US operations in Mosul take a dangerous turn

Salman Rafi Sheikh February 16, 2017 6:46 PM (UTC+8)
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If nothing else, the US-led operation Fatah (victory) in the Iraqi city of Mosul has turned into everything but victory. On the other hand, “liberation” of the city is producing new conflict by reviving old ethnic and sectarian strife — a strife which, in turn, has a lot more to do with the economics of the city than mere ethnic and sectarian identities.

What had earlier been conceived by the Obama administration as a quick walk over the city has now turned into what a coalition spokesperson, Col. John Dorrian, has called an “extraordinarily dangerous” operation.

The remark has come at a time a when the presence of US Special Operations Forces in the city has been publicly acknowledged and their strength increased from 230 to 450.

Dorrian described the fight for Iraq’s second-largest city as “slow going,” saying further that it’s “going to take some time.” According to the commander of US-led anti-ISIS international coalition forces, General Stephen Townsend, Mosul would be recaptured from terrorists in the next six months, although he was earlier convinced that the target would be achieved by February 2017.

Liberation of the entire city is going to take time despite the other contradictory claim that the US-led coalition forces have killed almost 60,000 IS fighters in the past two years. 30,000 of these fighters have been killed during the on-going operation Fatah.

According to Raymond Thomas, the rise signifies the campaign’s (positive) progress in degrading the terrorist group. “I’m not into morbid body counts, but that matters,” Thomas was reported to have said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference in Maryland.

Yet, a clear victory is far from visible, making Mosul yet another instance, after Syria, where the coalition forces have been unable to achieve the stated objectives.

According to last reports, fighting in many parts of the city has completely ceased due primarily to the fact that the better part of the terrorist forces have moved to the western part of the city, spread into Iraq’s other cities such as Baghdad or simply “vanished” amid the civilian population, which in turn has become the biggest victim of the operation.

Thus, according to the statements of the UN coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, up to 47% of all the wounded men in Mosul were civilians, while on average this number rarely exceeds 15-20% in armed conflicts. In the last week of December, a total of 817 men were injured, while in early January, this number grew by another 683 people.

It must be noted that the way Washington has been waging the war on ISIS, with the use of “natives” as a main assault force, has already undermined its position in the region.

Largely seen in terms of the US inability or unwillingness to go deep enough in the operation, the unexpected prolongation of the operation has raised questions about the kind of objectives the US is pursuing in Iraq. Is the delay a part of the bigger plan of the US to stay militarily involved in the region?

While an answer to this question depends upon how the operation progresses in the future, what is becoming visible on the horizon is the other kind of conflict, i.e., sectarian strife brewing in the city among different militia units currently fighting the IS.

Were this fight to spread, Iraq will once again be facing the kind of situation it had to face after the withdrawal of US forces in 2008-09 – a situation that turned out to be the primary context against which ISIS emerged in the first place.

The roots lie in the hotch-potch of groups (Iraqi forces, Peshmerga, Sunni forces loyal to the government, Shia militias, units of Turkmens, Yazidi and Christians that operate as a part of the Popular Mobilization Units) the US has assembled and the tactical way they have been deployed, in a tightly compartmentalized fashion, in different parts of the city.

As such, while the Iran-backed Peshmerga fighters, who have previously been accused of atrocities against Sunni villagers, have been kept outside of Mosul in a bid to avoid ethnic violence, the KRG is determined to use their involvement in the offensive to strengthen its position with the central government in Baghdad.

Indeed, this was the message contained in an interview given at the beginning of the operation by KRG Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir. “We have a stake in Mosul,” he stated when asked about the role of the KRG after its recapture. “Mosul is important and has a direct impact on Irbil and Dohuk, and the KRG as a whole, in terms of security, economy, and social impact. Therefore, we need to be there.”

Economically, Mosul is a sufficiently large center of oil production and was one of the biggest sources of income for ISIS. Besides it, Mosul is also a transportation hub. Three major highways pass through Mosul: the Baghdad (№1) – Mosul – Syrian border – Aleppo (M4), the Baghdad (№2) – Mosul – Turkish border, and the Mosul – Kirkuk (№80). The branch of the so-called Baghdad railway also passes through the city. The city is located on the largest river in the Middle East, the Tigris River. The largest hydroelectric power station in Iraq is situated on this river (60 km from the city).

Therefore, control over resources of the city means the ability to exercise political influence on Baghdad and beyond. Therefore, the question of who will replace ISIS in the city has already started to surface and is, as one Iraqi journalist described it, likely to transform into yet another conflict with roots going well beyond Baghdad.

Hence, the question: can the US-led forces avoid this conflict or will this conflict become yet another excuse for them to prolong their stay in the city and the region?

That is to say, while ISIS might ultimately be eliminated, peace in the city may not immediately return if the question of accommodation of economic interests of diverse fighting militias is not given as much importance as the question of dismantling and destroying ISIS. Without it, Iraq may very well once again slip into the muddy-marsh of internal conflict, creating the context for another ISIS.

Salman Rafi Sheikh
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com
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