To hear members of the national security community tell it, ISIS is about to lose its grip on its Iraqi capital.
In the last 10 days alone, the two U.S. generals leading the war effort have promised that the city of Mosul will be out of ISIS hands soon. Telegraphing the military’s next move usually is considered strategically daft, but American commanders now are spelling out the dates of their operation within weeks.
Meanwhile, those with a political bent are pushing for the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi forces to move into Mosul before the end of the Obama administration term so it can end on the cusp of a major battlefield win, one U.S. official told The Daily Beast.
“It is a way to end on a high note,” one U.S. official explained. The White House “would love to see us kick off Mosul” before the administration’s term ends in January.
It makes some sense: What general would want to leave a war to Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump?
The military is adamant that political calculations are not part of their planning. Rather, they want to move on Mosul soon to exploit the war’s momentum—a momentum, they insist, that has swung against the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS.
They point to a depleted ISIS that failed to fight for the Syrian city of Jarabulus last month; its inability to retain control of the city of Dabiq southwest of there; and the repeated failed efforts of the terror group to take back the eastern Syrian city of al-Shaddadi, a key route into Iraq.
When ISIS has tried to fight to retain control of a city, its militants have failed, officials noted. Most recently, despite heavy fighting, ISIS could not hold onto the strategically important city of Manbij in northern Syria and during the three-month battle for Fallujah that ended in June. And since then, the Turks have sought to close off its border beyond the area around Manbij, making it potentially harder for the terror group to move its fighters and supplies into Syria and Iraq.
“For the first time, I think Mosul could really happen,” one U.S. defense official explained to The Daily Beast.
But is it overconfidence? Some American officials are worried.
They point to recent sacking of Iraq’s minister of defense in a war that depends on Iraqi Security forces, to be one of the proxy armies on the ground for the U.S.-led coalition air campaign. The U.S. decision to repeatedly announce the war for Mosul will likely kick off at the end of year appears to be a push by the American military to keep their Iraqi forces on target.
These officials also note the inter-fighting between Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, which could also weaken the ground forces that would be charged with battling ISIS.
Moreover, there is a quiet worry that ISIS is preserving its resources to fight for Mosul and Raqqa, Syria, the capital of its caliphate. Indeed, there were reports that local forces already are expecting ISIS to use chemical weapons in the battle for Mosul.
“It has been very hard to predict where ISIS does or does not fight,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “Therefore it is difficult to conclude whether they are frequently losing or whether they have started to preserve combat power.”
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, this week suggested that he was surprised that ISIS was willing to fight for Manbij but not Jarbulus.
“What’s interesting to me is you look at the battle of Manbij, [it] took place over the course of about 74, 75 days,” Votel told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday. “When you look at Jarablus, when [the coalition] applied pressure there, they very quickly left that area.”
Critics note that a military victory does not automatically make Iraq and Syria less politically unstable. Who will lead Mosul the day after ISIS leaves? And how?
“The military lines of effort are still isolated from the political lines of effort,” Cafarella explained.
While the Turks are moving into areas around Manbij, some believe it is to go after the Kurds, not ISIS; the offensive, therefore, is not hurting the terror group. The Turks are taking villages around Manbij that were not under ISIS control, but rather held by U.S.-backed forces that already had beaten the terror group.
The Turks had said the Kurds could not move west of Euphrates but to take Manbij, they had to—and they did so with U.S. support and an understanding the Kurds will leave Manbij after they beat back ISIS.
The Kurds have been a key force in the taking of ISIS-controlled areas of eastern Syria. But so far, the Kurds have not indicated they are willing to fight for the Arab-dominated city of Raqqa, the ISIS capital.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq in charge of the war against ISIS that the cities of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, capitals in the self-proclaimed caliphate, could both fall within a year. “I don’t want to make promises, but I intend to have Mosul and Raqqa done on my watch,” Army Gen. Lt. Gen. Joseph Townsend said last month upon taking command. His boss, Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command, said this week he believed operations against Mosul will begin by the end of the year.
Mosul famously fell under ISIS control June 10, 2014 from Iraqi forces that took off their uniforms and ran away. Since then, ISIS has controlled the city, robbed its banks, and instituted its own form of legal order and taxation based on its perverse definition of Islamic law.