Today the echo of gunfire is heard in three important cities in the region; Mosul, Aleppo and Raqqa. Their geographical and historical importance is the reason behind the hidden conflict for regional and international influence, which may lead into dangerous results, openning the doors for prolonged conflicts and wars, and new local and regional alignments, manipulating the prevailing geopolitics and balances of the last century, and rearranging them according to the victorious powers if possible.
The defeat of (Daesh) in Mosul and Raqqa seems to be close at hand, in the war declared by the international coalition and its local allies, even if it is taking longer than planned, and more destruction and victims than expected; while the situation in Aleppo is far more complex, as it is part of the revolution of the people, and is organically linked to the Syrian conflict as a whole, and is governed by the internal field dimension. However, what brings these battles together is a new type of struggle, after the supposed defeat of the common enemy, which is (Daesh) in Mosul and Raqqa, and somewhat the armed opposition in Aleppo; the conflict between the allied parties at this moment, is governed by regional sensitivities, with Turkey and Iran in the forefront, which makes the task of speculating the final scene very difficult and requires caution, patience and anticipation for unexpected surprises.
“The grand epic of Aleppo” has ended, launched on 28 of last October, and restrained by Russia with the regime regaining the strategic areas it had previously lost in the west of Aleppo, such as the 1070 and 3000 apartment projects, and the suburb of al-Assad, bearing in mind that these battles were the second attempt of the opposition forces to break the siege imposed on the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo since June, without any breakthrough because of the dense military support offered by Russia to the regime and its allies. There is no doubt that the opposition has suffered heavy losses, but the regime forces and Shi’ite militias were also severely damaged.
It is clear that, by virtue of the existing balance of forces on the ground, and the complexities of the political situation surrounding the conflict in Syria, the bloody battles in Aleppo will remain open, but may extend to Idlib and Homs, and killing and destruction may increase; as each of the intervening parties accepting Aleppoas the battlefield of international, regional and local clash of wills, of which results shall be clear in the final scene once the dust settles.
Tracking the positions of the countries involved in the conflict, at this point of time, may help give a glimpse into the aftermath, at least in the short term. The United States of America, the principal controller of the course of the conflict, is still on the same approach of switching priorities, diverting the different parties constantly, and focusing on fighting and defeating (Daesh) before anything else, and in conjunction with this trend it does not mind weakening the armed factions fighting the regime, seeing that the Russian violence against the Syrian people is doing the job they want, without assuming any responsibility, and without any benefits toward Russia who is panting for bargains with the West in other places on the expense of the Syrian blood. Apparently, the American position will remain in effect until the next administration settles in, and may remain so during it.
As for Russia, which has slipped in the conflict deeper than what its interests imposed, and mobilized the West and world public opinion to the horror of the crimes committed and perpetrated by its air force since its intervention more than a year ago, without achieving any strategic results that could be laid out on the table, seems more confused and cautious these days, and the size of the its Marine build up on the Syrian coast is far more than the conflict requires, which demonstrates the size of the impasse in which it finds itself in. After the Russian defence minister declaring that “the political solution in Syria has become unfeasible”, observers estimated that after the completion of the Russian deployment, Russia would be on the verge of determining the zero hour for controlling Aleppo. The Russian National Security Council meeting came on November the 3rd to discuss the developments in the Syrian situation, without announcing any decisions, although the meetings of this Council are usually correlated with making important decisions; then in the 7th of November, a spokesman for the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov, announced that the “humanitarian truce had a specific time frame, and the cessation system of the Russian air force operations in Aleppo was still ongoing, “and that the decision to resume suspension of flights” was taken in line with the position of the Russian president. ” In the same context it was remarkable in terms of the timing that Russia’s Federal Agency for Technical Cooperation Director (military Alexander Fomin) declared that the “active cooperation between Moscow and Damascus in the field of supplying weapons was no longer existent,” and attributed that to the “complicated situation in Syria at that moment “.
The statements of the Russian officials are not usually that significant, as they often fall within the framework of psychological warfare, but what is certain is that the shocking results of the American elections allows assumption, with high confidence, that the Russian act, which is expressed in the media and political analyses and insisted upon by the regime, is unlikely at this stage, for fear of provoking the next US administration before clarifying its composition and positions, and this conclusion is confirmed by the harmony rising in the Turkish-Russian understandings toward the Syrian issue. the Free army, which is backed by the Turkish army, is on the doorstep of (Albab), and once entering and expelling (Daesh), this army becomes face to face with the regime forces and its allies besieging eastern Aleppo, and this is being done under the watchful eyes of Russia, which works to secure the regime’s full control of Aleppo, if possible. If the Russian bombardment of Aleppo escalates, to what extent can Turkey, which has demanded the departure Al-Nusrah, to keep silent towards the Russian act there?
For its part, Iran is seeking with all force and all groups of sectarian militias and the Revolutionary Guards to control Aleppo, to win the regime an important and articulated card on the reconciliations table. In conjunction with the Battle of Mosul, its goal to secure a land corridor to the Mediterranean becomes more realistic. But there is always a fatal distance between ambitions and projects and the counter wills.
In the current power balance, and the uncertainty surrounding the situation – this uncertainty excludes the desperation of the regime and Iran for control of Aleppo – the opposition’s ability to break the siege seems to be less than their desire to do so.
Finally, on the twenty-third of last October, the battle to liberate Mosul from the control of (Daesh) was launched, after two years of recruiting and preparation by the international coalition forces, more than 60 thousand fighters of the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga, national and local crowds and tribal forces were mobilised for this fight, and the popular Shiite crowd who imposed themselves as well as forces of the Kurdish Democratic Party that were stationed off Chenkal, and all equipped with the latest types of weapons, with this homogenized and highly alerted mixture being managed by thousands of soldiers and military experts from the United States, France and Germany. There are also Turks in Bashiqa, and the Iranians in Diyala, Salahuddin and Saqlawiyah and others, through dozens of Iraqi Shiite militias following them, and on top of all Qasem Soleimani, who has been given a government post as a military adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister, the Adjutant General of the Army and the armed forces, and has been issued with commands from Tehran to leave Syria and be stationed in Iraq to manage its forces in the battle of Mosul.
A large part of the effort made by the United States, as the leader of the international coalition to fight Daesh, in preparation for the battle of Mosul, was consumed in managing the dispute and the variation in the goals among the parties involved, and what they wanted from the battle of Mosul and beyond, in an attempt to focus the effort and achievement of the set objectives, and contain expected conflicts between these parties after the dust settles from the battle and defeating (Daesh).
Three weeks after the start of the battle of Mosul, coalition forces had already made significant progress in the east and south, strategic Kalkierh, Makhmour and Hamam al-Alil, on its way towards the sprawling city of Mosul, and entered some eastern neighbourhoods where a million and a half million people were living under the rule of (Daesh), where the costly and hard millstone of war would rotate, being the most important fortress for the organization of the Islamic state. But, although it was likely to face (Daesh) at the end in one of two major and crucial battles: Mosul or Raqqa, it would seem that the coalition forces has left the west of Mosul open towards Syria, and it is understandable in the strategies of war management to open the way for the enemy to escape. But (the Caliph al-Baghdadi), who was thought to have left Mosul, with important leaders of Daesh toward Syria, surprised everyone with a speech from within. In his speech, weighed with despair and frustration, and signalling that himself and his less than three years old Caliphat were living their last days, attacked coalition countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and even Islamic factions fighting in Aleppo with (Al-Nusrah Front) which he described as “traitor apostates who sought to represent the interests of their backers of infidel countries.” Al-Baghdadi’s speech demonstrated that (Daesh) was an isolated and transient phenomenon, with no allies nor friends, nor respectable popular incubator, and that they (the caliphate) are the nightmare that came out of this phenomenon, presented a model rejected in the world of nations and the history of violence when they used modern technologies in outputting and promoting the image of the scene.
On the other hand, the fact that Baghdadi deliberately avoided attacking Iran or the Syrian regime poses many questions; maybe he wants from Iran to secure a safe haven for him and the remnants of the leaders of (Daesh), after the chapters of his play end, as it had precedent favours and services provided to his companions from al-Qaida leaders!
Fourth: expected risks following the Battle of Mosul
The importance of the battle in Mosul stems from being a central link in the global war on terrorism, and available data indicate that the defeat of (Daesh) is closer than ever, but the battle will be expensive and full of surprises, it is a very serious battle, because the city’s complex structure is multi ethnic, multi sectarian and nationalist, Kurds and Shubk, Serian Turkmen and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, which makes it difficult to maintain its geography previous to (Daesh), because of the threat of a combination of interlocking conflicts and a potential conflict between Turkey and Iranian. Thus, the vote in the Iraqi parliament, a few months ago on a law to preserve the administration and geographic unity of Mosul, did not come from nowhere, and it reflected fears of the undesirable fate of division that emerges with a project to divide Mosul into three or six cantons.
The first clashes may take place between the Peshmerga and the Shiite crowds who imposed themselves on the battlefield in spite of all objectors. The leadership of the Kurdistan region says it has agreed with the government in Baghdad on the rights of Kurds in Kirkuk and other areas of Mosul, but they want to keep Benmrod and Ba’shiqah to obstruct the militias from reaching Talafar and cordon the region from the south, where if completed, they would have encircling the territory from three sides. There could be also a Kurdish-Kurdish conflict, between the leadership of the pro-Iranian Sulaimaniyah and the Baghdad government on one side, and the government of Erbil, who demanded a referendum on independence for the region from Iraq contrary to Sulaymaniyah on the other side, unless the Kurds decide to overcome their differences. There also another possibility of an Arab-Kurdish conflict over Kirkuk.
Another possible conflict could break out between the Arabs in Mosul and the clans who are being funded and armed by the Shiite militias, the national crowds, led by former governor of Mosul Athele Alnujeifi, and is backed by Turkey.
The Shiite crowd claim that their insistence on accessing strategic Talafar is to pursue (Daesh) inside Syrian territory, and Talafar is inhabited by Shiite Turkmen loyal to Iran and Sunni Turkmen loyal to Turkey. Turkey, who has nearly two thousand soldiers in the Ba’shiqah camp, has threatened to enter the Iraqi territory if Shiite militias advanced to Talafar, and they would not allow any displacement or any demographic change in the region, bearing in mind that the Turkish position has irritated the Baghdad government who considered the Turkish troops as an occupying force who should withdraw immediately, and complained to the United Nations to no avail. Turkey is also involved in the battle of Mosul, with its air force within the alliance arrangements carried out by the United States. Is war breaking out at the Talafar gate? How will Iran react then? What will be the American arrangements? The answers to these questions depend on the latest developments and the disposal of the crowd and its obligations, because Turkey considers Talafar, a national security issue, and being taken over by the crowds is in the interest of the Iranian ambition to reach the Mediterranean, and it pushes toward maturing the dream of the Kurdish belt on its southern border, which is something Turkey doesn’t even want to think about. It is also difficult to imagine Iran’s involvement in a direct confrontation with Turkey in the event of intervention, but they could be engaged in a proxy war, depending on the Iraqi army and Shiite popular crowd.
Kurdish Democratic Union Party surprised everyone by announcing the start of a military campaign to isolate Raqqa, in coordination with the international coalition. It stated in a statement issued on November the 6th from the General Command of the Democratic Syrian Forces (operations room/ Wrath of the Euphrates). What is surprising is not the symbolic hostility of naming the battle “the wrath of the Euphrates”, contrasting with the Turkish supported Free Army battle being called the “Shield of the Euphrates” to liberate the north-eastern Aleppo countryside from (Daesh), which was launched on 24 of last August and still going, but also in the absence of the international coalition, who began the war on (Daesh) in Mosul. So what are the messages that the US administration wanted to deliver, and to whom, by allowing the Kurdish party to exclusivity make this announcement?
Is it to exclude the free army from entering Raqqa after its liberation from (Daesh)? Or satisfy the Kurds, their allies, for not participating in isolating Raqqa, and refrained from entering and participating in the subsequent management arrangements? Is it to minimise Turkey’s role in the Battle of Raqqa and restrict their control of the city Albab? Or is it a message of reassurance to the regime and its Russian allies that keeping them away from the battle of Raqqa is offset by the removal of the Turks and the approximation of their dodgy ally the Democratic Union Party? And may be the Americans wanted all these things combined.
But US officials are trying to calm the Turkish anger. On the second day of announcing the start of the battle to isolate Raqqa, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, landed in Ankara and met with his Turkish counterpart, announcing after the meeting that the international coalition against (Daesh) “shall work with Turkey on a long-term plan for the liberation of Raqqa and maintaining it” and on the (Democratic forces of Syria) he said that their role “would be limited to isolated Raqqa,” adding that: ” we always knew that the (Democratic forces of Syria) were not the solution to control and rule Raqqa, what we are working on is to find the right mix of forces for this process.” The US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter said: “We are working largely with the Turkish army in Syria, and without resolving Albab problem we cannot start the battle of Raqqa, and organise the forces involved and their roles, because there is a risk that the Organisation would bounce back to Aleppo and complicate the situation.”
The battle to isolate Raqqa at this stage is still within the capacities of the (Democratic Forces of Syria) with the available intense air support by the international coalition air forces, no matter how limited or non-existent the participation of Arab forces within them is, they could be found in the northern countryside of Raqqa since June 2015, also there is no presence of Daesh forces in the East of Raqqa and deep within Hasaka, while the FSA is heading toward the strategic city Albab without colliding with the Kurdish forces.
The United States is trying to engage the Arab forces at the Battle of Raqqa such as (Revolutionary Army in Raqqa) and Arab tribes; but what has been announced so far for involvement will not change the balance, nor the fact that the Kurdish party is dominant, with an American endorsement. The statement issued by six civilian activities in the Turkish city of Urfa were very significant, most notable ones were the Council of Raqqa and the union of Raqqa’s teachers announcing their rejection of the announcement of the Battle of isolating and liberating Raqqa because that “would lead to a national conflict between Arabs and Kurds for decades.”
Question about the Turkish position remain unanswered, and what assurances obtained by Turkey from the United States, at a time when Erdogan states that: “the United States did not answer our questions yet”? Or maybe the Turkish role is deferred and linked to developments in the field, and could be determined by the extent of Daesh’s resistance and its decision whether to resist in Raqqa or not, because the battle of Raqqa is governed by an external political dimension determined by the positions of the United States, Turkey and the Kurds, as the Turkish role cannot be excluded entirely, given the deep Turkish apprehension towards the Kurdish party ambitions to form an independent entity on its southern border, prompting Ankara to reject an offer from the (Democratic forces of Syria) to secure a passage for the Turkish army to Raqqa through the Kurdish controlled Tal Abiadh, which is only a hundred kilometre from Raqqa. The essence of the Turkish rejection is purely political, because Ankara does not want to recognize the role of the Kurdish party, neither accept it or cooperate with it, which could open the door to political exchange. Thus, it is expected that Turkey and its backed factions would have a larger role on the ground later, due to the achievements they already made on the ground, and within this context, came a Turkish official’s statement that Turkey intended to expand the safe area, which was decided in the battle (Shield of Euphrates) to include Raqqa.
Battle of Raqqa may not happen in the near future, depending on the end of the battle of Mosul and defeating (Daesh) there; it is also linked to their anticipated defeat in Eastern Aleppo after the fall of Albab city, and the fate of the war rallies in Aleppo. Before the battle of Raqqa starts, many things would have changed, and new alignments and unexpected realities could come to surface; for example what if (Daesh) decided to facilitate the arrival of the regime forces to Raqqa? A similar and expensive attempt took place in 2015; It is remarkable that the regime has declared from Damascus the formation of (Peninsula and Euphrates shields) at this time to fight (Daesh), and this force, with its unknown numbers and weaponry, was formed hastily of Deir ez-Zor’s men, who resided in Damascus, and had previously fought with the regime against the opposition forces.
With the launch of the battle of Mosul, the war on terror has entered a critical stage in Syria and Iraq, and it will bring down the flag and the name of this terror. International policies have deliberately, through its focus on (Daesh) and its danger, divert the attention from the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed and still being committed against the people of the region; and the livelihood of a civilisation has been destroyed for the sake of expansion projects or liquating accounts or in search of new balances in the region or on the international stage, offered by the power vacuum and the chaos in the region.
If (Daesh) linked the fates of Mosul and Raqqa in many respects, Aleppo is linked to what is happening in these two cities from other angles. The absence of (Daesh) from the scene or the dispersion of its forces, will change the general course of the conflict, and the day following the end of (Daesh) shall unfold regional and differential conflicts that were brewing beneath the surface, and will not be easy to be contained or be controlled.
Mosul and Aleppo are located on one of the corridors of the Iranian expansionist project into the Mediterranean coast, and Iran is focusing its energies to secure this corridor, and to protect it by forces allied with them in Syria and Iraq; at the same time, these two cities are very important for the Turkish national security since they are the passage of its economy into the region of Arab Gulf, making the clash between Turkey and Iran very probable, directly or via agency; something that would have dangerous repercussions on the region and any chances of stability. The peoples of the region and its alignments, and its toil to solve its contradictions, will still have the most important role in the face of these risks.