The Long Road to Mosul


As the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gains momentum in Iraq, the focus has returned to Mosul, a key ISIL stronghold. Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi has affirmed that security preparations are being made, to include training thousands of different paramilitary fighters as part of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The United States has offered to increase its battlefield support to the ISF — at Baghdad’s request — to include deploying Apache attack helicopters and advisors, in addition to training and equipping Iraqi troops at the division level and coalition airstrikes.

Still, half of the battle for Mosul will be a political one that takes place before the fighting commences. Key local and regional stakeholders continue to disagree over who should take the lead and be involved in the Mosul offensive. Liberating Mosul is also tied to determining “who gets what” in a post-ISIL settlement; the nature of boundaries, resources, security, and local governance. A successful U.S. military strategy cannot resolve these issues; however, it should account for the underlying political nature of the campaign and the necessary Iraqi deal-making that will drive the timeline, participants, and its potential outcome.

Liberating Mosul is more difficult than the recent Ramadi offensive largely due to demographics, geography, and politics. Known by Iraqis as the “city of a million officers,” Mosul retains the large presence of Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist generals and officers. These influences are Sunni Arab, Iraqi nationalist, anti-Iranian, and divided between secularist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups. Mosul also has mixed urban and tribal groups, as well as minorities (especially Yezidis, Assyrians, and Kurds) in the city and outlying areas. It is over three times the size of Ramadi and has nearly 700,000 civilians still living inside the city, making the use of coalition airstrikes (which were critical to Ramadi’s success) a less likely option. Further, Mosul’s proximity to Syria means that local populations need to be assured that ISIL will not return. If the Syrian border and outlying areas are not secured, then people will not volunteer to fight or support anti-ISIL efforts, even discreetly.

Given these conditions, Sunni Arabs must play a critical role in the Mosul offensive, alongside and part of the ISF and its elite counter-terrorism forces. Sunni Arab personalities are leading this effort, to include Gen. Najim al-Jibouri, head of the Iraqi Government’s Operational Command for the Liberation of Mosul. The command includes Sunni Arab battalions within the ISF and distinct Sunni Arab mobilization forces, some of which participated in the liberation of Ramadi.

The problem, however, is that the pool of Sunni Arab fighters in Mosul is much smaller than the well-trained and large Ramadi tribal forces. Securing vital Sunni Arab support also has steep political hurdles. Sunni Arabs may despise ISIL but they have ongoing fears of retaliation from various groups, concerns about their future in Iraq, and internal divisions. This is why one high-level Iraqi security official affirmed to me that they want to make sure to “win the [political] battle before recruiting and engaging against Mosul.” Over the past year, Baghdad has been reaching out and negotiating deals with small groups and Sunni Arab notables inside Mosul. It also cooperates with the Mosul provincial council, which is temporarily based in Erbil and prepared to resume governance after ISIL is expelled from the city.

Even then, intra-command squabbles and Sunni Arab power struggles are hindering effective action. For instance, although Gen. al-Jibouri is a former mayor of Tal Afar and has local support in Mosul, he is not fully backed by the Iraqi minister of defense. Rather, Minister Obeidi has close ties to Osama al-Nujaifi, a high-ranking Sunni Arab politician and brother of the former governor of Ninewah, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who was removed from his post because of his supposed ties to ISIL. Al-Nujaifi has been shuttling to different Sunni Arab communities in Iraq and the region to gain support, challenging Baghdad’s efforts and those of other Sunni Arab groups.

The competition to liberate and control Mosul is also being fueled by Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent Turkish military forces to Mosul to train Sunni Arab units (Hashd Watan) under Atheel al-Nujaifi — whose salaries it pays — as well as Kurdish leader Ma’sud Barzani’s peshmerga forces. The Erdogan–Nujaifi–Barzani nexus reflects Turkey’s interests in securing Mosul’s oil and gas resources, creating a buffer against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and consolidating a Sunni Muslim sphere of influence in northern Iraq to challenge the Iraqi government and Iran. While this plan may resonate with some groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Nujaifi supporters, most Sunni Arab Iraqis, minorities, and Baghdad flatly reject it. They argue that Turkey has violated Iraqi sovereignty and Nujaifi’s discredited reputation has left him without crucial public support to expel ISIL and assure that it does not return.

The politics behind the campaign also challenge claims that “liberating Mosul is impossible without the Kurdish peshmerga” and that the Kurds are “waiting on Baghdad to liberate Mosul.” Barzani may closely collaborate with U.S. and coalition forces and have Erdogan and Nujaifi’s support, but he will have a more difficult time communicating with key Sunni Arab tribal leaders (i.e., Jibouri, Jabani, and Shammar) and non-Kurdish communities in Mosul city. Local populations are unlikely to accept the Kurdish peshmerga alone inside Mosul city because they fear that the Kurds will expel them and occupy their territories. These suspicions are fueled by statements from some Kurdish leaders that Mosul is part of the Kurdistan Region, as well as expulsions of Arabs in other former ISIL territories.

In fact, the Kurds’ willingness to engage in Mosul has political strings attached that in some cases have obstructed ISF planning. In one situation, Barzani’s peshmerga forces prevented the ISF from passing through the important Rabia border area to train Sunni Arab forces, insisting that only Nujaifi’s fighters could be trained. The “waiting on Baghdad” discourse also ignores Barzani’s own obstacles to fully engaging in Mosul; the need to negotiate Kurdish land claims with Turkey, Nujaifi and Sunni Arab groups in surrounding areas; and the Kurds’ disinterest in training a Sunni Arab force that could challenge their authority and borders in the future. The Kurdistan Regional Government also faces serious economic and political crises, including unpaid peshmerga salaries that further challenge its capabilities and appetite for direct engagement.

These local dynamics indicate who can likely do what in Mosul. Taking the lead will be the ISF’s counter-terrorism forces and affiliated Sunni Arab forces, working in tandem with the United States and the coalition. The Kurds can be expected to provide a supporting and logistical role. This effort includes maintaining training camps, securing outlying villages, and cutting off supply routes and trade to ISIL. Nujaifi’s Turkish-backed, Sunni Arab forces cannot militarily engage apart from the ISF, and could play a supporting role alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces. The politics behind the Mosul campaign also means that the Shi’a popular mobilization units (Hashd Shab) should not be directly engaged.

U.S. Policy Options

The Mosul offensive will be a lengthy and potentially costly battle. Even if the ISF can liberate Mosul it must also prevent the return of ISIL, which controls the Syrian border and can continue a war of attrition. A sound Mosul strategy should be based on an integrated Iraq-Syria strategy. It should include plans not only to liberate the city, but to secure outlying areas, prevent ISIL penetrations from Syria, and hold and stabilize ISIL-free territories. Liberating Mosul therefore will need time — not because of a disinterested Iraqi army or Mosulawis’ support for ISIL — but because the necessary security and political arrangements need to be put in place beforehand to assure a successful operation. The United States can assist the Iraqi government in this effort through the following measures:

Support and Strengthen Iraqi Security Forces. The United States should continue to support the ISF with military support, training and equipment, and targeted airstrikes, to include enhancing the capabilities of Iraq’s overstretched counter-terrorism forces. An important part of this effort should include training Sunni Arab forces in coordination with the Iraqi government. It also requires continued support to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi so that he can make the necessary deals with critical Sunni Arab groups to secure local backing.

Clarify Mosul End-State. The United States should develop and clarify a stabilization plan for post-ISIL Mosul that can garner Sunni Arab confidence and support. This effort should include reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, training programs for local police, security measures that will prevent retaliations against Sunni Arabs, and re-asserting the role of the Mosul provincial council into local administration and governance. The United States should also act as a neutral broker in Sunni Arab power struggles while helping to negotiate individual political pacts with the Iraqi government.

Encourage Ankara-Baghdad Relations. The United States should continue to affirm its support for Iraq’s territorial integrity and press Turkey to remove all of its troops from Mosul governorate. It should broker meetings between Turkish and Iraqi officials, to include the Kurdish Regional Government, and encourage cooperative agreements that enhance border security and economic exchange while respecting Iraqi sovereignty.

Encourage Erbil-Baghdad Negotiations. While continuing to provide military support and training to the Kurdish Regional Government in coordination with Baghdad, the United States should leverage its Kurdish partners to more closely cooperate with the Iraqi government. This effort should include permitting the ISF to enter territories essential for the Mosul operation, allowing access to vital assets and populations, and assuring that the Kurdish peshmerga have sufficient military support and equipment to secure outlying areas of Mosul.

As the United States seeks to accelerate its efforts to counter ISIL in Iraq and Syria it should focus on the political roots of ISIL’s emergence and persistence. Liberating Mosul will not only demand sufficiently trained and equipped Iraqi forces and increased coalition engagement, but negotiating the necessary deals with key stakeholders in Iraq and the region. Without doing so, a Mosul campaign could lead to a tactical victory but without strategic success to ultimately defeat ISIL.


Dr. Denise Natali is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She may be contacted at (202) 685-2249 or The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Follow her on Twitter: @DnataliDC.


Image: Cpl. Akeel Austin, U.S. Marine Corps