Don’t expect Stalingrad 2.0. The epic 1943 Russian offensive on the Volga River turned the tide against Hitler — but a victory over Islamic State in Mosul is unlikely to carry similar historic clout in the war against terror. Rather, the fast-approaching showdown on the Tigris could go horribly wrong, discrediting the supposedly reformed Iraqi army and accelerating a new, even more vicious phase in the evolution of Isis as the world’s most high-profile terrorist outfit.
Thrashing Isis in Mosul would of course be a prize worth winning. It would dent the group’s standing among angry young Muslims, reduce its cash flow, take away its last major urban bastion in Iraq. If the Iraqi army really do win, it will help erase the memory of the shameful mass desertion in 2014. Some of the weapons they left behind are now being used against them.
If the Iraqi army can find some glory in the coming weeks then the outgoing Obama administration — which has done the lion’s share of training and re-equipping them — will look a bit better too. The best outcome, say the spin doctors, is if Iraqi government soldiers enter Mosul before November 8, presidential election day. It will give the illusion of command, a rare foreign policy achievement in an otherwise disappointing presidency.
And, yes, there is a reasonable chance of military victory. Iraqi special forces have been intensively rehearsing this operation, steered not only by Americans but by Britons and Australians. The US has brokered an agreement between the Iraqis and the Kurdish Peshmerga, who will be fighting alongside each other for the first time. There are Turkish-trained Sunnis, ruthless Shia militias. More than 50,000 troops against about 4,000 jihadists. Plus the punishing impact of US-led aerial bombardment.
If this were a staff college exercise against a notional, conventional enemy there would be no doubt about the outcome. Calculations on paper, however, understate the resilience of Isis. The jihadist army survived and thrived without controlling swathes of territory. When it realised that it could overrun a third of the country it picked up its swagger and an international brand.
Now its commanders have come to realise that it lost some of its rapid mobility and its capacity to surprise by setting up static garrison communities. Its numbers have swollen over the past few years as it created a pseudo-state, but its costs have risen and its revenues have dropped.
The former Baathist officers who play such a vital role in formulating Isis strategy will be counselling patience on its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. If Isis frees itself from administering terrain it will have thousands more men available for hit-and-run operations in Iraq, for the contest in eastern Syria, and for exporting killers to Muslim as well as Christian countries. The caliphate that was once represented by Isis control of Mosul should once again be a spiritual construct, an inspiration for jihadists rather than a place to rent a two-bedroom flat and a sex slave.
The armed front against Isis has brute, aggregate strength but is brittle. That will become clear as the battle of Mosul wears on: there will be a race between the Iraqi army, the Kurds and the Shia militias to capture the city and carve out sectors. Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, says he won’t let the Kurds and the Shia militiamen into the city when it falls. The Kurds because he is worried that the Kurdish agenda is to secure a breakaway state. The Shia militias because the people of Mosul, known as Moslawi, are terrified that they will be smeared as Isis collaborators and slaughtered.
That’s why so many Moslawis are expected to flee as soon as they get a chance — perhaps up to a million by the time the battle has settled. There is every likelihood that Isis will exploit such a humanitarian crisis, blowing up bridges across the Tigris and wrecking the electricity grid. Will Abadi really be able to control who enters Mosul in this chaos? Almost certainly not. Could it end up as a stamping ground for warlords in the manner of civil war-era Beirut? Perhaps.
All Isis has to do is wait for this coalition to fall apart, and do what it can to encourage tension between ungainly allies. It will hold on to some districts and mount urban warfare until the morale of the Iraqi army starts to crumble. For two years Isis has been digging tunnels and stockpiling arms and food. If it can hold on for months and make Mosul look like a stalemate it will consider itself a victor. Then it can melt away and wait for things to fall apart.
That is why the armies advancing on Mosul must have a plan of governance as well as conquest. The objective seems to be to drive Isis out of Mosul, declare Iraq to be a jihadist-free zone and move on to the Isis administrative capital in Raqqa, Syria. Do that and Isis will return. We need to stick around. The Iraqi army must continue to reform and must include Sunnis in its officer corps. Together with Baghdad the West has to work out how to tighten border controls with Syria so that Isis units do not simply shift from one country to another when it gets hot.
Let’s hope that the US-led efforts live up to their publicity and Isis gets a thumping, that the operation doesn’t lead to a massacre or to a full-blown sectarian war. The West has persuaded itself that Isis is on the back foot everywhere in the Middle East, but that’s not what the intelligence community is saying. To count on the imminent demise of Isis you would have to believe — as jihadists emphatically do not — that pigs can fly.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.