I am writing this diary from Iraq, and wanted to give a first person account of the imminent operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham (ISIS) in Mosul. ISIS suffered a major symbolic defeat today and is likely to suffer a major strategic defeat in the coming days or weeks.
At this point, Donald Trump will lose the election. But the recent military developments will deprive him and the GOP of a campaign talking point, as the Obama Administration deliberately and methodically prosecutes the war against ISIS. Trump constantly uses ISIS as a diversion to avoid talking about his sordid history of sexual assault:
What does the radical Islamist group have to do with his lewd comments, one might ask? According to Trump, his comments were just “locker room talk” in a “world where you have ISIS chopping off heads and frankly drowning people in steel cages,” going into the gory details of ISIS’s propaganda videos. He excused his actions by saying there are worse things happening in the world and, essentially, he suggested that his offensive comments—despite vying for arguably the most important job in the world—are not significant.
I’m not going to go into all the ways Trump and the Republicans are wrong on the war against ISIS because it’s already clear to everyone that they have no idea what they are talking about. I’ll just note one more instance in which Trump opportunistically accuses the Administration of a position he once adopted. Trump alleges (falsely) that US troop withdrawal from Iraq created ISIS, without acknowledging that the precursor to ISIS already existed in 2007, and that Obama had to withdraw because of the expiry of the status of forces agreement. But Trump himself said the US should “declare victory and leave” and withdraw in 2007. But enough about Trump. It’s not worth disputing his claims, because he is going to lose and nothing he says matters anymore.
Instead, let’s focus on the two events that happened today that illustrate that the Obama Administration and its allies are indeed reversing ISIS, which has already lost more than 40% of its territory. And they should take the wind out of any Republican complaints about the fecklessness and ineffectiveness of the Obama Administration. Most significantly, the Obama Administration is doing this without a massive US troop presence, and with actual allies doing the majority of the fighting.
The first event, of highly symbolic importance, is the loss today of Dabiq, a town in the plains north of Aleppo in Syria. According to ISIS’s theology, Dabiq is supposed to be the place where the final battle between the believers and the forces of unbelief will occur. ISIS’ English language publication (which I will not link to) is titled “Dabiq”. The BBC is reporting that Dabiq was taken today by FSA troops, assisted by Turkey.
The second event is the start of the campaign to retake Mosul, the only major city under ISIS control. Mosul is a city of two million people. The ISIS capital Al-Raqqah in Syria, has a population of a quarter million, only one eighth as large. Mosul is by far the most important city occupied by ISIS and its loss would diminish ISIS influence and revenue, isolate the ISIS enclave in Hawijah, and will likely result in a cascade of losses including Tel Afar, the hometown of ISIS’s head of intelligence and many of its main commanders.
The campaign to recover Mosul started this afternoon with French, American, Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi artillery attacks on ISIS front line positions. The actual ground invasion is likely to move forward in the next 12 hours. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurdish and Iraqi Army forces are surrounding the city. I took the photograph at the top of this page yesterday, on the road between the Kurdish capital of Erbil and the Mosul front, as a line of at least 60 vehicles passed along the road. ISIS fighters have been reported fleeing to Tel Afar to the West of Mosul, and nobody knows how much resistance those who remain will offer.
The humanitarian response is not yet in place. Only 48% of the estimated $300 million cost has been pledged. Up to 200,000 people may flee the fighting in the next two weeks, and up to 1.5 million may be affected, especially if the campaign is protracted. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish forces plan on funneling persons who flee Mosul into screening camps where they will be checked for weapons along four corridors, one north of the city, two east of the city, and one south of the city, and then transferred on to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Most analysts expect people to attempt to flee into sectors of the front controlled by Kurdish forces, because the residents of Mosul fear the Iranian-backed Shia’ militias fighting alongside the Iraqi army far more than they do the Kurds. The UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs is prepared to accept an additional 50,000 in existing camps, and new IDP camp sites have been plotted in several areas behind the front lines. It will take weeks to set up new camps, but cold weather and rain are not expected until November.
The biggest concern at this point is that Hashb ash-Shabi, the Shia’ militias, will conduct reprisals against those they believe to be affiliated with ISIS. It sounds like a joke to send in lawyers, but we are hoping to send lawyers in once the fighting stops, to try to assure that any minors who are arrested are segregated from adult detainees, registered, and protected from abuse. The foreign ISIS fighters? Few will surrender and those who do will likely be handed over to the militias and will not be heard from again. There are real concerns about reprisals. While my sympathy for adults who join ISIS is pretty limited, everyone is concerned about human rights violations generally.
I have one last photo to share, which is symbolic in a way. ISIS killed more than 5,000 Yezidi men and has abducted approximately 3,000 Yezidi women for purposes of sexual exploitation. ISIS’ theology permits taking of non-Muslim women for sex as spoils of war. The Yezidis who escaped have been constructing shrines atop the ancient Assyrian “tells” or archaeological sites, that dot the Mosul plains. The photo below is of a new shrine, erected in the last few months, atop an Assyrian temple mound built 3,700 years ago. ISIS fighters can see it in the distance from the front lines, and it is perhaps the Yezidis’ way of telling ISIS that they are still here, that they survived yet another attempt at eradication.
Update: Night is falling and US warplanes are hitting ISIS positions in and around Mosul.
Update 2: Mosul is bisected by the Tigris river. ISIS fighters have allegedly withdrawn from the east side.
Kurdish sources report that ground forces will attack before dawn. Unclear whether the coalition is leaving an escape route to the west in case ISIS decides to abandon the city.
Iraqi PM Abadi on TV announces that ground operations started, about an hour before dawn. Heavy fighting NW of Mosul.