The battle to retake Iraq’s second largest city from the ISIS terrorists has entered its second week and may take several more weeks before the anti-ISIS coalition forces can claim decisive victory and gain control of the entire city and its surrounding enclaves. But, the fog of war has not veiled the multiple vested interests that reflect a deeply-divided coalition that is barely glued together over common enmity vis-à-vis ISIS (Daesh) and, in fact, is indicative of three simultaneous battles.
First, the anti-ISIS battle that has brought together the various units of Iraqi army, militias, Kurds, Iranian military advisers, US forces and, increasingly, Turkish involvement irrespective of the loud objections of the Iraqi government: This battle’s stated aim is to restore Baghdad’s authority over Mosul and thus achieve a significant progress in terms of the country’s ruptured sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Second, there is ‘battle within the battle’ involving the major stakeholders in the theater of conflict, vying with each other for zones of influence, including the Kurds, backed by the US, whose interests are hardly congruent with the interests of the central government in Baghdad. The US, for its part, is clearly seeking to emerge from the battle of Mosul with a bigger influence in Iraq (as well as neighboring Syria), which might explain the sudden appearance of US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Iraq last week, shoring up US’s direct military role in the battle of Mosul and, simultaneously, putting a seal of approval on Turkey’s unwanted (from Baghdad’s point of view) quest to have a growing hand in the battle.
The US’s objective is partly directed at Russia, seeking to counterbalance Russia’s dominance in Syria, which in turn has implicated Washington in a pro-Kurdish policy that clashes with Ankara’s national security interests; the latter dictate an anti-Kurdish policy aimed at forestalling Kurdish unity across the borders in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, which is why President Erdogan has opted for a ‘creeping encroachment’ inside both Syria and Iraq. The longevity of the Turkish encroachment depends entirely on the duration of the twin wars in Syria and Iraq and, therefore, it is hardly surprising that Ankara is less a force of stability and more instability in both neighboring countries.
On the other hand, there is too little emphasis placed in analyses of Turkish foreign policy on Turkey’s NATO status and its traditional role in furthering US’s and NATO’s objectives in the region. In other words, we should not place too much faith in the argument that US and NATO are overtly concerned about Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia, given the robust NATO position of Turkey and its willingness to play its external cards as a subordinate US-backed actor.
However, this does not mean that as allies US and Turkey are on the same page about everything and certainly the other ‘battle within battle’ between Turkey and the Kurds has an independent logic of its own that points at a complex reality that defies straightforward policy prescriptions by both sides. As the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly emphasized, Turkey is only fighting to protect its own interest and expand its sphere of influence, in a zero-sum game with its Kurdish adversaries, who are seeking an autonomous government along Turkey’s southern borders.
Seeking to forestall the Kurdish plan and to prevent a bridge between the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of liberation of Mosul, Turkey through its military moves has actually acted as a unifer among the Kurds, seeing how all the five political parties in Iraq’s Kurdish region, that is, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Movement for Change, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Unity Alliance of Iraq and the Communist Party of Kurdistan, have issued a joint statement denouncing Turkey’s military presence in Iraq as a violation of the country’s territorial integrity. Along-term Turkish presence is bound to have taxing consequences on Turkey’s hitherto cordial relations with Iran, given the Iran-Iraq strategic closeness.
Notwithstanding the above-said, it is almost a sure bet that the longer the anti-ISIS battle over Mosul rages the more explicit and pronounced these other simultaneous dimensions of this battle will become, which might impact the ultimate fate of Mosul, e.g., it might turn into a new fractured city with some similarities to today’s Aleppo.
With respect to US, which is viewed with a great deal of suspicion in Iraq, particularly by the pro-Iran Shiite militias, who accuse the US of ferrying ISIS fighters to other areas, including parts of Afghanistan, a charge echoed by some of Afghanistan’s top military commanders, maintaining a legitimate face while jockeying for balancing the interests of its diverse partners such as the governments of Iraq and Turkey is no easy task and, in fact, highly complex and fraught with risks and uncertainties.
Should Hillary Clinton, who presently leads the pre-election polls, wins the US presidency, her hawkish line on Syria may trigger a qualitative worsening of US-Russia and US-Iran relations that can easily spill over into Iraq. As a result, it is at this point quite uncertain if the battle over Mosul, even if successful militarily speaking, will not prove as a prelude for a more complicated, and dangerous, regional milieu wrought with toxic clashing interests.
For the moment, however, the biggest question is if ISIS can be defeated out of Mosul any time soon and at what (human) cost (given the humanitarian tsunami that it can trigger and thus overwhelm the Iraqi government)? In that case, the cost of victory in the short-run may be dwarfed by a host of other long-term problems that include refueling popular discontent and, with it, the threat of terrorism. All said, the battle over Mosul is clearly a risky proposition that is fraught with potential multiple dangers on all fronts, but one that the Iraqis must win to reclaim their country from the scourge of terrorism.