Who is Fighting for Mosul?

More than two years after the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, an international coalition is poised to retake the city. Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and its capture came as an international shock, when the American-trained Iraqi army abandoned their weapons and fled from the advancing ISIS forces. Since Mosul fell into ISIS control, its residents have endured nightmarish conditions marked by inadequate infrastructure and harsh laws enforced with summary executions. Now that the battle for the city has begun, residents who are able to escape have done so, with ISIS reportedly executing those found attempting to exit the city. Civilians have also been used as human shields by ISIS against the advancing coalition forces, and collateral damage from the engagement is expected to be significant. There is also conflict within the coalition forces themselves, stemming from their diverse political and ethnic composition. The components of the assaulting element are not only a microcosm of the larger geopolitical issues of the region, but also are an experiment in cooperation between parties that often have conflicting interests.

The largest and most important actor in the liberation is Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, also known as the Golden Division, an elite commando force trained by US Army Special Forces. Contrasting with Iraq’s disgraced conventional army, which has a minimal role in the operation, the commando forces are viewed as competent and considered Iraq’s premier fighting force. Equipped with American weapons and gear and a structure based off of US Special Operations, the Golden Division is qualified to conduct joint operations with American personnel. While the unit has had success in small, low intensity missions such as targeted strikes on high-value targets, it has yet to undertake a large scale conventional operation like the fight for Mosul. This will be a new test for the Division but it seems to be up to the task, having already taken many small villages on the outskirts of the city. The Golden Division will be the only force authorized to move all the way into Mosul. It is also the least politically-fraught actor of the coalition; the division is composed of Iraqis from all different ethnic groups and lacks the corruption and infighting that mark the conventional Iraqi military. However, as an element of the Iraqi government, it still has the nation’s interests in mind in its fight to retake Mosul.

Another key player in the fight for Mosul is the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Peshmerga compose the military wing of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, and are known for their competence and ferocity in battle. They have also been advancing towards Mosul and liberating small towns along the outer edges of the city, but have stayed separate from the other forces battling for the city. The Kurdish forces have agreed not to enter the city, but there are still concerns from the Iraqi government that the Kurds will use the recapture of Mosul as a vehicle to gain territory and influence for Kurdistan. The Kurds have long wanted to break from Iraq and become an autonomous nation and their involvement has been eyed suspiciously by Iraq.

The Peshmerga have been propped up by a controversial third player in the push for Mosul, the Turkish army. Turkey has reportedly been bolstering the Peshmerga with artillery and tanks, a claim that Iraq denies. The Iraqi government is opposed to Turkish involvement in the operation and is wary of a regional rival placing troops in its territory. The move is seen by Iraq as an opportunistic move by Turkey to gain land and influence once the battle is over, and has spurred diplomatic tensions between the two nations. Turkey claims that their involvement was at the request of the Kurdish forces, who maintain close ties to the nation. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is under immense domestic pressure to ensure that no Turkish troops enter Iraq, an action viewed by many Iraqis as a violation of sovereignty. This geopolitical showdown is an unfortunate, if predictable, distraction to the task of liberating Mosul that may increasingly flare up as the operation continues.

Finally, also participating in the fight for Mosul are a collection of tribes and militias. Included in this diverse group are Shiite militia fighters, Sunni tribespeople, and an assorted array of small militias composed of the many ethnic and religious minorities of northern Iraq. Many of these groups’ roles are limited in the fight for the city; Shiite militias are banned from entering the city for fear of sectarian reprisals from the majority Sunni population. Each of these groups has a unique interest in the fight, and their involvement demonstrates the sheer complexity and entanglement of interests that defines the coalition pushing to liberate Mosul.

The diverse and conflicting group of actors that have come together to take Mosul from the bloody grip of ISIS represents hope for cooperation in the turbulent region of northern Iraq. However, it also highlights the challenges that continue to hamper stability in the region. That a group with such varied interests and allegiances is able to form a coherent assaulting force is a positive step to show that coexistence and cooperation is possible despite widely different concerns and viewpoints. If such cooperation could be harnessed towards common goals in the future, perhaps there could be a coexistence of sorts between the array of groups and actors that lay claims in the area. But with a task as important as liberating Mosul from ISIS still raising traditional and underlying tensions between participants, it is clear that true peace in the region is not feasible in the near future.


Author: Alex Todd