Once again, Iraq is engaged in a fight with the Islamic State over the control of a major city, and once again the question has to be raised: How can ISIS hold on to major cities with so few fighters?
This time, it’s a fight for Mosul, an exceedingly important city to the Islamic State. Previously, the Iraqi military, with varying degrees of effectiveness, has recaptured Ramadi and Fallujah.
An analysis of the Mosul situation released Monday by an American expert on Middle Eastern security, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, raises the point that “There is no way to know how hard the fight will be or how determined ISIS is to hold the city. Estimates of its force size are surprisingly low, and rarely exceed 4,500 actual fighters.”
Figuring out exactly how many fighters the Islamic State can throw at any city or effort has long been as much a work of art as a matter of science. There have been reports that the group has conquered cities with as few as a couple of hundred fighters. All told, officials think ISIS may have as many as 35,000 fighters, though some estimates are as low as 17,000 and others are as high as 200,000.
Regardless of the numbers, Cordesman writes that ISIS “has had months to prepare, and has shown all too clearly how willing it is to sacrifice its fighters in suicide attacks and battle of attrition when it chooses to do so. It is also all too willing to use civilians as shields and tools of war. It also has to consider how easily it can hold its positions in Syria, and retain the loyalty of its fighters if it does not turn Mosul into as long a battle as possible.”
Beyond the battle, Cordesman points out that “ ‘winning’ in Mosul is likely to be highly relative and presents major challenges in terms of Iraqi unity. All the various elements of Iraqi forces have different goals and objectives.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews