Iraqi special forces take part in an operation against Islamic State militants in Kokjali, west of Mosul, Iraq November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudaini
Iraqi special forces take part in an operation against Islamic State militants in Kokjali, west of Mosul, Iraq November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudaini

The United States ought to keep both eyes trained and its mind focused on the operations by Iraqi forces against the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul. The battle has just begun and its outcome remains uncertain.

A former US Army colonel Daniel Davis wrote in the National Interest magazine last week, “Though Iraqi Security Forces have to date successfully ejected ISIS fighters from a number of sizeable urban centers in Iraq, they have not fought in a city of Mosul’s size, nor against a desperate enemy with its back to the wall. It is far from certain the ISF and other coalition troops will withstand what might end up being a meat grinder of a battle.”

But Pentagon officials are showing greater interest on what is happening or may happen in Aleppo and in Raqqa than on Mosul. The fog of Syrian war is thickening.

Washington’s main interest at the moment appears to lie in delaying as far as possible the capture of Aleppo by Syrian government forces, which are backed by Russia and Iran.

Equally, Washington has staked claim – prematurely, it seems – for the prerogative of ‘liberating’ Raqqa, ‘capital’ of the IS in northern Syria, situated at mid-point between Mosul and Aleppo.

What is going on is as much a diplomatic pirouette as military planning. The military part is that both with regard to Aleppo and Raqqa, the US should retain the option to revisit the Syrian conflict under a new president in the White House.

Thus, a war of nerves is underway between Washington and Moscow. Under heavy western propaganda barrage and explicit threats of war-crimes trials by US officials, Moscow slowed down the operations in Aleppo.

The air strikes stand suspended for three weeks already. The Russians could anticipate that the respite would be exploited by extremist groups entrapped in Aleppo to regroup. But they risked that danger. Indeed, Moscow is keeping its hand close to the chest.

Moscow would have hoped that once graphic details of air strikes on Mosul by the US and its allies would get to be known,  western allegations of Russian ‘war crimes’ in Aleppo would lose credibility.

According to Russian estimates, US jets are dropping at a rate of one bomb every 8 minutes on Mosul. The US military acknowledged more than 191 strikes through November 1.

Nonetheless, there is a conspiracy of silence about the air strikes in Mosul. Under the circumstances, if Russia resumes air strikes on Aleppo, Moscow is sure to be pilloried once again for committing ‘war crimes’.

Unlike in Mosul, western journalists are ‘embedded’ with the rebel groups inside Aleppo city.

On the contrary, if Moscow delays the Aleppo operations further, it may fail to create new facts on the ground (which could prove decisive in any future peace talks) by the time the next US president takes over reins of US’ Syria policies.

Meanwhile, the US would like to stall the defeat of extremist groups in Aleppo at least until Raqqa is wrested from IS control.

Analysts estimate that control of Raqqa would allow the US to keep a direct influence on Aleppo.

All in all, therefore, Russians face a contradiction insofar as who controls Raqqa has also become important. The choices are between a Raqqa under control of:

  • US-led Syrian Kurdish militia (which means a western enclave of immense strategic significance in northern Syria); or,
  • Turkey and Free Syrian Army (which could also morph into a western enclave or ‘safe zone’, depending on the vicissitudes of US-Turkish relations); or,
  • Syrian government forces (with Iran’s support).

Moscow’s prognosis that IS fighters under pressure in Mosul may evacuate to Raqqa may be happening already. A Kurdish intelligence officer told Fox News earlier in the week that IS fighters are “running away massively” in the direction of Raqqa.

The report said, “According to multiple insiders familiar with the Mosul-to-Raqqa route and ISIS tactics, the group takes abandoned roads and moves through friendly, Sunni-populated villages that provide not only cover, but potential safe haven.”

This would mean Raqqa is shaping up to be the bloodiest battle yet in the Syrian conflict. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced last week that the operations to liberate Raqqa – code-named Operation Inherent Resolve – will commence “within weeks.”

The expert opinion endorsed by veterans like Daniel Davis is that US is ill-prepared to mastermind a full-bodied campaign on Raqqa anytime soon. Who would lead a bloody onslaught on Raqqa itself poses dilemma.

But then, Operation Inherent Resolve may have a different objective at this point, namely, to blockade Raqqa at least partially so as to revisit the front after the battle for Mosul has been won.

The ‘known unknown’ here will be three or four trends on the geopolitical plane. One, much depends on the alchemy of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement. Despite the friendly smiles all around, it is by no means a transparent equation.

Suffice it to say, Russia will be watching Turkey’s will to exercise ‘strategic autonomy’ vis-à-vis the US.

Two, Russia may not necessarily share Iran’s agenda with regard to the above fault lines. As the election of a new president in Lebanon testifies, Iran has a much bigger agenda devolving upon the ‘politics of resistance.’

On the other hand, the incipient signs of a Syrian-Egyptian entente add a new dimension to regional alignments. Syrian and Egyptian regimes share concerns over terrorism and religious extremism.

Reports have appeared that the chief of Syrian intelligence, General Ali Al-mamluki, paid a quiet visit to Cairo two weeks ago and that military cooperation between the two countries is under discussion.

If so, it is a profound shift, which Russia would only encourage. On the other hand, Egyptian leadership under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has displayed a rare understanding for Israel’s security doctrine, which the latter appreciates.

Interestingly, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is visiting Israel next week and a key agenda item for discussion will be Israel’s concerns with regard to the Syrian situation.

Of course, Moscow estimates that Israel’s influence on the US’ Middle East policies is bound go up in a Clinton presidency.

Third, and most important, Moscow is still hoping that once the hurly-burly of US election is done, the next president may view the trajectory of Russian-American relations in a spirit of pragmatism rather than in a confrontational spirit.

The bottom line is that there is a churning going on at the political and diplomatic level, which is below the radar. It is entirely plausible that the recent Russian deployment of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov off Syria is more a matter of strategic posturing.

All these taken together would suggest that the battlefronts in Mosul, Raqqa and Aleppo may have merged into a Clausewitzean war – politics by other means.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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