War is waged in fits and starts. Combat veterans will often explain this as moments of terror surrounded by days of boredom. Constant engagement with an adversary wears down both the aggressor and defender—at a pace that cannot be maintained—unless you lived through Leningrad, Stalingrad…and now Mosul.
Iraqi security forces abetted by American military personnel and a fleet of drones have been picking at Mosul since October 2016—it is now February 2017. Five long months that threaten to stretch into Iraq’s coming blast-furnace summer. A duration equivalent to Stalingrad—23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943—but a mere trifle in comparison to the 872 days suffered by residents of Leningrad.
Alas, I suspect the citizens of western Mosul have more of Leningrad than Stalingrad in their future.
Baghdad’s desperate bid to collect intelligence on their Islamic State adversary appears little more than a poor imitation of Washington’s efforts to outwit the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Thwarted by double agents, money-hungry opportunists and a wily enemy, the best Iraqi officials can do is offer a rough estimate of the opposite side’s size –18,000 as of last week—and point at maps purportedly revealing suspected fighting positions. Worthless data in a fluid urban combat zone, but one Washington applauds as signs Baghdad is at least trying to appear capable of fielding a competent military. [i]
All for naught. Al-Baghdadi—the Islamic State’s Caliph—is not likely to surrender his grasp on Mosul without inflicting more pain than simple intelligence gathering can comprehend. For al-Baghdadi, and his jihadi loyalists, Mosul matters.
And to no small degree.
A man of few words—unlike our own President—al-Baghdadi reserves his vocal discourse for grave matters. So we should have paid attention back in November 2016 when he publicly urged his jihadi warriors to: “Know that the value of staying on your land with honor is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame. This war is yours. Turn the dark of night of the infidels onto day, destroy their homes and make rivers of their blood.”[i]
A none-too-subtle suggestion Mosul could become the next Masada. The past is not past, it only awaits an opportunity to repeat itself.
Thus crossing the Tigris River becomes an ambitious act for would-be Iraqi martyrs and foolhardy young men dreaming of glory. Unlike Masada, the defenders of western Mosul have not hunkered down to die, they plan to fight in the name of Allah and for their caliphate. Without land al-Baghdadi is no caliph, and without a caliph the Islamic State risks slipping back into a thousand-year long shame of failing to realize Mohammed’s ambition and vision—Islam as the world’s predominate religion.
Yes, Mosul matters. More for the Caliph and his Sunni jihadi than Baghdad and the Shia militia buttressing Iraq’s dubious armed forces. Perhaps the dead of Leningrad could offer perspective in such a situation—the residents of western Mosul will likely be compelled to relearn that 75 year-old lesson.
One only hopes the rest of the Middle East, Levant and Europe are also watching and learning. Life imitates Osiris.