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ISIS Loses its Grip on Iraq

Viewpoints, June 2016
Prof. Amatzia Baram

By the end of May, Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq was clearly in retreat. The radical Islamist movement lost between 30 to 40 percent of the territory that it had seized since June 2014.

More important than sheer territory, since ISIS held mostly desert land, was the loss of towns. In addition to their strategic value, the population centers – important sources of tax revenues – are vital to sustain the movement’s deteriorating financial base.

: Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and commander of the Mosul task force General Najm al-Jubburi. Credit: Iraqi News

Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and commander of the Mosul task force General Najm al-Jubburi. Credit: Iraqi News

While ISIS still holds on to Mosul on the Tigris, by now the home of one million Sunni Arabs, as well as a few small bases along the Euphrates, they have lost the province of Diyala and the towns of Beiji and Tikrit on the Tigris, as well as Ramadi and Hit on the Euphrates and ar-Rutbah, which dominates key transit routes between Baghdad and Amman.

Meanwhile battles rage in Fallujah, some 40 miles west of Baghdad, the closest ISIS stronghold to the Iraqi capital. In Syria, Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital city, is under pressure from a coalition of Kurdish and Sunni tribal troops. In response to their losses, ISIS escalated terrorist operations against Iraqi armed forces, but even more so against Shia civilians in Baghdad.

While ISIS cannot win the war this way, it has succeeded in jeopardizing the status of new Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi, because he is seen as powerless to curb the deadly attacks.   However, if Iraqi troops manage to liberate Fallujah, this will enhance his prestige and guarantee his survival for the time being.

Baghdad’s main test will be the liberation of Mosul and at what cost.  So far Abadi has been doing everything right.  He and his American advisers rejected great pressure from Washington to liberate Mosul “on the double.”  They know that the ISIS fighters are dug in, Hamas-style, with hundreds of underground tunnels and that the city is riddled with explosive booby traps.

Many of the fighters are reasonably well-trained and ready to die and many of their officers are experienced having served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein.  Their numbers are unknown, but it is reasonable to assume that Mosul is defended by a few thousand fighters.  This means that taking it without massive civilian losses will be a difficult task

Abadi appointed General Najm al-Jubburi, a brilliant Sunni general from the Saddam era, to command the Mosul task force.  This is important because the population of Mosul needs to know that the liberator is not a marauding Iranian general or a bloodthirsty Shia militia commander but, rather, a Sunni and a son of Mosul himself. The Shia militias will not spearhead the attack.  Rather, the army under Jubburi will be assigned this role, and even though there is a Shia majority in the military, it is far more disciplined than the Shia militias.

Jubburi, working closely with Lieutenant-General Sean MacFarland, commander of US forces in Iraq and one of the best US field commanders who knows the Iraqi tribal system inside out, managed to recruit between 5,000-10,000 Sunni tribal fighters to assist in liberating Mosul. This has a chance of winning the trust of the Sunni population of the city. The Kurdish Peshmerga will be coming from the north and east, but their precise role is not clear as yet. Despite all this, the battle for Mosul will take time.   It is impossible to predict how resolute its defenders will be.

There are conflicting examples of ISIS fighting spirit.  On one hand it took many weeks to liberate Ramadi early this year, even though less than 1,000 ISIS followers defended it. In contrast, ISIS fighters fled in droves out of ar-Rutbah when it was recaptured by Iraqi forces in March.

Because of the large number of its defenders Mosul may prove to be midway between the two cases.  If the mostly Iraqi officers there and their clerical superiors decide to turn it into a desert Stalingrad, Mosul may still present a formidable challenge.

It would seem, though, that neither the Iraqi government nor the Americans, nor even the Iranians can allow Mosul to remain under ISIS control, which means that, even under the most pessimistic scenario Mosul will be liberated within a year or so.

The loss of life among non-combatants is impossible to predict. So far there is no information on civilian casualties in Ramadi and Fallujah.  Iraq and the US will try to persuade the civilians to leave Mosul, but if Fallujah is a guide, ISIS will try to prevent an evacuation. What is certain is that ISIS will do what it did elsewhere and leave behind a scorched land.

The city will be devastated and the number of refugees will be in the hundreds of thousands. With the best intentions, without foreign aid Baghdad will be unable to deal with this problem.

What may we expect following the liberation of Mosul?  There is little doubt that ISIS will lower its profile. Its operatives will go underground in the Sunni areas and continue their terrorist operations, though less effectively.  The more Sunni tribes that can be convinced to join the battle against ISIS, the less chance the latter will have to continue its terrorist operations and regroup.

Dr. Amatzia Baram is Professor Emeritus and Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa, Israel.