The Mosul Operation May Mire the US in Regional Conflicts
The Mosul offensive, launched Monday, Oct. 17, is generally expected to be drawn-out and bloody. President Barack Obama, who staked his final months in the White House on a last shot against the Islamic State, had no illusions about this.
“There will be ups and downs in this process,” he said Tuesday, “but my expectation is that ultimately it will be successful.”
He must know that by pushing ahead with the operation to wrest Iraq’s second city from its two years of occupation by ISIS, he is bequeathing the almost certain fallout from his decision to the next president to be sworn into office next January.
The fallout is inevitable, because Obama stuck to his strategy of counting on regional armies for ground operations, while standing American officers over them for coordination, command and control and training together with air support.
This strategy has brought more than one US operation in Syria and Iraq to a dead end and is unlikely to reap the desirable results in Mosul.
The US and its military are short of the levers for containing the fighting and keeping it from igniting more fires. Had sizeable US military resources been kept in the Middle East, Obama and his successor would have had the tools for restraining the predilection of Iraqis, Syrians, Turks, Kurds, Iranians, Sunnis, Shiites, Assyrians and Turkmen of different stripes – a partial list – to turn on one another.
But the only military clout America has retained in the region is an air force; its ground troops and naval strength are gone.
Thursday, Oct. 20, as the Mosul offensive entered its fourth day, a major falling-out sprang up between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. Obama called on the Iraqi army to block the Islamic State fighters’ route from Mosul to Syria, which the US could not bomb because it was also packed with refugees.
The Iraqi premier demanded that first all 750,000 Sunni Muslims be expelled from the city because among them were collaborators who backed the enemy. The US president suspected Al-Abadi of taking advantage of an opportunity to cleanse the city of Sunnis and make it a Shiite preserve.
This unforeseen spat is unlikely to be the last. It highlights the weakness of the Obama contention that the Mosul battle can be won by a coalition of regional armies.
It would not be the first cherished convention to be punctured by the wars in Syria and Iraq. One is that American air might can tip the scales of a conflict; another that the end-game can be controlled by regulating the supplies of weapons for tilting the balance between combatants. Today’s Middle East weapons bazaars wield more influence than world governments. Every possible weapons system is available for purchase, provided the money is there.
Furthermore, Lt.-Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of US operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, along with his staff of around a hundred officers, may convey the impression that America is ostensibly in charge of the critical battle for driving ISIS out of Mosul and in control of every move.
That would be an illusion. The wheel is slipping out of their hands. Moscow, Ankara and Tehran have ganged up to pull the strings behind the operation. So, while Obama and his strategists may think that the onus of combat is being borne by local armies, the truth is that Vladimir Putin, Tayyip Erdogan and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believe they are manipulating Washington into serving their strategic ambitions in the Middle East. The war on ISIS is meanwhile being pushed to the sidelines.
From the perspective of the region’s rulers, the US president’s decision to fight ISIS in Mosul lacks substance because they can’t see how this military operation will degrade the Islamic State’s political, military and religious strength. Even if the jihadists lose Mosul, they will move shop and carry on fighting from new quarters in the towns and deserts of Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region.
Had the US president led off his offensive by decapitating the Islamic State’s military and religious leadership, and only then set about liberating the territory they grabbed, he would have had a better chance of success. But that course would have necessitated the presence on the ground of 50,000 to 75,000 US troops, an option Obama would never contemplate.