The Mosul Offensive

As the Iraqis and their allies ( Iranians, Americans etc) continue the offensive to recapture Mosul there are some points that stand out.

The Iraqi army is doing better than I (and many others) expected. Most of the fighting has been done by a few Iraqi army units, particularly the “Golden” Division, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, (ISOF) which has been trained and equipped by the United Sates army. They are enthusiastic and good soldiers and have taken the bulk of the casualties. The vast majority of the Iraqi army remains only marginally effective at best, but it does not matter because  of the overwhelming materiel and numbers advantage of the anti ISIS forces. Well supported by U.S. and Iraqi air assets and with ample armor and artillery, the Iraqis and allied forces have  huge advantages over the ISIS.

War in  ME Cities

  • Stone, cement composition of buildings
  • Walled in courtyards, with gardens
  • Narrow twisting streets and blind alleys
  • Haphazard growth, street addresses rare.
  • Inadequate municipal services or non-existent
  • Sewage, water supply, lacking. Water tanks on top of houses.

The ISIS strategy, if they have one, seems to simply fight for a while, and then retreat from strong point to point before being decimated. They do have one very important advantage. They are defending in a generally friendly urban area. While many ( if not most)of the Mosul residents have been turned off by the brutality of the ISIS the specter of vengeful Shi’a units reoccupying Mosul  is a very disquieting thought. Attacking in an urban area, especially in these old Middle Eastern cities, is one of the most difficult of all types of terrain in which to attack.  The narrow winding streets, and masonry and concrete structures, clustered buildings, etc. made rooting out the defenders a very costly and difficult task, usually house by house. The time it takes to liberate Mosul depends most of all on the ISIS will to fight. There is little doubt that the earlier zeal and confidence which characterized the ISIS fighter has evaporated. Many of the best fighters are dead, but on the other hand many of the less motivated have already fled.The numbers of ISIS have been put as low as 7000. How many will fight to the end is a question. No one knows and everyone guesses.My guess is that they will use an elastic defense, withdrawing after a fight at each sector and then withdrawing into an area that is densely populated, highly urbanized, where their numbers are less important and the use of Iraqi armor is highly restricted. I observed this in 1970  during the Jordanian Army assault on  Fedayeen  (PLO) positions in Amman in 1970. It was also exemplified by the problem the Israeli forces ran into  in Suez city in 1973. Tanks become a hapless target in narrow winding streets and prone to Infantry anti-tank weapons.



The use of artillery will ultimately destroy the city for  civilians but not necessarily  for combatants defense. It actually may make it harder for the attackers, but only if the defenders are disciplined professionals like the  German units in the battle of Casino in World War II.

Characteristics Middle East cities

  • Ethnic religious quarters, patrilocal families
  • Lack of civil society,or civic responsibility
  • Neighborhoods run by za’ims. (Godfathers)
  • Massive overcrowding.Arab view of privacy
  • Dense squatter settlements on outskirts
  • Each city has own history. Great rivalries among cities and between rural and urban people.

Some observers are forecasting that the ISIS will dissolve into small units and cells, decentralizing and continuing the war from underground cells, and  desert  sites, launching insurgent and terror attacks on civilians and isolated military units.  This is certainly a strong possibility. A recent RAND study recommends that analysis of the future ISIS strategy focus on the history of the Iraqi Al Qaeda, particularly since many of the leaders of ISIS are former Al Qaeda. Their history indicates that the AQI went underground in 2007 after the surge and managed to survive coming back rebranded as  the ISIS. They confirmed the  old Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s axiom that  Arabs cannot accomplish anything without the use of Islam as the core structure. It is certainly true that the ISIS, despite its adoption of the strategy and tactics of Muhammed the Prophet, always had as its  core leadership   many Ba’athists and Arab nationalists, using Islam as a recruiting tool. Another point brought out by this RAND study is that Mosul is only a piece of the terrain that ISIS controls in Iraq. The recapture of Mosul does end ISIS presence in Iraq


Mosul old and new


One certainty is that Iran will profit from the destruction of the ISIS stronghold more than anyone else. Certainly the U.S. will not gain much gratitude from there Iraqis. Despite the fact that  the US trained the ISOF and have supplied most of the air support, Iranian and anti American Shi’a media are minimizing US support. Unfortunately, as always, American information and propaganda efforts fall short, primarily because of the ponderous  Washington bureaucracy that stifles individual initiative and imaginative concepts.

IN had an interesting conversation with an Iraqi doctor just arriving for a visit from Baghdad. As a middle class Iraqi and a Shi’a I was interested in his thoughts. He opined that the Iranians are the major problem in Iraq. They will cause all sorts of problems once Mosul is secured. He believes the Shi’a militias backed  by Iran are “stronger than the army” and Iran will control Iraq after the Mosul operation.


Shi’a militia join Mosul offensive

The capture of Mosul will be a great achievement for the Iraqis and should not be dismissed, or downgraded  in any way, but it is only the beginning of the next war. Turks, Kurds. Sunni Arabs, Arab Shi’a, Iranians…and of course the great powers, especially Russia, will have much to say about what happens next…… and stoke the fires of  sectarianism.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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