Rebel forces assaulting western Aleppo to try to break the government siege of eastern Aleppo are giving Bashar al-Assad a run for his money in the human carnage department. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said today that “scores of civilians” have been killed by rebel artillery and suicide bombers since the western Aleppo assault began on Friday. Activists put the number at 40, 16 of them children. Imagine what these guys could do with a few helicopters and some barrel bombs. Syrian state media accused the rebels of firing chlorine gas shells at government troops in western Aleppo, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that some government fighters had died of asphyxiation, which suggests, though doesn’t confirm, the use of chlorine. Russia, meanwhile, has reportedly sent three submarines to join the carrier group it currently has steaming toward the eastern Mediterranean. These subs, armed with cruise missiles, could participate in some kind of all-out bombardment of eastern Aleppo, which is what most observers seem to think is going to happen once that Russian battle group gets into position.
More Popular Mobilization Unit forces have reportedly joined the PMU advance west of Mosul toward the city of Tal Afar. I appeared on Alhurra earlier today to talk about Mosul, and whenever I do TV I have to think through stuff so I don’t embarrass myself on air (any more than I do anyway), so here’s what I think about the decision to send the PMU toward Tal Afar.
The PMU were going to participate in the Mosul operation whether Baghdad, the KRG, or the US wanted them to or not. So the question becomes, do you want these (rightly or not) controversial militias participating in the operation as part of a plan, in a way that directs their energies productively and minimizes the risk that they’ll destabilize the already unstable coalition fighting to liberate Mosul? Or do you want them to just march on up to Mosul and do whatever the hell they want? I think the former is obviously the better choice. So, then, what should they do? Well, look at the map around Mosul:
There’s this huge stretch of territory that runs from Mosul to the west, all the way into Syria, still under ISIS control. Cutting Mosul off from the west isn’t necessary for the success of the operation, but it wouldn’t hurt, and in particular cutting off the highway that runs through Tal Afar would be a good thing. So you give the PMU an operation that is important enough so as not to be insulting, but, and here’s the key point, they’re probably not really capable of carrying it out. There simply aren’t enough PMU forces to encircle Mosul from the west and, without air support (which they may not get), it’s not even very likely that they’ll be able to progress all the way to Tal Afar, let alone to take it (ISIS seems to be pretty well dug in there). But you’ve given them a role in the fight they wanted to join, and you’ve done so in a way that keeps them out of everybody else’s hair (and, crucially, out of Mosul).
Ideally, the PMU have some success, but don’t get to Tal Afar. They participated in the great liberation of Mosul alongside regular Iraqi soldiers, Peshmerga, Turks, Turkmen, et al, and this provides a basis for integrating the PMU into the legitimate Iraqi security apparatus moving forward. While we’re dreaming, this whole operation becomes a rallying cry for national unity and helps begin the process of stitching together a genuine Iraqi nation. The risk is that the PMU exceed expectations and actually wind up taking Tal Afar. Then there’s a good chance Turkey will intervene, and you’ve suddenly got a real problem.
Anyway, that’s what I think.
As you no doubt already know, it’s suspected that tens of thousands of people are now being forcibly held by ISIS as human shields inside Mosul. They risk facing the eventual brunt of the attack on the city and now have to weigh trying to escape, and potentially being killed for it, or staying, trying to dodge coalition ordinance, and maybe in the end risk being treated as collaborators. Something else to keep in mind as the attack progresses is the likelihood that ISIS will begin using its stockpiles of mustard and chlorine gas. We know they’ve manufactured both types of gas, and they’ve already used chemical weapons of a sort when they set fire to that sulfur plant outside Mosul, which sent clouds of sulfur gas all over Iraq.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, at least 17 people were killed today in a series of ISIS bombings. These bombings are being cast as another of ISIS’s responses to the Mosul operation, which would make sense except that ISIS has been bombing Baghdad regularly for years now, since long before it was called ISIS. And even when Mosul is retaken, and ISIS no longer controls any significant territory inside Iraq, these attacks will likely continue as the group fully morphs from a would-be empire to a pure terror network.