Retreat and resurgence: IS's never-ending cycle unfolds in Mosul

Retreat and resurgence: IS's never-ending cycle unfolds in Mosul
Comment: Islamic State may soon be on the back foot in Mosul, but deep-rooted divisions among its enemies will play in its favour, writes Mona Alami.
4 min read
26 Oct, 2016
IS will rely on its usual tactics, retreating when needed before regrouping [Anadolu]

As Iraqi forces advance on Mosul, generals such as Serwan Barzani predict the city's capture in two months.

Despite the positive outlook, Islamic State group (IS) which has ruled over the second largest Iraqi city with an iron fist for the past two years, may not have dealt all its cards just yet.

Evidence of the growing weakness of the Islamic State comes to light on a daily basis: According to the website IHS Jane, IS has lost over 30 percent of its territory in the past two years in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, it has lost Kobani, Tell Abyad, Palmyra, Jarabulus, Manbij and more importantly the symbolic town of Dabiq - known as the city where the organisation would vanquish all its enemies - which carries the eponymous title of its glossy publication. In Iraq, it has lost Tikrit, Falluja, Ramadi, Sinjar and Qayara.

Yet despite such significant losses, IS may benefit in the longer run from several factors. The ongoing chaos in Iraq has divided its enemies and countries involved in the war on IS have diverging if not opposing goals.

In addition, IS is already resorting to desperate and lethal measures including chemical weapons. Finally it will certainly rely on its usual tactics, retreating when needed before regrouping and launching further exhausting attacks on its enemy in protracted insurgent warfare.

Despite the defining battle its forces are fighting in the north, the Baghdad government and the parliament are divided by deep-seated rivalries.

Countries involved in the war against IS have diverging if not opposing goals

The ministries of defense and the interior, two instrumental positions in the "War on terror" are still awaiting to be filled. Iraq's ethnic groups are not only pitted against one another but also internally disunited.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who lost office in 2014, is working on discrediting the Abadi administration while emboldening the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). This includes heavyweights such as Hadi al-Ameri from the Badr Organization, Qais Khazali from Asaib ahl al-Haq and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis from Kataib Hizballah.

Despite their recent meeting, the pro-Iranian PMU does not see eye-to-eye with popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who also opposes the Abadi government and has repeatedly called for the formation of a technocrat cabinet.

The Shia community is not alone in its divisions as Kurds are equally entrenched at opposite sides of the divide. In the past year the Kurdish parliament has been paralysed by rivalry and members from the Gorran party including the speaker, have been banned from the Kurdish capital Erbil, by the powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

In addition, inter-community rivalry may hinder the fight against IS. When the organisation surged in Iraq, it was supported by many among the Sunni community who felt disenfranchised. This is no longer the case, say Iraqi Sunni activists such as Ghanem Abed, and tribal members such as Sheikh Ahmad Samarai who are fed up with the organisation.

However, mounting religious narrative counterbalances this positive trend. This month, al-Khazaali said that capturing Mosul would avenge the death of Imam Husayn, a revered figure in Shia Islam.

IS may decide to avoid a doomsday battle in Mosul, retreating from it after booby trapping the city and re-establishing new defensive lines

Countries involved in the offensive against IS boast often diverging if not opposing agendas. The Iraqi government made clear that it did not want the Turks on its territory and has threatened Istanbul. Turkey appears nonetheless to have helped Kurdish Peshmerga this week to make significant advances into IS territory around Bashiqa by directing artillery fire at jihadist positions.

On the military level, IS is resorting to lethal techniques, such as setting light to a sulphur plant sending toxic smoke into the skies around Mosul. The Peshmerga also claim IS has already used chemical weapons on them at least 19 times and according to the US intelligence community, IS has been using chemicals such as mustard and chlorine agents in Iraq and Syria since the first half of 2015.

Finally, IS may decide to avoid a doomsday battle in Mosul, retreating from it after booby trapping the city and re-establishing new defensive lines or hiding in the desert. In an recent opinion piece, analyst Hassan Hassan quoting IS spokesperson Abu Mohamad Adnani referred to this tactic as "Inhiyaz".

The Islamic State would find refuge in the Wilayat al-Furat desert that crosses the Iraq-Syria border, from where it can launch attacks on isolated Iraqi bases around the country.

Thus the real battle may unfold later in time, and it will require an organised counter-offensive to break the never-ending cycle of IS retreat and resurgence in Iraq.

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.