Why capturing Mosul is a critical step toward defeating ISIS

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Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari - RTX2P7TV

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: Mosul and the start of operations to retake Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State group.

Jeffrey Brown will speak with a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq in a moment, but, first, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on today’s events.

MARGARET WARNER: Gunfire sounded all day, across the outskirts of Mosul. Columns of smoke billowed from artillery fire and U.S. coalition airstrikes and from oil ignited by ISIS fighters to blind attacking planes.

Long anti-ISIS convoys advanced, and, by late in the day, the overall Iraqi commander issued a confident assessment.

LT. GEN. TALIB SHAGHATI, Iraqi Army (through translator): The operations are going very well and according to plan. Sometimes, we are ahead of the plan because of the high morale and the fighters’ strong will to fight the Islamic State group and liberate Mosul, which has been under ISIS rule for the past two years.

MARGARET WARNER: For the Iraqi army, the campaign for Mosul is by far its largest operation yet against the Islamic State. U.S. intelligence estimates that up to 4,500 ISIS fighters are in the city. Other estimates run to 8,000.

LT. GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND, U.S. Army: This may prove to be a long and tough battle, but the Iraqis have prepared for it, and we will stand by them.

MARGARET WARNER: Complicating matters, balancing the various factions taking part in the fight. Kurdish forces began today by seizing several towns on the eastern fringes of Mosul. They will be part of a five-pronged assault, including Iraqi army brigades, plus Sunni tribal fighters and police. The ultimate drive into Mosul will likely be made by Iraqi special forces.

Providing air cover and assisting on the ground is the American military, including special operations troops. Shiite militias backed by Iran are also taking part, but they have been accused of atrocities against Sunnis in other cities and may be kept out of Mosul proper.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, complained of being left out of the Mosul offensive.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey (through translator): Look now. The operation in Mosul has started. The operation continues. And what do they say? Turkey shouldn’t enter Mosul. How can I do that? I share 350 kilometers of border with Iraq, and I am under threat on that border.

MARGARET WARNER: Erdogan said again he will keep some 3,000 Turkish-trained fighters in northernmost Iraq, despite objections from Baghdad. As the fighting starts in earnest, concerns are also rising over the more than one million civilians still in the city. The U.N. and other organizations say they’re preparing for up to 200,000 refugees.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Margaret Warner.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now perspectives of James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, and currently fellow at the Washington Institute, a think tank and policy analysis group.

Welcome to you.

JAMES JEFFREY, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remind us first why this city and its capture is so important.

JAMES JEFFREY: As we just heard, it’s the last citadel of ISIL in Iraq. It’s the second largest city in the country.

It’s the center of the Sunni Arab third of Iraq, if you will, its culture in that country. And if it falls, then ISIS is pushed back to its headquarters deep in Syria, in Raqqa, and that could spell the end of ISIS. So, that’s a very, very important development.

JEFFREY BROWN: When ISIS originally took Mosul and other cities, the Iraqi army at that point was collapsing. There is a sense now that it’s strong enough to do this. How difficult will it be? How long do you think it might take?

JAMES JEFFREY: As we saw in the news clip from Margaret Warner, it’s a very eclectic force, but it numbers some 50,000 or 60,000 people on the ground, with a tremendous amount of American and other Western artillery and airpower supporting these people, including, for the first time, advisory units right up in the front lines.

This will take weeks, like the Fallujah battle in 2004 also against ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq. But, in the end, I think there is only going to be one outcome, and that will be defeat of ISIS.

JEFFREY BROWN: There have also been reports inside the city of underground resistance. When ISIS first went into Mosul, they were welcomed by many in the city. What happened in the interim?

JAMES JEFFREY: Al-Qaida has always had a presence before it became ISIS in Mosul. It was a problem when I was there in 2010 to 2012.

But there’s no doubt that part of the population welcomed ISIS when it came in, because it felt was being oppressed by the Shia majority and the troops sent up by the Shia — largely Shia government. But that changed over time. As in every other city we have seen that have been liberated, the people, regardless of their ethnic and religious background, welcome the people who come in. They can’t stand living under ISIS.

JEFFREY BROWN: That problem, though, of the initial welcoming brings us what might happen in the aftermath, right, of retaking Mosul.

JAMES JEFFREY: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because it raises many other questions.

JAMES JEFFREY: Well, the first one is the humanitarian, refugee, and food and relief supplies.

That is under the control of the U.N., the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government, in coordination with the Iraqi government, all being watched closely by the United States. That will be messy. It always is. But these people, if there’s one thing, they have had experience with some eight million refugees in that region in the last two years. They will, in the end, be able to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there are fears, though, about the humanitarian crisis, right?

JAMES JEFFREY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

And I think, as I said, we will get plenty of stories about people in inadequate tents, inadequate sewage and such. But, in the end, I think that enough food, supplies will come through.

The bigger question is, who will secure this place, who will govern it, and what’s going to happen to Iraq after the ISIS threat is gone?

JEFFREY BROWN: Even including who marches into the city in the first place, right, as Margaret was talking about, whether it’s Iraqi forces or militia forces.

JAMES JEFFREY: Exactly.

And I think the deal right now is that the Iraqi forces, spearheaded by the counterterrorism force, which is very, very good, and will have a lot of American advisers with them and supporting them, will go in and do the heavy fighting inside the city.

Then Sunni police who have been trained from the region itself will come in to secure the city. The trick will be to keep the Peshmerga forces, the Kurdish forces, away from the center of the city, but they have basically agreed to stop, as I understand it.

We don’t know if the popular mobilization forces, these largely Shia militias, some of whom are under the thumb of Iran, will adhere to this deal, or whether they will try to push in, as they have before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I’m wondering. How confident are you or are we? Because this is not the first time that Mosul has been recaptured, right? So, how confident can we be that, this time, the forces taking it will get it right?

JAMES JEFFREY: Well, some of these Shia militias, Ahl al-Haq, the Mahdi Army, tried to kill me and my people for years in Iraq, so I’m not too confident on anything they promise, to be honest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JAMES JEFFREY: But I will say, they’re not the majority. The Iraqi government and most Iraqis understand that they have to bring back the Sunni Arab 20, 25 percent of the population. It won’t work with these Shia militias running amok in these areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, ISIS itself, if it gets kicked out of Mosul, what then?

JAMES JEFFREY: It will fall back on its capital, Raqqa in Eastern Syria, but it’s a dusty little town compared to Mosul.

And it’s being pressed by Kurdish and Syrian opposition forces right now from the north, as well as American and American-supported forces. So I think that the end will be near for ISIS. And then we will face all of the other problems in the Middle East that ISIS has covered up over the last two years.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ambassador James Jeffrey, thank you very much.

JAMES JEFFREY: Thank you.

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