The battle for Mosul has begun.
This is big. Mosul is big. This offensive will be really, really big. Mosul is the most populous city under ISIS control. It's their capital in Iraq.
Mosul is where ISIS declared their "caliphate," an empire stretching across large parts of Syria and Iraq. It’s a hub for the persecution of minorities — including the Yazidi women, trafficked on ISIS's sex slave markets, and the historic Christian community, whose homes were famously marked with the Arabic letter N for "Nazarene."
With anti-ISIS forces massing on all sides and the battle for Mosul underway, here are five things you need to know.
1. This is the most complex operation against ISIS yet.
It's not clear how difficult it will be to fully oust ISIS from Mosul, but it will take much longer than previous offensives in Iraq — in part, because troops haven't reached the city itself yet. The battle is currently being fought miles from Mosul city limits.
When the Iraqi government announced the operation to liberate Fallujah earlier this year, they were already near the gates of the city. This time, however, they're starting their final offensive from 20-30 miles outside Mosul.
This offensive is also far more complex. There were certainly complicating factors in Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi. But none of those cities hold a candle to Mosul — a much larger, much more densely populated, much more built-up area. Mosul is surrounded and claimed by dozens of different militias and ethnic groups. If Arab Shia, Arab Sunni, and Kurdish fighters prove unable to collaborate and coordinate attacks, the offensive will likely take much longer.
And if there's one thing ISIS tacticians have proven very skilled at, it's taking advantage of discord among their enemies.
2. Most aid groups are preparing to help north of Mosul, but the largest number of refugees will flee south.
This is incredibly important. The Kurdistan region has said it won't receive more displaced families, and it has tight enough control over its borders to enforce this policy. Some families will make it close to Kurdistan, some may even make it into the region, but most people will have to flee south toward Kirkuk and Tikrit.
The real problem? Very few aid organizations are working along the southern corridor, which means thousands of families are running toward very little help, without any way of knowing it.
But these more dangerous, hard-to-reach areas are exactly where the Preemptive Love Coalition has been working for weeks. All along the Mosul corridor — as anti-ISIS forces advance, and as families flee — we are there, setting up tents, delivering truckloads of food, providing medical supplies, seeing families reunited after years apart, and making sure people have what they need the second they make it through the fighting.
3. Before ISIS, Mosul was home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. After ISIS ... who knows if they'll come back?
When the city fell to ISIS in the summer of 2014, homes belonging to Assyrian Christians were marked with the Arabic letter N for "Nazarene." Families were given several options: pay a protection tax, convert to Islam, leave the city, or die.
Christians fled Mosul en masse as their homes and bank accounts were pilfered by ISIS. Women were jeered as they escaped through checkpoints, their jewelry yanked from their fingers, necks, and ears.
On the night Christian homes were first marked, our founder and CEO, Jeremy Courtney, grabbed a marker and wrote the letter "N" on his hand, declaring #WeAreN in solidarity with persecuted Iraqi Christians. The action was picked up by news outlets and advocacy groups around the world and ultimately went viral, helping draw global attention to the suffering of Christians in Mosul.
Now, as Iraqi forces surround ISIS's shrinking empire for what is billed as the final offensive to recapture Mosul, many are wondering: What will come next for Christians? Will they return to their ancient homeland? Will they stay in safer parts of Iraq? Will they seek asylum in Europe or North America?
Only time will tell.
4. Civilians are at extreme risk.
When ISIS first captured Mosul, many in the city welcomed them as liberators—they were rid of their oppressors at last. The mostly Sunni population had grown increasingly discontent in the years following the U.S. military withdrawal. They were marginalized and mistreated by the Shia-dominated Iraqi army. Today, very few civilians in Mosul view ISIS as a liberator. They long to be saved from these newer, more brutal oppressors.
But the coming days will be very dangerous for civilians in and around Mosul. ISIS knows how to coerce and contain populations, how to use people as shields.
"The conditions families will be facing are terrifying. They will be at risk from crossfire, bombardments, and could be used as human shields. They may be unable to flee or, alternatively forced to run. Families may be separated. Many may be killed or wounded."
That’s a quote from a front-line strategist helping aid organizations like ours prepare for the liberation of Mosul.
The danger to civilians also depends on how anti-ISIS forces — the Iraqi military, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs, commonly called "Shia militias") — conduct themselves. For example, some of the damage in Fallujah was inflicted after ISIS was defeated. During the liberation of Tikrit, there were allegations of Shia-on-Sunni revenge killings, looting, and destruction of Sunni property. There are fears the same could happen in Mosul.
On the other hand, the fact that so many different militias are involved in this campaign could mean a greater amount of oversight. For example, if an Iranian-backed militia commits war crimes in Mosul as they reportedly did in Fallujah and Tikrit, there is a chance another militia group will see and report it.
Either way ... this is going to be a mess.
But civilians also have unique kind of power in this operation. Major General Najim al Jibouri, a high-ranking commander in the Mosul campaign, has said recapturing the city of Mosul will be nearly impossible without cooperation from local civilians.
If people choose to resist ISIS by leaking intel on militant positions, through other means, or just by fleeing so they can’t be used as human shields, then ISIS doesn’t stand a chance.
Resistance to ISIS has been growing in the buildup to this battle. But any form of defiance puts everyday people there, people like you and me, at great risk.
5. A military victory won’t solve the problems that led to ISIS.
The real work begins after ISIS has been defeated or pushed back into Syria. If Iraqis and humanitarian organizations like ours can't find a way to help these communities rebuild and flourish, they will remain vulnerable to extremists.
There are reasons people joined ISIS. This wasn't just haphazard religious fanaticism or a random uprising. People in cities like Fallujah, Hawija, and Mosul were consistently sidelined and discriminated against. Many in Syria were starving and voiceless, even oppressed. If the authorities in Iraq and Syria can't find a way to welcome civilians in these liberated cities back into the fold — and then invest real dollars and time and compassion into rebuilding their cities — you could be reading another post just like this one in a few years.
This post originally appeared at Preemptive Love Coalition.