The (very) slow death of Islamic State
If U.S., Turkey drop Kurds, IS defeat will have to wait
“Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect zero civilian casualties in armed conflict,” said U.S. Army Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesperson of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. (Where do they get these ridiculous code-names?)
The CJTF-OIR is the U.S.-led international force that was created to defeat Islamic State, but Dorrian was talking in particular about the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, captured by the forces of Islamic State more than two years ago. There are still at least 650,000 civilians in the IS-controlled part of Mosul, and when the Iraqi army retakes it, a lot of them will be killed or injured.
Dorrian was just trying to “manage expectations,” as they say, but he needn’t have worried. As many civilians will probably be killed during the reconquest of Mosul as died in the Syrian army’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo in December, but it won’t get as much media attention — mainly because Islamic State is not as subtle as the Nusra Front, the rival Islamist organization that dominated eastern Aleppo.
The Nusra Front, now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) to disguise its allegiance to al-Qaida, was clever enough to let little girls blog about the horrors of the siege of Aleppo, and the Western media obligingly ran it all without question. It was a holocaust, they reported, committed by the evil army of that wicked Bashar al-Assad.
The Western media won’t be saying that sort of thing about the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians during the retaking of Mosul, because the West supports the Iraqi army. In any case, Islamic State is probably too rigid to allow that kind of blog.
The Iraqi army’s attempt to take the city of Mosul back from Islamic State has already lasted almost as long as the siege of Stalingrad. So far, it has only managed to clear the suburbs on the east bank of the Tigris River, and civilian deaths have only been in the hundreds.
This week it began its assault on the main part of the city, which lies on the west bank. It may fight its way in to the core of the old city in another month or two, but streetfighting eats up armies, and the streets of the old city are narrow and twisting. The casualties will be high among both soldiers and civilians, and it is unlikely that the operation will end until April or May.
It may not even end in a decisive victory for the government forces.
Let us be optimistic and assume that Mosul will ultimately fall. That would put an end to the Iraqi half of what used to be called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but what happens to the Syrian part of Islamic State is still very much up in the air.
It was losing territory to the Syrian Kurds, whose army was advancing steadily on the IS capital at Raqqa in eastern Syria.
The Syrian Kurds have done so well because they had U.S. air support on call at all times. Indeed, the Kurds were America’s main ally in the Syrian civil war, and the only major ground force (apart from the Syrian army) that was actively fighting Islamic State.
But now all that is at risk because Turkey, which has been the main support of the Syrian rebels for years, has switched sides. It sees a semi-independent Kurdish state in northern Syria as a bigger threat to its territorial integrity than either IS or the Assad regime in Damascus. And it appears to have made a deal with Russia that will give it a free hand to destroy the Syrian Kurds.
It is not clear whether the Turkish army can actually do that without taking very large casualties, but it’s probably going to try. This means that the United States will have to choose between its ally of the past four years, the Syrian Kurdish army, and its faithless NATO ally, Turkey.
It will probably choose Turkey, because it is more important, and abandon the Kurds to their fate.
The Kurds are used to being betrayed, so they won’t even be surprised. But it does mean that destroying Islamic State in Syria will have to wait for a while.