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.
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.