All of a sudden on Tuesday, Oct. 25, Kurdish Peshmerga chiefs announced they were pulling out of the offensive for the liberation of Mosul in which they were assigned a leading role.
They explained that with the capture of the villages of Tiz Kharabi Gawra and Tiz Kharabi Bchuk northeast of Mosul, on the ninth day of the Mosul operation, they had finished their assigned tasks and made good on their commitments to Washington and Baghdad. It was now up to the Iraqi army to take over and push on with the operation for retaking Mosul from the Islamic State.
To underscore their decision as final, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that Kurdish soldiers brought in heavy earthmoving equipment and began digging army positions and defense lines around the newly captured villages.
“These are the new borders of the KRG [autonomous Kurdish Republic of Iraq],” they said.
The Pehsmerga commanders dropped their surprise shortly after US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had conferred with their leaders in Irbil.
Their refusal to go any further should not have caused too much surprise in the light of their combat performance from the start of the offensive.
Although widely hailed by world media as the sharp spearhead of the Mosul operation, their fighters depicted atop armored cars waving large flags, the Kurds themselves were not overenthusiastic about their role. While credited with clearing dozens of villages and towns on the way to the targeted city, those locations were found largely uninhabited with ISIS putting up minimal resistance.
Looking back on those first days, it transpires that the Peshmerga and ISIS never engaged in a single major frontal battle, just minor skirmishes for testing their opponent’s strength.
The Kurdish fighters held back from a fast-moving sweep because their government leaders in Irbil had implicitly advised them to focus on minimizing casualties, according to our sources. Irbil was clearly averse to sacrificing troops for a cause designed to serve US-Iraqi interests, which did not always dovetail with those of the KRG.
They were other considerations too:
1. The Obama administration had denied the Kurds permission to break through to the two Kurdish sections of Mosul. Their population of 75,000 is protected by a local Kurdish underground against ISIS hostage-taking and killing sprees.
Yet the Islamists turned out to be uncharacteristically chary about harming the Kurdish community of Mosul, Indeed, the jihadists kept to the Sunni neighborhoods in the western part of the city where they barricaded themselves against attack.
2. But Kurdish leaders’ concerns have increased since the ISIS assault on Kirkuk Saturday, Oct. 22, where fighting was still going on Thursday. They fear that hat the Islamists may decide to prioritize an assault on their cities and territory before the battle to save Mosul from the coalition.
Every last Peshmerga soldier has been deployed at strategic points in northern and eastern Iraq to anchor the territory claimed by the KRG.
3. The Kurds don’t trust the American pledge to keep pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias from gaining a foothold in liberated Mosul. According to their intelligence informants, the Shiites were preparing to violate their pact with Washington to stay out of the incursion into the city. This week, the Kurdish command posted troops in two sectors for barring those militias from entering Mosul. A realistic scenario raised its head of a clash between the Peshmerga and the Shiites.
4. Irbil is deeply apprehensive of Turkey’s intentions, in view of President Tayyip Erdogan’s constant harping on Ankara’s interests in Iraq. On Oct. 25, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared, “If there is a threat posed to Turkey, we are ready to use all our resources including a ground operation… to eliminate that threat.”
The KRG feels bound to keep all its manpower resources available and at the ready in case it becomes necessary to fight the Turkish army in Iraq.
Politics has a way of distorting the strategic calculus behind military decisions and such distortions often lead to misapprehensions. This week, the powers-that-be in Washington fell into this trap. They misunderstood the reason that was sending the Russian carrier Admiral Kutznetsov to the Mediterranean.
The misconceptions began by characterizing the Russian vessel as an “aircraft carrier,” which raised images of US aircraft carriers, when there is no resemblance between the two types of vessel or their functions.
Whereas the US aircraft carrier fleet is designed to defend America’s interests on the world’s oceans, the Kutznetsov is more of a floating platform for assault planes, cruise missiles and sophisticated air defense systems to guard shores where Russia boasts interests.
This seaborne arsenal also defends Russian ground forces in coastal areas against attack by hostile submarines or landing craft.
Unlike the Americans, the Russians never built a fleet of carriers - just one, the Kurznetzov, although not for lack of funds. Similar Russian vessels were sold to China and India. Moscow never felt the need for gigantic ships, especially after the Soviet empire collapsed in the early 90s.
But then, as the United States began pulling out of the Middle East, a process accelerated during the eight years of Barack Obama’s administration, Russian military strategists and naval specialists began rethinking the possibility of acquiring seaborne aircraft- or helicopter-carriers, although at no time did they seek US-type nuclear-powered ships.
The new thinking in Moscow led to the signing with France in 2010 of a deal for the purchase of two Mistral class amphibious assault ships, which can double as helicopter carriers. These ships chimed with the Russian conception of its navy as a tool for protecting its territorial acquisition rather than support for its global strategy. Five years later, France cancelled the deal in compliance with Western sanctions against Moscow for annexing the Crimean Peninsula and invading eastern Ukraine. The French then sold the two helicopters to Egypt instead against a pledge of Saudi financing.
This deal is now revealed as one of the most barefaced international scams of recent years for Russia to dodge Western sanctions with the connivance of France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The two French vessels were publicly paraded when they docked in the Egyptian port of Alexandria in late September and early October. After that, they disappeared from sight.
But last Friday, Oct. 21, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz claimed out of the blue that Egypt had resold the two French carriers to Russia for the token price of $1.
When he dropped this bombshell in the Polish parliament, he assured skeptical reporters that his source was “very good” and the information “reliable.”
In other words, the two French helicopter carriers ended up in Russian hands, their original destination, and added a new dimension to the Kuznetzov’s deployment to the Syrian port of Tartus. Escorted by one or two French carriers, Russia has positioned an impressive flotilla in the Mediterranean.
But its mission is not as US military sources contend to expand Russia’s military intervention in Syria, but rather to shore up Russian territorial gains in Syria and its influence in the eastern Mediterranean at large, now that not a single American aircraft carrier is left in the Middle East.
The similarities between the US-led offensive in Mosul and the Russian-backed operation in Aleppo are less striking than their differences. A comparison by DEBKA Weekly’s military experts is highly instructive.
One aspect they have in common is that both are hanging on to the reins of a pack of contentious local armies.
For the operation to cleanse the Iraqi town of Mosul of its two-year ISIS occupation, the United States is struggling to hold together a disparate core coalition of at least six armies: Iraqi Kurdish, Sunni, Shiite, Turkmen, and Christian Assyrians.
Russia leads a comparable number of combatant forces, but here the similarities stop. Three of those forces are outsiders come to support the Syrian army, i.e., Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Lebanese Hizballah and pro-Iranian Shiites from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The most conspicuous feature of the US-led Mosul offensive is its cumbersome, sluggish motion.
The coalition forces advancing on the city from the south, east and north follow a predictable pattern that recalls the world wars of the 20th century. They rely heavily on US air support, largely because, except for a handful of Iraqi government units, they are fighting with antiquated weapons dating from the 90s, have no artillery units of their own and insufficient tanks for the task. Even the elite Iraqi “Golden Division” is only armed with light tanks.
DEBKA Weekly reports that most military experts expected the offensive to take off with a spectacular rapid, blitzkrieg that would stun the enemy. But the opening shots were tame. Even America’s “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003 was more audacious and fast-moving.
The Russian commanders are judged to be more firmly in control of the Aleppo contingents than their US counterparts in Mosul. They are also clear about the mission before them, which is to tighten the siege on the rebel strongholds in the eastern suburbs until they can be smashed or evicted – with Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Islamic Nusra Front, singled out for eradication.
The American commanders in contrast don’t seem quite clear about whether they are required to destroy the Islamic State’s forces. Their war plan seems to stop short at the liberation of Mosul, without necessarily going on to articulate whether the liberators should go on to finally eclipse the Islamic terrorist group.
The original plan floated by the Pentagon in Washington after many weeks of toil centered on maintaining a suffocating noose around Mosul until ISIS was brought to its knees. That plan appears to have evaporated in the upsets of the first week of combat, raising questions in Washington about what is going on instead.
Here, too, the contrast is strong. Russian officers have not given an inch of slack in their tight siege on Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo.
This compares starkly with the falling-out between Washington and Baghdad over the key Ba’aj road, a 500km route that appears on no map, but which serves ISIS-Mosul as its link and supply route to ISIS headquarters in Raqqa. US commanders’ messages to Baghdad to send Iraqi government forces to urgently block this vital road link ran into a flat refusal.
There are also tactical differences in the way the two powers use their air might.
US officers in the Mosul arena have been applying air strikes to break ISIS resistance in the dozens of small towns and villages around the main city and so clear the way for Iraqi armor, the Kurdish Peshmerga and special forces to advance on the city.
US warplanes go into action only when called upon for assistance – which means they are not wielded for strategic goals.
In Aleppo, the Russian air force is first on the scene of a battle, clearing the terrain and blazing a trail for the ground forces before they go into action.
The first week of the grand offensive designed to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State showed gaps in the thinking of the strategists at the US Central Command.
They made the mistake of designing the conquest of Iraq’s second city according to the same format as the previous coalition campaigns for the capture of Falluja and Ramadi from the same enemy.
ISIS caught them off guard because its strategists - or rather, their hired Iraqi generals late of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army - were one step ahead. Having spent 13 years closely watching Americans at war in their country, they had developed tactics for striking at their weak points for a punishing counteroffensive.
And so, while officials in Washington envisaged the coming liberation of Mosul as a major step on the road to the final demise of the Islamic caliphate founded by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2014, ISIS was planning to trap the US-led coalition in a total war across Iraq and beyond. Eventual spillover into Jordan and Saudi Arabia cannot therefore be ruled out.
The consequences of the opposing strategies were immediately evident.
While the US-led Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces were preoccupied in clearing the way to Mosul by laboriously cleaning out mostly uninhabited villages and towns, ISIS fanned out for surprise assaults on strategic routes and major towns in northern, eastern and western Iraq.
The Islamists were already thinking ahead to the potential loss of Mosul, should the coalition succeed in driving them out, and setting the scene for a wider-ranging confrontation.
Already in the first week of the Mosul operation, ISIS overran the Iraqi-Kurdish oil city of Kirkuk. The Baghdad government tried hard to belittle this setback. However, the raid had obviously been well planned and effectively executed.
The clashes continued even after a combined coalition effort to contain the flames was mounted by the combined strength of the US air force and special forces, the (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) PUK’s “Dizha Tiror” counter-terrorism force, Turkmen fighters and two Iraqi Shiite militias, the Badr Organization and the Population Mobilization fighters.
For the Americans, this battle laid bare some of the more dangerous gaps in the coalition’s military efforts:
1. ISIS had thought ahead and concentrated fighters in different parts of Iraq ready to strike coalition forces to their rear even before they stepped into Mosul.
2. Something was badly amiss with the US, Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence machinery, which failed to pick up on those ISIS movements and, when they did, identified them mistakenly as small knots of jihadists on the run from the coming showdown in Mosul. In truth, the “escapees” had been distributed with deliberate intent for predetermined combat tasks.
3. The ISIS spy networks are more efficient. Jihadist commanders are receiving a steady stream of intelligence in northern, eastern, western and central Iraq – not just from Islamist sleeper cells, but also from local Sunni populations. The US-Iraqi planners miscalculated when they counted on local Sunni civilians being eager to pitch into the effort to defeat ISIS.
4. The Islamists were so bucked up by their easy success in Kirkuk that, without wasting a moment, they launched three more major assaults with a view to causing maximum pain to the main coalition participants.
Saturday, Oct. 22, while still fighting in Kirkuk, two other jihadist groups stormed into Laylan, a small town 21 km from the oil city, and seized the junction of the 2nd, 3rd and 24th routes, thus severing Kirkuk from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
Other Islamist squads were meanwhile well on their way to two further scenes. In northern Iraq, they came close to overwhelming the highly strategic town of Sinjar and the next day, Oct. 10, the western Iraqi town of Rutba, 700 km from Mosul, was in jihadist hands.
Sinjar near the Syrian border was the headquarters of the reserve army the Kurdish Peshmerga taking part in the Mosul operation was building up. It was drawn from Kurdish militiamen from Syria and Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) combatants streaming in from their mountain strongholds in northern Iraq.
Although the clashes continue, ISIS is beginning to force the Kurdish reservists to start retreating to the autonomous Kurdish Region’s capital of Irbil. But the Islamists have already profited by preserving an open border to Syria and their access to Raqqa.
The fall of Rutba was no less damaging to the coalition effort. It has left ISIS in position to cut off the important highway link between Baghdad and Amman, brought the conflict up to Jordan’s back door, and restored the Islamists to a position of strength in the Sunni tribal province of Anbar in western Iraq, from which they were more or less ousted last year.
This was another blow to American hopes that Iraq’s Sunni Muslims would come aboard for the battle against ISIS in Mosul.
These ISIS offensives have drained the coalition’s strength away from its primary mission. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, his army and US forces in Iraq have too little manpower to retake Rutba and block the Islamists’ path to Baghdad – unless they pull troops away from Mosul.
Inside Baghdad too the Iraqi army is short of boots on the ground to defend the capital against ISIS inroads, whether they comes as an assault from Diyala Province to the east – or a local attack from within the city.
Thursday, Oct. 20 on the fourth day of the offensive to retake Mosul, ISIS loosed a toxic cloud made up of a deadly cocktail of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide combined with residue from burning oil wells, from the Mishraq Chemical plant and sulphur mine. Nine people were killed in the vicinity of the poisonous attack and around 1,000 needed medical treatment.
The US, Iraqi and Kurdish troops in the front lines of Mosul, 30km to the north, were directed to put on gas masks. Yet, although this order affected tens of thousands of troops, including 5,000 US military personnel, surprisingly, no photos of soldiers wearing gas masks appeared in the media.
They were not released for fear that worldwide panic, especially in the Middle East, would be stirred up by graphic evidence of ISIS’ capability to wage chemical warfare inside or outside Iraq.
debkafile’s military sources report that up until Wednesday, five days later, the toxic cloud was still on the move and had reached up to 40km south of Mosul, largely over uninhabited terrain. However, if local winds change direction and turn east over the coming weekend, as predicted by weather forecasters, the poisonous fumes could reach Irbil, the autonomous Kurdish region’s capital, 60km away.
So ISIS fired with both barrels at the Kurdish fighters at the forefront of the Mosul campaign. – first by suicide bombers in Kirkuk, then by an poisonous cloud heading ominously toward their capital city.
Smaller than Mosul, Irbil is a town of around a million inhabitants. It is the seat of KRG governing institutions as well as the US, British, German and French diplomatic missions and the intelligence headquarters of Western and Middle East powers, including Iran.
If the chemical cloud starts floating toward Irbil, the KRG capital – or part of it - will have to be evacuated. No one in Washington, Baghdad or the Kurdish region had foreseen this eventuality in the prior planning for the Mosul offensive.
If this happens, US-led coalition forces may find themselves saddled not only with the chaos of a million civilians caught in or fleeting from the Moslem battle, but another million evacuees from deadly chemical gases in Irbil.
As for the Mishraq Chemical plant, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that ISIS has an active chemical weapons program that is run by Saddam Hussein’s internationally recruited former scientists and experts. They are manufacturing mustard gas agents and have hundreds if not thousands of chlorine IEDS and an almost bottomless supply of chlorine for charging mortar shells.
The diversity of the ISIS terror arsenal is as scary as its ruthless application.