Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of an assault to recapture Mosul, the most important Iraqi city held by ISIS, on October 16.
The assault is spearheaded by the Iraqi army and the peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. It also includes the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), an umbrella group of militia groups loyal to the Iraqi government and based in Iraq’s Shi’a Arab communities, and some other Iraqi militias.
Both the Iraqi army and the peshmerga receive material support from Russia, Iran, the US and other Western powers, including Australia. Western, Russian and Iranian forces are all involved in the assault on Mosul.
Initial reports suggested a steady advance towards the ISIS-held city. However, a fortnight later, military spokespeople said the assault would take weeks or even months.
By October 26, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said up to 700,000 people could be displaced.
More than 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced since the invasion by ISIS in 2014. This adds to the 4-6 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced or forced to flee overseas since the 2003 US-led invasion.
There are several reasons for the slow progress of the advance that are also reasons why the dislodging of ISIS from Mosul will not bring peace. One is that the Iraqi forces involved lack either military effectiveness or popular legitimacy.
Both the Iraqi army and the PMU are predominantly drawn from the Shi’a Arab population and have reputations for religious and ethnic sectarianism. The Arab population of Mosul is predominantly Sunni and the city also includes substantial non-Arab communities: Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen.
The Iraqi and foreign forces involved are divided by several intersecting hostilities. The KRG is an autonomous entity within the Iraqi state.
However, there is intense rivalry between it and the central government in Baghdad and disagreement over whether Mosul should be part of the KRG’s territory.
Russia and Iran back the same sides as the US-led Western coalition in the Iraqi conflict, but in the interrelated conflict in neighbouring Syria they back opposing sides. ISIS-controlled territory, of course, straddles the Iraq-Syria border. The group invaded Iraq from Syria, where it initially established territorial control.
The Western media and its Russian and Iranian counterparts portray ISIS as some strange, evil force that came out of nowhere. But it is the result of foreign interference in Iraq and Syria.
The current fighting in Iraq is a continuation of the multisided conflict that has devastated the country since the US-led 2003 invasion. The US used violent divide-and-rule tactics to thwart opposition to their occupation and fomented a civil war, primarily between Sunni and Shi’a Muslim militias. Previously, the Sunni-Shi’a divide had been a factor in Iraqi politics, but a minor one.
This tactic worked to an extent. But the logic of the tactic led to the US increasingly favouring Shi’a militias, the stronger of the sides. These were allied to Iran.
As Iran is the main rival of the West in the region, this represented a real failure of the US war in Iraq. It allowed Iran its allies, including Russia, to share in the spoils of the invasion.
It also led to Iraq becoming permanently divided along religious and ethnic lines. This process began with the 1991 US-led invasion of Iraq. Unlike 2003, that war left the regime intact but detached the north and created the KRG as a Western protectorate.
A factor in the speed with which ISIS was able to capture Mosul and surrounding territory in 2014 was the oppression suffered by the predominantly Sunni population at the hands of the sectarian Shi’a-dominated government and its army and militias.
While ISIS originated in the sectarian Sunni opposition to the US occupation forces in Iraq and their sectarian Shi’a allies, it was in the Syrian civil war that ISIS emerged as a powerful military and political force.
Syrian civil war
The Syrian civil war began with a civil uprising against the dynastic secular dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The dictatorship responded with military force.
The West helped militarise the opposition by providing military, financial and logistical support directly and through allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
These sectarian Sunni regimes backed sectarian Sunni groups to further their own interests, including their on-again-off-again rivalries with each other.
The Assad regime was a rare ally in the Arab world of Russia and Iran. Consequently, both have devoted military resources to defending the regime. In Russia’s case, this has taken the form of devastating air strikes against opposition-held areas, with a staggering civilian death toll.
For Israel’s part, its interest in the conflict was summed up by Israeli establishment journalist Alon Ben-David in the September 27, 2015, Jerusalem Post: “If Israel’s interest in the war in Syria can be summarised in brief, it would be: That it should never end.”
This position is held, but less openly stated, by other Western powers, which helps explain why the West has provided various anti-government forces with enough support to keep fighting, but not enough to win.
In the operation to recapture Mosul, who is excluded is as important as who is taking part. The excluded include Turkey and the left-wing Kurdish forces from Turkey, Syria and Iraq — which Turkey is seeking to destroy.
The West recognises Turkey, a NATO member, as part of its coalition against ISIS in Syria. On the other hand, the West brands the Turkish Kurdistan-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation.
However, the PKK’s ideological allies based in northern Syria (Rojava) — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) — form the most effective part of the coalition against ISIS.
Intense fighting is raging in northern Syria between the Turkish army and its Syrian allies on one hand and the YPG, YPJ and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.
The SDF is the military force of the democratic self-administration that emerged in 2012 when the Kurdish-led left-wing Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM) led a revolution that took advantage of the withdrawal of forces from Rojava (Syria’s Kurdish-majority periphery) by the Assad regime.
Turkey’s involvement in Syria has sought to destroy the democratic self-administration in Rojava and other areas in northern Syria.
The PYD and TEV-DEM have strong ideological ties to the left-wing Turkish opposition. The revolutionary example of democratic self-administration — based on pushing grassroots democracy, feminism, ecosocialism, multiculturalism and religious tolerance — provides a threatening example for the increasingly authoritarian regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s hostility to the SDF is not because it is Kurdish-led. The close relationship between the Erdoğan regime and the KRG in Iraq shows this.
Turkish hostility is political. It is inseparable from Erdoğan’s domestic crackdown on academics, journalists and the left wing Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) — and from its brutal war against the PKK in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan).
In August, Turkey invaded northern Syria with US support, officially to fight ISIS. In reality, Turkey has used ISIS as a proxy against the Rojava revolution. The invasion was prompted by the SDF’s capture of the ISIS-held town of Manbij.
The US says its next target in Iraq after capturing Mosul will be ISIS-held Raqqa in Syria. Erdoğan said on October 26 that Turkey will join this offensive — by invading SDF-held Manbij.
The SDF has responded ambiguously to the US urging it take part in the assault on Raqqa.
Until the 2014 siege by ISIS of Kobanê, the US did not recognise the YPG and YPJ. At first, the US appeared to back Turkish plans to let ISIS take the town and wipe out the democratic self-administration. Then the inevitable atrocities would provide a pretext to establish a NATO-occupied “safe zone”.
However, the YPJ and YPG’s resistance thwarted this plan. The US-led coalition had just begun its air war in Syria and did not want to commit ground troops. It had no other ally on the ground willing or able to consistently fight ISIS.
The US began coordinating air strikes with the YPJ and YPG, which later formed the SDF. However, the US continued to deny its “allies” heavy weapons and supported the Turkish-KRG blockade of Rojava. The US also excluded the Rojava revolutionaries from peace talks.
The SDF is understandably reluctant to be used as shock troops in taking Raqqa on behalf of such Western “allies”. On the other hand, the SDF would be severely weakened if the US favoured Turkey and its proxies as the force to take Raqqa.
Both Turkey and the PKK have forces in Iraq. Turkish forces are there at the invitation of the KRG. The PKK-affiliated Peoples Defence Forces (HPG) and Free Women’s Units (YJA) have had a presence in Şengal (Sinjar), the Iraqi homeland of the Yazidi religious minority.
When ISIS overran Şengal in 2014, the KRG’s peshmerga and Iraqi army abandoned the Yazidis to their fate. However, the left-wing Kurdish forces — the HPG, YJA, YPG and YPJ — came to their rescue.
These forces helped the Yazidis establish their own democratic self-administration and armed forces, the Şengal Resistance Units (YBŞ) and Şengal Women’s Units (YJŞ).
The KRG strongly opposed including the PKK-affiliated forces and the YBŞ and YJŞ in the Mosul campaign. It also refuses to recognise the democratic self-administration in Şengal.
However, when ISIS launched a diversionary attack on Kirkuk on October 21, the KRG allowed the local peshmerga command to call on these same forces to save them.
An October 20 statement by the Şengal Diaspora Assembly was uncompromising in its insistence that Yazidi and PKK-affiliated forces had a role in the liberation of Mosul, saying: “Şengal resistance forces YBŞ-YJŞ will fight in the Mosul Operation to save the women, children and girls taken captive by the ISIS because the people of Şengal paid the heaviest biggest price and they have right to join this offensive. We are ready for both peace and war and we are also ready, always, to defend our lands…
“PKK is an organisation that defends democracy, fraternity, equality and the faith of all ethnic groups and folks. We have experienced this in Şengal.
“Europe and other states should recognise the PKK and know that PKK protects the Êzidîs, other folks and faith groups.”