Last Sunday, Iraqi security forces began their assault on Western Mosul after a roughly one month pause following the liberation of the eastern half of the city. ISIS has a few thousand fighters defending Western Mosul, though the exact number is unknown. By any estimate however, ISIS’ forces are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by their opponents. Victory for the Iraqi military is quite certain. But still, the battle will be long and much tougher than it was in the East. And depending on the damage done to the city, the Iraqi’s may not find themselves winning many hearts and minds.
First lets get into the battle itself. Above is a satellite image of most of the city of Mosul, with the river Tigris in the center. The top half is Eastern Mosul, and the bottom the West. Just from this image alone should be apparent that Western Mosul will be a much tougher fight. It is clear to see how much denser the West is, with far fewer broad highways and many more winding alleys. In addition, ISIS’ defensive preparations, which proved quite devastating in the East, have been much more focused on fortifying the Western half of Mosul. There are many more tunnels, roadblocks, IED minefields, and fortified positions in Western Mosul. Many of the streets are too narrow for any vehicle to enter, and the higher population density will often rule out airstrikes. This means that in many cases Iraqi soldiers will be fighting without support, essentially man-to-man against a determined and skilled enemy. The Iraqi’s suffered very high causalities, in terms of both men and material, liberating the East and there is no reason to expect that to change in the West except for the worse.
With that said, it must be stressed again that the Iraqi security forces have little real chance of losing this fight. Western Mosul is surrounded. There is no real avenue for ISIS fighters to flee or retreat through, or conversely to bring reinforcements and supplies through. If the fighting gets too tough the Iraqis can simply pause their advance to regroup, something that they did a number of times in Eastern Mosul. Bolstered by recent victories and steeled with a resolve and determination to liberate their country, morale in the Iraqi army is high. News reports suggest that Iraqi soldiers have a much greater sense of purpose and discipline than they did almost three years ago. Indeed, the liberation of Eastern Mosul has showed this. The intensity of the fighting in the East would have proved to much for the poorly led and unmotivated recruits of Iraq’s army circa 2014. It was the intensity of the fighting, and the fear it inspired, that broke the Iraqi army originally. This time, however, “the Iraqi forces have risen to the challenge,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend (New York Times).
In the long run, however, depending on how the fighting goes, Western Mosul may prove to further alienate locals from the federal government in Baghdad. Other cities recently liberated from ISIS, such as Falluja and Ramadi, were nearly leveled in the fighting and are still broadly uninhabitable leaving many residents bitter (NYT). So far in Mosul, however, the Iraqi military has gone far further to reduce civilian causalities and damage to infrastructure. They are treating Mosul much more as a liberated city, than a conquered one. But, the more severe the battle in Western Mosul becomes the more angry, frustrated, and desensitized the average Iraqi soldier will become. In such a situation, in combat, the risk for abuses by security forces is high. The temptation to inflict “collective punishment” on the local populace will grow as losses mount. All we can do is remain hopeful that Iraqi security forces will show restraint, as they have done thus far in the battle.
Western Mosul promises to be a long and challenging battle for Iraq. The foot soldiers of ISIS are remarkably skilled and capable fighters, and have shown a stunning ability to adapt and innovate. The layout of Western Mosul affords ISIS as favorable of terrain to show off those skills as they could ask for. And whats more, they have been preparing for years for this very showdown. The Iraqi military is entering a battle far tougher than the battle in Eastern Mosul, already its toughest fight thus far. Iraq is a fragile country that can ill-afford great damage, either in raw economic terms or in social terms. How the Iraqi soldiers conduct themselves in the coming battle, and how the Iraqi government conducts itself in the reconstruction efforts, will be key to Iraq’s long term stability. Here at Standard Daily News, hope is high.