A U.S.-backed campaign to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is underway, with the Iraqi military and the peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s fighting force, getting closer. The urban combat required to take back the city will be complicated by the panoply of armed groups gathering to fight the Islamic State. “These fighters don’t have experience coordinating with one another, and, in many cases, are mortal enemies,” says CFR Senior Fellow Philip H. Gordon. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, at the helm of an Iraqi army that has been rebuilt from its collapse in 2014, is poised to tamp down these rivalries during the battle, but restoring a stable order in its aftermath will be more challenging, says Gordon, a former National Security Council official in the Obama administration.
The battle for Mosul has been anticipated for months now, with the Obama administration framing it as the culmination of U.S.-backed efforts by Iraqi forces to roll back the Islamic State. Why is Mosul so important?
It’s a city of nearly two million people, and ISIS got its hands on a lot of resources there, so substantively it’s highly valuable, but symbolically even more so. This is where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate in June 2014, and Mosul symbolized the group’s purported ability to hold a major “capital” city and to be a state. ISIS has lost nearly half of the territory it held in Iraq over the last eighteen months, but Mosul is where it all started. To take this jewel away would be a devastating psychological setback to the group.
How is the Islamic State reacting to this string of setbacks?
It appears that the more that ISIS loses territory and fails in its desire to create and maintain a state, the more it lashes out externally. If it can’t win over recruits in Europe and elsewhere by showing successes on the battlefield and claiming to restore seventh-century glory to the region, then it will look to attack elsewhere. It will seek to provoke Western governments into measures that radicalize populations further, as we’ve seen with attacks in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, and the United States.
Another likely consequence is that ISIS fighters and leaders will flee to Syria; some have probably already fled, and others will manage to sneak out during the battle. They will bolster the ISIS presence in parts of Syria.
The campaign to retake Mosul has involved many irregular forces in addition to official Iraqi ones. How does that affect the battle?
Retaking Mosul would have been a hugely challenging military task in any case: street-to-street fighting against an experienced terrorist group that is willing to use suicide bombers, booby traps, human shields, and whatever it takes to hold the city. The United States, the most capable military in the world, took significant casualties reconquering urban terrain during the Iraq War. The Mosul operation will be even more complicated because it is going to be carried out by a complex coalition of Iraqi security forces (ISF), counterterrorism forces, police, and special operating forces; Kurdish peshmerga; Sunni fighters from various tribes, not all of which get along with one another; competing Shia militia groups that are insisting on being part of the battle; and various minority groups that come from Mosul and the surrounding cities. These fighters don’t have experience coordinating with one another, and, in many cases, are mortal enemies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is claiming a right to take part in the battle as well, leading him to spar with Abadi. Why is he looking to insert Turkish forces into an already complicated battlefield?
Turkey feels it has a major stake in Mosul. It has a historic role in the region and feels an affinity with Sunnis and ethnic Turkmen in the city and surrounding areas. Turkey wants to shift the balance from Iran-backed Shia. Then there’s the Kurdish element: Turkey is in a violent conflict with some of its own Kurdish citizens that has claimed some forty thousand lives in the past few decades. So long as Turkey remains in conflict with Kurds in Turkey and in Syria, it will have concerns about the Kurdish role in Iraq.
Just as Turkey feels it has national, geopolitical, and sectarian interests in Mosul, so do others, and so the various groups trying to topple ISIS could end up fighting each other instead. The Shia militias backed by Iran, for example, have said that if Turkey plays a role, they will fight it. And in northern Syria, Turkey and Turkish-supported forces are shelling Kurdish forces. That sort of conflict could be mirrored in Mosul and in the surrounding Nineveh province.
The United States has underscored that Iraq’s government and the Iraqi security and counterterrorism forces are in the lead. The United States’ hope is to largely sideline the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces [or PMFs, commonly referred to as Shia militias], which would help keep the Turks from taking a direct role in the fight and keep the number of outside players to a minimum.
When Fallujah was taken back from the Islamic State over the summer, reports suggested there was a sense among many Sunnis that if the Islamic State was hostile, the so-called liberators were even more so. Have Iraqi forces taken that into consideration here?
If clearing the city of ISIS only means that Iran-backed Shia militias will clear it of Sunnis, there’s a big risk of increasing support for ISIS and the likelihood of further ethnic conflict and violence. One reason Mosul fell in the first place is that the local population was so fed up with the Iraqi security forces holding the city, which the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had politicized and made more sectarian. The Sunni population of Mosul felt they were being occupied by a sectarian Shia military, and they welcomed ISIS to a certain extent because they feared the Iraqi security forces more. The hope now is that Baghdad can sideline the PMFs and keep Turkey from playing a direct role, and that it will respect the rights of the Sunnis and minority populations in Mosul.
Is there good reason to believe the PMFs will heed these calls for restraint?
According to the plan adopted by the Iraqi government in coordination with the United States and others in the coalition, the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga fighters will lead this operation, so there is a decent chance that the Iraqis can pull this off in the operational phase without too much trouble among the competing members of the liberation force. Prime Minister Abadi understands the importance of keeping the PMFs from playing a major role, and the United States can reinforce this by providing military support only for operations in which all forces are under ISF command and control. Washington will also try to keep Ankara from overplaying its hand. Turkey has trained some of the Sunni fighters that will go in, so in that sense Turkey can play a role without sending in its own ground forces.
None of this is going to be easy, but the real complications will come once Mosul has been liberated, figuring out how to stabilize and govern a place that will be deeply divided along sectarian lines and have Sunni Iraqi forces, Shia militia, Kurdish Peshmerga, and minority groups all present. Within that there are divisions among the Sunni groups, some backed by Turkey and others by Baghdad.
What is Baghdad’s plan for restoring its writ to Mosul?
Prime Minister Abadi and Iraqi security forces are in the lead, but it will be necessary for every involved party to respect some sort of legitimate political structure. Abadi has rightly reaffirmed the importance of decentralization and empowering local officials. It will be particularly important to fully implement Iraq’s provincial powers law, which stipulates broad decentralization to provincial authorities consistent with the national constitution, and to employ locally recruited security forces.
Of all of the coordination that has to go on, maybe the most important is between the Iraqi forces and the peshmerga, and that has so far been good. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, has said that Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces have never coordinated this well before. That said, the long-term status of disputed territory in Nineveh province under Kurdish control will remain a potential flashpoint.
A former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi, still feels he has a legitimate political role in the city, and yet is an enemy of the government in Baghdad; there’s a warrant out for his arrest. He’s backed by Turkey. So already on the political side you’re starting from a complicated position, but the hope is that all parties will see the need for some sort of modus vivendi lest the city disintegrate into chaos and violence.
In that sense, Mosul is a microcosm of the entire Middle East. Geopolitical conflicts among countries—like Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey—are layered on top of sectarian conflicts among Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, as well as Persian-Arab conflicts. The Middle East is so unsettled because of all of these rivalries and the absence of an agreed political order. That’s why it’s going to be so difficult to maintain stability in Mosul even once the military operation is over.
What's in store for the next U.S. president?
When Mosul first fell, there was a lot of clamoring for the United States to use military force immediately, but President Obama decided that it could be counterproductive to deploy military force on behalf of a government that was seen to be responsible for the problem in the first place. Backing Maliki’s government—effectively becoming his air force—would alienate even more of the Sunni population, possibly kill many civilians, and perpetuate the problem. The United States would essentially be taking sides in a sectarian civil war.
Instead, Obama said there needed to be a more inclusive approach in Baghdad, and Iraqis transitioned to a new prime minister, Abadi, who understood the need to involve all elements of the population and to rebuild the military. For two years, the United States has been working with Abadi to make the military more professional, less sectarian, and less corrupt, and so there is now something better to work with.
When the president announced this strategy in September 2014, he said it would take about thirty-six months—in other words, he would be there for two-thirds of it, but then the next administration would have to see it through. If by the time Obama turns it over to his successor we will have taken back most of the territory that ISIS held in Iraq, the task for the next administration will be to stabilize the situation. Raqqa, in Syria, may be isolated or liberated by then as well. Obama will be handing over to his successor an ISIS that has suffered battlefield, ideological, and financial setbacks, and had its flow of foreign fighters diminished. The task for his successor—still a big one—will be to consolidate military gains and more inclusive politics in Iraq and to pursue a solution in Syria that ends the sectarian fighting that fuels ISIS.
This interview has been edited and condensed.