The continuous pressure and bombardment that Iraqi forces are placing on so-called Islamic State (ISIS) militants are paying off. With gains made on a regular basis, it is only a matter of time until victory is declared for the Iraqi forces. This revival of the Iraqi army following their collapse in 2014 couldn’t come at a better time. They have now reorganized and learned from their mistakes, and have been extremely effective against ISIS in Iraq.
Understanding the key differences and strengths in both the group’s strategy and resources is key to understanding how this battle will unfold and what the likely outcomes will be.
In terms of military might and weaponry, the Iraqi forces are far superior to ISIS militants. Firstly, the Iraqi Security Forces are made up of four main specialist units, including the Federal police, the Iraqi army, the Iraqi counter-terrorism forces, and the Iraqi rapid response forces, who are tasked with different security operations in the battle to recapture Mosul. The total number of these different divisions currently operating in Mosul is in the thousands.
Secondly, as a result of the different units, more varied offensives can be launched more frequently, using diverse weapons that aid their aerial bombardments and strategic ground offensives. For example, joint task forces have carried out special night raids every evening, through which the command and control systems of the terrorist group becomes tattered.
As a result of this military might, Iraqi forces have been able to reclaim and liberate the entirety both east and west Mosul until this point. Now, however, fighting has been restricted to the use of tanks and other heavy artillery not feasible given the geography of the old city. Direct combat has become the status quo.
ISIS militant forces, on the other hand, find themselves handicapped for two main reasons. Firstly, ammunition and food supplies are very low which by itself, if left alone, will by its nature force ISIS to give up or die of starvation. This lack of food, however, is also affecting the trapped 300,000 civilians who are also starving. This is why the liberation of western Mosul is considered vital in carrying out as soon as possible.
Secondly, they are relying on a failed strategy. One of their leading form of attack is the use of suicide bombers who attempt to cross enemy lines. This is done in two main ways, firstly using “Suicide Vehicle Based Improvised Explosive Devices” SVBIEDs and secondly, by posing as Iraqi forces personnel. These tactics work occasionally; however, this means there are fewer militants available to hold strategic locations. This then allows for Iraqi security forces to gain more ground, thus further limiting the types of attacks that can be launched.
From a high of six to eight thousand militants at the beginning of the Mosul operations in October 2016, to a now anemic 700 estimate, it is easy to see that this war of attrition has taken an immense toll on ISIS. Furthermore, it has also been reported that ISIS’ main leadership including its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have fled Mosul and are suspected of living in the remote towns and villages on the Syria-Iraq border, further presenting a fractured group on the backfoot.
However, the geography of the Old City, as previously mentioned, puts militants at an advantage for three reasons. Firstly, they have a far better understanding of the terrain and strategic points as they have been there long enough to control and fortify access points. Secondly, militants have also employed the use of booby traps to halt the progress of Iraqi forces. Thirdly, it is much harder to fight against these guerrilla tactics that are being employed by ISIS especially in such confide spaces with the presence of civilian human shields. For these reasons, storming the city has proved to be very difficult, thus military commanders project weeks of continual fighting in the city.
Despite the obvious advantages enjoyed by the Iraqi forces, none will be worthwhile if the secure release of the trapped 100,000 citizens is not achieved. Many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are fighting for their lives to cross over to army-controlled territory in Western Mosul. The short journey across town which would usually take a couple of minutes during peacetime is now ladened with unexpected danger with ISIS militants doing whatever it takes to keep people under their control, in doing so gaining the strategic leverage in battling Iraqi forces.
ISIS has threatened death to anyone who tries to escape their clutches, also promising a very difficult life for the relatives of those escapees. This psychologically puts an immense amount of strain on those willing to try their luck, especially if they leave behind sick or elderly relatives.
Although the Iraqi Security Forces had hoped to have liberated western Mosul before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, momentum has not slowed down as soldiers begin their month of fasting.
How events will unfold is still unknown, however, Iraqi forces are confident that their strategy is working. Mosul’s Old City is the last stronghold in Mosul; it will be only a matter of time until operations are complete and ISIS is defeated.