How Mosul’s liberation could lead to another Iraqi civil war

Daniel L. Davis writes: On a trip to northern Iraq toward the end of August, I interviewed the Kurdish commander of the Peshmerga 7th Brigade, General Bahram Yassin, about the looming battle for Mosul. Speaking at his forward command post overlooking the leading ISIS defensive lines outside of Mosul, Yassin went into some detail about what he expects to happen when hostilities over this key city commence: hand-to-hand combat, human shields, entrenched ISIS fighters immune to airstrikes and all too happy to experience martyrdom.

ISIS has rigged buildings, roads, and other items to explode and planted IEDs in “virtually every road and every alley,” Yassin told me. “I expect that we’ll have to fight them, taking neighborhood by neighborhood, alley by alley, and sometimes house by house.” Since U.S. troops, artillery and air support will be involved, there could be American casualties.

Despite that fearful prospect, what concerned me most was is what Yassin said about what could happen after the liberation of Mosul. This is going to be a “coalition” offensive — but the coalition isn’t one of different countries. Everyone involved is Iraqi, but they consist of the fractious, mutually mistrustful constituents — Kurdish Peshmerga, Shia militias, the mixed-sectarian bag that is the Iraqi army — of a country that could still easily fall into civil war again after ISIS is defeated. Yassin said one of his major concerns is that binding political agreements won’t be in place prior to the fighting, and if there aren’t clearly articulated limits and responsibilities for each of the attacking forces, it’s not hard to imagine Sunni militias butting heads with Shia militias during the fighting, potentially coming to blows with each other.

The result could be an Aleppo-style quagmire.

And there is little in place right now to prevent that. Thanks to the continuing weakness and corruption of the Iraqi government, there is presently no central command authority for the operation to recapture Mosul. Thus, while optimistic press releases coming from U.S. military and government sources give the impression that the looming battle of Mosul “is the end game in Iraq,” the truth is far different. Rather than marking the end of the war in Iraq, the fall of Mosul — if it even happens — is likely to mark the beginning of the next nasty conflict.

From my interviews with senior government officials, military generals, regional experts, displaced persons from increasingly crowded refugee camps, it became clear to me that winning the fight for Mosul for the anti-ISIS side is hardly assured, and even if ISIS is eventually eradicated, the absence of a unifying enemy might release pent up animosities and hatreds among current allies. This could potentially unleash an even greater bloodbath in Iraq than that wrought by ISIS.

Based on everything I’ve heard, Washington is not ready for this. And what that means is that unless the U.S. government conducts a sober reassessment of its objectives and strategies. the U.S. will continue to expend large amounts of taxpayer dollars and some blood while unwittingly contributing to the further degradation of the Iraqi social fabric, worsening — not ending — the war. Without a better understanding of the military aspects of this complex offensive; without mobilizing a significant and immediate global humanitarian effort; and without a substantial diplomatic effort on America’s part, we may see a larger civil war igniting throughout Iraq than we’ve already seen.

General Yassin said he has several sources living among the ISIS troops giving him updated intelligence on enemy movements and dispositions. He estimated that there are upwards of 20,000 ISIS fighters defending the city. “They have moved out of all the easily identifiable buildings that could be hit with airstrikes,” the general explained, “And they have moved into the residential areas, specifically embedding themselves in the civil population.” Their intention is to limit coalition bombing by touting killed civilians from U.S. and coalition strikes.

Think of the difficult, dangerous campaign to liberate Fallujah under the George W. Bush administration — the challenges in Mosul, which is much larger, are an orders of magnitude greater. [Continue reading…]

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