What Could Go Wrong in Mosul?

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The battle to retake Mosul has begun. About 30,000 Iraqi soldiers are taking part in the massive operation, with air and ground support from the U.S. and other allies. The Iraqis are fighting to reclaim their second-largest city and expel ISIS militants, estimated to number between 4,000 and 8,000. ISIS captured the city during its 2014 offensive. At the time, the population there was around 2.5 million. Most have since fled, but roughly 1 million remain.

I. Barack Obama

President Obama has approved the operation to retake Mosul, but he is aware that it carries heavy risks. Obama officials are confident that the plan, which has been in the works since July, will succeed at reclaiming the city. What comes after, however, is less certain. The administration is concerned that sectarianism within Iraq’s forces will lead to infighting. Iraq’s fighting forces include Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. These groups are likely to jockey over who controls the various urban and outlying districts of Mosul. Nonetheless, the president believes now is the time to strike, as ISIS is seen as declining in strength and vulnerable. Being overly cautious, the administration argues, would risk losing the opportunity to retake Mosul. This could in turn contribute to a resurgence of ISIS in the long run.

II. Filippo Grandi

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, fears that the operation to retake Mosul could create a massive humanitarian problem. “The protection of civilians is the most important element of this operation from our perspective,” Grandi said. Many of the 1 million civilians in Mosul are expected to flee the fighting. They will require shelter, food, and medical care, but resources are limited. The UN notes that the Mosul response budget, almost $200 million, is currently less than 40% funded. Grandi points out that protection efforts are especially needed as the cold winter months approach. The agency has already set up numerous camps around Mosul capable of holding tens of thousands. To fully meet the challenge, however, Grandi says it is “urgent” that more resources be made available.

III. Sergey Lavrov

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, says that the U.S.-backed Mosul operation carries enormous risks, apart from stoking sectarianism and creating many thousands more refugees in the Middle East. Lavrov fears that the mission will essentially funnel ISIS fighters into Syria, where Russia is helping the Syrian government fight against jihadists and rebel groups supported by Washington. The foreign minister points to intelligence indicating that Mosul is not fully encircled by Iraqi forces, leaving an escape route from the city. Russian state media has reported sources who claim this is an intentional tactic by Russia’s opponents. “We will be evaluating the situation and take decisions of both political and military nature if this happens,” Lavrov warned. “I hope the US-led coalition, which is actively engaged in the operation to take Mosul, will take it into account.”


Further Reading: Reuters / Russia Today / UNHCR

This brief was written by Jared Metzker.

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