The fight to push ISIS out of the biggest urban area it holds took a big step forward today, into Mosul itself. Iraqi special forces entered the city limits, the first time in two years that the government in Baghdad has had a presence there. NBC News captured the moment, even if Iraq is still weeks away from capturing the rest of the city:
Iraq’s special forces entered the outskirts of Mosul on Tuesday and were advancing toward its more urban center despite fierce resistance by ISIS fighters who hold the city, an Iraqi general said.
Troops have entered Gogjali, a neighborhood inside Mosul’s city limits, and were only 800 yards from the more central Karama district, according to Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi of the Iraqi special forces. …
It was the first time Iraqi troops have set foot in Mosul in over two years, after they were driven out by a much smaller group of ISIS extremists in 2014. Mosul is the final ISIS bastion in Iraq, the city from which it declared a “caliphate” stretching into Syria, and its loss would be a major defeat for the jihadis.
Yet entering Mosul could be the start of a grueling and slow operation for the troops, as they will be forced to engage in difficult, house-to-house fighting in urban areas. The operation is expected to take weeks, if not months. The special forces troops remain some 5 miles from the center of the city, Iraq’s second-largest.
True, but they remain ambitious. One of the first tasks accomplished by the special forces was to capture a local television station, previously used by Iraqi state-run broadcasting:
Iraqi special forces say they have taken the state television building in an eastern district of the city of Mosul, as they battle their way further into territory held by the so-called Islamic State group.
Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi says heavy fighting broke out near the media station, the only state TV building in the province, as his troops tried to push into the city’s more urban areas.
Capturing the TV station is a major step forward, especially in an urban-combat theater. For one thing, it denies the enemy its use for coordinating a defense against the assault, which is important enough. The main importance, though, is morale and propaganda. Residents in the city may not have realized how close the Iraqi army was to entering Mosul, but having a live broadcast from the station will make it very clear that ISIS has lost ground within the city limits. The Iraqi government can also use the station to broadcast instructions to resistance fighters waiting for their moment to throw off ISIS’ tyrannical rule, as well as other propaganda and instructions to citizens trapped within the city limits.
For ISIS fighters, having lost that ground will damage an already weakening morale. Their entire theological justification for the “caliphate” is that God granted them that territory; losing it — and having the loss rubbed in their faces with TV broadcasts, when they start — will have at least a few wondering whether they’d miscalculated all along.
The same issue faces ISIS in a much more profound way in the liberation of Dabiq, as Helle Dale explained last week at The Daily Signal:
Military advances against Islamic State-, or ISIS, held territory in Iraq and Syria have produced a welcome byproduct: a marked decline by 70-80 percent in the output of social media propaganda by the terror group.
ISIS fighters were recently chased out of the Syrian village of Dabiq by Syrian rebel forces without offering much resistance (despite Dabiq’s apocalyptic symbolic significance in ISIS lore), and the battle of Mosul has begun as Kurdish, Iraqi, and U.S. forces tighten the noose around ISIS’ largest stronghold.
A new report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, “Communication Breakdown: Unraveling the Islamic State’s Media Efforts,” describes in detail the impact of military action on ISIS’ capacity to wage ideological warfare. Promising the coming of the caliphate and portraying the Islamic State as utopian reality about to happen has become all but impossible.
Not only that, but continued bombardment has destroyed much physical infrastructure, film studios, computers, and buildings housing the ISIS internet operation. The death of chief propagandists has equally affected ISIS efforts to draw recruits.
In the ISIS apocalyptic vision, Mosul is more of a sideshow; Dabiq was the true promised land. That is the location of their version of Armageddon, where the forces of the world would unite and get destroyed by ISIS. There is no provision for losing this city once a caliphate claims it — which means that the so-called caliphate that lost it is illegitimate. It’s so bad, in fact, that ISIS has only excused it by claiming (correctly) that it lost the city to other Muslims.
Now it’s getting pushed out of Mosul, and out of excuses for its military failures, too. They are hemorrhaging fighters, and without their propaganda machine in full play, have very bleak prospects for recruiting replacements. If the Iraqis can keep up the pressure and push ISIS back into the Syrian desert — still a big if — ISIS has very few reasons for optimism in the months ahead, especially with their resources centered almost entirely on Raqqa and everyone else taking aim at them there.
What happens in Mosul, though? Its Assyrian Christian minority might never return, the Washington Post reported on Sunday evening from Irbil:
At the evening service, the priest counseled forgiveness to a congregation with little reason to forgive. They were Christians from Mosul, brutalized by the Islamic State and betrayed, in some cases, by neighbors, and nothing — not the priest’s pleas, not his invocation of Cain and Abel — seemed likely to heal those scars.
Khalid Ramzi, a congregant, seemed to choke on the sermon. “We can’t fall into the same hole twice. We don’t want our children to be raised in violence and fear,” he said, standing outside the church in Irbil. “Only in our dreams can we go back to Mosul.” …
In 2014, France said it would grant asylum to Christians forced to flee Mosul. Some community leaders criticized the move, saying it would devastate what remains of Iraq’s Christians.
But even the community’s leaders concede it will be difficult to go back to Mosul.
To return to the city would be to “remember all the pain, all the threats, all the killing, all the letters with bullets inside. We’ll remember the looks on the street,” said another priest at the Irbil church, the Rev. Zakareya Ewas, as families milled about after the service.
Many still do wish to return, but under reformed conditions that allow for religious and political identity within a federal system in Iraq. The key to the success of that plan, if it’s adopted at all, will be how many will risk another attempt to maintain a presence that has lasted for two millennia in that region. If it fails, a light will have truly been extinguished in Mosul and greater Nineveh.