A major operation aimed at retaking the city of Mosul—the ISIS terrorist group’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq—is raising the question of what will happen next to the city that has been occupied by the terror group since June 2014.
Many people in the Sunni dominated city were left with no choice but to welcome ISIS when they entered the city in 2014 following the discriminatory policies of the Shia government in Baghdad. Many fear this dynamic may play out again once ISIS leaves.
“The operation to retake Mosul is resulting in a dangerous convergence of Shi’a, Turkish, and Kurdish actors as they jockey for influence in northern Iraq,” said Patrick Martin, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Post-ISIS Mosul and Coalition Tensions
The coalition in the battle for Mosul includes Shia-dominated Iraqi military forces advancing from the south, Kurdish peshmerga forces coming from the north and the deserts surrounding Mosul, and the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an Iranian-backed militia that is providing assistance on the outskirts of the city. Turkish forces are also in Iraq just outside Mosul and the United States is providing air power, artillery, and special operations forces on the ground.
Altogether, the coalition amounts to around 40,000 to 50,000 fighters, including 10,000 to 15,000 peshmerga forces. The number of ISIS fighters could range anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000, according to a Stratfor report.
The diverse actors have competing interests, and once ISIS is driven out of the city by the predominantly Shiite forces, the Sunni population could suffer new indignities.
“There is a major question of Sunni disenfranchisement after the fall of ISIS,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Some fear the Shia-dominated Iraqi government forces will renew predatory behavior toward Sunnis, said Gartenstein-Ross.
The PMU committed previous atrocities in Tikrit and there is fear of the same in Mosul, he added.
Even if Mosul is liberated, the surrounding area could be the scene for renewed conflict between Turkish forces, the Kurds, and the Iraqis.
The Iraqi government has demanded Turkish forces leave the country. Turkey has refused.
Mosul is a two-hour drive from Turkey and just beyond the territory Kurds hope to claim as their own.
The Iraqi government permits the Kurds to participate in the battle for Mosul. However they are not permitted to enter the city and must remain on the outskirts.
Kurdish forces have performed exceptionally well in the battle against ISIS and their calls for independence are stronger than ever before, Gartenstein-Ross said. This poses major problems for Turkey.
Tensions also exist between Turkish forces and the PMU and other Iranian-backed militias that vowed to attack Turkish forces, according to Gartenstein-Ross.
Kurdish forces have frequently clashed with Shiite militias in areas cleared of ISIS fighters, and there were tensions between Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi national forces around Kirkuk.
“The current situation with ISIS is bleak but many problems will arise after the fall of ISIS,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
Aside from coalition infighting, Mosul has been devastated by war and the economy struggles to grow.
“The infrastructure of Iraq is crumbling and a lot of investment will be needed going forward,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
As ISIS is pushed out of Mosul, their tactics are likely to change into more defensive and unconventional styles of attacks, causing more destruction along the way.
Once ISIS is gone, the many competing loyalties and objectives of the coalition forces will provide new challenges for post-conflict Mosul.
Significance of Mosul
Since Mosul’s capture in June 2014, ISIS has ruled with a strict interpretation of Islamic law and the city has shriveled as many residents left before and during its capture, leaving it at approximately 750,000 inhabitants, down from 2 million.
Losing Mosul will cost ISIS a critical hub in its self-proclaimed caliphate.
“This is a significant blow to ISIS,” said Drew Berquist, founder and editor of OpsLens.
“Mosul is a big money maker for ISIS. They are losing taxes from nearly one million people and revenues from oil that is located in and around the city.”
Defeating ISIS in Mosul also deals a blow to their ideological narrative that is a valuable source of recruitment for the group.
“Mosul is their headquarters in Iraq. Losing it will be a disaster because their narrative of the caliphate is the basis for their branding, but that narrative is losing relevance as they continue to lose territory,” said RAND Institute project associate Amanda Kadlec.
When Mosul does indeed fall, as many expect, the post-ISIS order of the city will be an important question to answer for the Iraqi government and its liberating forces.