November 02, 2016 09:51 PM EDT

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WATCH Could a victory in Mosul actually end in more sectarian violence? 

As Iraq forces moved to the outskirts of Mosul on Wednesday for the first time since the offensive began, Donald Trump’s top national security advisor warned that the fight to push ISIS out of Iraq’s second largest city could result in more sectarian violence.

With support of the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces have been trying to liberate Mosul –a mix of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Shiites, Christians and other ethnic groups– with help of Shiite forces allied to Iraqi security forces and Sunni forces.

The fight continues

Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who also served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Circa that deep seated sectarian divides and outside state actors, like Iran and Turkey, are exacerbating an already dangerous situation and “nobody should expect the situation in Mosul to get any better any time soon.”

Months not weeks

Flynn believes it would take several months just to clear Islamic State fighters out of the neighborhoods.

He stated that there is no clear strategy for the post Mosul fight against ISIS, adding that outside players, like Turkey and Iran, will stake out their own territory in the city, attempting to seize power in a region already immersed in deep sectarian divides.

Mosul could be broken into “three or four compartments”

In addition to efforts by the Iraq government, the partition could include Kurds, the Iranian-backed Shiite, possibly Sunni tribes and even the Turks or Turkish-backed militia forces.

“So you could actually see Mosul be separated into three or four different compartments and if that happens, which is very possible, then the fighting could turn into a much more difficult civil war like with different factions fighting each other, ” he added.

Iraqi forces pushed into eastern part of Mosul

On Wednesday, some residents that remained in the city were reportedly on the streets, waving and flashing two-fingered victory signs. Others held white flags as Iraqi special forces moved into neighborhoods, according to reports.  But concern that ISIS sympathizers are among them and fear that Iranian Shiite militias will attack and harass the mainly Sunni population plague any hope that peace will be long-lasting.

No element of surprise?

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq and Syria, speaking with CNN on Wednesday, deflected criticism that he was not more secretive about the Mosul strategy.

“Any commander would prefer to keep plans completely in secret always, to have a maximum opportunity to surprise the enemy. It’s just really hard to move 40,000 troops into position from, you know, from middle Iraq to northern Iraq, and maintain complete secrecy. It’s almost next to impossible.”


A man kisses an Iraqi special forces soldier after his house was searched, in Gogjali, an eastern district of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. Iraqi special forces paused their advance in the eastern district of Mosul on Wednesday to clear a neighborhood of any remaining Islamic State militants, killing at least eight while carrying out house-to-house searches. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

Not “bogged down”

But Townsend defended the overall strategy, saying,  “I don’t see any evidence that it’s bogged down at all.”

The problem in Iraq is deep seeded and cannot be resolved along by military action, said Flynn.

You can follow Sara Carter on Twitter @SaraCarterDC

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