The battle for Mosul is well underway, with thousands of pro-government forces arrayed around the Islamic State (ISIS)-controlled northern Iraqi city. Initiated on October 17, the battle is a pivotal moment for authorities seeking to re-establish control over territory and expel the extremists, who posed an existential threat to the Iraqi state from mid-2014 to early 2015.
The goal of completely eliminating ISIS and achieving stabilization remains a long way off, however. The group is expected to maintain a significant post-conflict capability and the multiple interests involved in the Middle East will translate into a difficult negotiation process once the group is eventually pushed from Mosul and other urban centers.
ISIS’ 2014 offensive in northern Iraq and capture of territory in nearby Syria seems a long way in the past. The purported caliphate is being challenged from multiple directions and by forces with more resources and expertise. In Syria, ISIS has recently lost Palmyra, the symbolically important Dabiq, and Manbij, a town which connected its Syria stronghold Raqqa to Turkey. In Iraq, its presence in Anbar governorate has been severely degraded with the losses of Ramadi and Fallujah.
If past evidence is anything to go by, ISIS strategists will have planned for recent losses. After the United States military “surge” in Iraq from 2007 to 2011, the group, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, went to ground. After the US withdrawal it initiated several year-long armed campaigns, which led to its major 2014 victories. After ISIS loses Mosul it will likely follow a similar tack and, in the longer term, attempt to again expose cleavages in Iraqi society—be they sectarian, political, or ethnic—in an attempt to create conditions for another return. Read more