Since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the militant organization has taken hold of major cities in Iraq, persecuting religious minorities, seizing natural resources, and repelling the Iraqi authorities. Located in northern Iraq, the city of Mosul was seized by ISIL in 2014, as the outnumbered ISIL forces defeated the Iraqi military within a week. Various factors led to the Iraqi forces’ loss. According to Iraqi commanders, the situation in Mosul was bleak from the start, as the government struggled to fully control the city after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Former Baathist political and military officials, Sunni leaders, and Kurds all had a presence in Mosul, making it difficult for the Iraqi government under Nuri al-Maliki to control the government and the Nineveh region. Major defections from Iraqi soldiers and limited numbers of troops around the city’s access points also contributed to ISIL’s speedy takeover of the city.
After more than two years of ISIL’s domination of Mosul, the Iraqi government and its coalition planned a major campaign to retake the city. Supported by American military advisors and Special Forces, as well as the Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan, the assault, titled ‘Operation We Are Coming, Nineveh,’ began on October 16 and involves up to 100,000 troops from the coalition forces. Various member countries of the American coalition currently support the effort. Groups, such as Hezbollah and its main supporter, Iran, also took part in the effort to regain Mosul. Local militias, such as Assyrian Christian, Chaldean, and Turkmen fighters, are also participating in the offensive. Supported by coalition airstrikes on major ISIL facilities, Iraqi ground troops and allied militias have approached villages and towns on the outskirts of the city but are not likely to make progress on fully liberating Mosul for several months. The coalition has encountered significant resistance from ISIL, which has reportedly deployed roadside bombs to counter government forces, used civilians as human shields, and tortured alleged government informants. The Iraqi forces have also committed atrocities, as they have brutally screened men and boys fleeing the city to prevent ISIL operatives from escaping Mosul.
A significant feature of the ongoing crisis in Mosul is the fraught geographic situation caused by the assault. ISIL militants have succeeded in restricting paths for navigating the city, as they have employed barricades and other materials to block key roads and highways. In addition to cutting off road access, ISIL has burned dozens of key oil fields to prevent access from invading Iraqi forces as ISIL militants retreat from the city. The enormous amount of black smoke caused by the burning of Mosul’s oil fields has impacted the already fragile public health of civilians fleeing ISIL’s rule. According to aid organizations, the tactic of burning oil fields mimics those used by the Hussein regime in earlier conflicts, and the amount of black smoke is likely to cause bronchitis and have other effects on Iraqis’ respiratory health. Although the alluvial plains of Iraq are easier to navigate than other regions of the country, such as the Iraqi desert, for example, civilians fleeing Mosul still find themselves in vast expanses of land with little access to resources.
The humanitarian cost of the fight for Mosul has become emblematic of the challenges civilians face in the fight against ISIL. As thousands of civilians have fled the city, and over one million remain trapped in the city. Refugee camps set up on the banks of surrounding rivers also lack the resources to provide for all of their inhabitants. The future of the Mosul crisis depends on a variety of external and internal factors. International action in the region could ameliorate the humanitarian situation if access to refugee camps is eased. A quick end to the offensive could also allow the Iraqi authorities to prevent violence against the inhabitants of Mosul.
Smith, Alexander. "Iraqis Near Mosul in ‘Smoke-Filled Hell’ as ISIS Burns Oil Wells.” ABC News. N.p., 4 November 2016.
“Mosul battle: 'Iraqi forces' tortured and killed villagers.” BBC World News. N.p., 10 November 2016.
“Battle for Mosul: The story so far.” BBC World News. N.p., 11 November 2016.
Parker, Ned, Isabel Coles, and Raheem Salman, “Special report - How Mosul fell: An Iraqi general disputes Baghdad's story.” Reuters. N.p., 14 October 2014.
Booth, William and Loveday Morris, “In first big wave, Iraqis flee Mosul and crowd into camps.” The Washington Post. N.p., 3 November 2016.
Nordland, Rod. “Iraqi Forces Attack Mosul, a Beleaguered Stronghold for ISIS,” The New York Times. N.p., 16 October 2016.
Image: © Paskee | Dreamstime.com - Gawilah Camp Photo
Matt Hinson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University studying International History with a focus on religion & violence in the modern Middle East. His research interests include civil wars, terrorism, and national security.