Smoke-filled pool halls are back in Mosul. After ISIS, ‘we seek joy’

The Washington Post reports: Inside the Captain pool hall in eastern Mosul there are few signs that a war still rages in this city or that earlier this year the Islamic State was in control here.

A gathering place for pool and snooker lovers since the 1990s, the smoke-filled room tiled with grimy beige marble exudes a faded charm, one mirrored in its customers, now back at the tables after being deprived of their favorite pastime for more than two years.

Shortly after the Islamic State took control of Mosul in the summer of 2014, hitting brightly colored balls with a well-chalked cue was among the many activities the group ruled un-Islamic and a distraction from jihad, and it ordered the halls to be shut down.

With the militants now expelled from the city’s east, Captain is one of more than a dozen pool halls that have reopened as residents try to bring back a sense of normalcy to their lives. New clubs have also opened up, betting that residents will indulge in some of the pleasures that were banned by the militants.

“We don’t seek winning, we seek joy,” said the owner, Faris al-Abdali, an international snooker referee, as he finished up a game. “The wheel of life is turning again, but it’s slow.” [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS took over Mosul

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: From Baghdad, Mosul is viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. Its people – educated, relatively wealthy and religiously conservative – had dominated both state bureaucracy and the officers’ corps since Ottoman times. In the sectarian politics of post-invasion Iraq, in which the farmers of Diyala, the tribesmen of Ramadi and the merchants of Mosul were all treated as like-minded Sunnis, squeezed into a corner and challenged to provide a coherent political programme, Mosul was the only place where an indigenous Sunni political identity took root, helped along by an old social structure that had survived the invasion relatively intact. In the civil war that followed, a brutal and highly effective urban insurgency emerged in Mosul. Unlike the tribe-based insurgencies in Ramadi and Falluja, crushed when tribal elders and commanders were bought off and converted into pro-American militias, the insurgency in Mosul was never defeated.

Maliki, who worked to dismantle Sunni power and believed that demonstrations in Sunni cities were a plot financed by Turkey and Qatar to create a Sunni province, fuelled the animosity between Shia Baghdad and Sunni Mosul. He unleashed his police and security forces to suppress any opposition in the city and they behaved like an occupying army, detaining at will, disappearing, torturing and humiliating the people. So in June 2014, when the triumphant jihadis paraded their pick-up trucks through the streets of Mosul, many saw them as liberators, or at least as the lesser evil.

Ahmad, an engineer who once owned a thriving computer business in Mosul, was visiting friends in Erbil that month when his wife called him to say that something was happening. ‘I drove back quickly,’ he said. ‘The roads were blocked and the situation was tense. When I arrived I started hearing from friends and neighbours that the insurgents had been battling Iraqi troops on the outskirts of the city and had taken over a neighbourhood in the west.’ At first he thought nothing of the news: such clashes were common in Mosul. The insurgents were the de facto rulers after dark, levying taxes, imposing protection rackets and controlling the roads in and out of the city. Like all owners of businesses, he had to pay them, on top of the usual bribes he had to pay the army and the police to be left alone.

The next day rumours were spreading, and when the government imposed a curfew he realised the situation was serious. Then came unbelievable reports: the rebels were in full control of the western part of the city, and the governor and all high-ranking officials had fled. The army was in disarray and officers had abandoned their men, who were deserting en masse. ‘We started seeing the poor soldiers running through the streets, some in their underwear. They begged us to tell them how they could leave the city. In my street I showed two soldiers the way out. Some of my neighbours said we should attack them, take their weapons, but I said no, they hadn’t harmed us. Truly, no one in the city harmed the soldiers. Those who fled survived, those who were captured were killed. No one could believe that the army that had oppressed us for so long, that had treated us so badly, had vanished so quickly.’

‘I have to be honest,’ he added. ‘When the Islamic State first entered Mosul everyone was happy. People started clapping for them. They allowed us to remove the concrete blocks the army had installed to close the neighbourhoods. Before, it would take an hour to go from one area to the other, afterwards the roads were open and we felt free. They let the people alone and didn’t mind if people smoked, if people prayed or not. You could go anywhere, do anything you wanted, as long as it didn’t hurt them. I would go to the woods with a friend, sit in a café, smoke a nargileh, and they would turn up. Tall, muscled and mostly foreigners, they wouldn’t dare say a word to you. In the early days we said this was the life.’

Unlike their previous incarnations, the jihadis didn’t just promise the people of Mosul a Sunni resistance to the injustices inflicted on them by the American invasion or the sectarian politics of the Shia government in Baghdad. They went further: they promised a state, a just state based on the principles of Sunni Islam, military strength and effective bureaucracy. In their literature and sermons the jihadi ideologues used different names: the Caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, the Islamic State. All these names were eventually superseded and one name remained: the State, al-Dawla. It signified to the people of Mosul the nature of the new rulers, who were going to provide them with a strong, non-corrupt and functioning administration, just like the one they had before the Americans came and messed everything up.

‘They conned the people,’ Ahmad said. ‘They brought prices down and reimposed order. People from the heart of Mosul, from its oldest houses, would join them because they said this was the true Islam. Doctors and university professors joined them, my son’s teacher became a preacher for them, carrying a pistol and grenades on his belt. The whole city joined them.’

This new state took on all the familiar qualities of the ancien regime: it was narrow-minded, pathologically suspicious and phantasmagorical in its call for a return to a glorious past. This wasn’t because it was all a conspiracy on the part of the former regime to enable it to come back to power but because – apart from the novel possibilities afforded by social media for the dissemination of messages and propaganda – the jihadis had no new vision when they came to govern beyond the rotten practices they had inherited from the totalitarian regimes that ruled and still rule the region. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon expands rebuke of Turkey over Iraq, Syria strikes

The Washington Post reports: The Turkish government gave the United States less than an hour’s notice before conducting strikes on partner forces in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military said on Wednesday, stepping up its criticism of airstrikes the United States said endangered American personnel.

Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, said the lead time failed to provide adequate notice to reposition American forces or warn Kurdish groups with whom the United States is partnering against the Islamic States.

“That’s not enough time. And this was notification, certainly not coordination as you would expect from a partner and an ally in the fight against ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

American officials expressed indignation at the Turkish bombing, which killed as many as 20 Kurdish fighters in Syria and, according to the U.S. military, five Kurdish peshmerga troops in a coordinated attack across the border in northern Iraq. According to the Turkish government, both attacks targeted members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist group.

A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operations, described the assault as a “massive, highly coordinated attack” involving more than 25 strike aircraft.

In Syria, the Turkish jets targeted leadership sites used by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated force that has emerged as the United States’ primary military partner in Syria, according to a second U.S. official. Turkey has objected to that alliance because, it says, the SDF’s largest component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a PKK affiliate.

Despite the Turkish position, Dorrian signaled the United States would continue its support for the SDF, as it would for Iraqi government troops across the border.

“These are forces that have been integral in fighting ISIS. They’ve been reliable in making progress against ISIS fighters under very difficult and dangerous conditions,” he said. “They have made many, many sacrifices to help defeat ISIS and that keeps the whole world safer. So that is our position on that.” [Continue reading…]

Kom News reports: Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) spokeswoman, Nesrin Abdullah, has said that the group’s forces will withdraw from the operation to capture the Islamic State’s stronghold, Raqqa, if the US doesn’t take concrete action against Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish forces in Syria.

“The is unacceptable in international law. If the USA or coalition or the US [State Dept.] spokesperson can only say, ‘We are concerned or we are unhappy’ [about Turkey’s airstrikes] then we will not accept this. If this is the reaction, we do not accept it. It means they accept what was done to us,” Abdullah told Sputnik Turkish on Wednesday.

The spokeswoman for the all female YPJ, which is part of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a leading force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that has encircled Raqqa, went on to say that unless the US gave a concrete response they would withdraw from the operation. [Continue reading…]

AFP reports: Fighting erupted on Wednesday along Syria’s northeastern border between Turkish forces and Kurdish militiamen, as tensions boiled over in the aftermath of deadly Turkish air strikes the previous day.

The strikes against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have thrown the complexity of Syria’s war into sharp relief and even sparked calls for a no-fly zone in the country’s north.

The skies over northern Syria are increasingly congested, with the Syrian government, Turkey, Russia and the US-led international coalition all carrying out bombing raids across the region. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS faces exodus of foreign fighters as its ‘caliphate’ crumbles

The Guardian reports: Large numbers of foreign fighters and sympathisers are abandoning Islamic State and trying to enter Turkey, with at least two British nationals and a US citizen joining an exodus that is depleting the ranks of the terror group.

Stefan Aristidou, from Enfield in north London, his British wife and Kary Paul Kleman, from Florida, last week surrendered to Turkish border police after more than two years in areas controlled by Isis, sources have confirmed to the Guardian.

Dozens more foreigners have fled in recent weeks, most caught as they tried to cross the frontier, as Isis’s capacity to hold ground in Syria and Iraq collapses. Some – it is not known how many – are thought to have evaded capture and made it across the border into Turkey.

Aristidou, who is believed to be in his mid-20s, surrendered at the Kilis crossing in southern Turkey along with his wife – said to be a British woman of Bangladeshi heritage – and Kleman, 46. The American had arrived at the border with a Syrian wife and two Egyptian women, whose spouses had been killed in Syria or Iraq, Turkish officials said.

Aristidou said he had travelled to Syria to settle rather than fight. The officials said he had admitted to having been based in Raqqa and al-Bab, both of which had been Isis strongholds until al-Bab was recaptured by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces earlier this year. He went missing in April 2015 after flying to Larnaca in Cyprus. Neighbours told the Guardian that he had adopted Islamic dress shortly before he disappeared. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: The hidden power of Iran

Joost Hiltermann writes: Despite his largely symbolic strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack by the Assad regime, President Donald Trump has given no serious indication that he wants to make a broader intervention in Syria. As a candidate, and even as a president, Trump has pledged to leave the region to sort out its own troubles, apart from a stepped-up effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). He may quickly learn, though, that one-off military actions driven by domestic politics have a way of turning into something far more substantial.

Already, tensions with Syria’s close ally, Russia, have been escalating, with little sign that the US administration can bring about a change toward Damascus. Bashar al-Assad long ago learned he can operate with impunity. But even larger questions surround another Assad ally, Iran, which, though less conspicuous, has had a crucial part in the changing course of the war and in the overall balance of power in the region. While the Trump administration regards Iran as enemy, it has yet to articulate a clear policy toward it—or even to take account of its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.

If the Syrian leader ignores the warning conveyed by the Tomahawk missile strike, what will be Trump’s next move? Will he be able to resist the temptation to deepen US involvement in Syria to counter a resurgent Iran? How might this affect the battle against the Islamic State—a battle that has already created an intricate power struggle between the many parties hoping to enjoy the spoils?

Consider the array of forces now in play: in Syria, the war on ISIS has been led by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK, the militant Kurdish party in Turkey, which has been in conflict with the Turkish state for the past 33 years—another US ally. In Iraq, there are the peshmerga, the fighters of a rival Kurdish party, who are competing both with the PKK and with Iraqi Shia militias for control over former ISIS territory. There is Turkey, an avowed enemy of Assad that is currently at war with the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, and has moved troops into both northern Syria and northern Iraq in order to thwart the PKK. There is Russia, which, in intervening on behalf of Assad, has created a major shift in the conflict.

And finally, there is Iran, which has made various alliances with Assad, Shia militias, and Kurdish groups in an effort to expand its control of Iraq and, together with Hezbollah, re-establish a dominant position in the Levant. Moreover, Iran has also benefited from another tactical, if unofficial, alliance—with the United States itself, in their efforts to defeat ISIS in neighboring Iraq.

Given all this, the US strike does nothing so much as complicate an already explosive situation. The loudest cheerleader of Trump’s action last week was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been especially concerned as Iran and its ally Hezbollah benefit from their tactical military alliance with Russia to prop up the Syrian regime. But whatever advantages some may see in the recent US stand against Assad, it makes it even less likely that a stable postwar order can be achieved.

As my own trip to northern Iraq and northern Syria last month revealed, even as the international coalition makes major gains against the Islamic State, the region’s crises are multiplying. Worse, they are also, increasingly, intersecting, sucking in outside powers with a centripetal force that has proved impossible to withstand. [Continue reading…]

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Why is Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr calling for Assad to go?

Michael Weiss writes: A decade ago, the name Muqtada al-Sadr was for Iraqi Sunnis synonymous with electrical cables and power drills—the preferred torture and murder implements of the powerful Shia cleric’s Mahdi Army. By the end of 2006, at the height of Iraq’s civil war, around 3,000 Sunnis caught up in the Sadrist wave of violence were dumped in a soccer field in Adhamiya, in eastern Baghdad, a sporting center that took on the nickname “martyrs’ cemetery.”

For the U.S.-led coalition, Sadr was persistent and dangerous threat in a country with those to spare. A leading insurgent-warlord, at one point had as much blood on his hands as al-Qaeda, and a lot of that blood was from American soldiers. He was also in charge of what really was a “deep state” apparatus in the fledging Iraqi government; with Sadrist goons in charge of the transportation ministry, Baghdad International Airport, and all of its attendant facilities, right down to the sky marshals and cleaning company used to vacuum and mop the terminals. They moonlighted as sectarian spies, tracking the movements of traveling Sunnis, planning kidnapping schemes, and also trafficking in guns and cash into and out of Iraq.

Today, Sadr has become one of the most prominent Shia voices in Iraq calling for reconciliation with Sunnis. But, more striking still, he is calling the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has outdone the Sadrists by orders of magnitude in waging war against adherents of Islam’s majority Sunni sect.

Iran, its expeditionary forces, and proxies wield enormous power in Iraq, and are committed to supporting Assad in Syria. So Sadr’s position puts him in direct opposition to the mullahs in Tehran. [Continue reading…]

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After reports of civilian deaths, U.S. military struggles to defend air operations in war against militants

The Washington Post reports: The Pentagon has struggled in recent weeks to explain what lies behind a surge in reported civilian casualties in its air campaign against the Islamic State, fueling speculation that the new Trump administration is pursuing policies resulting in a greater loss of life.

Military officials insist there has been no significant change to the rules governing its air campaign in Iraq and Syria, and ­instead attribute the string of alleged deadly incidents to a new, more intense phase of the war, in which Islamic State fighters are making a final stand in densely populated areas such as the Iraqi city of Mosul.

But some in Iraq and Syria are left wondering whether the higher death count is a product of President Trump’s bare-knuckle military stance and his suggestions that the United States should “take out” militants’ families.

The recent incidents, and the attention surrounding them, have generated concern within the military that the strikes have undermined the United States’ ability to fight the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq’s Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urges Syria’s Assad to step down

AFP reports: Influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, also calling on Washington and Moscow to stop intervening in the conflict.

The Najaf-based Shiite cleric condemned the killing of 87 people, including 31 children, in a suspected chemical attack last week in a rebel-held Syrian town that has been widely blamed on Damascus.

“I would consider it fair for President Bashar al-Assad to resign and leave power, allowing the dear people of Syria to avoid the scourge of war and terrorist oppression,” he said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Removing Assad no longer a priority for U.S.

BBC News reports: The US representative to the United Nations has said that the US is no longer prioritising the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters on Thursday “we can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did”.

Under President Barack Obama, the US said Assad must go and backed rebels fighting against him.

But US resources shifted after the rise of the so-called Islamic state.

“Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” said Mrs Haley.

“Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria,” she added.

BBC State Department correspondent Barbara Plett Usher says Mrs Haley is stating something quite bluntly that has quietly been US policy for some time.

The battle against IS in Syria became the overriding priority in the last year of the Obama administration, says our correspondent. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: A United States military spokesman said Thursday that Islamic State fighters had been herding local Iraqi residents into buildings in western Mosul, calculating that rising civilian casualties would restrain the United States from using airstrikes to help retake that half of the city.

“What you see now is not the use of civilians as human shields,” said Col. Joseph E. Scrocca, a spokesman for the American-led task force that is battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “ISIS is smuggling civilians into buildings so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack.”

An episode this week in which Islamic State fighters forced civilians inside a building, killing one who resisted, was observed by American surveillance aircraft. Islamic State fighters then positioned themselves inside the same structure to fire on Iraqi forces, according to an account provided in a briefing for Pentagon reporters by Colonel Scrocca. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. war footprint grows in Middle East, with no endgame in sight

The New York Times reports: The United States launched more airstrikes in Yemen this month than during all of last year. In Syria, it has airlifted local forces to front-line positions and has been accused of killing civilians in airstrikes. In Iraq, American troops and aircraft are central in supporting an urban offensive in Mosul, where airstrikes killed scores of people on March 17.

Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.

Rather than representing any formal new Trump doctrine on military action, however, American officials say that what is happening is a shift in military decision-making that began under President Barack Obama. On display are some of the first indications of how complicated military operations are continuing under a president who has vowed to make the military “fight to win.” [Continue reading…]

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Shell-shocked Mosul survivors tell of intense airstrikes

The Guardian reports: Covered in dust, their hands raw from digging, Ali Assad and his cousin made a desperate choice – to leave their family under the rubble of their west Mosul home and flee while they still could.

The two men were among hundreds to be evacuated on Sunday, during a lull in the fighting prompted by outrage over the high civilian toll caused by multiple airstrikes that have battered the city and its trapped population over the past eight days.

With the ground war now suspended as a result, families that have sheltered in ruins or taken their chances in what is left of their homes have been leaving Mosul in droves, many arriving shell shocked and starving at refugee processing centres on its southern outskirts, where they spoke of more than a week of terror.

“There are six of my family still under our house,” said Assad, 32, cupping his raw hands. “My father, I saw him die in front of me, my brother, two sisters and two cousins. My mother survived, but then she was hit by some other explosion and a concrete slab fell on her. She’s badly hurt.” [Continue reading…]

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Iraq suspends Mosul offensive after coalition airstrike atrocity

The Observer reports: Iraqi military leaders have halted their push to recapture west Mosul from Islamic State as international outrage grew over the civilian toll from airstrikes that killed at least 150 people in a single district of the city.

The attack on the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood is thought to have been one of the deadliest bombing raids for civilians since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rescuers were still pulling bodies from the rubble on Saturday, more than a week after the bombs landed, when the US-led coalition confirmed that its aircraft had targeted Isis fighters in the area.

They carried out the attack on 17 March “at the request of the Iraqi security forces”, and have now launched a formal investigation into reports of civilian casualties, the coalition said.

British planes were among those operating in western Mosul at the time. Asked if they could have been involved in the airstrikes, a spokesman did not rule out the possibility of British involvement, saying: “We are aware of reports [of civilian casualties] and will support the coalition investigation.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigating Mosul strikes said to have killed up to 200 civilians

The New York Times reports: The American-led military coalition in Iraq said Friday that it was investigating reports that scores of civilians — perhaps as many as 200, residents said — had been killed in recent American airstrikes in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city at the center of an offensive to drive out the Islamic State.

If confirmed, the series of airstrikes would rank among the highest civilian death tolls in an American air mission since the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003. And the reports of civilian deaths in Mosul came immediately after two recent incidents in Syria, where the coalition is also battling the Islamic State from the air, in which activists and local residents said dozens of civilians had been killed.

Taken together, the surge of reported civilian deaths raised questions about whether once-strict rules of engagement meant to minimize civilian casualties were being relaxed under the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight the Islamic State more aggressively.

American military officials insisted on Friday that the rules of engagement had not changed. They acknowledged, however, that American airstrikes in Syria and Iraq had been heavier in an effort to press the Islamic State on multiple fronts. [Continue reading…]

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Why Raqqa won’t be the end of the road for ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: To understand American policy short-sightedness in the region, look no further than northern Syria today. One can predict with utmost confidence that the policy that Washington insists on pursuing in Raqqa will do two things. It will heat up a secondary conflict in the broader Syrian civil war to a boiling point, and it will reset the conditions for the return of extremist forces.

A common way to deflect the troubling issues with the policy is to make it principally about Turkey. The overarching concern, though, is how a YPG-led campaign to dislodge ISIL from Raqqa will be perceived locally and beyond, and what the YPG seeks to gain from fighting in a predominantly Arab city that ISIL took from the Syrian rebels after the latter expelled the regime from it in 2013.

A YPG commander, Sipan Hemo, told Reuters on Friday that the attack on Raqqa will begin in early April. Everyone should wish the anti-ISIL forces luck, but it should be made clear that the United States is operating below the credit line politically. By that, I mean two things.

First, the win against ISIL would be purely tactical: the removal of ISIL militants from Raqqa will not damage the group’s image, as it should ideally have been designed to do. If policymakers involved in the campaign think the demise of the group in Raqqa in this manner will undermine its narrative, they will be mistaken and out of touch with reality. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. troop presence in Syria now at its highest. But how long will they remain for and why?

Time reports: The Trump Administration is intensifying America’s involvement in the ground war in Syria, having announced on March 9 that it is sending 400 more troops to join the fight against ISIS there.

The new deployment of Army Rangers and a U.S. Marine artillery unit raises fresh questions about the scope and timeline of the U.S. mission in Syria, where the number of American troops is now approaching a high of around a thousand (Washington has not disclosed an exact number). The U.S. is also sending another 2,500 troops to a staging base in Kuwait, awaiting possible deployment to Iraq or Syria.

Recent comments from U.S. officials suggest that the military is contemplating a deployment in Syria that extends far beyond the defeat of ISIS as a conventional armed force. In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9, Army General Joseph Votel, who leads the U.S. Central Command, said additional forces may be needed in the future to help with “stability and other aspects of the operations.” The Pentagon is also considering lifting a formal cap of roughly 500 U.S. troops permitted on the ground in Syria, a limitation imposed by former President Barack Obama, according to the Washington Post.

The near doubling of the U.S. military deployment in eastern Syria, along with Votel’s comments, suggest a shift toward a more open-ended commitment of forces to Syria, echoing the prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the escalation is also prompting calls to define the objectives of the mission over the long term in order to avoid a costly occupation both in terms of lives and resources. [Continue reading…]

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The Iraqi army is on the brink of defeating ISIS in Mosul

The Economist reports: In a series of lightning advances over the past few days, Iraq’s army has seized control of most of western Mosul, the last redoubt of Islamic State (IS) in the country. On March 7th, a day that may have marked a turning point, army units took Mosul’s main government complex, as well as the city’s famous antiquities museum and about half of the old city. The airport had fallen a week or so earlier, and all roads in and out of the city in which the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his “caliphate” in June 2014 are firmly in government hands.

In the command centre responsible for the eastern half of the city, which was liberated in December, Brigadier Qais Yaaqoub was jubilant. “They are in full collapse now,” he said. “When an army breaks it happens very quickly. Within a week or two, this will all be over.” He may be speaking prematurely, but probably not by much. The liberation of west Mosul, started only last month, has proceeded much faster than expected. That said, the last part of the fighting could be a lot more difficult. IS clings on in the oldest parts of the city, where streets are narrow, making it hard to manoeuvre vehicles and increasing the risk of ambushes and civilian casualties. However, tens of thousands have been able to make their way to safety.

American officers working closely with the Iraqi army estimate that as few as 500 IS fighters now remain in the city, the others having fled or been killed in a devastating campaign of well-targeted air strikes. The evidence is clear from a tour of east Mosul, on the left bank of the Tigris river, which has split the city in two since IS blew up all its five bridges as it fell back.

Residents point out building after wrecked building that had been used by jihadists, only to be knocked out from above. “This was a shopping centre, but Daesh [IS] took it over,” says Muammar Yunnis, an English teacher. “Then the planes destroyed it.” The liberation, he reckons, “could not have been handled better. Some have died, that happens in a war, but the government and the Americans have been careful.”

Driving IS out of the city may come to be seen as the straightforward part, however. Judging by what has happened in east Mosul, rebuilding will be a slow process. Three months after their liberation, east Mosulites are getting fed up. They are still without running water, and the only electricity comes from private generators. [Continue reading…]

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