Category Archives: Middle East

Making Mosul Great Again

The writing is on the wall. In a matter of days, the rejuvenated Iraqi Army will begin its long-awaited assault on Mosul and the political struggle for the soul of northern Iraq will commence. What’s not apparent to many observers is that the military seizure of this ancient city of 1 million people is assured; Mosul will fall. If the capture of Mosul goes “well”, the Government of Iraq will be in a strong position to broker a stable political balance in the north. But if the assault bogs down, all interested parties will begin hedging their bets about the future. Either way, Mosul will fall, and when it does, the divergent interests of Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Russia will come into play making this historic city the lynchpin in a global struggle over the future of the Middle East.

Strategic Mosul

The 2014 fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forced both Washington and Tehran to make strategic decisions. The Iraqi Army’s defeat in the north left only a thin line of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters between ISIL and the Kurdish capital in Irbil. If ISIL had managed to take Irbil they would have shattered the Kurdish diaspora into four distinct parts, forced its people into exile in Iran and Turkey, and obliterated the federated nature of the modern state of Iraq. With no consensus and no army, Iraq would have been helpless to prevent victorious ISIL formations from moving swiftly down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in a final, decisive assault on Baghdad. There is little doubt that Iran would have intervened to prevent this, a circumstance that would quickly provoke a massive Saudi response leading to state-on-state Shia vs. Sunni warfare.

Strategic Mosul
This map shows what the situation could have been after ISIL seized Mosul in 2014. If ISIL had taken Irbil, the Kurds would have been exiled and Baghdad threatened.

Faced with this abysmal possibility, both the United States and Iran acted quickly. America rushed to rebuild the Iraqi Army and initiated an air war against ISIL that continues to this day. Iran moved to bolster President Assad’s forces in Syria and to mobilize the Shia population in Iraq. Disagreeing with Tehran on the acceptability of the Assad regime but seeking ways to cooperate against ISIL, the Obama Administration made a series of compromises on Iran’s nuclear program. Sensing an opportunity, Russia started its own war in Syria and made good on long delayed deliveries of advanced anti-aircraft systems to Tehran. Freed from American sanctions and safe under the umbrella of Russian top cover, the Iranian mullahs had a green light to continue their nuclear program and intervene openly in both Iraq and Syria.

Ottoman Style

Outmaneuvered and seeking to relieve pressure on Iraq, the United States pushed Kurdish allies in Syria to attack west from their stronghold near the Iraqi border. When the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — which Turkey considers the military wing of its mortal enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) — crossed the Euphrates river and seized Manbij in August 2016, Turkey responded by invading the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, destroying its ISIL garrison, and threatening the SDF flank. Though militarily insignificant, the seizure of Jarabulus sent a defiant message to the United States that Turkey would not accept a unified Kurdish homeland on its border. The lack of a US policy on the future of the Kurds has continued to paralyze American decision making for months and shapes the scheme of maneuver for the upcoming assault on Mosul.

Having embarked on a policy of direct intervention, Turkey is now exerting itself militarily across the region. President Erdogan, seemingly without consulting his advisors, announced in September that the Turkish Army would take part in any effort to seize ISIL’s capital Raqqah, particularly if that effort involves the SDF. Turkish military involvement would complicate coordination of the operation and vastly increase the risk of fighting between Kurds and Turks during and after the battle. Implementing this would be so difficult that the move seems designed to prevent the battle from ever taking place. Erdogan is now doing much the same with regard to Mosul, threatening to invade Iraq if Shia militias are employed to isolate the city or if the Peshmerga enters its outskirts. Ominously, he makes sectarian arguments to justify his threats.

Power Play

The Russians continue to take advantage of the situation, playing to Erdogan’s narrative of fear and working to patch up a relationship strained by the November 2015 shoot down of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force. American paralysis and Turkish concerns about the SDF gave Russia and Syria space to abrogate a shaky cessation of hostilities in September, achieving tactical surprise in eastern Aleppo and making a Kurdish move against Raqqah even less likely. At this point, a Kurdish deal with ISIL to protect the SDF southern flank is not hard to imagine; a development that would enrage Turkey and stiffen ISIL’s defense of Mosul. If the Iraqi assault on Mosul bogs down and Russia and Syria manage to achieve a breakthrough in Aleppo at the same time, we could see a general Turkish offensive all along its border from Mosul to Manbij supported in the west by a Syrian seizure of Raqqah. This could isolate the SDF and leave Russia, Turkey, and Iran masters of most of Kurdistan.

The United States is left with few good options. Its hopes for Mosul rely upon the effectiveness of a reconstituted Iraqi Army which is performing miraculously well but will have to operate without help from the Peshmerga that must remain outside the city. The Iraqi Army however, a largely Shia force, is not an ideal tool to control what has long been a Sunni outpost. This lends a great deal of urgency to creation of a more suitable constabulary that can stabilize the great city; what US planners call the “Wide Area Security Force”. Given that some front line Iraqi units are operating below 50% strength due to combat losses, recruitment will be only the first challenge.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relationship with its western allies is now in tatters. The failed coup in Turkey allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his power and resulted in the ongoing purge of the Turkish military. That purge, and the Obama Administration’s refusal to extradite the coup’s alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, has hamstrung the relationship between the US and Turkish militaries at a time when cooperation against ISIL is at a premium. The crowded airspace over northern Syria and Iraq illustrates how dangerous this disconnect can be: the Turkish Air Force remains off the Coalition’s order of battle and is therefore dangerously uncoordinated. American diplomats, eager to keep Turkey out of the Mosul fight, are limited to leveraging NATO to shape Turkish actions in Iraq; an unlikely and inefficient political approach that in better times would have been easily managed at the military to miliary level.

In the coming days, there will be a convergence of interests in Mosul, the scope of which has not been seen since 750 AD when the Abbasids defeated Marwan II near there, effectively ending the Umayyad dynasty and casting the Muslim world into a cycle of vengeance. To an extent, the fortunes of an army of Iraqi replacements will determine the future stability of Iraq, Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the United States, and the scope of Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Though none could have foreseen the dramatic political events that have brought us to this point, we can all agree that they have made Mosul great again.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

The Root of All ISIL?

There is a lot of soul-searching nowadays regarding the origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Historians and political scientists of all sorts have logged a lot of air time and print space answering the questions:  “How could ISIL have happened and where did these savages come from?”  Their answer is almost always a history lesson of the Iraq war with the occasional biopic on the Assad family thrown in for balance. Very rarely do they explore ISIL’s roots beyond that so there is something missing in the coverage.  While the post-2011 situation in Iraq undoubtedly led to the conception and birth of ISIL, let us remember that the group grew up in Syria.  For those of us paying attention then, our thoughts on the genesis of ISIL must inevitably turn to the Arab Spring and its mishandling by the Obama Administration and others.

Are the White House's failures at the roots of ISIL? Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the problem.
Are the White House’s failures at the roots of ISIL?  Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the movement in 2011.

Leading from Behind

We all know the mixed history of the Arab Spring.  On one hand it promised to liberate political thought in the Middle East from its despotic modern history but on the other led to the jarring realization that Islamism may indeed come to US allies like Egypt through the ballot box.  The Obama Administration should have learned a lesson from the electoral victory of Hamas but instead meekly transmitted mixed messages of support for America’s distasteful but stable ally Mubarak.  On 11 February 2011, Egypt announced Mubarak’s resignation while other regional allies watched in horror as America abandoned the second-largest recipient of US military aid.  Four days later, as if on cue, violence erupted at Arab Spring protests in Benghazi, Libya, igniting the civil war that ultimately led to the ignominious downfall of Muammar Ghaddafi and the slow descent of the country into perpetual balkanized dysfunction.  Less than three weeks after the first shots were fired in Benghazi, Britain and France were rushing headlong into the fray, enforcing a no fly zone and bombing Ghaddafi’s forces on the ground.  To support this they waved the flag of humanitarian intervention but found themselves critically limited in two ways: by their own inability to sustain a protracted air campaign in Africa, and by the insistence of the Obama Administration to “lead from behind” and achieve victory through airpower.

UntitledIn what must be one of history’s most stunning examples of the costs of alliance politics, the United States very quickly found itself compelled to rescue its allies from spectacular failure in a campaign it was verbally supporting.  Constrained by the President’s refusal to lead from the front, the United States Military took the reins under the guise of a NATO intervention while the French and British happily withdrew to the familiar position of supporting a US-led military endeavor America never wanted and did not benefit from.  In Libya, the rest is history.  Freed from control of the Ghaddafi regime and armed by a flood of loose weaponry, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) unleashed direct assaults on governments across northern Africa.  As I argue in “The Illusion of Suddenness“, The infectious cocktail of successful rebellion in Egypt and weaponry from Libya transformed another Arab Spring protest, this time in Syria, into a raging insurgency.  The stage was set for ISIL to come of age.

The Birth of ISIL

As the war in Syria intensified, the United States continued to display hesitation in its foreign policy.  With the Assad regime clinging desperately to survival, western governments began to grow concerned about the potential for its use of chemical weapons. At a 20 August 2012 press conference, the President of the United States, who seemed to have recovered from his earlier lack of conviction in regional affairs, delivered a clear and powerful deterrent threat to Damascus by drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.   But as a string of mysterious chemical weapons began exploding in rebel-held neighborhoods in October of that year, the “red line” began to bend and eventually broke in August 2013 after the undeniable use of Sarin in the town of Ghouta.  Rather than use authority under the War Powers Resolution to defend the “red line”, the President sought and received a specific resolution from Congress on 6 September which, among other things, required him to use “all appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means to prevent the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction by Syria”.  In this he complied with further delay, announcing that air strikes could be averted if Syria were to give up its chemical stockpiles.  Sensing an opportunity, Russia sent its Foreign Minister to negotiate the handover, managing by his success to destroy what little deterrent credibility the United States had left in the region.

The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014
The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014

The ISIL assault on Iraq began predictably three months later with the fall of al Qaim in December.  By the end of February 2014, Fallujah and Ramadi, taken at such cost by American soldiers ten years earlier, were firmly in Islamist hands.  In June, ISIL attacked the Tigris river valley, taking Mosul on the 10th and Tikrit the next day.  By the end of the month, large formations of the Iraqi Army had been completely destroyed, Tal Afar was in ISIL hands, and both Syria and Iran were actively intervening in Iraq.  Even then, America held off taking action until ISIL’s slaughter of Yezidis in Sinjar and simultaneous advance on the Kurdish capital Irbil.  By this time, ISIL controlled all the major cities in the north and west of Iraq, the Kurds were on the verge of being shattered into four exiled refugee communities, Baghdad was surrounded on two sides, and Iran was intervening openly in the situation.  The specter of state on state sectarian war was becoming very real indeed as the buffer between traditional enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia was collapsing precisely as Washington’s resolve was in serious doubt.

A Silver Lining?

The chronology of this is as disheartening as it is hard to deny.  A series of American half measures, broken promises, and false threats is the real root of all ISIL in the Middle East.  Faced with nothing but bad options, the White House now finds itself fighting shoulder to shoulder in Iraq with its old enemy, the Quds Force. Meanwhile, Riyadh has felt compelled to build an independent coalition (read: without the USA) to wage open war against Iranian proxies on their Yemeni frontier leading to the possibility that once again, the United States will get dragged into a conflict it doesn’t want in order to rescue an ally from failure.  Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE have all conducted offensive military strikes against ISIL and Arab Spring-related forces in the last five years, and large rifts are developing between the United States and critical allies Turkey and Israel.  If there is a silver lining to the quickening foreign policy disaster in the Middle East, it is that the crisis has given Tehran and Washington an opening to start talking about the Iranian nuclear program.  One gets the sense however, that the rapprochement comes amid declining American leverage rather than the reverse.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Illusion of Suddenness

Watching media coverage of the situation in Libya this week, one gets the sense that suddenly, the revolution that ousted Gaddafi in 2011 is failing to live up to its potential.  Since yesterday, when the Egyptian Air Force opened a new front against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with a bombing raid in the Libyan town of Derna, European pundits have been competing to send the gravest messages of concern about the deteriorating situation there.  Pronouncements from Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6; the Italian Minister of Defense, Roberta Pinotti; the French President, François Hollande; and a host of others emphasize the need for Europe to consider strong measures to contain the troubles in Libya. While it seems clear the 2011 notion that European air power could serve as a catalyst for future stability in the tribally-stratified north African state has truly gone out of style in 2015; the media hype surrounding the flatly delivered warnings has the feel of a focus group session where carefully nuanced versions of “boots on the ground” are measured for their effectiveness on the audience.  

For those of us paying attention however, the illusion of suddenness is little more than a tired refrain that should have lost its luster after the fall of Saddam demonstrated the need for “post intervention planning”.  Wolfgang Pusztai, a notable expert on the Libyan situation, has been discussing “Plan B” for some time, warning us in September of the “Lebanonization” of the country and suggesting that an intervention force may be the only solution.  Displaying remarkable prescience, he mentioned the possibility that such an intervention may actually come from Egypt…Until now however, Mr. Pusztai has been a rare voice in the wind which is striking given that Europe claimed to know better.  In fact, the mixed performance of massive nation building efforts by the United States in Iraq, criticized so bitterly in Paris, Brussels, and Rome in 2003, led indirectly to the situation in Libya; bringing us to the threads that tie all this together.

Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas
Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas

The 2011 fall of the Gaddafi regime unleashed a wave of weaponry and unfettered rebellious enthusiasm across the region.  Armed with Libyan weapons and a sense that something had changed, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took it as a sign that the time was right to execute war plans from Timbuktu in Mali, to in-Amenas in Algeria, to Homs in Syria where the war was still just another Arab Spring protest.  It took the French and Chadian Armies 30 days to roll back the situation in Mali, and the Algerians only three to flatten in-Amenas, but years later, the fires continue to grow in Syria where the Assad regime is proving much more resilient than Gaddafi or Mubarak.  Continuous combat in Syria has hardened both sides to a pinnacle of ruthless efficiency and the cancer is spreading.  Constrained by geography and sensing an opportunity across the border in Iraq, ISIL destroyed the better part of three Iraqi Army divisions, nearly exterminated the Yezidi, seized the upper parts of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and threatened to shatter Iraqi Kurdistan into four exiled communities.  The sum total of the massive American nation-building project there was thus reduced to ashes, setting the stage for ISIL to expand to Libya.  

Oddly, a semantic but resonant point is beginning to move the minds of European (and Egyptian) leaders in the direction of intervention in Libya; specifically that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is now a threat in areas that are neither in Iraq or in the Levant.  Coupled with ISIL-connected terrorism in Paris, Brussels, and Copenhagen, it is increasingly clear that Europe has a problem.  Though we can expect intensifying public debate about Libya’s future, don’t expect that debate to feature the obvious point that the path to the present came from a poorly considered European intervention in Libya’s recent past.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.