Q&A: The Battle for Mosul

Jake Shapiro

Jacob N. Shapiro

Jacob N. Shapiro

Photo by Sameer Khan/Fotobuddy

Iraqi forces and their allies are battling to reclaim Mosul, which has been the de facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since its capture in mid-2014. ISIS militants are responding to the offensive with heavy gunfire, car bombs and booby-trapped roads, among other tactics. Thousands have fled the city, which once had a population of 2.5 million. Experts say a successful takeover could take up to two months.

What should we expect between now and then? And how powerful are the ISIS militants? Jacob N. Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, answers these questions and more below.

Shapiro, who co-directs the Empirical Study of Conflict Project, studies political violence, economic and political development in conflict zones, security policy and urban conflict.

Question. Who is involved in the battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS? What role is the United States playing?  

Answer. Several organizations are involved, including the Iraqi Army, Iraqi police, Kurdish Peshmerga, some of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) — which are Shia militia that the Iraqi government says will not advance into Mosul — and some Sunni tribal militias. It is hard from outside reporting to know the relative importance of these different fighting organizations and who will advance where. What is clear is that the United States’ role involves some coordination and intelligence provision. U.S. forces are also undertaking intelligence-driven strikes on ISIS targets.

Q. Some say retaking of the city will take up to two months. What can we expect between now and then?

A. This seems a reasonable estimate. I would expect a large number of civilians to flee once airstrikes and persistent surveillance damage the ability of ISIS to keep them from doing so. After that I would expect a period of brutal house-to-house fighting, which will destroy much of the city. There is a small chance of a popular uprising against ISIS forces, which would end the battle much sooner, but I expect most civilians will flee before ISIS forces in the city take so much damage that they are unable to prevent an uprising. 

Q. How would you describe the overall strategy of the 4,500 Islamic State fighters? And how long can they keep going?

A. I suspect the strategy is to fight for as long as they can from extensively prepared fighting positions, tunnels, booby-trapped houses and the like — similar tactics to what Al-Qaeda employed in Iraq during some battles and to what the group employed in Fallujah in 2004 and Ramadi in 2006. I have no way to judge how long they can keep going, but surely weeks and possibly months.

Q. What is the danger of recapturing Mosul? Is retaliation expected? If so, where and in what forms?

A. I do not see significant additional danger from recapturing Mosul. It should be expected that ISIS will try to conduct more attacks overseas as its ability to operate inside Iraq and Syria drops. Whether they are successful will depend on how vigilant the security services in Europe and potentially the United States are and on how much the populations within which operatives try to hide alert the authorities. Tragically, I suspect one or two large-scale shooting attacks of the kind we saw in Paris and Brussels to get through, but not many more than that.