After months of threatening to move against ISIL in Mosul, 25,000 Iraqi army and Kurd militia fighters are slowly closing in, supported by US and coalition airpower and advisors. Two years ago, Mosul collapsed as Iraqi forces fled the city when faced with a confident and insurgent ISIL force that had seized vast territories in Iraq and Syria and established Raqqa and the capital of the “Greater Syria” originally promised to the Arab armies by Lawrence of Arabia. Two years later, Mosul is the last major Iraqi city in ISIL control and their expulsion will leave only Raqqa as their urban stronghold. It will be a long, tough battle, brutal for the remaining 1 million civilians in the city, half of its pre-conflict population. It may take longer and produce more casualties than expected for the Iraqis and Kurds, but after the victory who’s going to get the spoils? The fate of the city and its surrounding oilfields is far less clear.
The Iraqis, Kurds, and foreign coalition forces are cooperating today but their vision of the end game in Iraq and Syria are vastly different. The Iraqi army is mandated by a weak Baghdadi government to militarily recreate the integrity of the country’s territory that was shattered by the US invasion in 2003 and the ensuing sectarian violence. The Kurds had enjoyed a great deal of autonomy since the end of the first Gulf War in 1992 and will use the victory in Mosul to recreate their administration and rebuild their treasury with oil revenues from the surrounding territory between Mosul and Kirkuk. Therefore, the Iraqi army will be asked to leave the area as soon as the victory in Mosul is cemented. The Iraqi army will not be welcome in Mosul in any case, since they are largely Shiite and Mosul is a Sunni town. Two military forces representing opposing ethnic and governmental groups will have a face-off in the rubble of a ruined city, full of booby-trapped explosive devices left in place by fleeing ISIL fighters. If there was a recipe for post-victory volatility, this is it.
The Kurds will not stop at the greater Mosul area. The dream of a broader Kurdistan extends into Syrian and Turkish territory. If the Turks perceive that the Kurds are a resurgent threat to their territorial integrity, then they will resume bombing Kurdish territory, military and civilian targets, in an effort to destabilize them and halt their advance. This would place the Americans in the awkward position of having two allies, the Turks and the Kurds, fighting each other with military aid and materiel provided to both sides. The next US president would have to decide whether to abandon the Kurds, who have been turned upon by the West before, or antagonize Turkey and push Erdogan closer to the Russians.
The Russians will not remain disinterested as the quest for territory spills over into Syria. The Kurds are likely to move into southeastern Syria with or without coalition support, and will find themselves bombed once again by Syrian and Russian warplanes and ground weaponry. So, with the Kurds being bombed by the Turks, Russians and Syrians, abandoned by the Iraqi army, and likely disowned by the Americans, where are they going to turn for support? I am willing to make a stretch prediction that a desperate Kurd leadership will ask the Indians or the Chinese for help, which one or the other will provide. The Chinese would benefit from an ally in near Asia, and have the airlift capacity to rapidly resupply the Kurds. We could witness a situation where four nuclear powers, The U.S., Russia, China and India are involved in a proxy war in Iraq and Syria.
As the four world powers and their proxies each move towards Raqqa, there will be a stand-off over whose forces will be allowed to enter the city. When the Russians and Americans were advancing on Berlin in 1945, Eisenhower held Patton back and the Russians were allowed to enter the city first. The Russians are likely to win the argument in favor of letting Syrian troops, with Russian air support, take the city, and then face a surrounding area filled with anti-Assad Syrian opposition militias, Kurdish forces, and even Turkish brigades who moved across the border to chase the Kurds but who will end up fighting pro and anti-Assad forces as well as the Kurds. If this worries you, imagine the challenge facing the CIA and the Pentagon who will have to advise a presidential administration in transition and a lame-duck Congress. And you thought Obama’s calls were tough two years ago – they are going to be much more dangerous for world peace in the next few months than at any other time in his presidency, with either Clinton or Trump calling in plays from the sidelines.