Title Copied

ISIS’s remaining Syria-Iraq holdings (in gray) as of October 17 (Wikimedia | BlueHypercane761)

Unfortunately today kind of got away from me. I had a medical checkup in the morning but then I was asked on short notice to do an interview for a Libyan TV program on location in downtown DC, and it turns out that shooting on location is a lot harder than doing it in a studio. I had a fine time doing it, no complaints, but that’s the reason why the action around here has been nil today. Anyway, if you could, please, spare a thought for the real victim of my long day out of the house: my dog, who was stuck in her pen the whole time I was gone.

Anyway, in lieu of any new writing here, please enjoy my recap of ISIS’s recent travails, from Dabiq to Mosul, at LobeLog:

But IS’s interest in this small hamlet of fewer than 5,000 people before the war began has little to do with its location and nothing to do with its history. Rather, ISIS is interested in Dabiq’s future. Dabiq occupies an outsized place in Islamic eschatology, similar to the role the ancient site of Megiddo plays for many Christians. In a Hadith (report of a saying or deed attributed to an early Islamic luminary) published in a ninth-century collection called Sahih Muslim, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have named Dabiq as one of two possible sites (the other is in Turkey and outside IS’s control) where a great End Times battle will take place between “the Romans” and “an army of the people of the earth.” IS, having identified the current day as the End Times and itself as the “army of the people of earth,” has built up its propaganda around the idea that it will defeat the “Roman” invaders at Dabiq.

Real-world events have a way of upsetting even the best-laid apocalyptic plans, however. IS’s plans for Dabiq were dealt a serious blow over the weekend when a Syrian rebel force, with heavy support from Turkish air power and armor, drove an estimated 2,000 IS fighters out of Dabiq and seized control of the town. The Turkish-led assault had some of the makings of IS’s great battle—Turkey, after all, occupies much of what would have been left of the Roman Empire at the time the Hadith in question was compiled—but the result certainly doesn’t seem to carry any apocalyptic undertones. Instead, by driving IS out of Dabiq, Turkey achieved the more prosaic goals of establishing control over its border with Syria and putting its forces in position to advance on the larger IS stronghold at nearby al-Bab, or even, maybe, on besieged eastern Aleppo.

Fun fact: the title of this post refers to the fact that I’d originally wanted the title of that LobeLog piece to simply be “Apocalypse Postponed.” You know, like Apocalypse Now, but, like, postponed? I wrote the piece and sent it off to them only then to find out that about 87 other people had already gone for exactly the same gag in reporting on Dabiq, so the title changed a bit.

The latest news from Iraq is actually not so upbeat. Today Iraqi and Kurdish forces announced a pause in their operation to encircle Mosul. This in and of itself is not a big deal–the Mosul operation will undoubtedly take weeks if not months to come to fruition, because ISIS has some incentive to dig in here and also because there are an estimated 1.5 million civilians still in Mosul whose well-being has to be taken into account. However, if the pause is because of something like this:

Tensions emerged Tuesday among allied forces fighting to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State, a day after the offensive was launched.

The long-awaited assault on the extremist group’s last major Iraqi stronghold began Monday with rapid advances, including by a contingent of Kurdish fighters who stormed nine nearby villages in the first phase of the effort to retake Iraq’s second-largest city. The pace slowed Tuesday as the Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, consolidated their gains and prepared for the next push.

They also criticized their partners in the Iraqi military.

“The Iraqi army hasn’t moved even a bit,” said the Peshmerga’s Gen. Sihad Barzani,brother of Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani. “The plan was us taking villages, and then the Iraqi army takes some of them. They didn’t.”

…well, that could be trouble. The forces that are participating in the Mosul operation–the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiʿa militias, Sunni militias, American Special Forces, Turkmen fighters trained by Turkey, maybe Turkey too–are diverse both in personnel and intentions, and some don’t really have much experience working with one another. There is a high potential, much higher than existed in earlier operations like Ramadi and Fallujah, for those forces to quit and/or turn on one another. So if the Kurds feel like they’re being asked to serve as human shields for the Iraq army, or, as that WSJ article goes on to say, if the mostly Sunni Kurds are angered by the Iraqi army’s insistence on flying Shiʿa banners alongside the Iraqi flag, then this operation could be in big trouble.

The biggest threat to the successful liberation of Mosul isn’t anything that ISIS might do; it’s the possibility that the big, sprawling, loosely-connected force attacking the city will simply collapse under the weight of its own internal tensions.


3 thoughts on “Title Copied

  1. Is there any idea of how the forces are physically arrayed? Like US special forces alongside Peshmerga obviously, but are Sunni and Shia militias rubbing shoulders at all? Or is it more coarsely grained where different friendly factions have their separate areas and don’t even cross eachothers checkpoints? Does IS have to deal with the same kind of internal tensions?

    1. I’m honestly not sure how the Popular Mobilization Units are being deployed and whether there’s segregation between Sunni and Shia units. But the PMUs are mostly militias that signed up to the government program, so they’re already going to have their own chains of command going in. There was evidence of Sunni and Shia militias working somewhat collaboratively as far back as the liberation of Tikrit, though they were reportedly working collaboratively on reprisal attacks so that might not be the best model to follow.

      Still, the problems that have been reported have been between the PMUs and the local populations, not between different PMU factions, so I’d assume the various militias are separate from one another to some degree, but not to the extent that they’re deliberately being kept apart.

      I’m not at all sure about the Sunni/Turkmen forces aligned with Turkey. Abadi seems like he’d prefer they have no role at all, so it seems like it would be challenging to integrate them into the offensive, but who knows?

      I’m sure ISIS is dealing with internal tensions, maybe between people looking to run, others looking to tactically withdraw into Syria, and still others who are ready to die in Mosul. But obviously ISIS, like any extremist group, is pretty ideologically cohesive.

      1. Thanks for the bonus thoughts! To me the Turkey-aligned forces are the most interesting sub-plot, but its all pretty intriguing.

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