Foreign Policy Blogs

The Fall of ISIS Begins with Mosul

Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi's convoy tours the front line in the Samarra desert, Iraq, earlier this month. (Associated Press)

Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi’s convoy tours the front line in the Samarra desert, Iraq, earlier this month. (Associated Press)

Written by Miles Kopley

Since it was wrestled away from Iraqi forces in a startling June 2014 offensive, the ancient city of Mosul has been crucial for the Islamic State. It remains the largest city held by the group in Iraq, even as other cities such as Tikrit and Ramadi have been liberated by the Iraqi Army, backed by coalition forces. In recent months, Mosul has become increasingly vital to the military presence and economic viability of the group in the region. A lone defensive bastion in the Nineveh Governorate amidst a series of ISIS military losses, Mosul suffers from meager supply lines and the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

Although it’s a tall order, one that has already proven to be a challenge for an anti-ISIS coalition skeptical of itself, the retaking of Mosul would spell the beginning of the end for the Islamic State presence in Iraq. The defensive and economic benefits of capturing Mosul have been apparent since the Islamic State first began operations against Iraqi troops in 2014.

Shortly after taking the city, ISIS looted approximately $480 million in banknotes from financial institutions, providing an important funding boost to the expanding organization. It established extensive convoy routes spanning from the city to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in Syria, providing economic and military relief to the insurgents and remaining civilians. It maintain Mosul’s local oil industry, pumping it from nearby wells and shipping it to destinations all over the region. The roughly half-million citizens who remained within the city faced increased taxes on agricultural land and additional duties on imports.

The defensive capabilities Mosul offers to the surrounding territory compounds the economic assets the city grants the Islamic State. Indeed, the Islamic State has extensive forward positions nestled in villages, valleys, and open fields surrounding the city, a system of fortifications that gives it added strength in holding the city.

In the past few months, however, the accomplishments of the Islamic State in Mosul have been largely dashed by coalition efforts. Oil revenue across the Islamic State has been halved by airstrikes targeting critical infrastructure. Mosul’s main supply route to Raqqa was severed last November, putting increased pressure on the city’s residents and forcing them to face frequent fuel shortages and electricity blackouts. Banks were extensively bombed in January, resulting in monetary losses ranging into the millions. The group has already lost approximately 45 percent of its territory in Iraq since the height of its power, and Mosul seems to be the next target in line for coalition efforts.

Iraqi Army captures Mahana village just 60 kilometers from ISIS-held Mosul.

The Iraqi Army captures Mahana village just 60 kilometers from ISIS-held Mosul.

Yet, while coalition airstrikes have made significant headway, forces on the ground have had mixed results. Currently, the United States only has two hundred Special Forces troops dedicated to the ground offensive in Mosul, leaving most of the large-scale operations to the Iraqi Army.

Skirmishes between Peshmerga and Iraqi Sh’ia forces threaten the alliance they have built against the Islamic State, and complicated their plans to advance on the city. Splintering of troops along ethnic and communal lines has also led to miscommunication and mistrust among individual units, further damaging relationships. The Iraqi Army has also stated that it would need a force five to six times their current size in order to mount an effective attack on the Islamic State.

If the Iraqi Army and coalition forces are capable of freeing the city, however, a drastic chain of events could follow. Virtually all of Iraq’s oil fields are located in the Nineveh Governorate, where Mosul lies. If lost, the few convoy routes the group has would be severed, impacting the oil trade within the group’s territory and on the black market, and permanently reducing their financing capabilities. Losing the city would also mean the loss of the largest defendable position in the region, as well as any military support it could offer to combatants on other front lines.

With so much at stake for the Islamic State in Mosul, there has never been a better time—or chance—for coalition forces wrestle it back. Taking back Mosul would mean the recovery of one of the country’s largest economic centers: a key victory for Iraq and coalition forces and a disastrous defeat for the Islamic State.