political contract. Unfortunately, it has been reduced largely to a counterterrorism operation to clear the city of ISIL militants. That is a worthwhile target, but a modest one compared to what could be achieved if Washington and Baghdad had worked together on a political track.
The militants’ perseverance in the face of the advancing government forces and the reduction of such a major battle into a counterterrorism operation mean that Iraq has already lost a significant aspect of the war: the grand objective of dealing a deadly blow to ISIL’s claims of statehood. The entry of despised militias into Mosul might render the militants’ defeat in the city meaningless.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
On Twitter: @hxhassan
Updated: January 1, 2017 04:00 AM