Given the appalling destruction and loss of life, the siege of eastern Aleppo has held the world's attention for weeks. But across the border in Iraq, developments in the city of Mosul may turn out to be just as crucial for the long-term future of the Middle East.
When the operation to take the city from the so-called Islamic State started in mid-October 2016, Iraq's Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hoped that the operation would be complete by the end of the year. Instead, the war over Mosul has just entered its third month with no end in sight. Some Iraqi military sources are resigned to a conflict that could last through to summer 2017.
At the start of November, after two weeks of rapid progress, prospects looked good for government forces. But the optimism of the early days has now given way to what looks very much like a stalemate. Depending on which source you consult, it seems Iraqi government forces have taken between a sixth and a quarter of the city from IS but are now finding further progress remarkably difficult, in the process suffering serious casualties.
How has it come to this? In part, it's because IS has spent more than two years intensively preparing for an assault that was bound to happen at some stage. As soon as the U.S.-led air war started in August 2014, its sheer intensity made it obvious that the intention was to destroy the group altogether. Faced with that threat, the IS paramilitary leadership began to prepare for just the sort of conflict we're seeing now – even to the extent of establishing remarkably sophisticated production lines for the manufacture of a range of armaments.
They also created an astonishing network of underground tunnels, far more complex than even the Iraqi intelligence specialists had expected, coupled with the assembling of hundreds of young men prepared to deliver suicide bombs. All the while, IS has been pounded across Syria and Iraq in an extraordinarily intensive coalition air war that the Pentagon claims has killed 50,000 of its fighters. In these circumstances, its resilience in Mosul is turning out to be formidable.
As of now, nine weeks into the war, IS is believed still to have some 5,000 personnel available in Mosul, broadly the same as at the start and with those killed being replaced by new fighters. They are facing a complex force centered on the Iraqi Army but including numerous militias. An earlier article reported that the forces include:
Iraqi special forces, fronting much less well-trained regular Iraqi Army units. In addition there are Iraqi Shia militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Turkish Army units, American, French, British and possibly Australian special forces, American and French combat troops and scores of strike aircraft and helicopter gunships.
The forces ranged against IS number at least 60,000 – and yet the group is able to hold out. Apart from the extent of its preparations and its paramilitaries' utter determination to fight to the end, there's another reason for this: the nature of the forces they face. And at the core of those forces are the Iraqi special forces mentioned above.
After IS captured the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and especially Mosul, the U.S. Army started intensively rearming and retraining the Iraqi Army, intensifying a program that had stretched over a decade.
Some 35,000 troops have been through the system, but the heaviest emphasis has been on the 1st Special Operations Brigade, also known as the counter-terror force and more popularly within Iraq as the Golden Brigade. Now known as the Golden Division because of its expansion to some 10,000 troops, it is intended to be non-sectarian, well-led and far less subject to corruption and favoritism than the more regular units.
The operation that started in eastern Mosul more than two months ago involved the Golden Division acting as the spearhead of the Iraqi forces moving through the outer districts of the city to the more densely populated areas close to the river and the heartland of western Mosul. The intention has been to clear districts and then hand over to regular army units who would maintain control while the Golden Division would move on.
This has worked to an extent – but with two huge problems, neither of which appears to have been foreseen.
First is IS's network of tunnels, through which IS paramilitaries have literally gone to ground. Its paramilitaries re-emerge when regular soldiers arrive to control districts, harrying them in rapid raids, often in the early hours of the morning, before disappearing back down the tunnels. The army units aren't just suffering serious casualties; some are in a near-permanent state of sleeplessness, with morale and combat effectiveness suffering.
A second and even bigger problem is that even as the Golden Division makes incremental progress, it's taking serious losses in the process. As Politico reported:
With the division suffering "horrific" casualties every day, senior U.S. Centcom officers are worried that the grinding battle is slowly destroying the division itself. If that happens, which appears likely, Iraq will lose its best guarantee against civil war – the only force capable of keeping the peace when Iraq's sectarian divisions, temporarily dampened by having to fight a common enemy, re-emerge.
Mosul may well fall to government forces some time in early 2017, but the grueling work of getting it back could cripple the one unit of the Iraqi Army that could help prevent a civil war. It would be the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories.