This week Western news media were full of reports on the “epic” battle for Mosul where US-backed forces are supposedly set to defeat the Islamic State terror group besieging the northern Iraqi city.
There is little doubt that the Iraqi army aided by Iranian Shia militia and Kurdish Peshmerga are intent on routing the militants from Iraq’s second city, which has been under a reign of terror since June 2104.
But the intentions of other protagonists are decidedly more dubious. The US is providing air strikes supposedly to aid the ground forces penetrating Mosul, as are NATO members France and Turkey. Turkish air strikes on the city have reportedly begun despite objections from the Iraqi government, which is urging Ankara to stay out of the battle.
The Iraqi authorities have a long-running dispute with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government since Turkish military invaded northern Iraq last year, claiming that it had a deal with Baghdad to train Arab militias to fight the Islamic State (IS, also known as Daesh). Baghdad insists it gave no such permission and has time and again reiterated demands for Turkish troops to withdraw from its territory, but to no avail.
Far from withdrawing, Erdogan is pointedly ignoring the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, asserting that his troops will march on Mosul. The launch of air strikes by Turkey serves to emphasize Erdogan’s determination to shape the battle for the city.
With typical bluster, Erdogan dismissed the Iraqi premier as nothing more than an “administrator of a Shia army”, and added: “If we say we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason.”
As Hurriyet newspaper reported, Erdogan’s ambitions are more about gaining military and administrative control over Mosul in conjunction with the Syrian city of Raqqa, rather than liaising with the Iraqi government to eliminate IS.
Erdogan also stridently called on the US to side with Turkey in its ambitions rather than with Iraq. Addressing Washington, he said: “Do you have a NATO partnership with Iraq? No. Then you can’t put us in a position of preference against Iraq.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed concerns that jihadi extremists could flee from Mosul into neighboring Syria, presenting a greater challenge to the Syrian-Russian campaign to defeat terror groups there. Lavrov said that Russia would exercise military force to stop this from happening.
Intriguingly, Lavrov added: “The city [Mosul] is surrounded, but not completely. I do not know why. Possibly, they’ve just failed. It is to be hoped they just failed, and not were reluctant to do so.”
It is notable that in previous US-Turkish assaults on IS-held towns there have been unconfirmed reports of large numbers of the jihadists being covertly afforded safe passage out of harm’s way. This has been suspected of happening in US-backed offensives on Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, and in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
As the offensive on Mosul gets underway, there are similar suspicions that the US, Turkey and Saudi military objective is not about crushing the IS hold-outs, but rather evacuating these mercenaries from the city.
Said Mamuzini of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq believes that up to 7,000 militants belonging to the IS will be given safe passage out of Mosul to reconsolidate with other jihadist mercenaries already in Syria.
This of course negates Washington and Ankara’s official claims of fighting against IS. But it is fully consistent with the critical assessment that the US and its allies have all along been covertly sponsoring various terror groups to wage a war for regime change in Syria. The latter being a strategic ally for Russia and Iran in the pivotal Middle Eastern region.
Across Syria and Iraq there are three main strongholds remaining for al Qaeda-associated terror groups, whether they go by the name of IS, Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar al Shams, Jaysh al Fatah or some other nom de guerre. These terror bases are Aleppo city in Syria, Mosul in Iraq and positioned roughly halfway between those two sites is Raqqa located in central Syria.
It seems significant that as Syrian and Russian forces bear down on the militants besieging the eastern quarter of Aleppo that Washington and its allies have escalated a media campaign decrying “war crimes” in order to halt that offensive. This has been accompanied by vociferous efforts from the US, Britain and France to implement no-fly zones around Aleppo. This all strongly suggests that the Western powers are trying to extricate their proxy insurgents from the Aleppo crucible.
More than coincidently, it seems, while the drama of Aleppo has been underway, the Turkish and US military launched a major campaign in August to effectively annex large swathes of northern Syria, due east from Aleppo and stretching nearly 100 kms back to the city of Jarablus on the Euphrates, proximate to the Turk border.
Indeed, Turkish forces occupying Jarablus have begun erecting the national flag of Turkey on public buildings, much to the consternation of the Syrian government which has denounced it as a violation of its sovereign territory.
All the while, Turkey and the US have claimed that the northern Syrian operations are aimed at “cleansing” the area from IS terrorists. But more troubling are reports that the militants whom Turkey in particular has been mentoring during these operations are indistinguishable from IS in terms of brutish ideology towards any local people deemed to be “infidels”.
In the Turk-led capture this week of the northern Syrian border city of Dabiq, the Western media portrayed this as a “liberation” from IS terrorists. But it was evident from France 24 news footage that the new gun-toting militants were shouting out Islamist slogans. Syrian sources say that the residents are fearful of having to live under yet another reign of terror as before.
There are also reports of Turkish military forces this week firing artillery at the Syrian villages of Sourkeh in Efrin district and Deir Ballout, causing civilians, women and children to flee, and prompting Syrian sources to comment that Turkey is actually mounting a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”.
This is important context to underscore the wider implications of the battle at Mosul. It could be a case of all jihadist safe corridors leading to Raqqa.
Turkey and the US have been mulling military plans for several weeks now to extend their northern Syrian security curtain down to Raqqa. This concurs with what Erdogan was boasting about this week when he indicated that the US-backed offensive on Mosul should be integrated with broader plans to militarily take Raqqa.
If the jihadist mercenaries can be shunted safely into Raqqa from either Aleppo or Mosul, they would then be able to consolidate there under the safety of a Turkish and US de facto no-fly zone if the latter NATO forces do actually proceed with plans to take Raqqa, as Erdogan bragged about.
Moreover, because of the US-Turk annexed territory straddling the Syrian borders, the jihadists sheltered in Raqqa would once again be plugged into a Turk lifeline as never before, and therefore be able to live to fight another day.
Russia needs to make sure Aleppo falls with no terrorist breakout; and, as Lavrov hinted, Moscow must make sure too that there is no influx of jihadists from Mosul into Syria. Russia should also demand that Turkey and the US do not take any steps towards a military takeover of Raqqa, as Erdogan is calling for.
That battle, in the future, to clear illegally armed insurgents from their final bastion in Raqqa should be the prerogative of the Syrian army and its trusted allies.