Iran closed Mo­sul ‘horse­shoe’ and changed war

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

In the early days of the as­sault on Is­lamic State in Mo­sul, Iran suc­cess­fully pressed Iraq to change its bat­tle plan and seal off the city, an in­ter­ven­tion which has since shaped the tor­tu­ous course of the con­flict, sources briefed on the plan say. The orig­i­nal cam­paign strat­egy called for Iraqi forces to close in around Mo­sul in a horse­shoe for­ma­tion, block­ing three fronts but leav­ing open the fourth - to the west of the city lead­ing to Is­lamic State ter­ri­tory in neigh­bor­ing Syria.

That model, used to re­cap­ture sev­eral Iraqi cities from the ul­tra-hard­line mil­i­tants in the last two years, would have left fight­ers and civil­ians a clear route of es­cape and could have made the Mo­sul bat­tle quicker and sim­pler. But Tehran, anx­ious that re­treat­ing fight­ers would sweep back into Syria just as Iran’s ally Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad was gain­ing the up­per hand in his coun­try’s five-year civil war, wanted Is­lamic State crushed and elim­i­nated in Mo­sul.

The sources say Iran lob­bied for Ira­ni­an­backed Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion fight­ers to be sent to the western front to seal off the link be­tween Mo­sul and Raqqa, the two main cities of Is­lamic State’s self-de­clared cross­bor­der caliphate. That link is now bro­ken. For the first time in Iraq’s two-and-hal­fyear, Western-backed drive to de­feat Is­lamic State, sev­eral thou­sand mil­i­tants have lit­tle choice but to fight to the death, and 1 mil­lion re­main­ing Mo­sul cit­i­zens have no es­cape from the front­lines creep­ing ever closer to the city cen­ter.

“If you cor­ner your en­emy and don’t leave an es­cape, he will fight till the end,” said a Kur­dish of­fi­cial in­volved in plan­ning the Mo­sul bat­tle. “In the west, the ini­tial idea was to have a cor­ri­dor ... but the Hashid (Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion) in­sisted on clos­ing this loop­hole to pre­vent them go­ing to Syria,” he told Reuters.

The bat­tle for Mo­sul is the big­gest in Iraq since the US-led in­va­sion of 2003. In all, around 100,000 peo­ple are fight­ing on the gov­ern­ment side, in­clud­ing Iraqi sol­diers and po­lice, “pesh­merga” troops of the au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion and fight­ers in the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion units. A US-led in­ter­na­tional coali­tion is pro­vid­ing air and ground sup­port.

Iraqi army com­man­ders have re­peat­edly said that the pres­ence of civil­ians on the bat­tle­field has com­pli­cated and slowed their seven-week-old op­er­a­tion, re­strict­ing air strikes and the use of heavy weapons in pop­u­lated ar­eas. They con­sid­ered a change in strat­egy to al­low civil­ians out, but re­jected the idea be­cause they feared that flee­ing res­i­dents could be mas­sa­cred by the mil­i­tants, who have ex­e­cuted civil­ians to pre­vent them from es­cap­ing other bat­tles. Au­thor­i­ties and aid groups would also strug­gle to deal with a mass ex­o­dus.

Kill Box

Plan­ning doc­u­ments drawn up by hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions be­fore the cam­paign, seen by Reuters, show they pre­pared camps in Kur­dish-con­trolled ar­eas of Syria for around 90,000 refugees ex­pected to head west out of Mo­sul. “Iran didn’t agree and in­sisted that no safe cor­ri­dor be al­lowed to Syria,” said a hu­man­i­tar­ian worker. “They wanted the whole re­gion west of Mo­sul to be a kill box.”

Hisham Al-Hashemi, an Iraqi an­a­lyst on Is­lamist mil­i­tants who was briefed on the bat­tle plan in ad­vance, also said it ini­tially en­vis­aged leav­ing one flank open. “The first plan had the shape of a horse­shoe, al­low­ing for the pop­u­la­tion and the mil­i­tants to re­treat west­ward as the main thrust of the of­fen­sive came from the east,” he said. About a week be­fore the launch of the cam­paign, Le­banese Shi­ite Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah, a close ally of Iran, ac­cused the United States of plan­ning to al­low Is­lamic State a way out to Syria.

“The Iraqi army and pop­u­lar forces must de­feat it in Mo­sul, oth­er­wise, they will be obliged to move to eastern Syria in or­der to fight the ter­ror­ist group,” he said. Hezbol­lah is fight­ing in sup­port of As­sad in Syria. Hashid spokesman Karim Al-Nuri de­nied that Tehran was be­hind the de­ci­sion to de­ploy the Shi­ite fight­ers west of Mo­sul. “Iran has no in­ter­est here. The ma­jor­ity of these state­ments are mere anal­y­sis - they are sim­ply not true,” he said.

Nev­er­the­less, se­cur­ing ter­ri­tory west of Mo­sul by the Ira­nian-backed mili­tias has other ben­e­fits for Iran’s al­lies, by giv­ing the Shi­ite fight­ers a launch­pad into neigh­bor­ing Syria to sup­port As­sad. If Is­lamic State is de­feated in Syria and Iraq, Tehran’s al­lies would gain con­trol of an arc of ter­ri­tory stretch­ing from Iran it­self across the Mid­dle East to Le­banon and the Mediter­ranean coast.

Rus­sian Pres­sure

Iran was not the only coun­try press­ing for the es­cape to be closed west of Mo­sul. Rus­sia, an­other pow­er­ful As­sad ally, also wanted to block any pos­si­ble move­ment of mil­i­tants into Syria, said Hashemi. The Rus­sian de­fense min­istry did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a Reuters re­quest for com­ment. One of As­sad’s big­gest en­e­mies, France, was also con­cerned that hun­dreds of fight­ers linked to at­tacks in Paris and Brussels might es­cape. The French have con­trib­uted ground and air sup­port to the Mo­sul cam­paign.

A week af­ter the cam­paign was launched, French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande said any flow of peo­ple out of Mo­sul would in­clude “ter­ror­ists who will try to go fur­ther, to Raqqa in par­tic­u­lar”. Still, the bat­tle plan did not fore­see clos­ing the road to the west of Mo­sul un­til Prime Min­is­ter Haider Al-Abadi agreed in late Oc­to­ber to dis­patch the Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion mili­tias. “The gov­ern­ment agreed to Iran’s re­quest, think­ing that it would take a long time for the Hashid to get to the road to Syria, and dur­ing that time the es­cape route would be open and the bat­tle would still pro­ceed as planned,” Hashemi said.

The Hashid move to cut the western cor­ri­dor was an­nounced on Oct 28, 11 days af­ter the start of the wider Mo­sul cam­paign. Fight­ers made swift progress, sweep­ing up from a base south of Mo­sul to seal off the western route out of the city. Abadi “was sur­prised to see them reach­ing the road in just a few days,” Hashemi said. “The bat­tle has taken a dif­fer­ent shape since then - no food, no fuel is reach­ing Mo­sul and Daesh (Is­lamic State) fight­ers are bent on fight­ing to the end.”

Iraq Strong­hold

Once the Iraqi Shi­ite mili­tia ad­vance west of Mo­sul had be­gun, Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Bagh­dadi told his fol­low­ers there could be no re­treat from the city where he first pro­claimed his caliphate in July 2014. Those tempted to flee should “know that the value of stay­ing on your land with honor is a thou­sand times bet­ter than the price of re­treat­ing with shame,” Bagh­dadi said in an au­dio record­ing re­leased five days af­ter the Shi­ite mili­tias an­nounced they were mov­ing to cut off the last route out.

Since then his fight­ers have launched hun­dreds of sui­cide car bombs, mor­tar bar­rages and sniper at­tacks against the ad­vanc­ing forces, us­ing a net­work of tun­nels un­der res­i­den­tial ar­eas and us­ing civil­ians as hu­man shields, Iraqi sol­diers say. A se­nior US of­fi­cer in in­ter­na­tional coali­tion which is sup­port­ing the cam­paign said that wag­ing war amidst civil­ians would al­ways be tough, but the Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment was best placed to de­cide on strat­egy.

“They’ve got 15 years of war (ex­pe­ri­ence)... I can’t think of any­one more cal­i­brated to make that de­ci­sion and as a re­sult that why as a coali­tion we sup­ported the gov­ern­ment of Iraq’s de­ci­sion,” Bri­gadier Gen­eral Scott Ef­flandt, deputy com­mand­ing gen­eral in the coali­tion, told Reuters. “The open­ing and clos­ing of that cor­ri­dor, hy­po­thet­i­cally, real­is­ti­cally, did not fun­da­men­tally change the plans of the bat­tle,” he added. “It changes how we pros­e­cute the fight, but that does not nec­es­sar­ily make it eas­ier or harder.” But the Kur­dish of­fi­cial was less san­guine, say­ing the bat­tle for Mo­sul was now “more dif­fi­cult” and could de­scend into a long drawn out siege sim­i­lar to those seen in Syria. It could “turn Mo­sul into Aleppo,” he said.

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