The Campaign for Mosul: The Situation and Initial Assessment (As of the morning of October 27, 2016)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announces the beginning of the campaign for the liberation of Mosul: "This year, as we promised, will be the year we rid ourselves of ISIS. We will keep our promises" (al-Jazeera, date, 2016).
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announces the beginning of the campaign for the liberation of Mosul: "This year, as we promised, will be the year we rid ourselves of ISIS. We will keep our promises" (al-Jazeera, date, 2016).


1.   On October 17, 2016, Haidar al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, announced the beginning of a military campaign to liberate the large, important Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS's main stronghold in Iraq. It was where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the founding of the Islamic Caliphate on June 4, 2014, which gave Mosul great symbolic value. The campaign is led by the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces,with support from Iranian-influenced Shi'ite militiasand Sunni tribesmen. Aerial supportis provided for the attackers by the American-led international coalition.

2.   The main thrustof the attack began from thesouth and east and later proceeded northwards. In the nine days since the beginning of the campaign the attacking forces have reached the eastern and northern outskirts of the city, while the attack from the south has met with more determined resistance from ISIS. It was reported that elite Iraqi and Kurdish forces were five kilometers (three miles) from the city in the north and east, while the forces in the south were still about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away.

3.   The liberation of Mosul, with its population of about one million, is the high point of the campaign against ISIS, which has been waged for about a year and a half. So far ISIS has lost about half of the territories under its control in Iraq, including key cities such as Tikrit, the oil city of Baiji, northern Baghdad, as well as Fallujah, al-Ramadi and Haditha in Anbar Province and Sinjar in the northwest. (In addition, ISIS has lost key areas in eastern and northern Syria, including most of its strongholds west of the Euphrates along the Syrian-Turkish border). The liberation of Mosul will mean the completion of the expulsion of ISIS from Iraq's large urban centersin the west and northward to the desert and rural areas. Thus it will undermine the territorial and governmental foundation of the Islamic State established by ISIS.

4.   For ISIS, the campaign for Mosul is the most significant attackso far. Because of the city's practical and symbolic importance, ISIS can be expected to resist the attackers most strongly, especially when fighting inside the city. ISIS can be expected to use tactics it previously employed in other Iraqi cities, such as hit and run attacks, sniper fire, booby-trapping buildings and streets, blowing up bridges, fighting from tunnels, assimilating into the civilian population and using civilians as human shields.

5.   At the same time, terrorist attacks and guerillawarfarecan be expected tocontinuein other arenasto divert attention and resources from the campaign for Mosul and to raise the morale of ISIS's supporters in Iraq and Syria and beyond (so far Kirkuk, al-Rutba and Sinjar have been attacked – see below). In ITIC assessment the conquest of Mosul may take several monthsand Iraqi declarations of an immediate conquest of the city seem too optimistic. On the other hand, American spokesmen have tried to lower expectations, warning that the campaign may be long and difficult.

6.   The conquest of Mosul will leave al-Raqqa, ISIS's "capital" in Syria, asits last important stronghold, which will then be in the crosshairs of the American-led coalition(American spokesmen have already made statements concerning the conquest of al-Raqqa[1]). The fall of Mosul may also affect ISIS provinces in other countries, both morally and practically, especially in Libya and Egypt (where they are already under strong pressure from local security forces). However, as in the past, weakening ISIS in its core territories in Iraq and Syria may prompt both the organization and its supporters to carry out terrorist attacks, especially in the West(attacks planned and directed by ISIS headquarters in Syria as well as ISIS-inspired attacks).

7.   One important issue is how the heterogeneous coalition carrying out the attack on Mosul will conduct itself "the morning after."The coalition members, which have conflicting interests (some of which have already become apparent), will have to deal with unprecedentedly large challenges. Those will include the rebuilding of the city, managing daily life for its large population and the establishment of a functioning local administration. All the above will have to be accompanied while overcoming the massive tangle of religious-sectarian rivalries between the city's Sunni residents and the Shi'ite Iraqi regime, which may reappear in force after the city has been liberated. In ITIC assessment it is doubtful whether the Iraqi regime and the American-led coalition can provide an effective responseto the challenges (the faltering reconstruction of other Iraqi cities liberated from ISIS does not augur well for the chances of success in Mosul).

8.   Will the conquest of Mosul and the continued shrinking of ISIS-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria lead to itscollapse and eventual disappearance? In ITIC assessment ISIS will not disappearbut rather adapt to the new situation and change the way it operates: its operatives may move to the desert and rural areas from where they will carry out terrorist attacks and wage guerilla warfareagainst their enemies, as they did in the years before the occupation of Mosul. In all probability, ISIS and itsSalafi jihadist ideology will not disappearbecause the basic factors that led to its original rise and the spread of its ideology will still exist. Those factors include the political disintegration of Iraq and Syria as nation statesand the deep, ages-old ethnic-sectarian rifts between various sects, especially between Shi'ites and Sunnis. In addition, rival external powers, which are deeply involved, haveconflicting interests and political agendas that may make it difficult to achieve political solutions in Iraq and Syria.


9.   An Appendix follows dealing with the following issues:

a.   The campaign for Mosul: basic facts

b.   Iraqi strategy

c.   ISIS strategy

d.   The situation on the ground (as of the morning of October 27, 2016)

e.   ISIS's diversionary tactics

f.     ISIS's propaganda response           

g.   The role of Iran

[1]Most recently by American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who claimed an attack on al-Raqqa would begin in the coming weeks (NBC, October 26, 2016).