On Oct. 17, the Iraqi government announced the battle to reclaim the city of Mosul from the hands of the so-called Islamic State would begin. If you’ve been paying attention to the news or the presidential debates, you may have heard about this city. However, many of the important nuances and implications of this assault are lost in these discussions, in my opinion.
For example, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has commented several times on the assault on Mosul, calling the assault a “total disaster.” However, the assault was only a week old at the time, and it is shaping up to be a very long fight.
The attack on Mosul is turning out to be a total disaster. We gave them months of notice. U.S. is looking so dumb. VOTE TRUMP and WIN AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2016
In addition, he has claimed the assault was planned by the Obama administration to boost Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, despite the operation being led by Iraqi forces. Furthermore, he has even questioned why the plan to retake Mosul has been made public, which military experts say shows a complete and total ignorance about military strategy.
Clinton has had her share of errors when discussing the assault on Mosul as well. During the third presidential debate, Clinton claimed Mosul is located on the border of Iraq and Syria, which is incorrect. In reality, Mosul is nowhere near the border of Iraq and Syria. As you can see from the map below, Mosul is roughly 100 miles from the border.
This is a mistake that should not be made by anyone who is running for the most powerful position in the world. Perhaps Clinton misspoke, but the fact of that matter is several million people heard this and most likely did not know this was false.
We’ve learned our presidential candidates are not exactly the most reliable sources for understanding what exactly the assault on Mosul is, so where do we go from here? I believe a short review of the recent history of Mosul is in order.
Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq, and is located in the northwestern region of the country. It was home to approximately two million people, who were mostly Sunni Muslims, a minority in Iraq. However, this population decreased significantly when the Islamic State overtook the city in June of 2014. Mosul is a great example of the many complexities of Iraqi politics.
Sunnis have had a tumultuous history in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, the former leader of Iraq, was a member of the Ba’ath Party. This party repressed minority Shia Muslims in several ways. For example, the party had forced Shiites out of their homes, banned several Shiite religious practices and are believed to have killed several Shiites during its rule.
These domestic relations began to shift following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Following the fall of Hussein, Shiites soon filled the void he and his party left. Great conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims followed this political reversal in Iraq, known as “sectarian conflict” in foreign policy jargon.
How does this relate to modern day Mosul? As mentioned earlier, Mosul is a mostly Sunni city. The liberating military is comprised of government forces, which are predominately Shia. These two groups have an uneasy relationship in Iraq. But a successful liberation, followed by a healthy rebuilding process that addresses the physical and social damage that the Islamic State caused, could be significant in easing the sectarian conflict. If this liberation is successful, it will begin to spell the end of the Islamic State as it is known today, as a terrorist organization with the unique quality of holding and attempting to govern territory.
Mosul acts as a sort of capital for the Islamic State. When Mosul was captured, it provided the Islamic State with a great deal of resources, as well as a propaganda generator. The narrative emphasized the strength of the Islamic State, as Mosul fell in only a few days.
This liberation is not without its dangers, however. If the rebuilding process is compromised by conflict between the Sunni and the Shia, the regrowth of Mosul could be slow and anemic, and thus may run the risk of inflaming conflicts even more. In addition, I believe the Islamic State may abandon Iraq and begin to focus their efforts elsewhere. The Islamic State also has a quasi-capital in Syria in the city of Raqqa, which is set to undergo a similar liberation in the coming weeks. The leaders of the Islamic State may elect to consolidate their efforts in Raqqa, leading to a prolonged and bloody fight. Moreover, we have to be wary of an uptick in terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. The Islamic State will be desperate for some sort of propaganda to fuel its narrative, considering its gloomy circumstances at home.
The liberation of Mosul is monumental to the situation in Iraq. Our next president, regardless of who is elected, will be required to respond to their aftermath of the battle. As we’ve seen, both candidates have had their respective blunders in the discussion of Mosul. It is imperative that we closely monitor how this battle develops in the coming weeks, as the results will guide U.S. foreign policy in the region for a long time to come.