The Siege of Mosul, its geo-strategic importance and the humanitarian crisis in Ninewa

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
— Charles Dickens

Image via Japan Times

Image via Japan Times

The gruelling siege to force ISIS from Mosul lies at the heart of the battle rearranging the Greater Middle East's geopolitical order. In a matter of years, the capital of the northern province of Ninewa has witnessed several humanitarian crises during the course of the Arab Revolutions. 

Historically, Ninewa and its surrounding provinces have endured considerable instability, particularly during the turbulent and bloody reign of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein when successive waves of men, women and children were uprooted by the regime during the 1980s and 1990s. The Iraqi refugee crisis prompted by enduring conflict and the deterioration of socio-economic prospects in the shattered country, has been overshadowed by the latest refugee crisis in the Middle East; the mass exodus of civilians from Syria. The latest phase in Iraq’s extended conflict and the civil war between Baghdad's central government and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's insurgency, in-part catalysed by the American and British invasion and occupation of Iraq, has deepened this humanitarian emergency. 

Similar to the Congolese wars and the destruction of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1990s which drew in and impacted over nine countries, Iraq has shattered the heart of the Levant and Mesopotamia. Like the Syrian War (2011 - current), Iraq has drawn in various regional and global actors into the power vacuum left behind by Saddam. Since the Iraq War (2003), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, Turkey and Syria have all sought to influence the historical events unfolding in Iraq and its protracted civil war with different results and consequences. A historic battleground for great powers from the Macedonians to the British Empire, the military interventions and political-economic interests of the United States, Russia and, to some extent, China in Iraq and their criss-crossing alliances with state and non-state actors have only added to the complexity. 

However, what appears anarchical to a newcomer to Middle Eastern politics has logic to it. The Iraqi conflict is an advanced war in touch with the upheaval created by terrorism, energy wars, globalisation, hyper-security states, digital media, technological advance and revolutionary politics. In such a manic world, it swiftly becomes an oversimplification to regard the war for Iraq just a sectarian battle between Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, nor can each group be crudely chopped into monolithic communities. 

In Ninewa, the fierce geo-political struggle for Iraq has been encapsulated by the Siege of Mosul. Recapturing Iraq's second city from ISIS has been costly in manpower for the ISF who need expertise and financial support to complete their short-term objectives. If the ISF were to recapture Mosul who will manage the city in the long-term? The U.S military could barely manage the Sunni insurgents without the critical support of Sunni tribal leaders let alone the Mehdi Army's insurgency spear-headed by Muqtada al-Sadr during the occupation. How can Washington expect the Iraqi military to replicate the formula of General Petraeus during the 2007 Surge? The government in Baghdad needs the critical support of these tribal leaders who they have alienated and the support of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) who desire increasing autonomy (if not independence) from Baghdad. 'The Iraqi government is already deeply divided across a number of sectarian, political, and ethnic lines — and its military is notoriously bad at working with Sunni civilian populations. The bottom line, then, is that liberation is likely — but that doesn’t solve all of the city’s problems, or Iraq’s. Not by a long shot.'

Mosul will be destroyed by the bombardment as the coalition launches wave after wave of operations against networks of tunnels, sniper teams and suicide bombers while ISF forces have been unable to occupy sectors of the city it captures. With the battle raging, it has become an impossibility to restore basic services, a problem which has plauged Iraq outside its major war zones. If the city is recaptured, it will take months if not years to secure Mosul and its civilians from terrorist attacks which will inevitably be launched by ISIS sleeper cells and sympathisers once its caliphate has been destroyed. Hundreds have already been killed by multiple waves of suicide attacks in the city and U.S bombings have obliterated infrastructure.

Equally, U.S dreams that the Golden Division will serve as the foundation for a national army - 'armed, capably led, uncorruptible and and nonsectarian' -  are under enormous pressure by the tenacity of enemy fighters in Mosul. The Golden Division, veterans of operations in Beiji, Ramadi, Fallujah, Bartella and Mosul face a potential Pyrrhic victory on the River Tigris. Street to street fighting has exacted a heavy toll on Iraqi forces, with the Golden Division and Special Forces reportedly losing 50% of its strength in the assault against ISIS positions.

The decision to send in Iraqi forces, as supposed to the violent militias who form the backbone of the military in an attempt to prevent sectarian cleansing and violence, may prove to be a costly mistake to Prime Minister Al-Abadi. The ISF will soak up the bulk of the casualties and suicide bombings while the militias, well-armed, well-trained and political influential, remain on the periphery of the key engagements in the guerrilla warfare in Mosul. 

Adding to the woes of the Iraqi government, Hoshyar Zebari a Kurdish leader has reportedly said that “inter-Shia fighting is imminent” as the political crisis in Baghdad continues. The quasi-revolutionary protests in May 2016 which breached the Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government, and led by Muqtada al-Sadr were a watershed moment in Iraqi politics. The unrest has not subsided. On February 11, three were killed and several injured in protests near the Green Zone. 

The humanitarian crisis created by the ferocious fighting cannot be ignored. To journalist Patrick Cockburn, the conjoined Iraqi and Syrian refugee crises while not an unprecedented phenomenon have historic significance. "The mass flight and expulsion taking place is on the scale of that in India and Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947 or in Germany at the end of the Second World War." 

These comparisons, while shocking, are supported by the UN Refugee Agency. In 2007, 4 million Iraqis were displaced around the world, including some 1.9 million who were still inside Iraq while 2 million in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, and around 200,000 outside the region. A decade later as Mosul's fall looms, the situation has barely improved. 3.1 million Iraqis have been displaced across the country since the start of 2014, 1 million face displacement during military operations in Mosul and nearly 220,000 are refugees in other countries. The Iraqi refugee crisis is the second largest in the Middle East, and its breadth far exceeds the number of Palestinians who were displaced during the creation of the state of Israel and Civil War in Mandate Palestine (1947-1948). If UNHCR's estimates on the number of refugees being displaced from Mosul prove correct then it will draw the number of Iraqi refugees close behind the nearly five million men, women and children ejected from Syria by military conflict. 

This colossal movement of people which has been fuelled by sectarian, ethnic and genocidal violence from various state and non-state factions operating in the Iraqi and Syrian theatres of war will have grave consequences for the region. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) demonstrated ferocity in their 2014 campaign, including the cleansing of thousands of secular and religiously tolerant Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Yezidis, Armenians and Mandeans in Ninewa, was the most spectacular example. However, the ultra-hardline organisation are not solely responsible for the human and political upheaval in Iraq. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have extensively documented violations by the Syrian and Iraqi forces and allied militia and ethnic discrimination against Iraqi Arabs by Kurdish security forces and KRG.

Powerful Shiite paramilitary units and militias, collectively identified as the Popular Mobilisation Units, including Munathamat Badr (Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) and the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), have a chilling reputation for perpetrating human rights abuses including torture, extra-judicial executions, and summary executions. During the Iraq War, many of these militias utilised death squads and gangs to conduct ethnic cleansing and pogroms against Sunni civilians in Baghdad, a retaliation to the suicide bombings of ISIS and Al-Qa'ida in Iraq. 

Believed to number 100,000 men, the incorporation of these various Shiite jihādists and militias in the PMU into the military of Baghdad will create numerous concerns, particularly when these paramilitary units run their own prisons and intelligence branches and operate with relative autonomy from the government. The Iraqi Security Forces (a de-facto militia under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) have a dismal record on human rights and is plagued by corruption. Under al-Maliki, the Iraqi military and police were unafraid to use intimidation, torture and execution against political opposition, prisoners and activists at Muthanna airfield, al-Rusafa and Kazimiyah detention facility. 

Saddam was a vicious war criminal, yet various human rights organisations and lawyers (American and Iraqi) argue the "flawed trial which marked a significant step away from the rule of law in Iraq" and his subsequent execution in 2007 were shambolic. Now a martyr and symbol to many disillusioned Sunnis across Iraq and the wider region, Saddam's 'legacy will continue to haunt Iraq as long as Sunni grievances are unresolved, and the country’s new Shiite rulers resist sharing power with the Sunni minority.' It is little coincidence that the Security and Intelligence Council and the Military Council of ISIS were originally run by six high-ranking military officers who served under Saddam including Ayman al-Iraqi and Izzat al-Douri. The loss of power, the disbanding of elite Republican Guard, and the execution of their leader and the violent conduct of the American-sponsored Iraqi government has driven their determination to undermine Iraq's flawed democracy and Shiite power. 

The situation under Mr. Al-Abadi has not improved and the laws of war have been violated time and again in the campaign against ISIS. The violence of Iraqi forces has consistently emerged in the battle of Mosul with Iraqi soldiers beating, torturing and executing civilians and suspected collaborators on videos. ISIS prisoners of war are being hung and many POWs captured are often executed on the spot including children. 

A thirst for revenge dominates the judicial system. Since 2005, hundreds of people (predominantly Sunnis) have been the primary victims of the Shiite hangmen now carrying out the Iraqi government’s torture and executions including the mass-hangings of thirty-six POWs at Nasiriyah prison identified as a retaliation for the Camp Speicher massacre and weekly suicide bombings which continue to targeting Shiite communities. ISIS uses the Internet to promote its terrible violence and terrify its enemies, yet the brutal violence of the Iraqi government remains a crucial issue. If left unaddressed it will assure the continued alienation of the many Sunnis civilians and hard-liners who are opposed to the political, economic, military and social policies of Baghdad. The parallels between President Assad's assault on eastern Aleppo supported by the Russian military and various militias to destroy extremists rebels and that of the Iraqi military's attack on Mosul supported by American airpower and various militias to destroy ISIS are near identical in their cost and violence to civilians. 

The KRG, the Iraqi army and various militias have strong support from Washington, Iran and the Western powers in their fight against ISIS. This support has been crucial to forcing the terror cell and Sunni tribes to relinquish their grip of northern Iraq and Mosul. However, in the long-term the consequences remain unclear and precarious and will be such consequences will be fuelled by Iraq becoming a weapons stockpile courtesy of the United States, Europe, Russia and Iran arms industries. 

It is unlikely a partition paralleling the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 which carved the Middle East apart will become a reality. Iraq will remain on the map; Iraq will remain a nation; but in practical terms the layout of the country - driven by the unceasing humanitarian crisis and conflict - will change dramatically for the foreseeable future until domestic reforms are implemented and violence decreases. The ISIS insurgency, the Kurdish uprisings and the wider Iraqi and Syrian civil wars have been fuelled by historical and current transnational tribal and sectarian ties and economics lying beneath the artificial borders of Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq and the colonial territory drawn out for many of these countries by the Western powers during the First World War. The collapse of traditional state structures and authority following the Arab revolutions and Iraq War has aided the resurgence of identity politics and encouraged the decentralisation of Iraq's fragile political and economic administration.


ISIS will not disappear rapidly despite their setbacks on the battlefield. To some extent, ISIS formation of a self-declared caliphate exceeded all expectations. The corruption of the Iraqi military, the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq and the Syrian War provided a perfect storm for the organisation's audacious rejection of regional order. For regional powers, Baghdadi's sub-state was a useful geo-strategic proxy and if they were to be defeated, regional and international powers will be asking themselves where the jihādists and foreign fighters fighting for ISIS and other jihādist cells will go. For the Western powers and regional power-brokers, this is important for policymakers as returning fighters (supported by local sleeper cells) will attempt to conduct terrorist attacks in their own countries. Terrorist operations are where ISIS have been most effective in their war against the West and state-building for the organisation will become secondary concern again. It will not be the final caliphate seen: 19 jihādist sub-states have come into existence between 1989 - 2015. 

Robert Fisk, journalist for The Independent, predicts that ISIS fighters will flee to its main headquarters in the city of Raqqa to fight President al-Assad's military and the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces. For President Assad's government, the presence of jihādist cells ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in Syria is a double-edged sword. ISIS and JFS will provide the government with the excuse to continue its ruthless war against the Syrian opposition. The hard-line rebels have now dominated the military and political opposition against President Assad for several years.

However, President Assad's forces efforts to crush the Syrian Revolution, led by General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub and Minister of Defence Fahd Jassem al-Freij have not been without cost with the military sustaining 65,000 - 90,000 casualties. Now they lock horns with ISIS in the towns of Deir ez Zor, Palmyra and the outskirts of Aleppo with the support of the Russian airforce. These operations have produced mixed results and for policymakers in Washington and its regional allies, watching a weakened Syrian regime getting bogged down by ISIS's insurgency and international sanctions will give them satisfaction having failed to spark regime change in Syria. 

For Syrian civilians in the governates of Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah where hundreds, if not thousands, are beginning to flee the city of Raqqa under bombardment by the International Coalition, the counterinsurgency operations of ISIS's enemies will extend their misery and create a major humanitarian crisis to rival those in the cities of Aleppo and Mosul. The end of the battle of Mosul will not end the geo-political conflict, nor will it alleviate the appalling human suffering. The fall of the city will worsen the Middle East's humanitarian crisis and the shockwaves will ripple across Iraq's northern border into Syria.  

Matthew C.K Williams