Major operations are underway to retake cities taken by the Islamic State (IS), one in Iraq and one in Syria. After losing the city of Palmyra to IS roughly a year ago, the Syrian Army, backed by Russian airstrikes, draws closer to the city. At the same time the Iraqi army is set to start its offensive against IS in Mosul.
Palmyra was the first city IS had taken directly from Syrian regime and allied forces, Reuters reported. While the city served as a major moral victory for the terrorist organization, it also serves as a strategic point along its area of control. The city provides IS with incredible strategic mobility, as Palmyra links the IS to its stronghold in Raqqa and parts of northern Iraq.
IS would also be losing a great deal of revenue they were making off of relics from the historic city. As IS destroys historic artifacts and relics, they increase the value of the few they sell. The black market artifact trade under Islamic State is allegedly worth around $1 billion. With airstrikes targeting IS oil fields, the group would be losing a potentially vital part of its revenue stream.
While the Syrian army is occupied with Palmyra, the Iraqi army will be beginning a multiple month operation to take back Mosul. The Iraqi army was able to recapture the city of Ramadi late last year, and continue to push IS back.
Before beginning its offensive to liberate Mosul, the Iraqi army, along with U.S. marines, are first going to push to take back oil fields near Makhmur. The Iraqi army may be trying to encircle to city while also gaining an opportunity to further damage IS’s financial operations.
While the Iraqi and U.S. led operation to claim territory outside of the city, U.S. airstrikes will target the city itself. The U.S. has led an airstrike campaign against Mosul in the past, but with the Iraqi army announcing its operation to take back the city, the number of airstrikes will likely increase.
On Sunday, March 20, 2016, it was reported a detachment of the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) was deployed to Iraq to protect Iraqi security forces retaking oil fields. The Marines, along with the U.S. advisors in Iraq, will be able to provide a great deal of support against IS, and hopefully can increase the chances of reclaiming Mosul.
While the recent advances by the Iraqi military and arrival of U.S. Marines will be beneficial to the fight against IS, reclaiming Mosul will still take months if not over a year to reclaim. Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, and it sits at roughly the same size as Philadelphia. Within Mosul lived 2 million people before IS occupied the city.
Mosul was also had the potential to be a massive area for recruitment as the population is primarily Sunni-Arab, the main demographic that IS pulls from. The sheer size of the city coupled with the potential amount of IS supporters within its boundaries will pose a massive roadblock to Iraqi and U.S. forces.
IS was able to capture Mosul in 2014, and Iraqi forces have come nowhere near reclaiming the city. Mosul lies in northern Iraq, and it serves as an important trade point as several major highways run right through the city. The city also sits along the Tigris river, which opens up the option for trade by water. In terms of resources, Mosul sits on top of pipelines that lead to Turkey that IS has used for revenue purposes.
The fight for Mosul will be further complicated by the forces who seek to liberate the city. Kurdish forces have pledged their support to retake the city and have been able to reclaim territory in the North, East, and West of the city. However, it is yet to be seen if they will be able to cooperate with any of the Shiite militias that support the Iraqi government, as neither side is especially fond of the other.
Even if Mosul is liberated, there is the question of what will happen to the predominantly Sunni population. The Sunnis have been enemies of both the Kurds and Shiites, and their liberation from IS may just turn into an occupation by Shiite or Kurdish forces.
A U.S. military spokesman stated that IS may have lost up to 40% of its territory in Iraq and roughly 20% in Syria. With Syrian forces focusing less heavily on opposition forces, they may be able to take even more territory back from IS in the near future.
The U.S. spokesman mentioned that IS massive territory loss was in part due to the group reaching its maximum expansion. IS forces may have been stretched too thin, that they were unable to provide adequate defense towards the areas which they have lost. As Iraqi and Syrian forces close in on IS, the tougher reclaiming territory will be. Iraqi forces can expect a long campaign to reclaim Mosul, and it may take even longer to reclaim Raqqa.
While IS has been losing ground in both countries, they have continued to launch attacks inside Baghdad and Damascus. In late February of this year IS killed 122 people in Damascus with several car bombs and suicide attacks. In Baghdad, IS has been active over the past several weeks, launching numerous attacks on civilians and Iraqi military personnel.
Even with IS losing territory in Iraq and Syria, they still have stronghold throughout the world. IS is growing presence within north and west Africa, and their Libyan branch looks to pose a credible threat to neighboring countries.
The loss of Palmyra would be a major strategic and financial blow to IS. However, the fight against IS in Mosul will take substantially longer. As IS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq they their fighters around their strongholds in the two countries making reclamation of these cities even more difficult. However, there is also the probability that fighters will move to other countries like Libya.