In an operation that looks like the twin brother (sister?) of the SDF’s recent activity north of Raqqa, in Syria, American Special Forces are embedded with Kurdish Peshmerga in an operation that is approaching, but will likely stop short of, the city of Mosul, in Iraq:
The operation is the largest by the Kurds in Iraq since they took Sinjar from the Islamic State last November. Intent on driving ISIS out of nine villages facing them at the Khazir front, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) threw 4,700 men into the offensive, according to Arif Tayfor, the sector commander at Khazir.
By Monday afternoon, seven of those nine villages had been taken.
The Kurds, without question, benefitted from some hands-on U.S. support. A few miles from Mufti, on the road leading directly to Mosul, I came across a U.S. special operations commando shoveling empty machine-gun cartridge cases out of the turret of an armored car.
These camera-shy elite soldiers usually refrain from engaging the enemy directly, instead gathering intelligence and directing air strikes. But at Khazir, U.S. ammunition clearly was expended.
The Khazir front lies just east of Mosul along the main route from that city to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and many of these villages are populated by Kurdish religious minorities, like the Shabak, whose continued existence as distinct communities (like that of the Yazidis in Sinjar) was put in grave peril when ISIS swept through the region two years ago.
The Kurds have an ulterior motive for pushing ISIS out of these areas. As Iraq falls apart politically, it behooves the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to establish control over as much territory as it can so that it might hang on to some or all of it in the event that post-ISIS Iraq either decentralizes or breaks up entirely. But contrary to some of what you may read about this operation, I think it’s unlikely that they’ll attempt to attack Mosul itself. As is the case with Raqqa and the SDF, the KRG recognizes that a Kurdish offensive to capture Mosul could, even if successful (and that’s no sure thing), potentially lead to some nasty and very counter-productive Arab-Kurd infighting. I feel pretty confident about this because Aziz Ahmad, an aide at the Kurdistan Region Security Council, wrote about this very concern in The Atlantic just a couple of days ago:
We—the Kurds in Iraq—believe the road to Mosul begins in Baghdad. My colleagues in the Kurdistan Region Security Council and I are working closely with the global coalition in the war on ISIS and planning for the Mosul offensive. (I’m writing here in a personal capacity.) Our peshmerga remain the most effective ground force against ISIS in Iraq, and have already defeated the group on every major front where we’ve faced them, pushing the jihadists to the edge of Mosul after the group’s attempts to expand north from the city. Joint raids by U.S. and Kurdish special-operations forces in and around the city, as well as in Syria, have netted troves of intelligence on the group’s operations and finances.
And our peshmerga will continue creating the conditions to allow a liberating force to take Mosul back. We have let the Iraqi army to use Kurdish territory as a staging ground. Since doing so, in fact, we’ve seen a sudden increase in ISIS attacks into Kurdish-held territory. But our brave men alone cannot go into Mosul, an Arab city, where they would be seen as an occupying force. Put simply, given that we Kurds aspire to run our own affairs in our own territory in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, no peshmerga will die to restore Iraqi unity. The Kurds cannot force Shia and Sunni Arabs to live together in peace.
The KRG is also, not surprisingly, looking to extract concessions from Baghdad before it agrees to even participate in a government-led operation to retake Mosul. These primarily have to do with the way Baghdad disburses federal funds and foreign military aid to the Kurds, and with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s willingness to acknowledge a federalist future for Iraq as a whole. These won’t be easy points to negotiate, but it will be essential to get the KRG on-side before a real Mosul operation begins.