Whilst the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ in Syria grinds towards the inevitable government victory, attention is shifting the ‘Great Battle of Mosul’ in Iraq, which is about to begin.
As Joe Lauria has previously written for The Duran, the time of the attack on Mosul seems to have been largely dictated by the US electoral calendar, with the liberation of Mosul timed to help Hillary Clinton’s prospects of winning the election in November.
This begs the question of whether there will be a battle of Mosul at all. When Joe Lauria wrote his piece for The Duran on 1st October 2016 all the indications were that there wouldn’t be, and that ISIS was preparing to leave the city.
That may still be what is going on to happen. However there are reports of infighting within ISIS, with what appear to be well-sourced reports of the brutal execution of 58 ISIS leaders who were preparing to surrender the city.
If there are some within the ISIS leadership who are resisting proposals to surrender Mosul, it is not difficult to see why.
Mosul with its 2 million people is not only by far the biggest city under ISIS control. It is also one of the great historic cities of the Arab and Muslim world. It was its capture in 2014 that made it possible for ISIS to declare its Caliphate. Loss of Mosul would be a tremendous psychological blow, and would call into question not just the viability of the Caliphate but ISIS’s right to declare it in the first place.
One ISIS leader who would almost certainly oppose the surrender of the city is ISIS’s titular leader, the man known internationally as Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, but who now claims to be “the Caliph Ibrahim”.
Given the pretensions of this title and the way it is bound up with the seizure of Mosul, it is difficult to see how Al-Baghdadi’s prestige or his authority could survive if the city were lost. Quite possibly his very life would be at risk as he faced the anger and disillusion of his followers.
It would not therefore be surprising if Al-Baghdadi not only opposes the surrender of Mosul, but has acted ruthlessly against those who have suggested it. That would explain the reports of the purge.
The fact that there has been a purge in Mosul suggests that for the moment it is Al-Baghdadi’s views which are prevailing. It also shows that despite ISIS’s multiplying defeats and problems, and Al-Baghdadi’s reported absence in far away Raqqah, his authority is still accepted in Mosul by the ISIS fighters there.
If this is correct then the plan for the unopposed recapture of Mosul has at least for the moment gone awry. However in such a complex situation nothing is ever certain, and it cannot be definitely said that it will not happen. The fact that a purge has taken place in Mosul shows that the idea of surrendering Mosul is in the air, forcing Al-Baghdadi to take violent measures in order to scotch it. It is not impossible that as ISIS’s position in the city becomes hopeless the idea may be revived again.
Assuming Al-Baghdadi’s authority continues to prevail and the city is defended, what are the prospects for its liberation?
There is uncertainty about the precise number of ISIS fighters in the city, with most guesses putting the number between 4,000 to 10,000. Regardless they are clearly heavily outnumbered by the 40,000 or so Iraqi and allied troops assembling to retake the city.
The ISIS fighters do not seem to have the heavy weapons and the unending stream of supplies the Jihadis in Aleppo were getting before they got trapped. Though no more than an impression, the ISIS fighters also do not seem to have the discipline and toughness of the Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters who have been fighting the Syrian army in Aleppo and western Syria continuously for the last 5 years.
Against that the military force being assembled to retake Mosul has a ramshackle look.
The Iraqi army lacks the battle experience of the Syrian Arab Army, having been hurriedly cobbled together since its ignominious collapse in 2014. Reports say it remains beset with problems of indiscipline, corruption and low morale. There must be a question mark over its fitness to take on ISIS following the debacle it suffered in the same area just two years ago.
As is the case with the Syrian army in Aleppo, the Iraqi army is backed by a variety of militias including various Shia militias, a locally recruited Sunni militia (whose reliability is open to doubt) and the Kurdish militia known as the Peshmerga.
Probably the most effective of these militias is the Kurdish militia, which because of factional differences has however been ordered by the Iraqi government to play no part in the fighting inside the city.
Of the other militias, some of the Shia militias have a reputation as tough and determined fighters. However none of these militias can compare with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia fighting alongside the Syrian army in Aleppo, which fought the Israeli army to a standstill in Lebanon in 2006.
Lastly, there are said to be some French Special Forces with the Iraqi troops near Mosul, just as there are Russian Special Forces with the Syrian troops in Aleppo. These French troops are of course the best trained and equipped troops in the whole theatre. However as with the Russian Special Forces in Aleppo their numbers must be few.
If the quality of the forces on either side in the battle for Mosul probably does not match that of the forces fighting in Aleppo, the geography of the two battles is also completely different.
The Jihadi fighters never succeeded in capturing the greater part of Aleppo, which always remained under the control of the Syrian government. By contrast ISIS has managed to capture the whole of Mosul, and it controls it still.
Not only is the area and the number of people that ISIS controls in Mosul far greater than that controlled by the Jihadis in Aleppo, but Mosul is not encircled as eastern Aleppo is, and unlike the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo, ISIS is not trapped.
Taken together all this suggests that if the ISIS fighters in Mosul put up a determined fight, then though the eventual liberation of Mosul is hardly in doubt, it may take longer than the 3 weeks left between now and the US election.
In that case Hillary Clinton will be denied her ‘October Surprise’.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.