The future of Syria and Iraq will be shaped significantly by the outcome of the battle of Mosul that is now underway.
Three days into the assault on Mosul, Iraqi and Kurdish forces are steadily recovering outlying territory before the big push into the city itself, expected to be the biggest battle since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Units from Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service, which has done the heavy lifting in most recent operations against ISIL, were poised to flush its fighters out of the town of Hamdaniya, officers said on Wednesday.
“We are surrounding Hamdaniya now,” Lieutenant-General Riyadh Tawfiq, commander of Iraq’s ground forces, told AFP news agency. “There are some pockets [of resistance], some clashes. They send car bombs – but it will not help them.”
Explosives and booby traps laid down by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant slowed down the offensive. The Iraqi army said it destroyed five cars driven by ISIL suicide bombers during the advance.
The Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul began on the first day with the taking of nine villages, mostly by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
“The Iraqi army, not the Peshmerga, are trying to advance into [Hamdaniya]. They tried to storm the area yesterday, but were forced to retreat,” said Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Khazir near the frontline.
“If [the Iraqi forces] take over Hamdaniya, they will be at the gates of Mosul itself.”
An Iraqi officer from the 9th Division told the Associated Press news agency that his troops were now a kilometre away from Hamdaniya, a historically Christian town to the east of Mosul.
Before ISIL’s takeover in 2014, Hamdaniya’s population stood at 50,000. Although most civilians fled at the time, a few thousand people are believed to reside in the town.
In Mosul, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped with dwindling supplies on Wednesday, many sheltering in basements.
“We couldn’t sleep last night because of the air strikes. The explosions were huge but I’m not sure what the targets were,” said Abu Saif, a 47-year-old resident contacted by AFP news agency. “Many families are starting to run out of some basic food goods, there is no commercial activity in Mosul – the city is cut off from the world.”
The United Nations said it fears that up to a million people could be forced from their homes by fighting to retake Mosul.
The Popular Mobilization Force, a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained militias, said it would back Iraqi government forces advancing towards Tal Afar, about 55km west of Mosul.
Taking Tal Afar would effectively cut off the escape route for fighters wanting to head into neighbouring Syria, but it could also hamper the escape of civilians.
ISIL forces are believed to be vastly outnumbered with an estimated 30,000 Iraqi army troops, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Shia militias and Sunni tribal forces moving in.
Iraqi forces have significant ground to cover before reaching the boundaries of the city, which ISIL is defending with berms, bombs, and burning oil trenches.
While most of the coalition’s support has come in the shape of air strikes and training, American, British and French special forces are also on the ground to advise local troops.
Some reports suggested Iraqi forces may allow fleeing ISIL fighters an exit to the west in a bid to minimise human and material losses from fighting inside the city.
But Russia’s General Valery Gerasimov said Moscow was concerned about “possible attempts by fighters to break out of Mosul” and “freely leave the city in the direction of Syria”.
Gerasimov said it was “necessary not to drive terrorists from one country to the other – but to destroy them on the spot”.