Belmont Club

We will, we will Raqqa

Though much hard fighting remains the Battle for Mosul is drawing to a close.   After an extended period of bombardment, encirclement and painful reduction the last ISIS diehards are now compressed into an ever shrinking pocket by converging coalition armies.  Each night as the noose tightens ever closer around their dwindling subterranean redoubts the airwaves come to life with voices of tomorrow’s suicide bombers laughingly proclaiming their departure for paradise.  Suicide among the doomed is less a choice than an attempt to go out in style.

But just as the fall of Berlin in 1945 was immediately succeeded by a new Cold War between the victors, analysts are worried that the fall of Mosul will mark not only the end of ISIS on Iraqi territory but also the demise of the coalition which expelled them.  “Every major faction involved in fighting ISIS has its own priorities and conflicting goals. The former Sunni governor of Ninewa—the province of which Mosul is part—wants to make it an Arab Sunni enclave. The Kurds—which are divided against each other—have their own ambitions and talk about independence. The Iraqi Army remains weak and uncertain, and the police are all too ineffective and divided along sectarian and tribal lines. Some of the Shi’ite militias have mistreated Sunni Arab civilians in past operations and are extremists in their own right.”

The fall of Mosul may raise the curtain on a new struggle over the future of Iraq.  It will not settle the fate of ISIS since large part of their remaining territory including its capital of Raqqa lies across the border in Syria.  There is no way to march on Raqqa unless the coalition of Kurds, Turks, Shi’ite militias and Iraqi government forces — or yet another proxy force  — crosses the frontier in pursuit after them. That could be a problem.  As Benny Avni noted in the New York Post, sending an army into Syria could potentially put America in conflict with Russia.

In Iraq, for now, the United States is mostly drawing on the existing strategy left behind by President Barack Obama, which is finally showing some good results: There’ll be more blood, but ISIS will soon be out of Mosul … but Trump’s promise was more ambitious, and since the election he instructed the Pentagon to draw new plans to “totally obliterate ISIS.”

And to do that, a deeper US involvement in Syria is needed. As long as the self-declared Islamic State controls Raqqa, Syria, its capital, declaring victory over the terrorist group will sound hollow.

And beating ISIS in Syria’s a bit more complicated, diplomatically and strategically, than doing so in Iraq.

Obama’s refusal to enforce his infamous Syrian “red line” in effect announced the United States would sit out the half-decade civil war there. Others rushed in to fill the vacuum.

Start with Russia. Obama’s balk made President Vladimir Putin Syria’s kingmaker. Russia became our supposed “partner” in the war on terror, and took the lead in the Syrian theater, even though defeating ISIS never really was the Kremlin’s top goal.

It also puts Washington at loggerheads with Turkey.  In January of 2016, before the current battle for Mosul had begun, former secretary of defense Ashton Carter described a plan to finish ISIS within the year. “The US defense chief has said that 2016 will be the year the American-led coalition assaults the Islamic State in its strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul, offering Barack Obama a last chance to deal the jihadist army a lasting defeat before his administration ends.”  Even as late as October 2016, the Obama administration still hoped to take both Raqqa and Mosul simultaneously.

The US defense chief, Ashton Carter, meeting in Paris with his counterparts in the anti-Isis coalition, vowed that Iraqi forces, Syrian Arab and Kurdish allies and US special operations troops and airpower could take away Isis’s Iraqi and Syrian capitals practically simultaneously.

“We’ve planned for that, and we have the resources for both,” Carter told NBC News early Wednesday, saying an attack on Raqqa would commence “in the next few weeks”.

That optimistic hope was soon shattered.  Carter’s simultaneous planned operation never happened because Turkey, as with the original invasion of Iraq in 2003, suddenly refused to go all the way to the altar after walking down the aisle.  (In 2003 it refused to let the 4thID attack through the north, thereby setting the stage for the Sunni insurgency.)  As the Obama administration entered its final days Ankara changed its mind and decided it did not want American backed Kurdish forces to cross into Syria after all.

Despite speculation the Trump administration would exclude the Kurds they have persisted in their efforts to include them, but attempts by the Trump administration to change Erdogan’s mind have been fruitless. “Turkey is ruling out compromise with the United States over the involvement of Kurdish militia fighters in an assault in Syria, an obstacle for Washington’s plan to deploy its strongest allies on the ground in a decisive showdown with Islamic State.”

Donald Trump has made defeating Islamic State one of the key goals of his presidency, and his new administration received a draft Pentagon plan on Monday to accelerate the campaign.

Raqqa in Syria, one of Islamic State’s two de facto capitals along with Mosul in Iraq, is expected to be the scene of the final battle to crush the jihadists’ self-proclaimed Caliphate sometime this year, after a U.S.-backed Iraqi government assault on Mosul already under way since October.

But putting together a united ground force to take Raqqa has so far proven a confounding task in Syria, where the United States, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Arab states have all backed local forces in a multi-sided civil war since 2011. All the foreign powers oppose Islamic State, but their Syrian proxies have mainly fought against one another.

The problem is more political than military.  Some journalists have been privately told the Trump administration can replace any missing contingents with more American firepower.  Raqqa can be taken from a purely operational standpoint.  But there is less confidence that winning one war will not inadvertently ignite another. Turkish forces for example cannot advance on Raqqa without pushing through Kurdish forces.   It is perfectly possible for members of the winning coalition to turn against each other as was the case in post-Nazi Berlin.

For the moment the ISIS capital is protected, not by any military strength, but by the Gordian knot of Middle Eastern ethnic rivalries.  The fear is that Raqqa’s fall will be the end of one conflict and the beginning of another.

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An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy), by Rick Atkinson. The liberation of Europe and the destruction of the Third Reich is an epic story of courage and calamity, of miscalculation and enduring triumph. In this first volume of the Liberation Trilogy, Atkinson shows why no modern reader can understand the ultimate victory of the Allied powers without a grasp of the great drama that unfolded in North Africa in 1942 and 1943, as the American and British armies fight the French in Morocco and Algiers, and then take on the Germans and Italians in Tunisia.At the center of the tale are the commanders who come to dominate the battlefield: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, and Rommel.

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Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Author Theodore Dalrymple unmasks the hidden sentimentality that is suffocating public life and shows the perverse results when we abandon logic in favor of the cult of feeling. Under the multiple guises of raising children well, caring for the underprivileged, assisting the less able and doing good generally, we are achieving quite the opposite — for the single purpose of feeling good about ourselves.

ISIS: A History, by Fawaz Gerges. One of the world’s leading authorities on political Islam and jihadism sheds new light on the rise of ISIS, what it portends for the future of the Middle East, and the deeper conditions that fuel the group.

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