In an interview with Muslim Press, Brian Downing said "The Obama administration wants a clear sign of progress in the ISIS war for its legacy and for the Democratic Party in the ongoing election."
Read the full text of the interview:
Muslim Press: What’s the significance of the operation to liberate Mosul?
Brian Downing: Liberating Mosul will deliver a serious blow to ISIS’s claim of being a state, not merely an underground movement, as many such al Qaeda and related groups are. Nor will ISIS be able to claim popular support. Some Sunnis supported it two years ago when Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq fell, but after years of harsh rule, that support has dwindled to very little.
Unfortunately, defeat at Mosul – and eventually at Raqqa – will not gravely weaken ISIS’s appeal. The defeats can be interpreted as corrupt rulers, with no popular support, needing the US to fight their battles and keep them in power. Sunni extremism will continue to recruit from the large youth population.
MP: What’s your prediction about the future of this fight?
Brian Downing: Mosul will be liberated but the cost will be high. ISIS has disciplined experienced fighters but it's badly outnumbered and has no defense against allied airpower. The evidence from the battles for Ramadi and Fallujah earlier this year indicates that the fighting spirit of ISIS troops is still quite high. We don’t know the numbers ISIS troops inside Mosul nor do we know their fighting spirit at this point, but there are probably several thousand, and the ongoing fighting outside Mosul shows they are still willing to fight to the death.
ISIS has had a long time to build fortifications, plant mines and IEDs, and dig tunnels. ISIS will use the million or more civilians to gain advantage, not only as human shields. ISIS may threaten to slaughter huge numbers unless attacking forces back away. Alternately, ISIS fighters might slaughter as many as they can, some with poison gas. We’ve already seen massacres outside Mosul and elsewhere; the scale could be much larger in the city itself.
MP: How do you see the role that the Kurdish people play in the operation?
Brian Downing: Kurdish troops were instrumental in blunting the ISIS offensive back in 2014, and have run them out of Kurdistan and northern Iraq. They are presently attacking ISIS in areas north of Mosul but are not expected to enter the city. The Kurds will act as a blocking force, preventing ISIS fighters from escaping. Afterward, the Kurds will make their case for independence.
MP: If the Iraqi government retakes Mosul, does this mean ISIS would flee to Syria? How would this affect Syria?
Brian Downing: It will be difficult for large numbers of ISIS fighters to escape to Syria. There are too many troops positioned to prevent it, and drones and aircraft patrol the roads. ISIS might use human shields to get safe passage to Syria, probably Raqqa which is their main holding there. ISIS used this tactic last summer as it retreated from Manbij in northern Syria. The firepower of Kurdish militias and American aircraft was neutralized, and ISIS troops got away to fight another day.
One way or another, some ISIS fighters will make it to Raqqa. But forces are gathering to liberate that city, too. The US has a Kurdish-Arab force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey will take part, and the Syrian army with Russian airpower will drive from Palmyra in the south.
MP: What does Saudi Arabia want in the battle of Mosul?
Brian Downing: While the Saudis’ sectarian passions are high, I doubt they want to see ISIS win. ISIS is a growing threat to them. However, they would like to see the Iraqi army and Shia militias take serious casualties, thereby weakening the Iraqi government.
Beyond that, the Saudis want to see Sunnis establish an autonomous region, as the Kurds have. It’s surprising that the Saudis haven’t already delivered arms and money to the Sunnis. My suspicion is that the US has pressed the Saudis on this: the US will play a major role in fighting ISIS and in exchange the Saudis will not arm the Sunnis. What happens in future months and years is unclear, but I think the Sunni princes want a “Sunnistan” in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
MP: You have linked the Mosul operation to US election. What does the timing of the operation tell us?
Brian Downing: The Obama administration wants a clear sign of progress in the ISIS war for its legacy and for the Democratic Party in the ongoing election. Of course, the Abadi government in Baghdad wants the same thing for its prestige. I doubt the battle for Mosul will affect the US election as the outcome will probably not be clear in a week when votes are cast.
MP: How does the operation affect both major parties in America?
Brian Downing: The Trump campaign and other voices in the Republican Party have criticized the administration for not having a policy to fight ISIS. They have made vague promises of a more aggressive effort but no details are given, of course. The liberation of Mosul would help support the administration’s claim that it has a policy to fight ISIS and that it’s working. Somehow, the Republicans have been able to escape blame for the chaos in Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS, which is the successor to the Sunni insurgency against the US following the 2003 invasion.
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.