In the five months since the Mosul offensive began, the US-led coalition has carried out more than 2,100 air strikes against Islamic State. Nearly 600 ISIS buildings and facilities have been hit, as well as 614 bunkers, 451 mortar positions and 273 boats and barges.
These are the numbers that represent the slow and steady defeat of ISIS in Iraq.
“We are seeing the last throes of Daesh [Islamic State]. Many of their leaders have left the area and abandoned their own soldiers. The hard core of foreign fighters [remains] and one by one we are going in and annihilating them in West Mosul,” says US Brig.-Gen William A. Turner.
Turner is the deputy commanding general for Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Iraq, the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
, he lays out the challenge facing the Iraqi Army and coalition troops that are trying to root out ISIS in its last major Iraqi stronghold.
The battle for West Mosul is symbolic, because it is where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the “caliphate” in 2014 and it was the site of many ISIS crimes against Christian, Yazidi and other civilians. Last week, the US State Department hosted an historic meeting of the 68 partner nations that have signed on to help defeat the extremists.
“Our coalition is united in stopping an ISIS resurgence, halting its global ambitions and discrediting its ideological narrative. And we are ready to grow stronger and stay aggressive in this battle,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, the main anti-ISIS alliance in Syria, has recently made gains with a daring, US-supported airborne assault behind enemy lines near Raqqa. The meeting in Washington comes amid claims that ISIS inspired the attack in London on Wednesday, showing that its global reach continues.
In Mosul there are reports of increased civilian casualties in the fighting, including 200 people killed in an air strike on Thursday, and another 400,000 civilians trapped in the city.
The Fight Against ISIS: Why Mosul and what's next for Iraq?
Turner says that several hundred US personnel who are fighting alongside Iraqi security forces in West Mosul are facing a densely populated environment festooned with ISIS combatants.
“It’s a lot more of the enemy [concentrated] in dense locations with high rises, holes in walls, tunnels, and the enemy is able to traverse the environment and able to move fairly easily in their own environment, and that causes challenges,” he says.
ISIS had two years to prepare passageways and tunnels to evade aircraft. These are hardened fighters and their desperation has led them to use schools and mosques, targets often off-limits to air strikes, to hide.
The American officer outlines an integrated and coordinated effort to probe for weaknesses and improve the ability to defeat ISIS using men on the ground, reconnaissance, rockets, artillery and the air force. Working with Iraqis at the brigade level at the front has allowed the US and coalition forces the “best chance to help.”
The battle for Mosul is proving a test for the US-trained Iraqi Army. “The ISF [Iraqi security forces] are achieving a great success,” asserts Turner.
The Iraq Counter-Terror Forces, Federal Police, Quick Reaction Force, and other parts of the army have come into their own in this difficult battle. After almost three years fighting ISIS, the first of which saw the Iraqi Army pushed out of many Sunni-majority cities, the new ISF units are standing the test of fire.
Much may lie ahead, Turner notes. “It is tough to apply a timeline to [the battle] and we see a great deal of success in completely surrounding Mosul at this point and tremendous pressure on ISIS. We are seeing the last throes.”
ISIS previously styled itself as a defender of Sunni Islamic interests. The presence of the hard core of foreign fighters and the decision by ISIS to fight from civilian targets such as schools and use human shields shows it is sacrificing the community it pretends to be part of. With the end near it has pulled out all the stops. It had increased its use of drones, rigging them with munitions to drop on coalition forces.
Turner says that this threat has been diminished. Asked whether ISIS might resort to chemical weapons, which it has allegedly used in the past, Turner says he can’t speculate.
“It is something we are trained for to counter and the ISF to counter. It’s not a strategic threat to inhibit our ability to defeat [them].”
After Mosul is liberated, the coalition will likely remain at the request of the Iraqi government, to aid efforts to take back areas occupied by ISIS in Hawija, Anbar, Tal Afar and elsewhere.
Priorities after Mosul will be set by the Iraqi government.
“The fight will continue. They are dedicated to the defeat of ISIS and its complete annihilation in Iraq. How that goes and the sequence is premature [to speculate] at this point.”
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the capture of Saddam Hussein was one of the central objectives. The coalition today seems less focused on the hunt for Baghdadi. “It is about the ultimate and lasting defeat of the collective threat and not about any one individual,” Turner says.
“Having said that, at the point where we are able to positively identify Baghdadi at a given location and the conditions warrant, the coalition in cooperation with our Iraqi partners would most certainly capture or kill him. ISIS is a ruthless enemy and the coalition will remain resolute in our support of the ISF and ultimate defeat of Daesh.”
Since the battle against ISIS began, the coalition has trained 37,000 Iraqi Army soldiers, 15,000 border guards and police units. This partner-building program will presumably continue after the defeat of the Sunni jihadists, with the goal of making Iraq a stable country.
The road ahead, however, is long and strewn with pitfalls.