By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif*
Despite stiff resistance Iraqi forces appear to be inching closer to the outskirts of besieged Mosul, two weeks after a major offensive to liberate the city from Daesh had begun. But fiercer battles are expected as the offensive moves into second phase and into the heart of the second largest city in Iraq. No one really knows what kind of a fight the stranded militants, numbering between 4,000 and 8,000, will put in this major battle whose outcome will decide the fate of the terrorist organization in Iraq and beyond.
So far they have launched suicide attacks, set oil fields on fire and waged surprise attacks in Kirkuk and Rutba. Militarily, they are outnumbered and have no defense to intensive airstrikes carried out by the US-led coalition. On the ground, Iraqi forces, backed by the Kurdish Peshmerga, appear to be coordinating well and are now moving in from the east in a sustained effort to penetrate Daesh defenses.
Daesh is carrying out atrocities against civilians in the city and neighboring villages as they attempt to flee. They have executed hundreds and appear to be ready to destroy Mosul, as they did in Ramadi and Fallujah, before giving it up.
There is no doubt that the human toll will be hefty. Mosul, a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, will suffer massively before final victory is declared.
The length and sustainability of the battle will depend on other factors as well. Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi will have to walk a tightrope as he tries to appease the Americans while not distancing himself from Iran and his Shiite allies. The US has warned him not to involve the notorious Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the military operations in Mosul. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city and the PMF’s record in persecuting Sunni Arabs is dismal. PMF’s participation will surely anger local tribes who are seen as instrumental in the fight to liberate their city from Daesh.
Furthermore, the presence of Turkish troops in nearby Bashiqa base has strained relations between Ankara and Baghdad and has triggered statements from Tehran that Iran will seek to place its own troops in the beleaguered Nineveh province. On the other hand Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that the Shiite-led PMF’s advance on the border town of Tel Afar, with its mainly Turkmen residents, will not be tolerated.
For President Barack Obama liberating Mosul is a major goal in his strategy to defeat Daesh before the end of his presidency. Keeping the coalition together in the fight against the terrorist group is hard enough and will affect the course of the battle and its aftermath.
But if keeping various parties in play in Mosul is hard enough imagine how difficult it will be when the US turns its attention to Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, in eastern Syria. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter promised that the battle for Raqqa can go in parallel with the war on Mosul and may even start in few weeks. But the challenge in Syria differs in scope and nature.
In Iraq, the US can depend on the Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga and local tribes in addition to some Shiite groups that are not necessarily loyal to Iran and its agenda in Iraq. But in Syria the picture is different.
A loose Arab-Kurdish coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG, is the only reliable fighting force that the US can depend on. In Syria the US lacks the support of the regime and its main ally, Russia, whose military goals are strikingly different. Damascus and Moscow are now completely focused on securing what is left of Aleppo and have resisted international pressure to put a stop to the blood bath there.
Furthermore, Turkey, which has secured large territory along its border with Syria, has warned the US against involving Syrian Kurds in the battle for Raqqa. Instead, Erdogan has vowed to march, along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) units that are backed by Ankara, towards Al Bab, Manbij and eventually Raqqa. Damascus, on the other hand, sees Turkey’s incursion as an aggression and has warned that it will shoot down Turkish jets providing air cover to the FSA. This has put Washington in a bind: Without reliable local forces on the ground conquering Raqqa will prove messy and difficult. Erdogan is forcing it to choose its allies and that will prove difficult for Washington.
From a military point of view liberating Raqqa is a much easier goal than Mosul. But logistics and politics will make it tougher for President Obama to chart a clear course to move forward. But the temptation of dealing a fatal blow to Daesh in the waning days of his presidency will prove too tempting to let go.
*Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.