October 17, 2016

CNAS Press Note: The Campaign to Free Mosul from the Islamic State

Washington, October 17 – As the campaign to liberate Mosul from the so-called Islamic State begins, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg and CNAS Bacevich Fellow Nicholas Heras have written a new Press Note, “The Campaign to Free Mosul from the Islamic State.”

The full Press Note is below:

Yesterday, the anti-ISIS coalition announced the start of what it expects to be a long campaign to recapture Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. With an estimated current population of 1 million, Mosul is the largest and most important city in Iraq and Syria still under the militant Salafist organization's control. As the Mosul campaign progresses, U.S. military forces are conducting air strikes against ISIS targets in and around the city, providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for Coalition forces, and advising Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga, and local Sunni Arab tribal militia units near the front lines. 

By capturing Mosul, the Coalition would strike a major blow to ISIS by seizing the city where the would-be Caliphate was declared in June 2014. The loss of Mosul would significantly diminish ISIS, for all intents and purposes shrinking the organization's core area of territorial control to eastern Syria. It would significantly weaken the ISIS narrative that it is an expanding Caliphate that is a history-making movement within Islam that cannot be stopped. 

Mosul will be the most significant test to date of the Obama Administration's strategy of working through local partners to not only defeat ISIS militarily, but also to carefully work to build locally acceptable governance and security structures to succeed the militant Salafist organization. Mosul and the Ninewah governorate around it, possesses a complex ethnic, sectarian, and tribal demography. A product of this sociopolitical environment is that as the campaign to seize Mosul progresses, multiple local and international actors are vying for influence over the battle to capture the city and the surrounding areas, and to best position themselves to rule in the aftermath of ISIS. 

Indeed, the most difficult challenge will be patiently managing the campaign's aftermath. This majority Sunni Arab city has long been a center of resistance to Baghdad and Erbil, and their marginalization under the Maliki government is what created the political conditions in 2014 that led to the collapse of the Iraqi security forces in Mosul and takeover by ISIS. Moreover, the active engagement of Iraq's powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran, will further complicate the delicate transition of power from ISIS. The U.S. will need to continue to actively engage militarily and diplomatically with a range of Iraqi and regional partners to stabilize Mosul and its surrounding areas and ensure that a form of government that is acceptable to the local population emerges. Only sustained engagement that leads to this outcome can prevent the re-emergence of ISIS or a successor organization in Iraq. 

Goldenberg and Heras are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409.