Conflict update, October 29


It took a few days, but the predominantly-Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have now joined the Mosul offensive. With regular Iraqi forces pushing toward Mosul from the south and Kurdish Peshmerga advancing from the east and north, the PMU are being deployed to the west to capture surrounding towns and fully encircle the city. Their goal, for now, is Tal Afar, a city that’s not terribly close to Mosul (~50 km by the most generous measures) but that does sit on the main east-west artery that one might take if, say, one were trying to get desperately needed weapons to one’s psychopathic brethren in Syria, hypothetically speaking.

Tal Afar (as usual, thanks to Google Maps)

The plan is to have the PMU cut off these western escape routes and then stay put while the Iraqi army makes the actual assault on Mosul. Given the history, both real and perceived, of the way the PMU have been interacting with Sunni locals in liberated places like Tikrit and Fallujah, keeping them away from Mosul itself makes sense. Unfortunately it’s another potential flashpoint with Turkey, the uninvited guest that nevertheless insists it will be participating in the liberation of Mosul, don’t worry you can thank them later. The Turks are concerned about giving the Iranian-backed militias that make up part of the PMU any role in the operation at all, and they’re particularly concerned about the fact that the PMU will be going into Tal Afar, whose population is primarily Iraqi Turkmen (ethnic Turks living in Iraq). Ankara has decided that it is the protector of both Syrian and Iraqi Turkmen, mostly because it’s convenient for Ankara’s foreign policy aims, so this is another place where this whole convoluted offensive could fall apart.

Ankara is also apparently considering an attack on Sinjar, because I guess the Yazidis there haven’t suffered enough. Turkey claims that the region is becoming a PKK base. It was one thing when Tayyip Erdoğan’s “neo-Ottomanism” was mostly limited to expressions of Turkish soft power, but now that he really does seem to think that he’s an emperor I have to say it’s pretty problematic.


Moscow may be resisting the urge to resume airstrikes on eastern Aleppo in response to the new rebel offensive in western Aleppo, but it does seem to be giving air cover to the Syrian army’s efforts to defeat that offensive:

Syrian government forces launched a counteroffensive Saturday under the cover of airstrikes in an attempt to regain control of areas they had lost to insurgents the day before in the northern city of Aleppo, activists and state media said.

Meanwhile, insurgents launched a fresh offensive on the city, a day after embarking on a broad ground attack aimed at breaking a weeks-long government siege on the eastern rebel-held neighborhoods of Syria’s largest city.

The insurgents were able to capture much of the western neighborhood of Assad where much of Saturday’s fighting was concentrated, according to the Syrian army and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory said the new offensive by Syrian troops and their allies went under the cover of Russian and Syrian airstrikes but government forces did not succeed in regaining control of areas they lost. The group said the fighting and airstrikes are mostly on Aleppo’s western and southern edges.

The rebels also reportedly launched an attack on the Zahraa neighborhood, but the fighting there seems to have been inconclusive.

Continue reading “Conflict update, October 29”


The problem with proxies

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Many (all?) of the various wars currently raging in the MENA zone (Syrian rebels vs. Assad, Yemeni Houthis vs. Hadi, the Libyan civil war, everybody vs. ISIS, etc.) have taken the form of proxy wars to some extent. Both Libyan factions are backed by rival Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is backing Hadi with men and air power in Yemen against the Houthis, who are–sort of–Iranian clients. Syria’s civil war has drawn in so many outside actors that the first round in the most recent attempt at peace talks didn’t actually involve anybody from Syria. And the war against ISIS has involved proxies. The United States has sent trainers and equipment to work with Syrian Kurds, Turkey has been helping Syrian Turkmens and Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi government has been relying on militias when its own army wasn’t up to the task, and so on. You get the idea.

The problem with trying to fight a war by proxy–well, one of the problems–is that proxies aren’t unthinking automatons who will do what you want and never go beyond that. It’s a give and take relationship, and sometimes, as in the now-infamously failed American “train and equip” program in Syria, the relationship falls apart because one side tries to take too much or isn’t willing to give enough. But other times, the proxy relationship holds but leads one or another of the parties to an extremely bad place. For example, Iraqi Kurds and Shiʿa Arabs may have believed they had become American proxies after the Gulf War, when American rhetoric seemed to be encouraging them to take action to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but when the US proved unwilling to risk Iraq’s territorial integrity by backing their respective uprisings, they wound up being slaughtered by the Iraqi army.

The sponsor-proxy relationship can work to the detriment of the sponsor as well, and we’re seeing examples of that in Syria and Iraq right now. In Syria, the Kurdish YPG, a major American client because it’s one of the few factions in that country that prioritizes fighting ISIS, has been systematically destroying Arab towns and displacing Arab residents in territory they control. The YPG claims it’s only driving out suspected ISIS sympathizers, but this is a group that’s trying to carve out a Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria, and what they call “driving out suspected ISIS sympathizers” looks suspiciously like ethnic cleansing to outside observers. These actions are war crimes, but aside from the moral issue they’re also a strategic problem for the United States, because those displaced Arabs are prime recruitment fodder for ISIS or other extremist groups that promise to fight the YPG. American support for the YPG discredits America in the eyes of people (Sunni Arab Syrians) we need on our side in the fight against ISIS.

Kurdish YPG fighters during the Tal Abyad campaign in northern Syria last May-June. There were a number of reported human rights violations committed by the YPG against Arabs and Turkmens in the area during and after that operation. (Wikimedia)

You can practically hear people in Ankara shouting “WE TOLD YOU SO” at the reporting of YPG war crimes. But Turkey has the same problem on its hands. Continue reading “The problem with proxies”

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

Over the weekend, ISIS finally completed its capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s (if it can even still be said to be part of Iraq) Anbar Province. You may recall that a few weeks ago, Martin Dempsey argued that Ramadi wasn’t as important as, say, the oil refinery at Baiji, and in a sense I agreed (and still agree) with him. Specifically, the fall of Ramadi isn’t all that important, because Ramadi has effectively been in ISIS’s hands for months now. I’ve been seeing a lot of anxious references to ISIS being only about 100 miles outside of Baghdad “now,” as though Ramadi brought them closer to the Iraqi capital, but in fact ISIS has been far closer than 100 miles outside of Baghdad since last February, when it got control of Fallujah (well within 50 miles of Baghdad’s outskirts). Ramadi matters because it’s a major city, because ISIS fighters were once again able to seize weapons and supplies from retreating Iraqi forces, and because ISIS can now consolidate its control in Anbar and project violence out from there, but they’ve already been doing that anyway. Ramadi also matters psychologically, because its loss completely blunts any momentum that Iraqi forces might have had coming out of the recapture of Tikrit and gives ISIS a new high-profile victory to use in recruiting.

Ramadi also matters because, as Iraq analyst Joel Wing writes, its loss is causing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to panic, to abandon his plans for the Anbar campaign and to attempt to liberate Ramadi with the same kind of strategy that was used in recapturing Tikrit. And that’s terrible news. Despite the positives that should have come out of the Tikrit campaign, it can be said now that everything that happened there apart from dislodging ISIS was a disaster. Continue reading “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”

Winning a battle at the cost of the war

The good news in Iraq is that the Iraqi army, with outside assistance, was finally able to dislodge ISIS from the city of Tikrit last week in what is easily the paramilitary group’s worst defeat since its major Iraqi offensive began early last year. It’s almost always better to win a battle than to lose one; I think even Pyrrhus of Epirus would have agreed that he preferred to win the Battle of Asculum than to lose it, even though it cost his army dearly. This is especially true when fighting an enemy as steeped in the aura of inevitability as the pretend caliphate, where a big defeat can really put a dent in their propaganda. The mass graves that have been found inside Tikrit over the past couple of days, which may contain as many as 1700 bodies of Iraqi soldiers slaughtered by ISIS fighters, speaks to the importance of defeating ISIS there as an end all unto itself.

The bad news is that, like for Pyrrhus at Asculum, the way the Iraqis won Tikrit may have lasting negative implications for its effort to win both the war against ISIS and the struggle to reunify Iraq once ISIS is out of the picture. Everything about the operation to retake Tikrit was handled poorly: the initial plans for the campaign, the wild shift in tactics in the middle of the campaign, and the post-campaign management of the city. Most of the problem comes down to one inconvenient fact: the Iraqi military probably isn’t capable of beating ISIS on its own yet, without considerable support from paramilitary militias and US air power. Baghdad imagined that it would be able to liberate Tikrit by relying on those militias, along with Iranian assistance, to bolster their own troops, and they wound up with an embarrassingly stalled advance and mounting casualties. In a bit of a panic, Baghdad turned to the US and asked for airstrikes against ISIS positions in Tikrit, which the US was apparently willing to supply under one condition: that the militias and Iranian advisers be sidelined. The militias then made Iraqi PM Haidar al-Abadi’s decision for him, voluntarily pulling themselves out of the fight to protest his decision to ask the Americans for aid.

The militia boycott didn’t last, after Najaf’s influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged their leaders to rejoin the fight but to stop acting independently of the army and ultimately Abadi. The city was liberated, which has to be a little embarrassing for the militias and the Iranians since it only fell after US air power got involved. Still, the fact remains that the Iraqis wouldn’t have even been in the fight if it hadn’t been for the militias, particularly the more powerful Shiʿa groups, which puts them and their Iranian backers (despite Sistani’s admonitions that they should get with the national program) in a position of influence over Baghdad. And that’s a real problem, as the aftermath of Tikrit’s liberation clearly showed. Continue reading “Winning a battle at the cost of the war”