As the U.S.-led coalition continues its assault on Mosul, Russia is looking for ways to remain involved in the fight against Islamic terrorism.
Iraqi soldiers move in formation in an alley on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq, November 4, 2016. Photo: AP
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The forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) no longer appear as mighty and fearful as one year ago. Slowly but surely, the area controlled by ISIS continues to shrink.
In the east, the international coalition headed by the U.S. is storming the main trophy of the Islamic State, the city of Mosul. In the north, Turkish and Kurdish troops are trying to capture the terrorists’ stronghold in the Aleppo province, the city of Al-Bab, while preparing to capture the capital of ISIS, the city of Al-Raqqah.
However, Russia is currently not very active, having concluded its successes in the fight against ISIS by capturing Palmyra in March 2016. As of now, Russia has suspended its assault on Aleppo.
For the U.S., the arrival of Russian air forces in Syria in September 2015 came as a complete surprise. Nobody had expected of Moscow such resolution, such a large-scale involvement in the conflict, and, above all, such successes. Possibly, that was one of the reasons Washington decided to become more active on the Syrian front.
Since October 2015, the U.S. Pentagon has been busy creating new armed forces to fight ISIS from among the Syrian opposition. The most successful one was the military alliance with the Syrian Kurds, who took by storm the fortified city of Manbij in the Aleppo province in August 2016. In addition, Turkey, with the U.S.’s support, has officially joined the military operation in Syria by starting a successful offensive in the south of the country.
The middle of October 2016 was marked by the beginning of the newly set-up international anti-terrorist coalition’s operation to capture Mosul (the previous attempts, in 2014 and 2015, failed). ISIS forces captured that Iraqi city in the summer of 2014, triggering the growth of the political and military influence of the Islamic State.
As of today, ISIS has made Mosul into a real fortress. Even considering the complete air supremacy of the coalition’s aviation forces, capturing the city will be an extremely difficult task. The operation involves about 30,000 (according to some data, up to 60,000) Iraqi soldiers and the Kurdish militia, aided by American specialists, as well as 2,000 Turkish soldiers. It might seem an impressive force. However, by way of comparison, the Kurdish militia aided by the American air force and private military companies took 72 days to take by storm the small Syrian area of Manbij.
According to some published data, 10,000 ISIS militants defend Mosul, while the local population is rather critical of official Baghdad. There are over one million residents remaining in the city, an absolute majority of whom are Sunni Arabs. The Kurds and Christians that had inhabited the city previously chose to leave it when ISIS captured it.
Yet, the modest strength of the attacking army is not at all the only reason that complicates the retaking of the city. A more serious obstacle lies in the political tensions between the participants of the coalition — the Kurds, Turkey and official Baghdad.
The fact is, even before ISIS captured it, Mosul had been half-Kurdish, and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan has a strong intention to add it to its territories. Anyway, even if Mosul is overtaken successfully, the problem of the city’s status will not be removed from the agenda.
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The situation is further complicated by the fact that Turkey claims a more active role in the international coalition, without which it believes the Mosul operation cannot be a success. However, the presence in the coalition of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization, adds to the tensions among the so-called allies. Thus, the strengthening of the Kurdish positions does not at all suit either Iraq or Turkey, not to mention that official Iraq has long been opposed to the presence of Turkish troops in the north of the country.
In this situation, the Americans can hardly count on quickly taking Mosul in time for the U.S. presidential election, which takes place Nov. 8. Also, the bombings may hit civilians, damaging the image of the U.S. It is possible the ISIS militants will leave the city voluntarily, leaving only a limited number of fanatics to perform terrorist attacks. That process has already started. Many news agencies have already reported that flows of refugees and militant are moving from Mosul towards the Syrian border.
For the U.S., the storming of Mosul has immense strategic importance. With a population of over 1 million people, Mosul is the largest city under the control of ISIS. Capturing Mosul in time for the presidential election of November 2016 would enable the U.S. Democratic administration to add a major bonus to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials, thus attracting a fair percentage of uncommitted voters to her side. But, considering the contradictions existing among the participants of the U.S.-led coalition, the ISIS fortress will be hard to take.
In the current situation, Russia actually has an advantageous position, despite the fact that it is being accused of bombing Aleppo and the civilian population. For more than two weeks already, the Russian aviation has not made air strikes on Aleppo. However, Moscow can restore its image of fighting against ISIS rather than the “moderate opposition” if it helps the Syrian army to free the small city of Al-Bab, located to the northwest of the besieged Aleppo, from the radical Islamist forces.
Thus, Russia will hardly give up its claims to the status of being an international terrorism fighter and will continue its operation in Syria. To keep its positions, the Kremlin will have to immerse itself into the conflict deeper and deeper, thus depleting its economy, which has already been weakened by the fall of oil prices.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.