The battle for Mosul diverts attention away from Aleppo

Defeating ISIS in Mosul will be in the interest of Sunni Arabs in general as much asit will be in the interests of Iran and Shiites

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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Defeating ISIS in Mosul will be in the interest of Sunni Arabs in general as much asit will be in the interests of Iran and Shiite Arabs in Iraq. The primary victims of this terrorist group have been the Sunni peoples and governments. Eliminating ISIS has become an international imperative agreed upon by the East and the West. There is no difference over the need to achieve a decisive military victory against ISIS, rather, the task of overseeing this has been entrusted to the US in Iraq and Russia and Syria. All indications suggest the military battle for Mosul, even if it may last a while, will end with the liberation of the city from the group. Crushing ISIS in Iraq will then weaken it in neighboring Syria. The overlap of the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields will keep them linked, meaning that there will be no solution to Iraq’s security without a similar solution in Syria and vice versa. Particularly so when major regional players such as Turkey and Iran are holding their cards close in the two key Arab nations, while the Kurdish element present in both countries remains a major point of either contention, harmony, convergence, or competition for the players. The battle for Mosul may be settled militarily in weeks, but the presence of so many opposing agendas for the aftermath portends complications down the road and could end one insurgency only to start another. Therefore, warnings regarding the political conduct of the Iraqi government are linked to its performance on the battlefield, and the extent to which it would allow the Iran-backed, Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units to participate in the battle for Mosul and the possibility of using them to subdue the Sunnis in the largest Sunni city in Iraq.

In Syria’s Aleppo, another major Sunni city, there could be a pause in the bloodletting if the commitments made by the actors meeting in Lausanne last week, in talks that brought together the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran – expanded to include Iraq and Egypt at Tehran’s request while excluding Britain and France at Russia’s request. According to a source close to the negotiations, the claims by Russia’s UN Envoy Vitaly Churkin regarding the approval by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar of seeking to convince Syrian rebels to separate from the al-Nusra Front are accurate but not the full picture. A source said the agreement includes that Russia must work with the regime in Damascus to freeze operations in Aleppo, end the systematic killing of civilians and end sieges on opposition areas. The ministers agreed to continue their discussions and hold military meetings on the basis of the “two-way” agreement.

The talks in Lausanne focused on Aleppo. The Russians want to remove the al-Nusra Front from Aleppo and proceed with the separation of rebels from the al-Qaeda-linked group. The proposals of UN Syria Envoy Staffan De Mistura were at the heart of the discussions, despite some perceiving them as naïve and stunt-like in part, especially when he volunteered to escort 900 members of the al-Nusra Front out of the city.

A source stressed the discussions did not tackle the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, essentially centering on a bargain between the two main blocs: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one hand and Russia and Iran on the other. The source observed that De Mistura appeared closer to the Russian position, quoting him as saying there was a “significant difficulty” in implementing what was requested from Russia, and that it would be “easier” for the three other countries to implement the requests of Russia and Iran.

The Iranians were reluctant about attending the meetings in Lausanne and then put forward the condition of inviting Egypt and Iraq to the talks. Iran’s insistence on having Egypt present amid Egyptian-Russian rapprochement, and the souring of Gulf-Egyptian relations, has raised many questions. The Gulf powers were also dismayed by the exclusion of Paris and London from the meeting.

During the talks, according to the source, the Iranian FM strongly defended the Syrian regime, acting as its “mouthpiece.” When the Russians agreed to offer concessions, the Iranians neither approved nor objected.

For their part, the Turks addressed Iran directly at the meeting, saying: “You have obligations too,” especially with regard to reining in Hezbollah and other militias in Syria. Iran responded by ignoring the Turkish urging and focused instead on the issue of al-Nusra in Aleppo and “terrorism.”

The battle for Mosul could divert the world’s attention away from Aleppo, which has exposed Russia. This could relieve Moscow from having to remain in the limelight and Damascus from the push for accountability. However, the influx of ISIS fighters from Iraq to Syria could render more difficult the victory being sought by Russia, Iran and the regime and allies and reinforce the possibility of them falling into a quagmire.

The battle for Mosul could divert the world’s attention away from Aleppo, which has exposed Russia. This could relieve Moscow from having to remain in the limelight and Damascus from the push for accountability

Raghida Dergham

Hezbollah’s claims about the “amassment” of ISIS fighters in Syria as a result of the battle for Mosul, together with threats from Damascus of taking unspecified measures to prevent an ISIS influx from Iraq, underscores the anxiety felt regarding the aftermath of the battles for Mosul and repercussions for Raqqa and Aleppo. Furthermore, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who will most likely be part of the Mosul battle through Qassem Soleimani, could find themselves torn between the two battles for two major Sunni Arab cities.

Victory in Mosul is paramount for Iran. The unity of Shiite forces in Iraq recently suggests a strategic decision has been made to pursue Shiite rule in Sunni areas. Sunnis will have to either live with this reality or face a massacre, according to an observer who believes the battle for Mosul will inevitably subdue the Sunnis.

This is exactly what Sunnis in Iraq and the Gulf fear. They see the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as the moderate face of real Iranian intentions, as one informed Gulf source put it. The source said Abadi has added “cosmetic touches” on the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units, by giving them the Iraqi flag and saying their participation in the battle will be in the rear lines. The source believes the Gulf sees Abadi as a weak man who is not able to rein in the Popular Mobilization Units run by former PM Nouri al-Maliki with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards not far behind him.

Gulf states

The participation of the Gulf states in the regional and international coalition in Mosul is not military in nature, but may be political and financial. Around 60,000 Iraqi soldiers supported by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Popular Mobilization Units are fighting against roughly 4,000 ISIS militants. The Iraqis are supported by airstrikes led by the US, France, Italy, Germany and Iranian logistical support through the Revolutionary Guards. This military equation suggests a nearly certain victory against ISIS in Iraq, even if it takes time and has a high humanitarian cost.

But Syria is a different story. It is possible the goal is to push ISIS elements into Syria to purge Iraq, or it may be a tactic to entrap them there and then go for the kill after they are significantly weakened.

The only thing that enjoys full consensus from all powers is the need to defeat ISIS. But the battle in Mosul, as in Aleppo, has many layers of calculations and strategic implications, locally, regionally and internationally.

The Kurds’ role in Mosul is prominent given their actual participation through the Peshmerga. There is Iranian-Turkish accord on the Kurdish question, but this has unraveled to a degree in Syria and Iraq, according to an Iraqi Kurdish source. The source cites the issue of Bashiqa as an example of Iranian-Turkish competition in Iraq. The balance of power forces these two countries into a truce at times, but into fierce competition at others, the Kurds are present in both instances. “They are likely to become the key influencer in Iraq and Syria,” according to the source, but could well become victims of their own history and disputes, becoming a plaything rather than a player, he adds. The biggest test will be Mosul.

The US vision for Mosul is that the Iraqi government must prevent the Popular Mobilization to enter the city to avoid antagonizing the Gulf. Moreover, the Kurds must prevent the Kurdistan Workers Party from taking part to avoid riling up the Turks. In Iraq, Masoud Barzani is a quasi-ally of Ankara, indicating Turkey now has a sophisticated policy compared to the past, according to the source.

If Iran and its allies insist on thrusting the Popular Mobilization into Mosul, ISIS will grow fiercer and the populace will have more grievances and may even prefer ISIS’ brutality to that of the Shiite-dominated militias.

The liberation of Mosul could be an opportunity for a major Arab comeback to influence Iraq, if the Gulf countries play an important role and snatch guarantees from the US and the Iraqi government with regard to the rights of Sunnis in Iraq, away from humiliation and subjugation. ISIS has been a deadly blow to the Arab security order. Extremist sectarian Shiite forces want ISIS to represent all Sunni Arabs.

All these issues require Gulf involvement in the battle for Mosul, not militarily but strategically in smart policies for what comes after victory there, to reduce extremism on both sides. Indeed, extremism is not in the interest of Arabs, Sunnis, or Shiites no matter how victory in sectarian war may be imagined to be possible.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 07, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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