A Kurdish Peshmerga training in urban warfare under coalition military advisers in a camp near Erbil.
Once again there is talk about Mosul being liberated down the road. By June 2016 some of the latest estimates predict that the coalition will descend upon the largest city Islamic State (ISIS) ever took over, and from where they declared their so-called state, and pry it from their grip.
Prior estimates have proven embarrassingly wrong. It had been estimated that ISIS would be no more in Mosul by the spring of 2015. Which of course didn’t happen. Indeed in May of that year the group was not only still in place in Iraq’s second-city, but also managed to seize Ramadi. The destruction of a small number of ISIS forces holed-up in the center of that city last December was heralded as a victory. However the tactics used to do so cast a worrying shadow over the future of Mosul.
For the most part it seems heavy close air support and high reliance on elite Iraqi commando units was what destroyed the small ISIS contingent which remained in Ramadi. Heavy use of firepower to street-by-street did technically defeat the group there, but left over 80% of the city in smoldering ruins. Few of the residents will be able to return anytime soon.
And remember Ramadi is of only meager significance when compared and contrasted to Mosul. ISIS had only a few hundred of its men dug-in in the city center when December’s operation began. In Mosul, a much larger metropolis, ISIS may have up to 10,000 of its men. It’s far from clear. And it’s a much larger battlefield which ISIS has had much more time to properly fortify in anticipation for a ground assault.
When the battle for Mosul begins we’ll likely see something similar to Ramadi. Except on a much larger scale. Conventional Iraqi Army and Peshmerga units (the U.S. has promised to outfit two brigade-sized Peshmerga units with American weapons and tactical vehicles) will likely surround the city and enforce a blockade to interdict any ISIS members attempting to escape while special forces, possibly even with members of the famous American 101st Airborne Division, will go on the offensive covered by very close air support and then backed by a larger conventional force of Kurds and Iraqi regulars which will aim to hold and secure areas the special forces clear.
Such a heavy reliance on firepower coupled with an entrenched ISIS force ready and willing to fight to the death will likely see large swaths of Mosul reduced to rubble in the same way Ramadi was. This will, predictably, see another wave of refugees fleeing, many likely up north seeking sanctuary in the Kurdistan Region. Meaning that up to another one million internally displaced refugees may be based in that region for an undetermined period. Which would in turn mean that Kurdistan, a small enough region, will be hosting more internally displaced refugees than the total number of refugees hosted by neighbouring Turkey.
Presently there are tens-of-thousands more Syrians are fleeing northward from Aleppo towards Turkey. They are fleeing a Syrian ground offensive backed by heavy Russian air strikes which have devastated rebel positions in that urban center and may see the remaining civilians there flee. While Russian air strikes are far more ferocious and indiscriminate than U.S. ones their offensive on Aleppo follows a not too dissimilar strategy. Namely blasting a path forward for ground forces against an irregular enemy which relies on guerrilla tactics. Doubtlessly 80% or more of Aleppo will be left in ruins if and when the Russians help their Syrian allies rout out all the rebels from that large urban center.
This ongoing offensive in Aleppo should also serve as a forewarning for any Mosul offensive since it, like Mosul, is the country’s second-city. Rendering it largely uninhabitable, which is what it will likely take to completely destroy ISIS there, will result in many, if not most, civilians leaving. Again possibly for the neighbouring Kurdistan Region. It should therefore be incumbent upon the planners of Mosul’s liberation to put in place contingencies to help the Kurdistan Region deal with the predictable displacement this long anticipated battle will, more likely than not, bring about.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.