By Jessica Lewis McFate and Alexandra Gutowski
Key Take Away: ISIS is actively defending Mosul, and its actions provide a window into the intent and capability of the group. ISIS’s forces in Iraq are still able to coordinate attacks at the operational level of war to achieve linked military objectives. ISIS is likely to expand upon its counteroffensive to offset Coalition operations near Mosul in ominously quiet areas like Diyala and Baghdad. ISIS’s various defensive tactics and campaigns demonstrate organizational integrity rather than collapse. The Coalition will ultimately recapture the city of Mosul, but ISIS is likely to resurge elsewhere in Iraq and Syria both before and after the city falls. In its wake, the Ba’athist group Jaysh Rijal al Tariqa al Naqshabandiya (JRTN) will resume a Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Al Qaeda is also preparing to expand its operations from Syria back into Iraq. The greatest strategic vulnerability the anti-ISIS coalition continues to face is the empowerment of al Qaeda through its surgical anti-ISIS measures.
The anti-ISIS coalition is making progress toward Mosul, ISIS’s largest urban holding, recapturing the district of Hamdaniyah on October 22 and the Christian town of Karmeles on October 25. ISIS is actively defending Mosul, and its actions provide a window into the intent and capability of the group. The Coalition campaign for Mosul is designed well near the city but leaves other locales in Iraq and Syria vulnerable. ISIS is taking measures to exploit the vulnerabilities of the coalition both to defend Mosul and to set conditions for its future resurgence in Iraq.
ISIS’s grand strategic objectives remain to expand its physical caliphate to include the entire Muslim world and to provoke and win an apocalyptic battle with the West. In order to meet those objectives, ISIS will attempt to weaken the Iraqi state and the coalition and to provoke a reaction against its Sunni base. ISIS can pursue these objectives even if it loses control of Mosul. ISIS is nevertheless defending Mosul, a crown jewel in its claim to a physical caliphate. ISIS’s forces in Mosul are insufficient to block the coalition’s advance. ISIS is therefore employing an asymmetric defense, leveraging its remaining forces in Iraq and to some extent in Syria as of October 27, 2016.
ISIS’s defense of Mosul bears hallmarks of its previous campaigns in 2014-2015, assessed in depth by the author here. ISIS has anticipated an offensive to recapture Mosul for years and has prepared a robust static defense of the city, including a vast tunnel network, berms and cement barriers, and a trench filled with burning oil. ISIS has also deployed mobile defenses including SVBIEDS and SVESTS to interdict attacking forces. Ninewa Operations Commander Major General Najm al-Jabouri cited 95 VBIEDS intercepted by the coalition near Mosul as of October 25, a positive measure of the Coalition’s ability to deal with ISIS’s mobile defenses, which are comparable to ISIS’ previous defenses of Tikrit and Ramadi. The geographic spread of Coalition forces outside Mosul and ISIS’s VBIED deployment are vaster, however, which may explain recent reports from the field of both high casualties and insufficient air support. ISIS also reportedly executed civilians en masse in Tulul al-Nassir on October 25, indicating ISIS’s weakening control over its population and its willingness to destroy the population and the land in order to deny it to the anti-ISIS coalition. Some reports suggest that ISIS uses executions to quell uprisings as well as civilians who resist. ISIS reportedly crushed a rebellion plot by executing 58 supposed conspirators on October 14 in Mosul.
ISIS has also reinvigorated attacks on other urban centers in order to divert attention and effort from Mosul. ISIS’s counter-offensive targeted Sinjar on October 19 and 24, Kirkuk City on October 21, and Rutbah, near the Syrian border in Anbar province, on October 23. The operations in Sinjar, Kirkuk, and Rutbah mirror the geographic pattern of ISIS’s blitz offensive in June 2014, when it seized many cities across Iraq and Syria, beginning with Mosul. The repeat of this geographic grouping is significant. ISIS’s forces in these locations are still able to coordinate attacks to achieve linked military objectives. ISIS also likely intended its attacks on Kirkuk City and Sinjar to exploit a seam in the coalition between rival Kurdish factions.
The anti-ISIS coalition, however, has remained united and focused on the Mosul offensive and resisted ISIS’s diversion. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk stated that “there has been no diversion whatsoever from these attacks in Kirkuk or in Rutba from the Mosul operation,” and that the coalition had anticipated and planned for such a counteroffensive. He also cited unprecedented cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, particularly northeast of Mosul where the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services are cooperating to retake Bashiqa, a sign of resilient unity in the coalition. Kurdish leaders in Kirkuk continued to expel Sunni Arabs as of October 25, however, which could fracture the coalition over time if allowed to continue.
ISIS is likely to expand upon its counteroffensive elsewhere in Iraq in ways that could test the coalition further. Salah al-Din, Diyala, Anbar, and Baghdad Provinces have remained largely and ominously quiet, but ISW has assessed ISIS’s presence and capability in all of them. The indicators of that presence include the following: ISIS demonstrated a resurgent capability in Salah al-Din province with attacks near Tuz Khurmato on September 3 and Tikrit on September 24. ISIS has also re-infiltrated Ramadi according to reporting from the Anbar Operations Command as of September 15. ISIS is also attempting to reinvigorate its campaign in Diyala Province, most recently in Qara Tapa, where security forces arrested suspected ISIS members and thwarted an SVEST attack in October 2016. ISIS may attempt to unravel the military gains of the anti-ISIS coalition by compromising security in cities ISIS once held, demonstrating the weakness and in some cases sectarian tendencies of the hold forces put in place, which largely consist of Federal Police and Popular Mobilization forces. ISIS may also attempt to accelerate political crisis and sectarian war in Iraq. ISIS’s spectacular attacks IVO Baghdad and Khalis continued on October 9, following noteworthy attacks on Samarra on September 28 and Karbala on August 29. ISW assesses that Diyala is particularly vulnerable.
ISIS’s various defensive tactics demonstrate organizational integrity rather than collapse. ISIS’s defensive strategy for Mosul in October 2016 indicates that either ISIS can reprise old military campaigns or innovate despite leadership loses. It also demonstrates that ISIS is still using its 2015 defensive strategy to maintain flexibility and evade defeat by retreating into the desert and shapeshifting into a terrorist organization. It is employing historic operational frameworks, such as geographic rings that emanate from Baghdad. ISIS’s attacks in Kirkuk, Mosul, Sinjar, and Rutbah are all part of the outer ring depicted on the map below, comprised of the areas of northern Iraq that are farthest from Baghdad. The ISF has largely cleared ISIS from the cities it once controlled in the middle ring in 2014-2015, but ISIS is lying in wait in that ring as of October 2016, either for conditions to bend back in its favor or for opportunities to act in sequence with operations elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s capability is rejuvenating in the middle ring and the Baghdad Belts, as demonstrated by the aforementioned attacks.
ISIS has suffered significant battle damage as of October 2016, but it is resuming its previous physical disposition and attack patterns alarmingly quickly, signaling it may rapidly resurge. The coalition will need to stay the course in Mosul and to anticipate where ISIS will next attack in order to ensure sufficient security conditions prevail throughout Iraq, as ISIS will likely test its limits during the battle for Mosul.
Were ISIS to withdraw from Mosul and choose to lay low throughout Iraq, the behavior would indicate that ISIS has chosen to reset and outlast the coalition rather than to fight. That course would still be dangerous for the coalition and for Iraq. ISIS’s resurgence after the last battle of Mosul in 2008 progressed through a similar phase to resurge violently throughout the country by 2012. ISIS’s attacks and campaign design in October 2016 indicate that the counteroffensives have not yet reduced ISIS to 2012-2013 attack and capability levels.
The Coalition will retake Mosul. ISW assesses that even reducing ISIS to 2012-2013 levels will not prevent the resurgence of ISIS, the re-emergence of a Sunni Ba’athist insurgency as its successor, or the co-optation of ISIS’s remnants by al Qaeda because of the underlying political and social conditions in Iraq. Indeed, the greatest operational friction ISIS may encounter after the battle of Mosul may come from a Sunni insurgency in Iraq led by the Ba’athist group JRTN and from al Qaeda, which is preparing to expand its operations from Syria back into Iraq. The greatest strategic vulnerability the anti-ISIS coalition continues to face is the empowerment of al Qaeda through surgical anti-ISIS measures. Al Qaeda will rise during ISIS’s operational reset, and ISIS will also resurge. The combination will be synergistic rather than neutral. The policy constraints in Syria surrounding the cultivation of Sunni partners on the ground in the midst of an insidious al Qaeda threat will transpose onto Iraq, limiting future strategies to protect Iraq’s population and to cultivate US interests in Iraq in the future.