The re-taking of Mosul: What’s the long the and short of it?

22.10.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

231231231231To any neutral observer of the events happening in the Middle East, the battle for re-taking the city of Mosul by the Iraqi forces, aided by the US military “advisers”, from the Islamic State does appear to be the departing US president’s last attempt at giving his party’s voters an image of success ahead of the up-coming elections. While this operation is much more than that, it has still largely been forgotten that the taking of Mosul by IS in June 2014 was a direct punch to the US, which had invaded Iraq in 2003, killed thousands and spent US$25 billion rebuilding a second Iraqi army after it cashiered the first one shortly after occupying the country. The US, we all know, has not had any meaningful success in the fight against terrorists in Iraq since 2014 when it helped defend Baghdad against a Daesh attack on the city. This show of success in Mosul will, therefore, not only help re-build the US’ image, in the eyes of its voters as well as its allies, as a strong stakeholder in the region but also counter-balance Russia’s major successes against ISIS in Syria, particularly in and around Aleppo. The plan, as indications tell us, is to re-engage militarily in Syria.

We have been told that the US forces will be primarily engaged in an “advisory role” in the battle. While this is how the US administration often manipulates certain facts to hide the actual extent of its military engagement, the “advisers” it has deployed will be playing any role other than that of “advising.” It may look a bit strange, but this is how things are going to work in the field. “Advisers” is the Pentagon’s preferred term for every type of US military personnel in Iraq and Syria who isn’t a pilot. However, in reality, “advisers” run the gamut between Special Operations forces such as Army Green Berets, to National Guard soldiers teaching an Iraqi unit, for instance, how to build a bridge. For Mosul, US and Western “advisers” will advance in tandem with whatever Iraq unit they are paired with. Conventional American forces, for the Mosul battle, are allowed to “advise” even at the battalion level.

This implies that while the US advisers will, officially, still be supposed to stay behind the lines, however if an Iraqi unit’s battalion commander wants to fight from the front, his American counterparts will go with him. Western Special Operations forces, therefore, will move about the front much more freely. This particular case has been least reported in the US media. It happened when Centcom recently gained White House permission to deploy US advisers with Iraqi units at the battalion level, which would give them more control of the battlefield and put them in a position to manipulate the fight to their own advantage, although it would also place them in much more danger.

This manipulation is most likely to result in re-shifting of IS fighters from Iraq/Mosul to the parts of Syria it is still controlling. Already, Syrian army intelligence has reportedly heard disturbing reports of a demand by IS in towns and villages south of Hasaka, a Syrian city held by regime forces and Kurds in the north of the country, for new electricity and water supplies to be installed for an influx of IS fighters from Mosul. In other words, if Mosul falls, the entire IS ‘caliphate army’ could be directed against the Assad government and its allies, a scenario which is likely to cause some satisfaction in Washington.

This is not so unlikely-to-happen a scenario. It has a real precedent. When the Iraqi city of Fallujah fell to Iraqi army and militia forces earlier this year, many IS fighters fled at once to Syria and got re-engaged against the Syrian army. This is precisely what Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated in his last speech during Ashura commemorations that the Americans `intend to repeat the Fallujah plot when they opened a way for IS to escape towards eastern Syria` and warned that `the same deceitful plan may be carried out in Mosul.` In other words, an IS defeat in Mosul would encourage it to head west to try to defeat the Assad regime in Syria.

While the Syrian army will be eventually forced into yet another battle, such a situation might also create an excuse for the US, which has largely been out-manoeuvred by Russia in Syria, to start a direct military operation in Syria, as a ‘necessary’ extension of battle for Mosul, and thereby confront Syrian and Russian forces more directly.

These suspicions have scarcely been allayed by a series of comments from American generals and US military sources over the past few weeks. The newly appointed US commander in the region, Lt Gen Stephen Townsend heading what the US has presumptuously called `Operation Inherent Resolve` has said that not only Mosul but the Syrian city of Raqqa would be captured `on my watch`–a clear expression of the extension of the operation into Syria and, as such, use the scenario to reverse the gains Syria has recently had against the jihadists.

That the US continues to intend to use “jihadists” in Syria is evident from the fact that the US, along with its allies, did block Russia’s draft statement supporting the 8-hour humanitarian pause in Aleppo and separating Syrian rebels and terrorists.

The refusal by the US to separate the “rebels” from terrorists is not only yet another indication of the US’ double-game in Syria but also signifies the use the US wants to put all fighters to. Perhaps, as some analysts have reasoned, this is all linked to the US’ “Plan B” for Syria. With US top military officials bragging about taking the cities of Mosul and Raqqa and with US still clinging to protecting terror groups based in Syria, the picture that appears does point out to a bigger plan in play than meets the eye.

As such, the mysterious “Plan B” would then look like this: the US victoriously trumpets on about the arduous offensive of retaking Mosul while the jihadists, who had covertly left the city, go on with their fight against Russia and Assad in Syria and re-create the chaos Syria has long been subjected to.

Therefore, to achieve this particular target, US forces will play a decisively leading role. While Apache attack helicopters equipped with Hellfire missiles have been striking targets in northern Iraq, the American and French artillery are also positioned to provide crucial support and set the trajectory of the fight. What else could we expect than the jihadists re-shifting to Syria, allowing the US to clear Mosul and sell it as an “unmistakable evidence” of victory against terrorism?

 Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.