Backed by the United States, Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched a campaign over two weeks ago to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS) after being under their rule for two years.
ISIS’s rule over Mosul was brought on by tensions in Syria and Iraq, giving the extremist group an opportune time to invade and occupy the city and other large surrounding cities.
Assistant Professor of Politics in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis explained that this divide gave al Qaeda a chance to regroup and form into what is now the Islamic State.
“ISIS before then was basically al Qaeda,” said Fitsanakis. “They had basically changed their name once they realized that al Qaeda was a failing brand after Bin Laden was killed, so they took their best people and basically went into hiding in Syria. In Syria there was a civil war that allowed them to recoup and recruit.”
He added that the U.S. invasion only worsened they already rising differences between the Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq at the time.
“Going back to Iraq there were a lot of tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites,” said Fitsanakis. “That kind of festered even before the U.S. went in in 2003 but the invasion made it much worse in terms of sectarian divides in the country. The Sunnis, which are the majority of the population in Mosul, felt beseeched by the Shi’ites.”
The campaign to recapture Mosul, however, will not be easy. Because other large Iraqi cities have been recaptured—Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja—Mosul is in some ways, ISIS’s last stand.
In Ramadi, rebuilding costs are estimated in the billions.
At the time of the recapture, it was estimated by the Iraqi prime minister that 90 percent of Ramadi had explosives and still make some areas uninhabitable 10 years later. These explosive remnants of war, or ERW, had been placed by ISIS in schools, homes and hospitals.
In an interview with the New York Times, the State Department’s Deputy Director for Programs Jerry Giulbert, said that removing these explosives could be timely and costly.
“To clear Ramadi of every piece of ERW, you’re talking about a years-long effort, hundreds of millions of dollars, well beyond what we have,” said Giulbert.
Mosul is one of the largest cities in Iraq, having nearly 2 million inhabitants at the time of it being captured. Because of this, and many other reasons, it is seen as a prize to ISIS.
Not only large, but ancient as well, the city is the cultural center for Iraq. It is home to valuable, historical antiquities that are currently being threatened by the Islamic State.
ISIS’s chemical weapons operation is also based in the city, which is just another reason that control of Mosul is a priority for them.
With all of these factors combined, it is no surprise that many experts expect it to be some of the bloodiest fighting the Middle East has seen.
Fitsanakis said that ISIS would utilize various types of strategies when fighting.
“It is going to be bloody because it is urban,” said Fitsanakis. “They’re going to have snipers. They’re going to have suicide bombers. They’re going to have booby traps everywhere. They’re going to have civilians fighting in civilian uniform. A lot of civilians are going to die. They are not professional forces. Many of them are in militias. There are kids with guns who are trigger happy or are very frightened so they’ll shoot and ask questions later.”
If ISIS loses Mosul, it is said that the group will take on the strategy of “inhiyaz”—temporary retreat—into the desert, which is basically the same strategy used in 2007 when the group was driven out of Iraq by U.S. troops. The word first appeared in a speech in May by Islamic State spokesperson Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who was later killed in an airstrike in August.
The fear is that, like before, the Islamic State will revert back to underground guerrilla warfare and have time to regroup to come back stronger than before.
Fitsanakis said that if ISIS loses Mosul, a question will be raised about how ISIS will respond.
“If they lose their territory, which is what makes them conventional, they’re going to revert back to what they used to do in the old days, which is to become an underground force,” said Fitsanakis. “If they become an underground force, they have no territory to defend, then what is the strategy going to be? That’s the big question.”
Although an attack on U.S. soil has been predicted to be possible if Mosul is recaptured, many Americans are unaware about what is going on due to lack of media coverage and/or general understanding.
Fitsanakis said that what intrigues him is way the media is choosing cover the topic.
“To me, what is interesting is not so much the lack of coverage on Iraq; It’s more the lack of coverage on certain parts of Iraq and Syria,” said Fitsanakis. “There is a lot of attention in Aleppo and a lot of criticism of Russia. People are like, ‘These people are crazy. They are going to attack a big city full of people.’ And now the same exact thing is happening on our side with the people that we support.”
He added that the war is complex, making it difficult for the media to approach the topic and present it to the public.
“A lot of Americans, I think, don’t understand what is going on over there because we are now finding ourselves supporting people that we were enemies of up until a few months ago,” said Fitsanakis. “America and Turkey aren’t doing very well because Turkey is suspicious of America. We have the Kurds, who they United States considers to be a terrorist organization. Don’t forget that the Kurds are considered terrorists in Turkey. We’ve got the Iranians who we don’t really have any relations with officially. It’s not a very clean war, like the forces of good verses the forces of evil. Everything is kind of crazy so Americans are confused about what the hell is going on so because of that I think the coverage is sort of minimal.”
Although the media has presented little coverage on Mosul and ISIS, both are prevalent issues that could present serious threats in the near future.
Fitsanakis emphasized that the world is unstable.
“I think that we are now less safe than we were before 9/11 or on the day of 9/11,” said Fitsanakis. “I think the possibility of another 9/11 on America or another developed country is almost at 100 percent. The world has become less stable, less safe and less predictable because of our response to 9/11. The way we responded was careless and in many ways, ineffective.”