The battle for Mosul is entering its second week. Representatives from NATO countries in the anti-“Islamic State” coalition are set to meet for talks in Paris this week over the future of Iraq’s second-largest city.
On Wednesday, NATO defense ministers will meet in Brussels. That is why it was decided at the start of the year to hold a meeting the day before in Paris for ministers from NATO countries who are part of the coalition against the so-called “Islamic State” (IS).
Now, a week after the start of an offensive to take back the IS stronghold of Mosul, the meeting in Paris is of great significance. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will be there, fresh from his trip to the war zone. Last week, Carter traveled to Baghdad and the Kurdish region in northern Iraq to witness firsthand the progress made so far in the offensive, as well as to talk about the future of Mosul once it has been freed from IS. Carter’s trip was preceded by talks in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
Germany is also part of the 60-strong coalition of nations fighting IS, meaning Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen will also have a seat at the table in Paris. The German army is participating in air reconnaissance missions, air refueling, as well as protection for a French aircraft carrier. That is in addition to the training and armament of Kurdish fighters.
Conflict within the coalition
Mosul’s future post-IS was also the topic of a conference of 22 states last Thursday, also in Paris. The fact that countries with such varying interests as Iran and Saudi Arabia took part shows that the anti-IS coalition is a partnership partially made up of enemy forces. Aside from the shared foe that is IS, some of these partners have little in common.
This is also evident in the conflict between Baghdad and Ankara about possible Turkish participation in the liberation of Mosul. Referring to Turkey’s history, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about his country’s historic role in the city, and pushed for his army to be deployed. That would be in direct contradiction of the express wish of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The presence of Turkish troops at an army base in the Kurdish region close to Mosul is also an annoyance for Baghdad, because Iraq doesn’t want it, yet it can’t do anything about it given the weakness of the central state. On Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim proudly told reporters that the Turkish army was supporting Kurdish peshmerga fighters near Mosul with artillery and tanks. On Monday, however, the Iraqi military denied any such support from the Turkish military.
It is undisputed that the United States has committed special forces and fighter jets, alongside France and the UK in particular. The US government’s special envoy for the coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, said on Monday that in the last seven days, coalition fighter jets dropped 1,776 bombs. The air campaign against IS has been noticeably ramped up. But that means more reports of civilian deaths. Also on Monday, Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into a bomb attack on a mosque in a town near Mosul. Thirteen women and children were killed in the attack last Friday.
Since the start of the fight against Islamic State in August 2014, the NGO AirWars has counted more than 10,200 air attacks in Iraq alone. Around 50,000 bombs were dropped in the attacks, claiming at least 1,687 civilian victims. Middle East expert Robert Blecher of Crisis Group has analyzed the strategy of the coalition against IS during the offensives on Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah, and says the pattern is always the same.
“First, they drop the flyers, then the bombardment starts to weaken the defense, and then the ground troops move in,” he said.
Liberated, but destroyed
Following a string of IS victories in 2014, the group has lost half of its territory in Iraq in the last 16 months. But the victories over IS came at a price. According to Blecher, the city of Fallujah was largely destroyed when it was liberated in June. Many of its residents managed to flee, but to date there are still many who haven’t returned. The city was not just attacked from the air, it also suffered artillery attacks by Shiite militias. The worst destruction was seen during the liberation of Ramadi. When the city around 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Baghdad was recaptured in December 2015, air and ground attacks reduced Ramadi to ruins.
The first city to be recaptured from IS was Tikrit. Located around 150 kilometers north of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s hometown was liberated in April 2015. At the time, Middle East expert Renad Mansour of Chatham House said there were reports of violence by Shiite militias involved in the liberating forces against the Sunni residents.
That makes it easy to understand the views expressed in the Mosul Eye blog, which many Iraq experts say contains authentic reports from occupied Mosul. In a message to the Mosul conference held last Thursday in Paris, a blogger made the following post: “We, the people of Mosul, cannot have any trust in what will happen to us during and after the liberation. Our worries are growing from day to day. The dangers that lie before us are no less grave than Islamic State.”