In Iraq, government forces are continuing on an offensive to retake Mosul, the second largest city in the country. Occupied by ISIS since June of 2014, the city is of great strategic and symbolic importance for either side of the conflict.
In November, ISIS fighters had been forced from the neighborhoods surrounding the city and into street conflict. Advances slowed down from there on, but have been largely successful. The coalition forces vastly outnumber the militants holding the city, yet each side has lost around 2,000 wounded or killed.
On Jan. 14, Iraqi forces retook the university on the eastern bank, which was being used as an ISIS base of operations. This, along with US air strikes disabling the militants supply routes across the Tigris River is building pressure on the east bank defenders—only two
bridges are ISIS controlled, and both are somewhat disabled. However, this is sure to stall the offensive well into February in order to merely clear out the east bank of the Tigris.
The offensive is long overdue—it has been over two and a half years since Mosul’s capture. Iraq’s military was severely weakened in 2014, and needed reorganization. Not only this, but the government was forced to prioritize removing the threat to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Last June saw the government’s recapture of Fallujah, and gave Iraq the initiative to move on Mosul.
Kurdish “Peshmerga” forces are also in the process of advancing towards Tal Afar, to the west of Mosul. Tal Afar is infamous for staunch supporters of ISIS and the local extremism. These attacks divert ISIS militants from reinforcing Mosul, and essentially cuts off the 50km-wide area from other ISIS held territory. Kurdish military forces are semi-autonomous and act in limited conjunction with other Iraqi troops. Kurds are also backed by the US, and have fought ISIS since August of 2014.
Since mid-October, just over 148,000 civilians have fled their homes in Mosul, and humanitarians warn that number could reach up to a million displaced. There are also sporadic water shortages in parts of eastern Mosul, and widespread trauma cases. The situation is also deteriorating in ISIS controlled western-Mosul and along the corridor to Tal Afar, with food shortages and limited electricity. Over 750,000 civilians are present in these areas.
ISIS has prepared multiple barricades along the entrances to western Mosul, from both the south and on bridgeheads, and also clearing several buildings in order to gain preferable line of sight. There are also staunch pro-ISIS neighborhoods in the western bank,
and a denser population than the larger east. These factors guarantee a long struggle forwards, and ensure that ISIS is unlikely to be rooted out until mid-spring.
Should Iraq recapture its second most populous city, the problems would not end there. There is still a sharp divide between the Sunni and Shia populations in the country, and Mosul’s liberation would only highlight these internal problems. However, it would immensely diminish ISIS influence in Northwest Iraq, and set up the stage for a final push into ISIS-controlled Syria.