Iraqi soldiers in their push to recapture villages around Mosul on Saturday. Photo from Rudaw video.
US-led coalition forces on Thursday gave close air support to an offensive by the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni Arab militiamen against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Makhmour region southeast of Mosul. Despite the operation having a number of shortcomings it is nevertheless a very important dress rehearsal for the future liberation of Mosul itself.
While seemingly limited on the surface, the operation achieved one important overall strategic goal: limiting ISIS’s power to project force and hurl projectiles at Iraqi soldiers, the Peshmerga, Sunni militiamen and US Marines, as they stage forces and logistics in preparation for the long-anticipated battle for Mosul.
The presence of the US Marines on the ground near Makhmour was revealed when Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin was killed by an ISIS-launched Katyusha projectile earlier in the week. That was the same type of weaponry used by ISIS when it bombed Turkey’s Bashiqa forward-operating base last December.
With howitzer artillery guns positioned at the Marine firebase, its purpose is to defend the staging area being established by these various forces, which are united around the singular goal of forcing ISIS from Nineveh province and to cover the initial advances of these forces.
This, coupled with denying ISIS the ability to set up any offensive weaponry in that area, is key to creating a secure staging area near Mosul for these forces to mass the various logistics they will need to liberate that city.
When Saddam Hussein infamously invaded and annexed Kuwait back in August 1990, the United States initiated Operation Desert Shield and began to amass military forces in Saudi Arabia. In the early days of that enormous logistical operation there were fears that the build-up would be compromised in its early stage by another Iraqi advance into the Saudi kingdom. While that did not happen, it is notable how crucial it was to secure a position from which to gather the various forces needed to confront the Iraqi military and how important it is to completely destroy the enemy’s ability to project any force outside of its territory.
This appears to be what the various forces amassed to liberate Mosul are doing. Liberating villages on the periphery, using sizable forces that have close air support, is gradually and incrementally forcing ISIS further back into its most fortified and defensive position, Mosul itself.
Exploiting the difficulty that group faces in defending outlying positions – which is what the Peshmerga did in Shingal city last November and what the Syrian Democratic Forces did in Shaddadi in Syria’s Hasakah Province in February – and denying it the ability to use those outposts to fire at coalition staging areas is a smart strategy and much more prudent than launching an immediate mass assault to try and retake Mosul in one fell scoop.
Also, not unlike Ramadi, it’s a less risky trial run in a real combat situation to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the various forces.
On Thursday, Iraqi military forces attempted to retake the village of Nasser from ISIS southeast of Mosul. Their initial assault saw their vehicles getting stuck in mud and exposed to ISIS fire. Their fellow troops had to lay down suppressing fire so they could evacuate before another offensive was launched. One Iraqi soldier was killed and 12 others wounded in that failed assault. Had that assault been going into Mosul the casualties would likely be much higher.
Choking further supply lines into Mosul and securing footholds for staging areas and building them up with the variety of equipment they will need is essential. Mosul is no doubt laden with booby traps and improvised explosive devices which will need advanced equipment to both detect and disarm. While air power will play an important role in the assault, the forces on the ground will nevertheless need ample fire power, protection and mobility to engage ISIS in the inevitable close quarters street-to-street fighting.
While Mosul is far from liberated these recent events are an important first step to successfully amassing the necessary forces and ensuring that they are trained and ready to undertake the unenviable task which lies ahead – the successful liberation of that key city.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.