Many Turkish observers suspected that the ground offensive to liberate Mosul from Daesh would start just before the U.S. presidential election to give Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton an advantage over Donald Trump.
Even though the operation formally kicked off with orders from Iraq’s Haider al-Abadi, it’s hardly a secret that the Americans sit behind the curtain. The fact that the Obama administration spins the operation as a turning point in the campaign to permanently defeat Daesh indicates that they desperately want to provide Mrs. Clinton with additional ammunition in the final stretch.
Again, it was noteworthy that the U.S. Secretary of Defense hailed the liberation of Dabiq by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as giving “new momentum” to the anti-Daesh campaign. Efforts to impress the American public aside, it would appear that we have reached a critical stage in Iraq and Syria. After the liberation of Mosul, Raqqa will be next.
To address the concerns of Iraq (read: Iran) and Turkey, Washington came up with a compromise: While enlisting the services of Ninewa volunteers and the peshmerga, they promised Baghdad that only the Iraqi army and police would enter the town center. The PKK’s role, however, remains unclear, which means that the delicate balance of power on the ground could be disturbed over the next few weeks.
As local players create their own spheres of influence outside Mosul, the question remains whether the U.S. will be able to keep al-Hashd al-Shaabi away from the city center. It also remains unclear if the predominantly Shiite Iraqi army will seek to remove the Sunnis from Mosul.
Keeping in mind that the Obama administration failed to keep its promise to send the People’s Protection Units (YPG) back to the eastern side of the Euphrates after the liberation of Manbij, many observers are concerned that al-Abadi might follow in his predecessor’s footsteps to choose sectarianism over national unity.
Meanwhile, Turkey refuses to watch the Mosul operation from the sidelines. Earlier this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced, “We will be part of the operation and [have a seat] at the [negotiating] table.” He also recommended foreign leaders read the National Pact, a series of decisions made by the last Ottoman Parliament to grasp Mosul’s importance for Turkey. “We have brothers in Mosul and relatives further north, closer to the border,” he added. Erdoğan’s remarks suggest that Turkey will continue to train local forces at Camp Bashiqa and join the operation through the proxy of peshmerga and the Nineveh Guards.
Before taking their involvement to the next stage, the Turks will monitor the situation to see whether the Iraqi army targets the local Sunni community and if the PKK seeks to expand its territory. Either way, Turkey could feel obliged to do more.
Moving forward, the Turks could fight the PKK and its affiliates in Iraq and Syria more effectively and start targeting YPG forces on the eastern side of the Euphrates, including Tal Abyad. Again in Iraq, Turkey might target PKK leaders in Qandil and terrorists in Sinjar. At the same time, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) would advance toward al-Bab to expand the de facto safe zone.
With the fight for Mosul underway, policymakers are trying to figure out what Daesh’s defeat in Iraq and Syria means for the area. At this point, the most likely scenario involves Daesh militants joining other radical groups to perpetrate even more barbaric attacks. Once done with Daesh, the international community will turn on the Nusra Front and other terrorist groups. What all sides need to keep in mind is that there can be no lasting defeat for Daesh and others unless Sunni Arabs are adequately represented by the national governments of Syria and Iraq.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on October 24, 2016.