The Iraqi city of Mosul fell on Tuesday to fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – a jihadist group once affiliated with Al Qaeda that was subsequently disavowed for among other things being too radical and brutal – with American-trained Iraqi security forces abandoning their posts and in some cases discarding their uniforms as they fled from the country’s second-largest city.
The strategic and tactical cascade effects of the jihadist victory are difficult to overstate. Hardline Islamist forums broadcast photos of ISIS personnel seizing storehouses and equipment and cruising through the Mosul. Journalists and analysts spent much of Tuesday simply trying to list the concrete windfalls that ISIS would reap.
The Washington Post listed the facilities that were now under ISIS control:
It appeared that the insurgents had gained control of the area on the west bank of the Tigris River, the city’s commercial and historic heart. Among the facilities captured were the provincial government headquarters, two prisons, two television stations, numerous police stations, the central bank and the airport, a major military base that used to serve as a hub for U.S. operations in northern Iraq.
A video posted anonymously on social-media sites showed emptied streets, the smoking hulks of destroyed military vehicles and at least one Iraqi police van that was apparently being driven by insurgents. Other photographs showed piles of uniforms that had been stripped off by soldiers and police officers as they fled.
Just the bank reportedly contained millions of dollars. Richard Berger, an Elliot School scholar who works at the Institute for the Study of War’s Iraq Project, emphasized “the massive amount of ammo, heavy weapons, and [command and control] equipment” acquired by the group.
The territorial and geopolitical consequences of the city’s capture are likely to be even more significant. Aaron Stein – an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies – more broadly remarked that “if the reports are true, ISIS could end up with de facto control over territory stretching from Mosul to Tikrit to Ar Raqqah in Syria.”
CBS News described Mosul as a “strategic prize” that would serve as “a gateway to Syria.” Retired veteran Naval Intelligence officer Jennifer Dyer also focused on the geographical context for ISIS’s moves:
If ISIS has any hope of establishing itself on territory, it has to control some water. In arid Iraq, water and lines of strategic approach are the same thing.
They’re also the lifeblood of civilization. The farmers need water from the two great rivers, and so do the city-dwellers. ISIS doesn’t have to be in charge of doling out the water, at least not at first. The position its leaders aspire to – beyond holding what’s necessary to consolidate a territorial redoubt for themselves – is being able to threaten the water supply. They are very close now to achieving that goal.
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