For nine months the battle for Mosul, the once-great metropolis of Northern Iraq, has been raging, it seems that all sides believe the end is in sight. Perhaps.
Iraqi fighters tell reporters they can see desperation in the tactics of their enemies from the Islamic State… ISIL, or ISIS, we call it, Daesh, as they do. A few thousand fighters remain, holding perhaps a quarter of a million civilians hostage, almost all trapped in a tight circle of parts of West Mosul’s Old City and a Medical complex to its north.
Almost every day, Iraqi or American spokespeople announce a new neighborhood, a few square blocks, has been taken, and the IS circle gets smaller.
Still, a few details of particular stories darken the official optimism. The other day, a group of 25 to 50 ISIS fighters broke out of the circle and got behind Iraqi lines and set up a crossfire when militants from inside the circle made a frontal attack using 7 truck-bombs. They got help from a sleeper cell inside what is supposed to be Iraq-government-held territory, an Iraqi commander said. The sleepers got them vehicles and helped with the attack.
In the end, allied sources said, the two-pronged ISIS attack was defeated, and most of the Jihadi fighters were killed, but the Iraqis at the front line were happy to have held their position and weren’t liberating new neighborhoods that day.
In Syria, Daesh’s other capital city, Raqqa is reported to be almost surrounded by Kurdish-majority units of American-supported rebels. Parts of the city have been taken by ground troops, and, as in Mosul, allied air strikes have 2-4 thousand remaining fighters, cowering behind trapped civilians, human shields. The International Red Cross says the civilian death toll is appalling.
Meanwhile, the ISIS leadership has gotten out of both Mosul and Raqqa, most of them believed to be in a Syrian town near the Iraqi border called Mayadeen, where the air strikes are following them.
Among Daesh’s most damaging casualties, the whole top drawer of their propaganda/marketing/recruiting departments…4 name-brand propagandists killed in the last 6 weeks or so. ISIS videos and audio recording and messages on the internet are shabby compared to the slick enticements they used to produce only months ago. The soft war is going every bit as badly for the Islamists as the hot ones in Mosul and Raqqa.
9 months in, and the timeline for the Battle of Mosul has extended far longer than predicted. There’s little reason to believe the endgame will go any faster or less painfully.
Tony Cheng is a respected veteran of global television reporting. Based in Bangkok, Thailand, Tony has reported for the BBC and Al Jazeera English, as well as CCTN, the Chinese Government’s English-language news service for whom he has recently been covering the front lines of the battle for Mosul in Iraq.