Hurdles Beset Run-up to US-led Spring Offensive to Recover Mosul
Nothing much is going right for the Obama administration’s planned spring offensive to wrest Mosul from the Islamic State. The plan sets April or May as D-Day for US, Iraqi and Kurdish ground troops to go into battle for the recovery of Iraq’s second largest city of two million inhabitants.
A US Central Command official disclosed to reporters last Thursday, Feb. 19 that between 20,000 and 25,000 Iraqi troops will go after the 3,000 to 4,000 Islamist fighters occupying Mosul. Air strikes are already in progress to soften jihadist resistance.
Some US lawmakers and reporters reacted to the news by wondering out loud about the wisdom of laying out for the enemy such details as the timeline, scope of military personnel and tactics of the coming campaign. They were told that these disclosures would have the psychological effect of rattling the Islamists: “You try to unsettle your enemy and also give civilians time to leave the area.”
It was even harder to explain why the White House and new Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter were not informed about the scope of these disclosures.
One thing emerged from this apparent mix-up: However cumbersomely, US preparations for the capture of Mosul have moved into high gear.
US boots on the ground plus Turkish air bases
1. On Monday, Feb. 23, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard of the Kuwait-based Third Army and Deputy Commanding General of Operations of the US Central Command gave out the following details.
US joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) will soon be deployed to Iraq to meet a “limited need” and support coalition air strikes. he said. However, he added, there is no current requirement for the placement of more US troops in the fight against Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria.
DEBKA Weekly: This statement means that American troops will be on the ground when the offensive kicks off – both as instructors for the units taking part and to guide coalition bombers to enemy targets.
2. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle Monday joined the USS George H.W. Bush in the Gulf, placing two carriers on hand for the coming campaign against ISIS in Iraq.
3. Turkey has been roped in to the effort. Sunday, Ankara took the precaution of evacuating the 40 Turkish soldiers guarding the tomb of the Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the republic’s founder, inside Syria. According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, the United States and Turkey have come to an agreement on Ankara’s role in the operation: Two bases will be made available for US fighter-bombers to strike Islamist targets in Iraq and Syria – Diyarbakir, 100 km from the Syrian border, and the Incirlik air force base.
Had 40 Turkish soldiers remained on Syrian soil, they would have been exposed to capture by the Islamists and held hostage to force Ankara to go back on its agreement with Washington.
Kurds withhold ground force backbone from Mosul offensive
4. The Kurdish Peshmerga are the only ground fighters battling the Islamic State until now – at a high cost in casualties. But President Massoud Barzani of the autonomous Kurdish Republic of Iraq (KAR), is now putting his foot down. He is hedging on the American demand to place three brigades of his best Kurdish troops at the disposal of the American Mosul offensive. Three ordinary Peshmerga brigades are on offer, but Barzani has his own priorities for Kurdish elite brigades, which are to defend Irbil and fight off the Islamist assault on the big oil center of Kirkuk.
Hanging over these evasions, say our military sources, are Barzani’s reservations about the worth of the American plan of attack for Mosul as a whole. He disapproves of the part that assigns Kurdish forces the task of capturing the eastern bank of the Tigris River, which runs through Mosul and divides it into two parts, while Iraqi forces under American commanders make for the western bank.
The Kurdish leader challenges this plan on three counts:
(a) It makes no sense to throw his Sunni soldiers into battle alongside Iraqi troops, since most of them and their officers are Shiites.
(b) In the battle for Mosul, Kurdish fighters would find themselves pitted against local Sunnis, who would certainly prefer to side with the Islamic State rather than welcome the predominantly Shiite Iraqi army.
(c) He can’t understand why the American air force refuses to operate out of the new air base near his capital to strike the Islamists.
For all these reasons, Barzani does not trust the American commanders of the coming Mosul campaign or approve of their plan of operation.
Three Arab coalition members take exception to US-Iranian venture
5. A similarly distrustful attitude confronts Washington’s Mosul campaign on the part of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Not much has been made of this in the West, but the sound and fury of Arab air strikes against ISIS have gone silent, simply because they have stopped. So will these three Arab coalition allies pitch in for the Mosul campaign? According to our sources, neither Riyadh, Abu Dhabi nor Amman are inclined to do so.
They are put off mainly by the prominent role Washington has assigned Iran.
One of the preparatory steps taken early this week was the massing of Iraqi Shiite militia units in the Iraqi town of Samarra for an operation to drive ISIS out of Tikrit, 64 km to the north. Long convoys of militiamen rolled into Samarra during the week, where our sources learn that the Iranian Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani was waiting to take command of the operation.
Tikrit’s capture is designed to underpin the Mosul master plan by hemming in Islamist forces and preventing them from fanning out and seizing more Iraqi cities. The loss of Tikrit would hamstring this potential ISIS counter-attack in advance.
The Saudis, Emirates and Jordan want no part in a game plan that leaves their rear forces safeguarded by Iranian military commanders in control of Tikrit. This runs contrary to their national objective, which is to undercut Iran’s grip on their Iraqi neighbor, not bolster it.
6. Not a single military expert in Iraq – or indeed in the Middle East at large – believes the five Iraqi brigades – almost a division – being coached by US officers for the Mosul campaign, will be ready to go by April or May.