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The operation to free ISIS-held Mosul has stalled

On 21st October 2016, I wrote an article for The Duran in which I expressed my doubts that the recapture of Mosul from ISIS would take place as quickly as many expected.

At that time there was a widespread view that a deal had been struck in secret between the US and ISIS whereby ISIS would quickly withdraw from Mosul – allowing the US and its Iraqis allies to capture the city before the US Presidential election – and would redeploy to Syria, where it would attack the Syrian army as part of the US’s plan for regime change in Syria.

One month later it is clear this project has gone awry. Far from abandoning Mosul, ISIS is vigorously defending itself in the city. Russian media reports have claimed that the US/Iraqi offensive was making little real progress. Now even the British journalist Patrick Cockburn – quite possibly the most experienced Western war reporter in the Middle East – admits that the attack on Mosul has stalled.

The question is why is this so?

Firstly, as I discussed in my article of 21st October 2016, there are strong indications that there actually was some sort of deal done between the US and local ISIS commanders for ISIS to withdraw from Mosul. A violent purge of ISIS commanders in Mosul in October confirmed as much.  In other words, the rumours of a deal between the US and ISIS commanders for ISIS to withdraw from Mosul were not fanciful or invented. They were almost certainly true.

However, as I said before, it was a certainty that ISIS’s leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who calls himself the ‘Caliph Ibrahim’, would fiercely resist any proposal to abandon Mosul, where his Caliphate was declared.  Quite simply, Al-Baghdadi’s prestige and authority, and quite possibly his leadership position within ISIS and even his very life, would not survive a withdrawal from Mosul.

The fact that a purge of ISIS commanders who had been open to the deal to abandon Mosul to the Iraqis and Americans had taken place proved that Al-Baghdadi’s authority still prevailed amongst the ISIS fighters in the city.  That was sufficient to wreck the plan for ISIS’s withdrawal.

Most reports placed Al-Baghdadi in far away Raqqah, Syria.  More recent reports from the Kurdish militia claim that he is actually physically present in Mosul or in the countryside just outside it.  These reports, like all reports of Al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts, cannot be confirmed.  However, given the importance of Mosul to Al-Baghdadi and his movement, they may be true, in which case the physical presence of their Caliph in the city explains the fanatical ferocity with which the ISIS fighters are defending it.

ISIS’s determination to resist the recapture of Mosul can be the only reason why the operation has stalled.

In my previous article I said that the very large forces the US and the Iraqi government have assembled to recapture the city have a distinctly ramshackle look, being made up of a mixture of hurriedly trained and equipped Iraqi regular troops and various Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish militia, which do not necessarily get along with each other.

As might be expected, such a disorganised and ramshackle force is finding it difficult to prevail against the fanatical determination of the ISIS fighters.  Instead, it appears to have got bogged down on the outskirts of the city, and to be suffering heavy losses.

A further reason for this force’s lack of success is almost certainly the hasty way in which the whole operation to recapture Mosul was cobbled together. The whole operation has a look of being rushed, with a large force put together in a hurry to take Mosul before the US election on the assumption that ISIS would not resist it.

The contrast with the careful and incremental way in which the Syrians and the Russians have acted in Aleppo is striking. There, before any attempt is made to storm the Al-Qaeda held eastern districts of the city, the Syrian army with the support of the Russians has fought a careful and methodical campaign first to secure the army’s own supply lines, then to encircle the Jihadis in the eastern districts of the city, then to repulse the Jihadi counter-attacks intended to break the siege, and to drive the Jihadis out of the countryside around Aleppo, isolating the Jihadis in the eastern districts even further.

The result is that when the attack on the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo does come – and all the indications now are that it will come very soon – the ability of the Jihadis to resist it will be limited.

In some respects the approach of the US and the Iraqi army outside Mosul reminds me of the operation the Ukrainian army conducted against the Donbass in 2014.  That operation, like the one to recapture Mosul, was run by reference to the calendar – in that case the objective being to capture Donetsk and Lugansk before Ukrainian Independence Day at the end of August.

Instead of taking a methodical and incremental approach, the Ukrainians let themselves get bogged down after launching ill planned frontal attacks intended to storm the two cities of Donetsk and Lugansk in a hurry.

Since US officials are believed to have been involved in planning the Ukrainian assault on the Donbass in 2014, it would be interesting to know if they are the same officials who have been involved in planning the Mosul operation.

The US and the Iraqis obviously failed – as I predicted – to recapture Mosul before the Presidential election.  Hillary Clinton was indeed denied her ‘October Surprise’.

As things stand it is not even clear that Mosul can be recaptured before Trump’s inauguration on 20th January 2017.  If it is still in ISIS hands by that date, then a joint plan with Russia for its recapture could be at the top of the agenda when Trump and Putin meet.  Latest reports suggest that the meeting will now happen in January directly after Trump’s inauguration, and that contrary to my expectations – it will take place in Russia.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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