The (very) slow death of Is­lamic State

If U.S., Turkey drop Kurds, IS de­feat will have to wait

The Hamilton Spectator - - COM­MENT - Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries. GWYNNE DYER

“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.

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