Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced on television early Monday morning that the coalition operation to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIS has begun, CNN reports. The looming battle comes after more than a month of military buildup near the city by an odd-couple coalition that is only temporarily unified by its shared hatred of ISIS. That group includes Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces backed by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, as well as Iranian-backed Shia militia units. Some 30,000 of these coalition fighters have surrounded Mosul in preparation for the attack, and as many as 60,000 will participate in the coming battle. In addition, more than 5,200 U.S. personnel are currently in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
On Sunday, the Iraqi Air Force dropped thousands of leaflets on Mosul telling residents it was “victory time” and asking them to avoid certain parts of the city, keep their homes sealed up, and report ISIS activity via a hotline. One of the city’s main bridges was also hit with an airstrike on Sunday, and skirmishes have been fought on the outskirts of the city over the past week. The Long War Journal gives their overview of the recent activity and battle to come:
The final elements of the operation were put into place over the past several days. Hundreds of Iraqi special forces have moved to the front lines in preparation for the battle. Iraqi special forces have spearheaded the assaults of previously held Islamic State cities such as Tikrit, Baiji, Ramadi, and Fallujah. The Iraqi Air Force is dropping leaflets on the city warning civilians that the final push is eminent. Additionally, the US has stepped up airstrikes in and around Mosul, launching 11 strikes against a range of targets including “a chemical weapons facility,” tunnels, ammunition caches, a media center, and military units. […]
If the Islamic State digs in and defends Mosul, the fight is expected to be bloody. More than 6,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to be in the city. It has deployed thousands of mines and has dug an elaborate network of tunnels and trenches across Mosul in preparation for a protracted urban fight. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in the city as the Islamic State has prevented them from leaving. However, during recent battles in major Iraqi cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, the Islamic State withdrew the bulk of its troops and left a smaller rearguard force to bleed the Iraqi military and militias.
CNN adds that the battle for Mosul is expected to last weeks, if not months, and The Guardian points out that the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that an enormous refugee crisis may result as the city’s civilian residents attempt to flee once the fighting begins.
But while Mosul is a large and strategically important port city to ISIS, the group has already lost other more symbolically important territory over the weekend as well, since Turkey announced on Sunday that Turkish-backed Syrian rebels had liberated the town of Dabiq. As Reuters points out, Dabiq is one of the most important symbolic locations within the militant group’s so-called caliphate, as it is where they believe a final, apocalyptic battle is destined to occur between Muslims and infidels. That prophesied battle is a frequent element of the group’s propaganda, and Dabiq is also the name of ISIS’s official magazine. Such symbolism was not lost on the forces who liberated the city, as one rebel leader boasted to Reuters that the key ISIS myth was now “finished” as a result of losing the stronghold. The Brookings Institution’s Will McCants has more on ISIS’s embarrassing new loss at his site, Jihadica:
When the Turkish-held noose tightened around Dabiq over the past few weeks, ISIS’ followers began to frantically explain why the approaching showdown in Dabiq would not be THE showdown. Well, the expected Mahdi, a messiah figure, had not yet appeared to lead the battle. Or the required eighty nation coalition had not rolled into town. In the past few days, ISIS’ own newsletter tried to downplay the significance of the town’s coming fall. The “great battle” will come to pass because God has promised it would; but this isn’t that battle because all the other preceding prophecies haven’t come to pass. Never mind that ISIS neglected to mention those other prophecies in its earlier hyping of Dabiq. Days later, the town fell with little resistance.
The operation to retake Dabiq was conducted by Free Syrian Army factions backed by the Turkish military, and its success was welcomed by U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter on Sunday.
Lastly, Turkey also announced on Sunday that Mehmet Kadir Cabel, one of ISIS’s regional leaders in Turkey, was killed during a police raid in the city of Gaziantep, where an ISIS-claimed suicide bombing killed 54 people at a wedding in August. Three police officers were killed in the raid, but 19 suspected ISIS members were captured. Gaziantep, which is about 60 miles north of the Syrian city of Aleppo, has been a hotbed of ISIS activity for years.