Iraqi and Kurdish forces on Monday launched an offensive to take back the city of Mosul from Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, as human rights groups warned of the campaign's potentially catastrophic impact.
"The hour has come and the moment of great victory is near," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an early-morning speech, followed by U.S. envoy Brett McGurk tweeting that the U.S.-led coalition was "proud" to support the "historic operation."
Smoke rose over the city as the U.S.-led coalition began conducting airstrikes shortly after the announcement. The United Nations has long estimated that the battle could displace at least 1 million people, worsening the country's humanitarian crisis, and the agency's high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi said from Baghdad on Monday that protection of civilians should be "the most important element of this operation."
But the offensive is rife with diplomatic issues. As the Guardian's Jason Burke explains, even if the offensive works to reclaim Mosul, which ISIS took in a 2014 blitz, its long-term impacts may widen sectarian rifts and fuel continued internal conflict—and could change the game in Syria as well. Burke writes:
Mosul is of profound significance to both Kurds and Arabs, and to Sunni and Shia Muslims. Its recapture may widen faultlines between these communities, rather than heal them. Iraq's Sunni minority have long felt alienated by the country's Shia-led government in Baghdad, and it is Shia-dominated government forces who will reoccupy the city.
The defeat of ISIS as a territorial power would dramatically rearrange the bloodstained three-dimensional chessboard of the Syrian civil war too. It could potentially benefit the regime of Bashar al Assad, or other rival Islamic militant groups there, such as the major al-Qaida-linked faction now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. This is a conflict where unforeseen consequences have long been the rule, not the exception.
And in the immediate term, civilians are facing an extreme humanitarian crisis, having reportedly been banned by ISIS from leaving the city and receiving little to no help from the government. Mosul is the militant group's de facto capital and has a population between 1.2 and 1.5 million people, at least half of which are minors, the charity Save the Children has estimated. The group warned Monday that without civilian protection measures, all of them are at risk.
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"Unless safe routes to escape the fighting are established, many families will have no choice but to stay and risk being killed by crossfire or bombardment, trapped beyond the reach of humanitarian aid with little food or medical care," Aram Shakaram, the group's deputy country director in Iraq, said. "Those that try to flee will be forced to navigate a city ringed with booby traps, snipers, and hidden landmines. Without immediate action to ensure people can flee safely, we are likely to see bloodshed of civilians on a massive scale."
The aid groups War Child and World Vision issued similar warnings.
"We're already supporting half a million people who fled Mosul when it was first occupied over two years ago. We're now poised for another massive influx of children and families who will have been through horrific experiences most of us could never imagine," said Khalil Sleiman, World Vision's response manager for northern Iraq. "They will arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back and will be thirsty, hungry, and need urgent medical attention."
Sameena Gul, War Child U.K.'s country director in Iraq, told the Guardian, "The boys and girls we support can face a range of problems, from long-term psychological trauma, sexual assault, recruitment to militias, and disruption to education....It is crucial the international community therefore provides the necessary support to ensure these children are protected from harm."
Those who are able to escape face the prospect of indefinite displacement, as Iraq's capacity to house and aid new refugees dwindles, said the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) Iraq director Aleksandar Milutinovic.
"It is estimated that as many as 200,000 people could flee from the city in these first weeks, though there are currently only 60,000 tents available in seven emergency camps. In total, up to 1 million people could flee their homes in search of safety during the military operation, with an estimated 700,000 requiring shelter, food, water, and other vital aid," Milutinovic said. "With emergency camps not ready for the large numbers likely to flee, the IRC anticipates that many people will find their way to abandoned buildings, schools, and mosques in the towns and villages around Mosul."