The 94,000-member Iraqi-led coalition of forces, with air support from roughly 90 coalition and Iraqi planes, fights its way towards Mosul, a key ISIS stronghold in northern Iraq. A city abandoned by overwhelmed Iraqi security forces just two years as ISIS spread its caliphate throughout Iraq and Syria. But now Iraq looks to take back its second-largest city and the last bastion of ISIS power in Iraq. It is a key trading city, near oil fields and the borders of Turkey, Syria and Iran. It is the cultural capital of ISIS. The city is also a brutal and chilling example of life under ISIS rule.
As the Iraqi-led forces made their way to Mosul sporadic gunfire and suicide bombs pierced the air. But the Iraqi troops were reported to be ahead-of-schedule as resistance on the road to the city was lighter than expected. Kurdish Peshmerga forces who are an important part of the coalition cleared nine villages previously under ISIS control in an area measuring approximately 200 square kilometers. Forces east of Mosul also secured control over a significant stretch of the Erbil-Mosul road, a key strategic road.
The coalition expects extended resistance and extended fighting from the ISIS forces, perhaps lasting months, especially as the coalition forces begin to enter Mosul’s urban areas. Here it is expecting to encounter thousands of ISIS fighters, armed with guns, car bombs and improvised explosive devices. As ISIS territory and influence in Iraq continue to shrink they will not give up their stronghold easily, but the coalition fully expects to prevail. But will it matter?
In short, no. And this becomes obvious in just 5 maps.
First, there is a huge demographic divide in Iraq. Shi’a Arabs, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds are ethnically, culturally and religiously divided, divisions which consistently push and threaten the distribution of power in Iraq. Why there are sporadic calls to split Iraq into 3 states.
Second, the Iraq War literally rewrote the map. The map below demonstrates the sectarian violence which occurred post-U.S. invasion and the inability of the Iraqi government to quell or mend the existing divisions in Iraqi society. Instead the divisions merely expanded.
Third, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki centralized a great deal of power in his office, and ran the Iraqi government along Shia sectarian lines. This gave rise to organized Sunni protests around the country in 2012 and 2013. Maliki decided to use force to break up these protests, lending credence to Sunni militant groups such as ISIS and assisting such groups in their recruitment efforts.
Fourth, ISIS is losing territory, and quickly. This would appear to be a promising development and a step towards eliminating the organization altogether. However, removing ISIS from its base of operations in Iraq and Syria and taking away those areas of control could mean the beginning of a “terrorist diaspora,” according to some security experts. If ISIS is not totally destroyed, which is virtually impossible, they will simply move and evolve, and potentially become more dangerous.
The Iraqi-led coalition may be able to take back Mosul from ISIS. It may even be able to hold Mosul and effectively drive ISIS out of Iraq. But ISIS isn’t going away. And the viability of the Iraqi government to effectively govern the city is in question. Past experience does not engender confidence. Additionally, the fighting may actually exacerbate existing sectarian tensions both within the city as well as within Iraq as a whole. The Iraqi government essentially left the citizens of Mosul to be ruled by ISIS for two years.
The military battle for Mosul is probably the easy part. Governing is harder.