The Battle for Mosul: Current Tactics, Future Fallout
The Islamic State faces the possibility of losing its largest stronghold in Iraq.
This battlefield assessment of the impending fight for the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul surveys the battlefield’s geography, examines the capabilities of the numerous states and groups that have committed resources to the battle, and explains the steps taken by both sides to date. This report concludes that while the Islamic State is outmanned and outgunned, it is in a highly advantageous defensive position that will enable it to inflict serious enough casualties on the attacking force that any coalition victory will be a hollow one.
- Current reports tracking progress of the coalition’s attack on Mosul are exaggerated and overly optimistic; anti-IS forces haven’t reached the city yet and are beginning to face resistance as they approach.
- The battle for Mosul will be a textbook case of urban warfare, resulting in high casualties for the attacking force along with high civilian casualties.
- The coalition against the Islamic State is formidable, but it is plagued by internal dissension and mistrust among its actors.
- The Islamic State does not have to win the battle to achieve strategic goals; the higher the cost it inflicts on the attacking forces, the more reluctant regional actors will be to repeat this type of attack on IS in other urban strongholds.
The battle for the areas around Mosul began on Oct. 18. Although the battle for Mosul itself has yet to begin, it is fast approaching. Coalition forces, led by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish peshmerga forces, are advancing on the city from the north, east and south. They first met resistance on Oct. 19, roughly 10-25 miles outside the city in all directions, and remain preoccupied with IS resistance as of this writing. The Islamic State’s opponents are leaving the the western axis conspicuously open, hoping that IS will cut its losses and run into the desert to make a clear target for U.S. airstrikes. However, the Islamic State is not likely to withdraw. IS has already retreated as far as it can, and now it means to make its opponents pay dearly for every square mile of the city they try to take.
Mosul is a large city divided by the Tigris River. Before it was taken by the Islamic State in June 2014, Mosul was the second most populous city in Iraq. It is hard to say how the IS takeover affected the city’s population, but estimates from before the takeover range from 1.2 million to 1.8 million, and estimates for the current population range from 700,000 to 1.5 million. Sunni Arabs made up the majority of the pre-takeover population, and the city is the northernmost outpost of Sunni Arab territory in Iraq. (The lands north of Mosul are predominantly Kurdish.) Even with a Sunni Arab majority, Mosul was a fairly diverse metropolis before the arrival of the Islamic State and contained significant pockets of Shiites and Christians as well as Assyrians, Turkmens and other ethnic groups. Many of these groups have since fled, though pockets of Turkmens and others remain trapped in the city.