Military experts warn the battle to retake the Iraqi city from the Islamic State could turn it into the next Aleppo
UNITED NATIONS (Talk Media News) – When Mercy Corps spokesperson Christy Delafield visited refugees fleeing from Mosul last month, one thing caught her eye right away – shoes.
“They’re walking for so many hours in the heat that their sandals are falling apart,” she told Talk Media News while traveling through Iraq’s Saladin Governorate. “Really unusually for a humanitarian crisis, we’re seeing people ask us for shoes.”
When the Iraqi armed forces retook the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah from the Islamic State earlier this year, thousands of civilians fled before and during the fighting. Most were desperate for humanitarian assistance, and thanks to the density of settlements along the Euphrates River, many were able to seek refuge in a number of liberated towns extending west from Baghdad along the so-called Anbar Corridor.
The Mosul Corridor that extends south of the city along the Tigris River isn’t like that. Delafield describes it as “rural and mountainous,” an area punctuated by the cities of Baiji and Tikrit more than 100 miles away, but not much before that.
As coalition armies push north through the Mosul Corridor, the humanitarian agencies behind them are encountering a pattern of desperation in liberated towns.
“The people of Qayyarah had been living under siege for two years and are suffering extreme hunger with scarce access to food supplies,” World Food Programme (WFP) Iraq Director Sally Haydock said this week after the town was recaptured by the Iraqi army. The U.N. agency was able to deliver emergency food aid to 30,000 of Qayyarah’s residents, relief that came just in time.
All of the “shops were either destroyed or closed and food stocks were running dangerously low, with people surviving only on wheat from the recent harvest,” according to a WFP survey of the town.
The journey to safety from Mosul isn’t an easy one. The cities of northern Iraq are already clogged with refugees, and the U.N. reports that authorities in Tikrit have begun confiscating the ID’s of displaced persons who refuse to return to their home provinces.
Nevertheless, most of Mosul’s residents are still expected to flee the city and the surrounding countryside en masse as liberating forces approach, leaving humanitarian groups like Mercy Corps no choice but to devise a response plan.
Delafield said agencies like hers expect more than 1.2 million of Mosul’s estimated 1.5 remaining civilians to eventually flee the city.
“I don’t really know how you plan for the displacement of over a million people in a short period of time,” she admitted. “This crisis is starting now and it’s going to be big.”
Hassan Mneimneh, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, is also bracing for the worst as the Mosul campaign commences, noting that the city “is not going to be surrendered easily.”
“My fear is that Mosul is going to become another Aleppo,” he said, referencing the Syrian city that five years into that country’s civil war continues to be pummeled by government troops, rebel groups and the Islamic State from all sides, with civilians caught in the crossfire.
“Mosul is slated to compete with that, unfortunately.”
As has been the case across Iraq, dislodging the Islamic State from a given city usually palls in comparison to the task of attending to humanitarian needs and rebuilding.
Thanks to the combined firepower of the U.S. and coalition air forces, Kurds, Shia militias and the Iraqi army, Mosul is expected to be no different.
“We’re going to get into the city, there’s no doubt about that,” said Michael Knights, a security policy analyst at the Washington Institute.
“If [the Islamic State] stick to their pattern so far, they’re going to evacuate some high value elements before the battle begins and they’re going to fight to the death with foreign fighter elements within the city,” he said.
Military analysts were optimistic about the campaign to retake Fallujah, predicting that it was a matter of when, not if, Iraqi forces and Shia militia groups known as Popular Mobilization Units would capture the city. They were right. The battle lasted around five weeks and the outcome of the fight was rarely in question.
Mosul’s size and dense urban landscape does set it apart from Fallujah and Ramadi, providing an ideal setting for the kind of warfare the Islamic State has come to perfect.
“The way they defend an urban area is to have pretty small numbers of people constantly relocating around a largely depopulated city,” he said.
At the end of the day, those numbers won’t be enough to keep coalition forces out, but by relying on clever guerrilla tactics, the impact of even small groups of Islamic State defenders can be magnified by bogging down liberating forces with dangerous and time-consuming objectives, like taking out snipers or dismantling improvised explosive devices.
“They know where the booby traps are and so they can move quite fluidly around, and the government can’t,” Knights said. “And that allows them to essentially compensate for their small numbers.”
There are signs that coalition tactics may be evolving, however, and units are being trained to speed past certain threats in armored vehicles, leaving tactical units or engineers with the clean up work.
The U.S. also is seeking to leverage the tens of thousands of civilians likely to remain in the city during the military offensive to their advantage, with plans in place to deploy temporary mobile phone networks near Mosul as the battle rages. Since the Islamic State methodically dismantled those networks after taking control of Mosul, reestablished connections could allow residents to better communicate with one another and provide intelligence to coalition troops.
The Pentagon already has announced plans to attack Mosul’s telecommunications infrastructure and disrupt Islamic State planning. Strategically turning on new networks could reap equally significant rewards, turning the Islamic State’s former subjects into an ever-present threat.
“A city that big is extremely hard for the Islamic State to defend, especially when there are hundreds of thousands of civilians around, many of whom are secretly armed,” Knights said, “They can do a neighborhood-level uprising at any time they like.”
Booby traps and bullet holes won’t be the only remnants of the Islamic State’s more than two years of rule in Mosul.
The group attempted to balance its rule by mixing harsh punishment with sincere attempts to provide city services and act as an effective government.
A sharp increase in reports of public executions in recent months indicates that hearts and minds campaign has failed.
“But that does not mean at all that the Mosul population is looking forward for liberation, because they’re not convinced it’s going to be liberation,” he said. “What they’ve seen in Fallujah and elsewhere does not suggest to them this is going to be liberation. Your choices are, in both cases, total devastation, so you might as well stay and defend your honor. That’s the messaging that they’re putting out.”