Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Iraqi forces are now battling ISIS in Mosul city limits.

Iraqi special forces stand guard in Bazwaia, east of Mosul. Reuters. 

Iraqi forces have finally reached the outskirts of Mosul, two weeks after their offensive began. Reuters. Urban fighting has broken out in the al-Quds neighborhood and Iraqi special forces have already taken back a tv station. In addition to Iraqi forces, Kurdish and Shiite militias are also advancing on Mosul, but the Iraqi special forces have made the quickest progress to the east of the city. Outside of the al-Quds neighborhood though, life continues as normal. Iraqi troops are trying to cut off escape routes to the city, but have not succeeded in doing so yet. ISIS has had some success in delaying the advance using mortars, snipers, suicide bombings and booby traps. The battle for Mosul could last months, but if it ends in a victory against ISIS, the terror group will largely have been defeated in Iraq. 

My Comment:
The Iraqis are doing better then I thought. I didn't think they would reach the outskirts of Mosul so quickly. Indeed, it sounds like they are actually in the city, if the al-Quds neighborhood really counts. That's quite an accomplishment considering how much ground they had to cover and how many little towns and villages were in the way. 

It's telling that the first troops to enter the city were Iraqi special forces. They have been one of the better fighting groups in the Iraq War and they are comparatively well trained and well led. Unlike the main Iraqi Army, the special forces fight instead of running. They have been involved in some of the greatest victories against ISIS, including Ramadi and Fallujah. 

The problem is that the Iraqi government might be expending them. They only have so many special forces troops and they are going to take casualties in this fighting. And they have been leaning very heavily on these troops. Sooner or later, they might break from overuse. If that happens then the regular Iraqi army is going to need to step up. Given their performance this war, that does not exactly fill me with confidence. After all, they are the reason Mosul needs to be liberated in the first place... 

There are other factions fighting near Mosul as well. The Kurds have been very active and they have always been an effective fighting force. I expect very few problems from them, and I think they will contribute to the battle effectively. 

But I am more worried about the Shiite militias. They have committed some horrible atrocities in the past against Sunni civilians. In both Fallujah and Tikrit, they have murdered Sunni Muslims civilians and have committed other crimes against them, including widespread looting and arson. The fear is that they will do the same thing that they have done in the past in the almost completely Sunni city of Mosul. 

This is, of course, counter productive for reasons that should be obvious. If the civilians under control of ISIS are made aware that Shiite militias are coming and that there is a good chance they will loot, burn and kill everything in their path, they might just decide that they should stick with ISIS. After all, though ISIS is strict and horrible, they at least are Sunni Muslims. 

If it were up to me, I would not allow these Shiite militias to participate in the battle of Mosul at all. The risks of violence and looting are too high and I simply don't trust them to behave themselves. Unfortunately, that is not realistic. The Kurds and Iraqi Army just aren't strong enough to fight ISIS on their own. They need the extra bodies that these militias can provide, and they might not be able to win without them. 

So what else could be done? Well instead of having the Shiites enter the city they could be used in other ways. Since someone needs to cut off and surround the city, perhaps that would be a better role for them. Though they would still probably ravage the countryside, there would be less potential victims. They would be the anvil to the Iraqi and Kurdish hammers and ISIS could be crushed in between them. 

Another use is as a strategic reserve. ISIS has already launched some distraction attacks outside the Mosul theater and these militias could act as a quick reaction force to any ISIS counter attacks, either near the Mosul area or outside of it. Though this would be a good idea, I don't know if it is politically possible. These militias want to be included in the attack and are pulling strings to do so. 

The good news is that ISIS is in a very bad position right now. Turkey joining the war and clearing out the border area with Syria hurt them badly. With the border area now secure, ISIS lost it's main recruitment pipeline. They can't expect much in the way of reinforcement unless they start drafting local civilians. Somehow I don't think giving the people of Mosul weapons will work out very well for ISIS since I am guessing more then a few would like to turn them on their captors. 

The problem is that ISIS's escape route is still open. Much of ISIS's Iraqi leadership has fled for Syria and if things get too bad, ISIS might even withdraw completely. I don't know how likely that is. Mosul is the de-facto capitol of ISIS in Iraq and losing it would be a huge economic, strategic and morale blow. But if they withdraw they would be preserving a huge amount of troops that will likely otherwise die. 

Iraq shouldn't let them have that choice. The main priority shouldn't be these small skirmishes in the al-Quds neighborhood. They need to focus on cutting of the city and laying siege to it. By cutting off ISIS they can kill and capture enough fighters that ISIS won't still remain a threat after the battle is over. They already screwed up and let the leadership escape by announcing this battle months ahead of time, but they can redeem themselves by cutting off the escape of everyone that is left... 

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