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There will be no swift victory over ISIL in Mosul

The war in Syria and Iraq has two faces, writes Alan Philps.
Kurdish fighters have pushed ISIL out of the Syrian town of Kobani.  (AP  / Jake Simkin)
Kurdish fighters have pushed ISIL out of the Syrian town of Kobani. (AP / Jake Simkin)

On Monday, Kurdish forces recaptured the town of Kobani in northern Syria, having driven out the jihadists of ISIL after four months of fighting. This is a symbolic defeat for ISIL and has prompted speculation that this might mark the point when the all-conquering jihadists are rolled back.

From a military point of view, the loss of Kobani, which ISIL had been so confident of taking, will not change much. There was no pressing reason for ISIL to take Kobani apart from propaganda: the town is within sight of the Turkish border and the raising of the black flag on the ridge behind the town could be caught by the TV cameras watching over the border fence.

After Kobani, ISIL appears to have two faces. Its initial push in Iraq, which began on January 1 last year in Anbar province, was a well-executed piece of military planning, showing the influence of trained officers from the old Iraqi army. The Kobani operation shows ISIL as a movement driven by its social media output.

The media war is a vital part of any battle plan. The ISIL threats to kill the captured Jordanian pilot, Maaz Al Kassasbeh, shook public opinion in Jordan, revealing cracks in support for the anti-ISIL coalition more effectively than any bombing campaign.

On the ground, it is estimated that ISIL lost 1,200 fighters in the battle for Kobani – a great waste of men for a commander’s folly. The battle could not have been won without US support, including 700 bombing runs. But while ISIL seems to command social media, its forces on the ground are kept in the dark. Squads of ISIL troops regularly went up to the top of the ridge behind Kobani, only to be bombed from the air. Did they not know what awaited them, or did they believe in pointless gestures of self-sacrifice?

The big question now is when will ISIL forces be driven out of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, whose spectacular fall in June led to the collapse of the Iraqi army, built up at a cost of $8 billion (Dh29.4bn). The new Iraqi government of prime minister Haider Al Abadi is understandably keen to show it can wipe out the stain of the loss of Mosul, and there are many voices calling for a spring offensive to liberate the city.

The anti-ISIL coalition put together by the Americans is keenly aware that the Iraqi army does not yet have enough trained soldiers to take the city and hold it, nor the police to root out ISIL sympathisers. The Iraqi army has only one throw of the dice – failure would set Iraq back on course for state collapse. These concerns may explain why the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has said it will take two years to drive ISIL out of Iraq.

Even more important is the need for Iraq to prepare a solid social and political base for the counter-offensive. The army, being rebuilt once more with the help of US and allied trainers, must be seen as one for all Iraqis, representing a state that takes account of the country’s ethnic and sectarian make-up. One of the reasons ISIL was able to conquer Mosul so easily was that its Sunni Muslim residents felt that the jihadists could not be worse than the Iraqi army, seen as an instrument of control by the Shia majority. Perhaps they have changed their minds, having experienced the brutality and incompetence of their new masters.

Any similarities with the situation in Kobani evaporate on close inspection. The Kurdish forces were disparate – but they were united in a national cause. The loss of Kobani would have shown the Kurds, for all their aspirations for statehood or self-government, as too fractious to defend their own land. They had a point to make not only to ISIL but also to the Turkish government, which views Kurdish independence as a threat to its own state and to the Syrian regime as well. Even though they depended on air support from the US, the determination of the fighters was clear for all to see.

The Kurds’ victory is no more decisive than ISIL’s defeat was. The countryside is still held by the jihadists, including 400 villages that the Kurds claim as theirs. And it was hardly a walkover. The defence of Kobani took four months which, given the US control of the skies, is not a promising example when it comes to Mosul, a city of 1.8 million at its height. The Iraqi army will not be ready logistically to fight a battle of Stalingrad; it needs to deliver a swift, decisive blow.

Two other concerns militate against a swift liberation of Mosul. One gets to the heart of ISIL: if its virtual footprint is bigger – and more dangerous for global security – than its strength on the ground, then the way to beat it is to restrict its access to the internet and its reach to its global support base. This is largely uncharted territory.

The second issue is better known: Iran and the Shia sectarian militias it supports in Iraq have been prominent in the fightback against ISIL. This made sense when the Iraqi army was in ruins, but the sectarian element is always going to be a plus for ISIL, which can portray itself as the defender of the Sunni minority. The experience of Lebanon, where Iran has for 30 years nurtured the Hizbollah party and militia, is instructive. Hizbollah is now more powerful than the national army and has an armlock on politics. The state gets weaker and Hizbollah grows stronger.

Is this what the Iranian Revolutionary Guards want for Iraq? We do not know. But it is certain that if Iraq is going to have an army with the fighting spirit of the Kurds, it cannot achieve it with Shia militias in the vanguard or even at the rear. The Sunni Muslims will always feel second-class citizens. So the response to ISIL has to be as much political as military.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps

Updated: January 29, 2015 04:00 AM

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