Mosul: the ISIS ‘Alamo’?

By Daniel L. Davis

Last Thursday Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi shared the good news about Mosul.  “The fighting forces are currently pushing forward toward the town more quickly than we thought,” he began, “and more quickly than we had established in our plan for this campaign.”  Such statements, while encouraging to his nation, are deceptive.  The real fighting has yet to start.  It is also vitally important to realize that if ISIS chooses to fight to the death in Mosul – like the Texans’ historic Alamo fight – it is not inconceivable that ISIS could achieve strategic victory even if they are eventually defeated there.

It is important to understand that Islamic State (ISIS) fighters – while frequently derided as mindless thugs, heartless terrorists, and common criminals – pose a formidable tactical threat.  They benefit from 15 years of lessons learned during insurgent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.  Many of their leaders have significant experience battling against traditional military forces and are flatly experts in the conduct of guerrilla operations and city fighting.

ISIS has experience of fighting in Kobane, Raqqa, and now years in Aleppo.  There are the most experienced and expert urban fighters in the world right now.  ISIS has become masters of crafting elaborate defenses, digging interlocking tunnels, and sewing complex and multi-layer minefields.  The attacking Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) also have experience in city fighting, as they’ve ejected ISIS from Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi.  But in each of those battles, ISIS has fought what is essentially a fighting withdrawal.

They have created improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines, and other booby-traps, which they’ve hidden in buildings, cars, roads, and under sidewalks.  ISIS has avoided becoming decisively engaged in their previous city fights, withdrawing when the situation got too hot and they were in danger of being cut off.  Whether that was an intentional strategy or not is hard to determine, as reports following the Fallujah battle claimed that ISIS executed scores of its fighters who escaped.  This time, however, early evidence indicates that Islamic State leadership has decided to make a fight-to-the-death stand in Mosul.

Some might be tempted to consider this a good thing, thinking that if ISIS makes a stand here and are destroyed, the manpower and leadership gash to their organization will hasten its ultimate demise.  That is not a safe assumption.  The situation is not as dire for ISIS as might appear.

ISIS might have considerably more fighters than the approximately 5,000 most experts guess.  Mosul Eye, a group of unknown individuals risking their lives from within Mosul to post online accounts of what’s going on in the city, report that in addition to a surging number of foreign fighters, child fighters have also been seen preparing to defend the city.  It is possible that ISIS might have press-ganged the city’s youth into combat duty – much as some of the worst of African militia have done over the years.  If so, the number of defenders could be much higher than current estimates.

Mosul is a massive city, similar in size to Philadelphia.  Even at the upper end of their estimated numbers, ISIS cannot possibly defend the entire city.  Their early actions indicate that in the initial stages of the battle they withdrew numbers of forward deployed observation posts, designed to give their leadership intelligence on where the liberating force is making its main thrusts.  As the attackers continue their drive, ISIS troops will probably conduct harassing fires against them, planting IEDs on the routes of advance, utilizing snipers to slow the advance, but still not becoming decisively engaged.  

They’ll likely continue falling slowly back until finally occupying the main line of defenses they’ve chosen.  These are areas they have no doubt prepared over many months for the decisive battle.  It will have thorough and elaborate defensive works.  

In all likelihood, it will have interlocking tunnels that allow men to move from one position to another without exposing themselves to hostile fire.  Snipers will likely occupy key high points in buildings, providing interlocking fires against main routes of advance.  Barricades will have been placed roads at multiple points to further slow ISF attacks.  Mortars, rockets, and possibly some tanks will be placed at strategic locations on and behind the main line of defense.  

Regular riflemen will be scattered throughout the battle area and only concentrate for specific actions, otherwise dispersing to increase survivability.  They probably have small mobile units to act as local counterattack forces to harass ISF and coalition troops as they move through the city.  If ISIS fights with discipline and launches couragebrazen attacks, it is possible to use the urban terrain to exact a high toll on the liberating force and hold out for an extended period.

It is important to understand that ISIS may not behave as might the militaries of civilized nations.  Once traditional military units have suffered a given percentage of casualties, say 30% to as high as 50%, they will withdraw to preserve their strength in order to fight another day.  If the Islamic State has adopted the ‘Alamo’ strategy, they may be willing to suffer 50%, 60% or even suffer up to 75% casualties, yet still tenaciously fight on.  There is great risk for the coalition if this turns out to be the case.

First, it will test the mettle of the ISF troops in particular.  They are two years from their horrific defeat during ISIS’ initial swamp of Iraqi territory.  Iraqi troops have been numerically rebuilt, they have been reequipped with modern weapons, and have been re-trained by US and other allied guides.  Today’s ISF is definitely better than the 2014 version, but they have not yet been tested in sustained, difficult combat.  It is uncertain what will happen if Baghdad’s troops start suffering high casualties.  

Second, the longer the tactical battle for Mosul lasts, the greater the chance ISIS could wear down the tenuous bonds holding coalition forces together, succeed strategically.  In an Alamo case, their main intent would likely be to hold out for as long as possible, inflicting as much harm on the ISF as possible.  ISIS has shown it is willing to die for its cause and endure enormous suffering.  At least up to this point, the ISF has not shown such inclination.  ISIS knows they have no hope of actually defeating the liberating force, but they probably realize they do have a chance to split the coalition and sap their will to fight.  Here’s how.

The coalition force is composed of Iranian-backed and led Shia militia, various Sunni tribal militias, small numbers of Christian and Turkman militias (many drawn from those who previously lived in Mosul), the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi national troops, and US-led coalition troops providing advisor, artillery, and air support.  This cobbled-together coalition does not have natural cohesion.  In fact, many of these groups are known to deeply distrust one another, with some of the leaders of the Shia militia being on record as promising to kill American troops it finds on the battlefield.  If this fight drags on and casualties begin to mount among the various militias, the chances for inter-coalition conflict rises.

For example, if the fighting ability of the ISF begins to weaken and Shia militiamen have to take up the slack, PMU fighters might stop cooperating with Baghdad and launch off on their own plan, going where they deem most advantageous.  Under a worse-case scenario, they could even battle against other coalition militias, such as Sunni tribal militia and Christian groups.  It is also possible rogue elements of the PMU might make good on their threats and kill American advisors or other support troops in ostensibly ‘blue-on-blue’ attacks.

It is also possible that as the battle progresses some of the non-Sunni groups might decide to free-lance from an agreed-upon campaign plan and try to capture quarters of the city they have not been designated to free.  If Shia troops, for example, were to move into Sunni enclaves of Mosul without agreement, the Sunni residents or even the erstwhile allied Sunni militia might turn their guns on the Shia.  In such a case, the coalition could actually begin to consume itself.

In the best of circumstances its hard for a military coalition to fight effectively together.  There were several conflicts between the US and Britain, the best and most natural of allies, during the Second World War.  The odds that Shia, Kurd, Christian, and Sunni armed groups – some of whom take orders more from outside powers than from Baghdad – will work together cooperatively and effectively aren’t the highest.  The longer ISIS is able to hold out, the more casualties they are able to inflict on the coalition, the greater the chance that religious and sectarian differences between the liberating forces bubbles to the surface.  

This combustive tinder-box of unstable allies doesn’t even include the considerable destabilizing possibilities that might arise if the Turkish armed forces decide to make good on President Recep Erdogan’s promise to take part – with or without permission – in the fight on the ground.

Despite all these challenges, it is still possible that things could still go well for the coalition.  It is entirely possible that ISIS’ defenses are breached more rapidly than expected.  The faster the battle can be won, the better the chance the coalition remains effective and intact.  That is certainly my hope.  But it would be a mistake to underestimate ISIS’ capabilities and expect the best.

The Islamic State has shown itself to be the most barbaric, cruel, and inhumane group to darken the globe in this generation.  They offer no hope of a prosperous and peaceful future for anyone on the planet.  They have confirmed they have no ability to govern and administer a city.  But they are not stupid and do have shown themselves to be effective at the strategic level.  

Though its early in the fight, indications are that ISIS is prepared to make Mosul their ‘Alamo’ and pay the tactical price on the ground necessary to achieve strategic effects.  Their leadership is intimately familiar with each and every point of historic friction between each member of the coalition and is certain to do all in their power to pit one against another in an attempt to fracture it.

The battle for Mosul has only just begun.  The early moves by the coalition have been little more than consolidating lightly or undefended sections of the city’s outskirts.  The real fighting hasn’t yet started.  Most American and Iraqi government officials portray the battle’s successful outcome as a given and voice concern over what comes next.  Those post-conflict concerns are well-founded, but assumptions of tactical success are still premature.  It would be wise for Washington and Baghdad to make serious contingency plans for what they would do if the fighting bogs down or the coalition begins to rupture.  Pinning all our hopes on a best case scenario doesn’t appear to be the wisest course of action.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on October 26, 2016. Read more HERE.