With ISIL often in the news and on the lips of many politicians across the world, it’s often hard to imagine that the fight against ISIL is a real war with victims, casualties, and consequences. The conflict between ISIL, Kurdish rebels, and Iraqi military forces--aided by varying levels of air and ground support from the US, Iran, Syria, and other world powers--has been raging since the appearance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014. Nations across the world have repeatedly expressed their worries of ISIL’s influence spreading outside of the region. But what about their physical influence in Iraq and the Levant--their very namesake? The currently-ongoing Siege of Mosul encapsulates both the difficulties of fighting ISIL and the downplayed successes against ISIL in the past year.
Here are some of the things you need to know about the Siege of Mosul right now:
1. Mosul represents a big step in defeating ISIL
When ISIL (then known as ISIS) first began claiming territory in 2014, they were just another insurgency group that arose since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. After successfully gaining control over most of the central province of Anbar in Iraq and gathering weapons from territorial gains in Syria, ISIL made a sudden leap to northern Iraq while Iraqi forces focused on Anbar. They successfully captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, which lays claim to a highly strategic location by way of its highway connections to Turkey, Syria and Baghdad. This helped cement ISIL’s power in the region, especially with additional resources plundered from banks and oil fields in the city. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the region, including the previously cosmopolitan Mosul.
As a city with connections to the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq and the southern government in Baghdad, Mosul represented a huge defeat for the nation of Iraq as a whole. The offensive that began last year against ISIL has had Mosul as a target from the start. Not only would pushing ISIL out of Mosul further isolate them from resources they need to empower themselves, it would also represent a major defeat of their specific brand of outdated Islamism. Most of all, though, it would mean freeing around a million people living in constant danger across enemy lines in the city.
2. The siege has been going on since mid-October and has yet to end. Iraqi forces, with US air support, began their offensive geared toward capturing Mosul on October 17, 2016, and by late January they controlled the eastern half of the Tigris River running through Mosul. The assault on the western part of Mosul represents a new challenge, however, as ISIL militants have managed to fortify parts of Mosul’s Old City. Battle since late January has focused on this highly-urban and dense area, with offensive forces fighting under incredibly tense and brutal conditions. Meanwhile, 350,000 people have fled Mosul since October, with the BBC reporting that “more than 180,000” have fled since the offensive on the western half of the city began.
The casualties of this offensive cannot be understated. After the US began engaging in air strikes in the Old City at the behest of Iraqi forces, reports have grown of growing civilian casualties among the people stuck between ISIL and Iraqi crosshairs. In one incident on March 17, US airstrikes may have killed almost 200 people after buildings were bombed. Hundreds of thousands of people are still stuck on the western half of Mosul, and reports grow of not just deaths in air strikes but of ISIL militants intentionally sniping civilians, using people as human shields, and building tunnels through civilian buildings. With all the chaos of battle, it’s becoming increasingly hard to discern fact from fear-based rumors, except for of course the very real number of bodies.
3. US support, and maybe its priorities, have shifted as the battle continues
The offensive on Mosul began with significant backing and planning from the Obama administration, at a time when Republican politicians criticized the administration for being “soft” on ISIL. Indeed, much of the continued tactics come directly from plans laid out by the previous administration. Yet the results of the election in November may have pushed US forces to switch gears entirely in their response to ISIL and combatting terrorism. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration’s assumption of military control has coincided very neatly with the sudden surge in civilian casualties by friendly fire.
More importantly, though the offensive in Mosul might put a major dent on ISIL’s territorial plans, the collateral damage presents us with a repeat of the problem we faced in Iraq after 2003. For Iraq (and the rest of the region) to recover, there’s still the matter of contending with the two most damaging byproducts of the siege: the enormous humanitarian crisis and destruction of infrastructure. Trump’s proposed budget plan--complete with cuts toward non-military foreign aid, funding and even the State Department--shows that the US might not be as invested in preventing conflicts as it is in winning them.
4. The humanitarian crisis is enormous but underreported. In just the first year of ISIL’s activities in Iraq, over 3 million Iraqis were internally displaced. In the retaking of Mosul alone, the UN estimates around 114,000 people have been displaced, with even more escaping the city as forces retake the western portion. While some internally placed people have been resettled, refugee replacement services are still pushed to their limits, and the UN expects thousands more to continue flooding the camps. However, outside of international media outlets like the UN or Al-Jazeera, few outlets are reporting this crisis.
While thousands escape the second-largest city in Iraq, Western news sources have repeatedly focused instead on a chemical attack in Syria and, specifically, the Trump administration’s retaliatory bombings on Syrian airfields. This level of disregard is unsurprising when looking at the other ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises in the region, from Mosul to even Yemen, whereupon the substantial involvement of U.S. forces goes unmentioned in American news headlines. Even now that the US arguably has poured more support into the offensive against ISIL, the event and its attendant humanitarian crisis barely register on Americans’ news radars.
5. ISIL is retreating, but fears of security are still trumping calls for support
Once Iraq finally retakes Mosul, ISIL loses their last urban stronghold in the region, and with it much of any semblance of popular support they claim to have. Support for ISIL (and indeed toleration of Islamist groups of any kind) is likely at an all-time low among Iraqis who have had to weather not just the aftermath of the 2003 invasion but the ISIL conflict. Yet, even as Iraqi forces closed in on Mosul last year, the Trump campaign and pursuant administration continued to bring up ISIL as this indomitable and ever-present boogieman. Trump has even gone so far as to criticize Obama’s Mosul campaign, to claim that US support and aid is setting up Iraq to be taken over by Iran, and to suggest that the US should just “take [Iraq’s] oil reserves.”
With a looming humanitarian crisis at their doorstep and a bombed-out half of a nation to rehabilitate, Iraq needs immense aid to recover from ISIL without relapsing (as it did after 2003) into any number of conflicts between it diverse peoples and its government. Instead of tightening the bond between Iraq and the US, Trump seems intent on tearing it apart: previous iterations of Trump’s controversial “Muslim ban” even prevented Iraqis who served US forces from entering the country they defended. With all this rhetoric of defending security and putting “America first,” the US administration seems poised to dismantle the coalition of Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal groups, and the Shi’ite government that has effectively beaten ISIL.
via: Think Progress
6. You’re not powerless in this
With this information in hand, there are still some things that can be done. Here’s how those of us in the Western world can fight back against the crisis:
image courtesy of Reuters