The campaign to liberate Mosul has come to a successful conclusion. The iron grip that ISIS once held on the northern Iraq city has been lifted. The city and its inhabitants are free following a drawn out nine-month long effort. The Iraqi army, and its coalition allies paid dearly for every street, and neighborhood secured. ISIS understood all to well that this was the endgame in Mosul. Its fighters there accepted their fates and fought with the ferociousness of cornered animals, because that is more or less what they were. Some fighters and senior ISIS officials made it out of Mosul before it fell back into Iraqi hands, but the majority elected to stay on and battle until the bitter end.
Today is a day of celebration for Iraq. Mosul represents a turning point in the war against ISIS, as well as being a watershed moment in the history of post-Saddam Iraq. The Iraqis bore the brunt of the campaign to liberate one of its major cities. The simple reality that Iraq controls Mosul right now is astounding when one considers that a few short years ago ISIS was making seizing territory right on the outskirts of Baghdad.
In the aftermath of the Mosul campaign, what happens now? Iraq’s government and army have made major strides since those dark days, but they still have a long road ahead of them. Suicide and car bombings have become a regular part of life for Iraqis. Periodically, ISIS launch coordinated bombings that inflict large numbers of casualties and erode the rock of stability that Iraq is trying to carve out for itself. Will a battlefield victory against ISIS translate to better security and less attacks? Or will the opposite hold true?
Then there is the matter of Iran. Iranian influence within the borders of its one-time rival has been extensive and will likely last in the post-ISIS era. Tehran’s intentions remain unclear, but given Iran’s actions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, it is safe to assume that it is plans to maintain a significant presence in the region for some time to come. The United States and Saudi Arabia are wary of Iran’s moves in the area to say the least. The nightmare scenario for both nations is to see Iraq gravitate closer to Tehran and ultimately wind up as a vassal state to Iran one day.
A New Phase in the Turkish Purge
The Turkish government had dismissed another 10,000 civil servants and shut down 15 media outlets over suspected links with Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric who has been blamed by Ankara for being behind the failed coup in July. Since the coup attempt, over 100,000 government employees have been fired or suspended and 37,000 arrested. This latest batch of dismissed employees learned of their fates when two executive decrees were published on Saturday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long defended the continued crackdown, citing it as essential to removing Gulen influence from the state government. Opposition parties view the purges quite differently, with one even calling it a coup in itself. Turkey’s Western allies are concerned that Erdogan is using the failed coup as justification to remove eradicate dissent.
Immediately following the failed coup, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and used it as a blanket to go after Gulen supporters and Kurdish militants, citing both as major threats. The state of emergency has been extended until January, 2017 and could be pushed out even beyond that, as Erdogan has hinted that authorities will need even more time to contend with the alleged threats.
Advance Into Mosul Underway
The battle for Mosul is entering its third week and finally showing signs of significant progress. Today, Iraqi units broke through ISIS defenses in the eastern suburbs of the city and fighting has expanded into the city limits for the first time. Iraqi army Counter Terrorism Service troops are now fighting in the Karama district. The offensive to liberate Mosul started on 17 October and has progressed slowly since then. Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi government forces have taken on the lion’s share of the effort to retake Mosul with US airstrikes supporting them. On Saturday, pro-Iranian militias joined the effort, attempting to cut off the transportation network between Mosul and Raqqa. ISIS has been attempting to slow the coalition offensive down with mortars, sniper fire, car bombs and scorched earth, as well as more conventional defensive tactics. The question now appears to be not ‘will Mosul be liberated?’ but ‘How long will the effort take and how many heavy will the casualties be?’
The Obama administration, according to various reports, could be considering talks with Iran on cooperating to prevent ISIS from gaining more ground in Iraq. It is nearly impossible to picture US-Iranian cooperation given the history between the two nations since 1979. A common enemy and threatened interests can make for strange bedfellows, however. The possibility of a US-Iranian alliance against ISIS appears to be a possibility at the very least. Whether the idea will become a reality is another story entirely. Make no mistake about it, though, a joint effort against ISIS would not signal rapprochement between the United States and Iran. But for now the animosity is taking a backseat as both nations look to find a way to prop up the Iraqi government, blunt ISIS and prevent Iraq from disintegrating into civil war à la Syria.
At first glance it might seem strange for Iran to be taking such a keen interest in the stability and well-being of its eastern neighbor. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was a bitter, bloody affair for both nations. A deeper look at the last ten years shows that Iran has a large stake of influence in Iraq and it begins at the top echelon of power in the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has close ties to Iran. He lived in Tehran for eight years in the 1980s and while there, assisted in the efforts to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since taking power in Baghdad, Maliki has opened the door for Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran regards its relationship with Maliki and Iraq as essential. It does not want to lose the influence it has obtained. Therefore, it is shouldn’t come as a surprise that Iran is sending Revolutionary Guards to help bolster the Iraqi military, or that Tehran might honestly consider a partnership with the United States to combat ISIS.
As of this afternoon, the United States does not seem as upbeat about talks with Iran as it did yesterday and this morning. Secretary of State John Kerry suggests the idea of cooperation is possible while the Pentagon has stated emphatically that will be no military coordination with Iran. Collaboration between the two countries is something that will not be an easy sell inside of the Beltway or out. What could the US stand to gain from allying itself with Iran outside of a stable Iraq? The end result could very well be a wider open door for Iranian influence and a closed one for the United States.
US actions over the weekend appeared to be focused on evacuating the US embassy staff if the situation calls for it, instead of using military force against ISIS. The Fifth Fleet is moving assets into the Persian Gulf that will be able to support the operation. On Friday, President Obama called on Iraq to ‘settle its problems.’ This, along with Kerry’s comments today could point to the United States making a concerted effort to absolve itself of everything Iraq.
Events in Iraq over the past few days have taken most of the world by surprise. Unfortunately, included in that category are the US and Iraqi governments. To be fair, the Iraqi government was aware of the threat posed by ISIS. So was the US intelligence community, which warned of an ISIS threat growing in Mosul and Baghdad. Yet the scale of what has transpired in Iraq this week was foreseen by very few people. It is Friday, 13 June, 2014. In under a week ISIS has gained control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has gained more than a foothold in the country. Along with Mosul, a number of other large sized towns are under their control, including Fallujah and Tikrit. Al-Anbar Province is the base of ISIS operations in Iraq. The extremist group has an iron grip on the province. With events unfolding at a rapid pace the question is being posed almost hourly: Will ISIS move directly on Baghdad?