Critical Brink in the Fight against ISIS in Iraq: Mosul Operation
The Mosul operation which was launched on 17 October 2016 brought about many discussions. The US attitude, the distribution of forces in Iraq, Turkey’s presence in Bashiqa, operation process and the aftermath are the main items of the agenda. The discussions regarding the Mosul operation which is considered to be a critical brink in the fight against ISIS in Iraq seem to last longer but it will be appropriate to make a preliminary evaluation concerning the operation.
The Mosul operation is not surprising as to its launching date. It is a well-known fact that the USA plans to carry out this operation before the presidential elections which will be held in November 2016. In the statements of the US authorities regarding the operation, it has been indicated several times that the date of the operation was set as October 2016. It is possible to say that the US President Barack Obama wants to complete his term after he keeps his promises. It is considered that the operation will provide an advantage to the Democrats. It has been concluded in most of the surveys that the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton is one step ahead in the presidential competition. It is believed that Clinton will benefit from some advantages since the Mosul operation has already been launched.
However, all countries including the USA are aware that the Mosul operation cannot be completed in the short term. In fact, it is possible to say that Iraqi authorities are not quite willing to launch the Mosul operation. Many Iraqi officials admit that sufficient preparations have not been completed for the operation. On the other hand, it is not possible to mention about a full coordination in the field even though it is said that Erbil and Baghdad have compromised in terms of the operation plans. This leads to tension in Iraq with respect to the Mosul operation. However, it does not seem possible for a large part of Iraqi people to carry out a successful operation without US support.
It is a fact that no major progress has been made against ISIS without US air support in almost any of the regions in Iraq. Tikrit operation is the clearest example in this matter. Iraqi central government attempted to launch an operation in Tikrit without US air support. No progress was made in Tikrit operation which lasted almost 3 months without US air support. The coordination between the forces even started to weaken and problems arouse in the field due to the failure to make progress. Upon this, Iraqi central government had to stop the operation. Tikrit could be reclaimed as a result of the operation launched with US air support soon after the operation stopped. Iraqi central government is aware that no progress will be made on large scale without US support. Therefore, it has to act in compliance with the US priorities and instructions. This is not only dependent on the success of the operation. Iraqi central government knows that the USA will play a balancing role in terms of the extremist demands that especially Erbil may bring forward. It is possible to say that the last Baghdad visit of Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani was a sign for this. The USA encouraged Erbil to compromise with Baghdad. It seems that Barzani chose to compromise with Baghdad in fear that he would be deprived of the US support. Therefore, both Erbil and Baghdad have to adapt to the acts of the USA. This situation is seen as an obligation for Erbil and Baghdad rather than preference. Since the shifting of the center of gravity of the US support towards the benefit of one side may substantially change the balances. Briefly, it is possible to say that the USA makes the first choice in the Mosul operation and Erbil and Baghdad act according to it.
Latest Situation in the Mosul Operation
It is known that approximately 15 thousand Peshmerga forces and nearly 30 thousand Iraqi security forces take part in the operation. These security forces largely comprise of the Iraqi Army but federal police, local police and tribal units are also involved. Furthermore, it is uncertain whether al-Hashd al-Shaabi, one of the most controversial actors in Iraq, will participate in the operation. However, it is said that al-Hashd al-Shaabi will not enter the center of Mosul even though it takes part in the operation. The military sufficiency of the anti-ISIS fighting powers will also be determinant in the course of the war rather than quantitative majority. It is discussed that Iraqi security forces which join the Mosul operation are not sufficiently trained and lack experience.
Different methods that ISIS resorts to lead to such questioning about the sufficiency of Iraqi security forces in the Mosul operation in terms of fight against ISIS. ISIS uses different methods than the standard war methods. Especially ISIS response to the security forces in Mosul through tunnels are frequently encountered as unexpected and surprising acts. Therefore, direct war methods alone do not seem sufficient.
Iraqi security forces trained by the international coalition forces also join the operation. The Mosul operation tests these forces. What will be significant is not only whether Mosul will be reclaimed from ISIS but also whether Mosul will be protected and potential conflicts will be prevented.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that progress was made more quickly than expected in the first week of the operation. However, major progress was made on the joint operation line of the Peshmerga and Iraqi Army. Considerable progress was made especially on the east-west line where the Peshmerga advanced. According to the operation plans, it is known that the Peshmerga will not pass beyond the regions which are known as Iraqi controversial territories and which fall within the scope of expired Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. It is planned that only the security forces under the Iraqi central government will enter the center of Mosul. As of the beginning of the operation, the Peshmerga opened a front beginning from Mahmur in the west of the Tigris which is in the south of Mosul and expanding towards the north of Mosul. The Peshmerga made progress in the east-west direction on this line. That is, a few fronts were opened from Erbil to Mosul. This line constitutes the external border of the province. Mostly Kurdish population and the minorities live in these regions. However this region is almost no man’s land. After ISIS invasion in Mosul in 2014, a large part of the population living here had to migrate. Therefore, the Peshmerga could easily advance in the battlefield. In some part of these regions, Iraqi army also carries out joint operations with the Peshmerga based on the agreement between Erbil and Baghdad. It is known that almost 20 settlements were cleared from ISIS as a result of the conducted operations. On the other hand, Iraqi Army again moved from Gayyara in the west of the Tigris which is on the south of Mosul. The air base in Gayyara is also at the central position of the US-led coalition in the operation. Iraqi Army and security forces advance from this point on the south-north line and opened an important corridor from the bank of the Tigris to the north. There are serious difficulties for Iraqi security forces here. Indeed, both the east and the west of the corridor opened by Iraqi security forces are under ISIS control. It means that Iraqi security forces should keep in mind the fronts in the west and the east while expanding the operation towards the north. However, the Peshmerga is more relieved in this matter since the Peshmerga has Erbil behind it as a safe zone. Nevertheless, Iraqi Army has to watch over all its four sides. This may cause a problem for Iraqi security forces in the following period.
Furthermore, it is seen that ISIS mostly make preparations for the main war at the center rather than in the external regions of Mosul. Therefore, it is expected that the conflicts will increase towards the center and the progress will weaken. ISIS may even reclaim some regions from time to time. 1.5-2 million civilians that still live in Mosul should also be taken into account. Therefore, difficulties may arise regarding the air operations towards the center. Since the air operations which will be launched in the civil regions should be carried out more carefully in order to abstain from any civilian casualty. Otherwise, it may lead to high civilian death tolls and humanitarian crisis.
The Mosul operation cannot be considered independently from its vicinity. The center of Mosul could be reclaimed but this does not show that the Mosul operation will come to an end. What is important is to ensure stability in Mosul. However, it seems difficult for the operation to be successful in the short term without clearing the vicinity of Mosul and disconnecting ISIS logistics support lines. ISIS still has considerable presence in Tel Afar, Hawija, al-Qa’im. ISIS raid in Kirkuk which occurred only a few days after the Mosul operation is an important message. The operation was launched before ISIS presence was not eliminated in Hawija, the district of Kirkuk which is much smaller than Mosul. It is possible that ISIS will activate its sleeper cells in other regions. Therefore, unexpected developments may be seen and the operation may last longer than expected.
It seems that Turkey’s position in the Mosul operation has been clearer since the visit of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on 21 October 2016. In his statement following the visit, US Secretary of Defense Carter indicated that they wanted to see Turkey taking part in the operation and Turkey and Iraqi central government reached a compromise in principle. Within this scope, it seems that Turkey will play an active role in the Mosul operation since Turkey has started to support the anti-ISIS air operations. Furthermore, intelligence, logistics and military services could also be provided. While Turkey’s military presence in Bashiqa is still controversial, Turkey continues its sensitiveness about the protection of Iraq’s territorial integrity and the maintenance of political unity. Therefore, Turkey’s military presence in Bashiqa should be perceived only as a support to Iraq in its fight against terrorism. As US President Barack Obama explained on September 2014, Turkish presence in Bashiqa does not constitute any adverse situation regarding the fight against ISIS.
Turkish presence in Bashiqa not only allows the fight against ISIS but also give training support to the anti-ISIS fighting groups. Indeed, the groups that Turkey trains in Bashiqa join the operation. Iraqi side approved of the participation of this force in the operation. This may be said to reveal that Turkish presence in Bashiqa is accepted. Turkey never aims to gain land either in Iraq or in another country. Iraq announces that it is not opposed to Turkey’s training but Turkey’s military concentration in Bashiqa is disturbing. However, what is in question here is the protection of the training unit. It is known that Iraqi security forces do not control this region.There is ISIS presence in the vicinity of the training base in Bashiqa. Therefore, Turkey provides its own protection. Indeed, Turkey has had martyrs due to ISIS attacks on the Bashiqa camp. It is known that Turkey’s attacks towards ISIS around Bashiqa have caused the death of almost 700 ISIS members. Turkey wants to act in coordination with the international coalition forces and Iraqi security forces in the Mosul operation.
At this point, it is seen that Turkey’s sensitiveness is newly understood. Turkey is primarily concerned that PKK terrorist organization will form a new structure and a second Qandil in the region. Turkey will take initiative itself unless Iraq and the coalition forces take steps in this matter during and after the Mosul operation. Furthermore, a movement of migration from the region to Turkey is also among Turkey’s concerns. The management of this process is very critical for Turkey. The experiences in Syria necessitate being more cautious in Iraq.If Iraq and the international public opinion play an inefficient role in this process, Turkey will again take necessary measures. Moreover, Turkmen situation in the region is also significant for Turkey. Especially Tel Afar is of the highest level of sensitiveness. It is among Turkey’s priorities to prevent ethnical and sectarian conflicts in Tel Afar if the people of the region turn back after the city is cleared. Besides, it is said that PKK terrorist organization may also be oppressive in Tel Afar. Turkey will make a move in case of such threat. The Bashiqa issue has increased the tension in the relations of these two countries more than ever. However, both countries look for reconciliation means. Turkey is in favor of stability in the region. It is prepared to provide any kind of help so that Iraq can attain stability. Therefore, it will be appropriate for Iraq to try to gain favor from Turkey. The increasing tension in the relations will be beneficial to neither Turkey nor Iraq.