Around a month ago the forces moving to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul came to an agreement on dividing control of the city once the forces of the Islamic State are driven out. But as the fighters draw closer to the city’s outskirts, it seems those understandings are a dead letter floating in the desert wind.
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Ostensibly, each part of the American-led coalition is upholding its commitments: The Kurds have positioned themselves on the eastern side of the Mosul district and are not moving westward into the city, the Turkish forces are operating north of the city and the Iraqi army is continuing to advance in the south. Even the Shi’ite militias being directed and funded by Iran are observing the agreements and have not invaded the city. But this scene is misleading.
Last week large Shi’ite militia forces moved toward the city of Tal Afar, 50 kilometers west of Mosul. These fighters are planning to capture the city from ISIS operatives, but beyond that it plans to seize control of its outskirts and access roads. Tal Afar sits on a vital crossroads that links Mosul to Raqqa, the jihadists’ capital in Syria. The militias’ declared intent is to prevent ISIS fighters from fleeing Mosul to Raqqa, thus intensifying the siege on the Iraqi city. This move has been coordinated with the Iraqi government, but does not jibe with the American strategy, which sought to leave the jihadists an escape route to reduce the resistance in Mosul.
The most threatening forecast with regard to the militias is that they will move westward into Syrian territory and help the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. They are thus liable to tip the scales significantly in the Syrian regime’s favor and entrench Iran’s hold in Iraq and later in Syria as well.
Although the Kurds have said they do not plan to join the fighting in Mosul, it’s doubtful they will allow the Shi’ite forces to take exclusive control of a city that has a Kurdish population. Moreover, Washington believes that every fighter must be enlisted to help the Iraqi military conquer Mosul. The Kurds have already announced that they’ve liberated more than 90 percent of the “disputed” territories (those the Kurds claim ownership of and had been under ISIS’ control) and that it has no intention of leaving them or giving them back to the Iraqi government.
Turkey’s forces are in the north and are giving air support to help the Kurds establish themselves in eastern Mosul. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in an undeclared state of war with Baghdad, which objects to Ankara’s military intervention. Turkey has gone so far as to declare that Mosul had once belonged to it and was taken away under the treaties of Sevres and Lausanne that drew the borders of Turkey after World War I.
But even the historical dispute isn’t relevant right now – from Turkey’s perspective the defense of the Turkman population in both Mosul and Tal Afar offers legitimate grounds for seizing control of parts of northern Iraq. Also playing a role are the declarations of the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani that after ISIS is forced out of Mosul, his government will negotiate with Iraq over forming an independent Kurdish entity. Turkey will seek to prevent the establishment of such a state, even though right now it is cooperating with the Kurds.
As a result, before the battle for Mosul, where a million people are under siege, even begins, the American administration finds itself in a vise. Washington, whether it likes it or not, will have to pick its way through the various commitments that require definitions and compromises so that the coalition doesn’t disintegrate before it enters the city.
Unlike the war in Syria, where Russia dominates, the battle for Mosul is an American campaign in which Russia plays almost no role. The problem is that Washington is stuck in Iraq with unraveling threads, over most of which it exerts no control. The militias don’t see Washington as a source of authority. Turkey is far from obedient and has already shown in Syria that it will ignore U.S. policy if it feels its own interests are threatened. The Kurds remain doubtful of America’s commitment to their independence. Moreover, at this point no one knows how to relate to any U.S. commitment, since the identity of the president who will have to uphold it is not known.
It took two years for the battle for Mosul to be launched, and now that the forces are in the field it is shaping up as a key diplomatic battle even before the actual fighting begins. It could be that the scorched earth ISIS will have left in the city will pale in comparison to the civil war that might break out after it’s gone.