The campaign to liberate Mosul, the Islamic State militant group's last major stronghold in Iraq, began at dawn on 17 October.
The go-ahead signal followed extensive coordination between the central government in Baghdad and a host of parties including local tribal forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militias and the Iraqi army.
Ground forces will be supported by the 5,000 American troops in Iraq. There is also the question of what role Turkish forces will play along the border.
Recapturing Mosul, the last urban stronghold of IS in Iraq, is of huge symbolic and practical significance. It is the city in which IS declared its caliphate following the militant group’s 2014 blitzkrieg.
From Mosul it expanded its territorial towards Anbar and Fallujah.
Ihsan Al-Shamri, advisor to the Iraqi prime minister, told Al-Ahram Weekly the loss of Mosul effectively ends the IS presence in Iraq.
Iraqi and international analysts say the balance of forces on the ground definitively favours the coalition fighting IS. IS has an estimated 5,000-7000 fighters in Mosul who are now surrounded by an estimated 70,000 troops.
They include 3,000 soldiers from the Iraqi who have been trained in counterterrorism combat by US advisers.
The coalition also enjoys massive superiority when it comes to defence equipment and control of the airspace above Iraq’s second city.
The majority of Iraqi soldiers have been deployed along three axes: Bashiqa, Al-Qiyara (the primary thrust of the ground offensive) and Kirkuk.
A fourth axis, leading toward the Syrian border, has been left open, presumably to serve as an escape route for IS forces in the hope that this will help minimise civilian losses in Mosul.
The city’s civilian population is estimated at 1.5 million.
Mohamed Qashqush, a military advisor at the Nasser Military Academy, speculates that there are two possible explanations for leaving such an opening. The first is that the Saudis and Americans struck a deal to leave a corridor through which IS elements would be able to flee to Syria.
It is a theory is based on “leaked” information which both Washington and Riyadh deny.
“Of course they would deny it,” says Qashqoush. “But the fact remains they both have an interest in allowing such elements to regroup in Syria.”
The second possibility posited by Qashqoush is that the corridor is simply an attempt to lure fleeing IS fighters into a trap.
Despite the balance of forces being heavily in favour of Iraqi/coalition forces a host of concerns will prevent too rapid an advance. Prime among them is the fate of civilians.
The UN High Commissioner of Refugees anticipates that a million, or about two-thirds, of Mosul’s inhabitants could attempt to flee the city.
There are also fears that IS might resort to using chemical weapons.
“What happened to Iraq’s chemical arsenal is not known,” says Qashqoush. “There are members of the former Iraqi army that have entered the IS command structure.
They have the know-how to use these weapons. There have been a number of reports indicating that IS managed to get control of some of these weapons.”
Will an Iraqi victory in Mosul really mean the end of the organisation in Iraq?
Egyptian security and strategic expert Khaled Okasha argues that defeat for IS in Mosul will not automatically end its presence in Iraqi territory.
He points to Egypt’s own experience in Sinai where the army succeeded in delivering a critical blow to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in its stronghold in the Arish-Rafah-Sheikh Zuweid triangle, eliminating the leader of the Sinai Province group and a large number of key commanders in the IS affiliate.
Yet the group was still able to launch an attack last week in Beir Al-Abd. The elimination of the organisation’s command and a successful siege do not, says Okash, mean that the organisation itself disappears.
Al-Shamri, who accepts such reservations, insists the battle will be a definitive turning point. What it will not do is eradicate the radical ideas that produce the seemingly never-ending chain of terrorist organisations in Iraq, Syria and Sinai.
Nor can anyone predict the consequences that will follow when IS fighters are dispelled to other extremist breeding grounds such as Libya and sub-Saharan Africa.
In short, we can only speak of “defeating as opposed to eliminating” IS and its affiliates, whether in Iraq, Syria or Egypt, says Al-Shamri.
After the operation to liberate Mosul was launched President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi spoke with Iraqi Prime Minster Haider Al-Abadi to convey several messages, foremost among them the need to protect civilian lives and safeguard Iraq’s territorial unity and cohesion.
“We share the same enemy,” says Al-Shamri. “Egypt and Iraq have been growing closer. Cairo has supported Iraq from the outset of its confrontation against IS. It has offered arms. There is security cooperation."
"I would also argue there is a need for a political-security-military coalition to confront the challenges because we are on the same side in this battle. It is time for the Arabs to set aside some of their differences when it comes to dealing with Iraq. I also believe it possible to broaden the coalition by bringing on board Russia, for example. Certainly there needs to be coordination with Moscow when it comes to pursuing the organisation in Syria,” he said.
In this context, of course, comes the issue of Egypt coordinating with the Syrian regime.
The head of Syrian intelligence was in Cairo this week for talks with his Egyptian counterpart, the first publicised meeting of its kind.
Okasha believes the purpose of the talks was to coordinate security positions in preparation for the scattering of IS members.
“The dissemination of fragments of the organisation across the region is a natural outcome of any definitive blow to IS,” says Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements.
“Experience shows IS fighters who manage to escape after the collapse of their organisation will head to neighbouring countries and attempt to blend in with the local population as they go underground. Many will be arrested. Some countries will want to deport those elements, others will want them to stand trial in Iraq and Syria.”
Though military coordination between Baghdad and the Kurdish Peshmerga has been successful there remains the spectre for regional clashes erupting, a possibility that is exemplified by the Turkish military presence at the Bashiqa camp and Ankara’s insistence on taking part in the battle in the face of Iraqi objections.
“Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using an old Ottoman agreement as his pretext for intervening in Iraq, and in Mosul in particular,” says Turgut Oglu, Middle East director of Zaman newspaper in Turkey.
“The Turkish government, headed by Benali Yildirim, supports this argument, as does the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, there is a political dimension behind it all, and it has to do with Erdogan’s regional position, especially with respect to Iran, the most powerful player in Iraq due to the Shia Popular Mobilisation units which have played a leading role in the destruction and demographic changes in northern Iraq," Oglu said.
"This, according to Erdogan, compels Turkey to act. But the policy he is following is extremely dangerous, not least because there is also an agreement between Erdogan and IS in Iraq and Syria. In short, he is using IS to confront Iran. He is also adopting rhetoric about the need to protect Sunnis in Iraq, a dangerous ploy because it will ultimately reproduce the conflict in the form of another sectarian war,” he added.
“Erdogan is using all these strategies and tactics to escape from domestic crises inside Turkey. He is doing so even though it means deceiving the Iraqis in order to support extremism in Iraq and create the conditions for a future sectarian war. Most worrying are predictions that the battle for Mosul could drag on, increasing the prospects for such a scenario."
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.