Liberating the land: Seth J. Frantzman reports from the Mosul offensive

By Seth J. Frantzman

On October 17, 2016 the Iraqi central government launched the long-awaited Mosul offensive. Thousands of Iraqi army soldiers from three units, the 9th Armored, the 16th and the ICTF (Counter-terror ‘Golden Division’ forces) had been transported north of Iraqi lines to staging areas in the Kurdish region to prepare for the operation.

Mosul was Iraq’s second largest city before it was conquered by ISIS in 2014. It was a beating ideological heart of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and later became a center of the Iraqi insurgency against the Americans after 2003. Under ISIS it became the Iraqi Raqqa, the center of ISIS governance and power in the country. It also became the last stronghold of ISIS after other Sunni cities such as Falluja and Ramadi were re-taken by the Iraqi government.

I visited many of the important frontlines against ISIS between June 2015 and October 2016, including Telskof, Sinjar, Khazir, Makhmour and Bashiqa. This was a long, mostly static, 600 mile front.  In October the plan was to change all that and liberate the swath of territory between the Kurdish lines and Mosul, and destroy ISIS in the place that symbolized so much of its evil.  It was in Mosul that ISIS sold Yazidi slaves and where ISIS proclaimed the “caliphate.”  An agreement between the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi paved the way for the attack on Mosul.  Previously there had been tension between the Kurds and Baghdad over who would take the city. The Kurdish region sees Mosul as a strategic threat and a city with historical Kurdish communities and they wanted to play a role in its liberation.  In a piece on October 17 I described the upcoming battle as one “for the soul and future of Iraq.”

With the encouragement of Washington, which wanted Mosul taken by the time a new President was sworn in in 2017, the Kurds and Baghdad agreed that Mosul would be primarily an Iraqi army operation. There were also tensions about the role of Shia militias (Hashd al-Shaabi) and Turkish troops based at Bashiqa who had trained a Sunni militia (Hashd al-Watani)

Before leaving for Erbil on October 19 I wrote a piece looking at the Turkish ambitions in northern Iraq. The article noted: “The Turkish policy to help train mostly Sunni Arab volunteers to retake Mosul from Islamic State has been active for almost two years. But initially it was a quiet, secretive role. Since December 2015 it has been a much more open and robust role. Now there is open talk of Turkey’s desire to be ‘at the table’ when the Mosul offensive launched this week is over. Turkey wants to be at the table in Syria as well, as Islamic State is rolled back (Arab World: Turkish Ambition, October 22, 2016).”

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Heading from Nawaran to Bashiqa (Seth J. Frantzman)

Day 4 (Oct 20): The Kurdish attack towards Bashiqa

On October 20 Kurdish forces sought to attack towards the town of Bashiqa.  Before the war the town was a diverse mix of Kurds, including Yazidis, Shabak and Assyrians. For two years he frontline ran along a ridge above the town and ISIS mortars and snipers used the town for cover. The offensive was designed to move from Nawaran, at the northern end of the ridge and skirt the ridge, removing ISIS along the way. I joined the Peshmerga for two days and wrote an article about “snipers and mortars” along the way. The casualties during the first day caught Kurds of guard and forces took another two weeks to take Bashiqa itself.  Some commanders complained of a lack of US air support.  When we were on the ground it seemed their was ample artillery and air support, but the chaos of battle and ISIS effective use of snipers, IEDs and mortars harassed the Peshmerga. No plan survives contact with the enemy, Rommel apparently quipped, an this was such a situation.

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A Kurdish Peshmerga and an Iraqi member of the Golden Division near Bartella (Seth J. Frantzman)

Day 7 Iraq retakes Bartella and Bakhdida

On October 22 I drove out to Bartella and then to Gwer frontline. We spoke with Kurds who had built a new frontline in front of Sartak mountain and spoke with Kurdish and Arab members of the ICTF. We met a TOS-1 rocket team and saw the relations between the 9th Armored and the Kurds on Gwer front. A chemical fire ISIS lit was burning in the distance, reports said it caused numerous cases of illness in Qayarrah. “The bells of a church in Bartella were rung for the first time in two years, as the ICTF secured the town. This is an important, symbolic victory. Christian fighters from a group called the Nineveh Plains Forces came to Bartella to see their town and participate, although it took time for them to negotiate an entrance through the ICTF lines, arguing and gesticulating to get in. Once Bakhdida and Bartella are fully secure, the Iraqi army will keep pushing into the eastern and southern suburbs of Mosul.”

In a piece about “which Iraq will triumph in Mosul,’ I wrote, “As the offensive to defeat ISIS creeps toward Mosul it appears essential that the cooperation taking place today between Sunni tribal leaders, Kurds and Shia can present an opportunity for a different Iraq to triumph in Mosul.  A Sunni Arab sheikh,and Iraq parliament member who lives in Erbil named Ahmed al-Jarba visited the frontline on October 22 was upbeat that this united Iraq might triumph. ‘There is good cooperation between Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, including the Sunni tribes that we could not predict before.  I want to assure people of Mosul that they will be liberated.’  He said that unlike in Ramadi or Fallujah where Sunni civilians suffered, the residents of Mosul will not be harmed by the offensive. Kurdish fighters on the ground said they were also hopeful. ‘We have good relations with the Iraqis stationed here,’ a local officer said as dust from an Iraqi tank driving toward the front from Gwer blanketed them.”

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An Iraqi tank, with a Shia flag, rides toward Bakhdida from Gwer (Seth J. Frantzman)

Day 8: The US coalition unleashes unprecedented firepower to aid the Iraqi advance, but admits its shortcomings. I had received permission to visit the US base at Q-West, but time made it difficult to get there and back.  Instead I spoke with the US coalition spokesman about the tempo of the US-led coalition’s support of the advance.  We had seen special forces on Bashiq mountain and the airstrikes and artillery support were heavy along the line.  In a piece “inside the US-led campaign to destroy ISIS” I looked at the role the coalition would be playing going forward.  Col. Dorrian, the spokesman, said that as the attack moved into urban suburbs there would be adjustments.  The Americans were wary of civilian casualties in a city that still has 1 million inhabitants.

“As ISIS began to dig in its heels in Bakhdida and Bashiqa, two key villages that the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga wanted to take, the US and its allies upped their strikes. According to Dorrian, 1,500 munitions were used in six days of air strikes from October 17 to 22. ‘We destroyed more than 100 fighting positions, 22 vehicle- based improvised explosive devices, 14 tunnels and 52 mortars and artillery pieces,’ Dorrian said. ‘That’s in addition to the mortars and heavy machine guns the Iraqis have hit with their own advancing infantry.'”

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An ISIS flag covered over with grafitti (Seth J. Frantzman)

Blood and fire on the Nineveh plains

There are many symbolic victories in this war, many things that it symbolizes for Kurds and for Iraq. I looked at what it means for Kurdish fighters, many of them who look back to their fathers and grandfathers who fought Saddam and other tyrants. “Victory over Islamic State is important, but carving out a space for Kurdish rights and greater independence is as important. Towns like Bashiqa that were once disputed by the Kurds and the Iraqi central government for control will fall to the Peshmerga, and the KRG will demand to administer them. Yazidi temples here will be rebuilt, and Christians will return to their churches in Nineveh. The Kurds have proven they can protect the minorities in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Sinjar, and that the weakness of the central government allowed Islamic State to threaten these provinces in 2014 and forced Kurdish forces into a two-year, grueling campaign against the extremists.”

The Iraqi army enters Mosul, sort of. By late October the Iraqi army was at the gates of Mosul. Conflicting reports claimed it had entered the city limits around the neighborhood of Karama.

“The areas that were being fought over on Monday were heavily populated by Kurds and other minorities such as Shabaks and Assyrians before the arrival of ISIS in June of 2014. According to the blog Mosul Eye, ISIS fighters were heavily present in this area in mid-October when the Mosul offensive was launched, but they had abandoned their headquarters, likely due to threat of air strikes. The Iraqis are confident. ‘Soldiers of the Counter-terrorism force are advancing very fast,’ said Gen. Talib Shegati to Iraqiya TV. He thought they would be inside the city limits on October 31. The distance from where the Iraqis are to the city center is about five kilometers, equivalent to the distance between JFK Airport and central Manhattan, or Wembley and central London. The ICTF advance is hampered the lack of support from the other Iraqi forces that were supposed to be at the gates of Mosul alongside it. The 9th Armored Division is moving more slowly after taking Ali Rash eight kilometers to the southeast. Iraqi units that were supposed to attack Hamam al-Alil have not reached their objective, amid UN reports ISIS has brought 60,000 human shields into the town. The Iraqi 16th Division is also outside the city limits to the northeast at Tel Yabis.”

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On an Iraqi army tank, made in America. (Seth J. Frantzman)

On November 3 I did a podcast with The Spectator discussing the battle for Mosul and whether it had similarities to the battle for Aleppo.  This narrative has been put forward by some who are more sympathetic for the Russian involvement in Syria and also for the Syrian regime which claims it is fighting “terrorists” in Aleppo. The Syrian regime wants to present itself s doing the same work as the Iraqi government.  There are some similarities, both the Iraqi central government and Syrian regime are allied to Iran and have Shia militias.  Kurds are fighting in both conflicts.  But the Syrian conflict is more complex than the Iraqi one, I said.  Everyone fighting ISIS in Iraq opposes ISIS.  In Syria there are Sunni-based rebel groups that are not ISIS. The regime paints them all as ISIS, but that is only in order to create excuses for human rights violations against them. I described the support for the Syrian regime among westerners a form of “white privilege.”

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Will America stand with them after the war? (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Kurds, America’s true allies

In a piece for The Tower I looked at the Kurdish-US relationship and whether the US would stand by the Kurds after the war.  Although Hillary Clinton had expressed support for US arming the Kurds in Syria, Donald Trump’s views are less clear. I provided some background; “The U.S. went one step further in July, sending assistant Secretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin to sign a unique agreement with the KRG to continue funding the Peshmerga. Normally, all funding for the Kurdish region would have to go through Baghdad, just as foreign aid for Egypt would go through Cairo, but the Americans recognize that Baghdad has continually withheld funds from the KRG under the excuse that it too is fighting a difficult war against ISIS. The Kurds are supposed to receive 17 percent of the federal budget, but arguments about oil exports (the KRG has attempted to export oil on its own) and the war effort have frustrated these agreements.”

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Liberated towns are festooned with ISIS tunnels, IEDs and other deadly leftovers (Seth J. Frantzman)

ISIS and the development of terror infrastructure

The destroyed villages and towns liberated from the extremists in Iraq may not be habitable for years. They are laced with IEDs, tunnels and other remnants of ISIS. Sophisticated defense systems, factors for uparmored vehicles and tunneling equipment were all part of the arsenal.

Stalling at the gates of Mosul and Raqqa begins

As the offensive against ISIS slows in the urban neighborhoods of eastern Mosul (the ‘left’ bank); an offensive to take Raqqa has kicked off. This creates more complexity in the patchwork of rivalries between Turkey, Iran, Syria, Russia, Iraq, the KRG, the YPG and other groups.

A piece I wrote on the battle appeared in National Interest it can be read here

I wrote a long piece for Fathom about what will happen in Mosul after ISIS, it is at this link

In December I wrote a piece for the Rubin Center looking at Six Crises Facing Kurdistan

I wrote a piece comparing Mosul’s ISIS tunnels to Gaza and looking at how Mosul plays into the whole Middle East

I wrote about why the Iraqi army hasn’t taken Mosul on December 10, 2017

I covered Assyrian Christians returning home on December 13 and covered the same issue for National Interest

I covered ISIS supply lines after their weapons factories were discovered in Mosul offensive

Can we prevent the next ISIS is the issue policy makers should be asking, here are some thoughts to ponder.

A documentary about the war against ISIS in Mosul

I assembled the footage and photos from the attack in Bashiqa and Bartella into a short documentary looking back at my experience during the offensive and in the two years covering the war on ISIS and Kurdish aspirations.

What comes next?

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