A nightmare in the making for Mosul

October 11, 2016

An assortment of U.S., British and Iraqi military forces and militia fighters from around the region are preparing an offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which fell under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) two years ago. Not only are the civilian casualties likely to be significant, given the house-by-house fighting expected in dense residential areas, but the aftermath could also be harrowing, considering the unresolved question of who will control Mosul after ISIS is ejected.

Journalist Anand Gopal is the author of the award-winning book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes and of numerous articles about U.S. wars and occupations in the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and the Nation, among other publications. Earlier this year, he was on assignment in Iraq, writing for The Atlantic about the U.S. war on ISIS--his article "The Hell After ISIS" explains how the Iraqi state collaborates with Shia militias against ISIS, while repressing and terrorizing the Sunni population.

Gopal spoke to Eric Ruder about the looming assault on Mosul and the likely consequences in Iraq, Syria and the region as a whole.

THE U.S. is stepping up its training of Iraqi government forces in advance of a coming effort to retake Mosul from ISIS. Does this have the potential to deal a decisive blow to ISIS? What will be the humanitarian consequences of such an effort?

IN ADDITION to training, U.S. counter-terrorism forces are working with the Iraqi army and Special Forces to carry out fighting from village to village. They've been taking small bits of territory and closing in on Mosul.

They will take Mosul--if not in the next few months, then by early next year--and it will be a major blow to ISIS. Mosul is basically ISIS's capital in Iraq, and I think it will be the deathblow to ISIS in Iraq.

But like other major battles in this war against ISIS, there is going to be a significant humanitarian cost to the drive to retake Mosul.

To begin with, Mosul is the second-biggest city in Iraq and has up to a million residents, and so they are going to be trapped in the midst of street fighting and in some cases house-by-house fighting. ISIS has rigged a lot of the houses with bombs, and they've booby-trapped parts of the city. And a lot of people who might want to aren't allowed to leave.

Iraqi officers talk to U.S. military advisors outside Mosul
Iraqi officers talk to U.S. military advisors outside Mosul

In addition, there are U.S. air strikes, which have been ongoing for the last two years. A lot of civilians have been killed in those air strikes, and the death toll will only increase. In fact, the U.S. is now using white phosphorus again, which they were using back when the U.S. directly occupied Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

You can look at other examples of what's happened after Iraqi forces have expelled ISIS. One example is Ramadi--the destruction there is unimaginable. Entire cities have essentially been leveled, either through air strikes or through ISIS bombs. These places are mostly unlivable. And so you have tens of thousands of residents living in refugee camps and in tents in the desert or around the city.

In Fallujah, which was retaken from ISIS in June, some of the Shia militias went to various towns around Fallujah and arrested and executed many civilians. In one town alone, more than 600 civilians were disappeared, and there have been reports of extremely brutal torture, using power drills and other horrific things.

So while, on the one hand, people in Mosul would be very happy to get rid of the rule of ISIS, I think they're very fearful of what comes next.

A LOT of attention is rightly focused right now on the siege and assault on Aleppo, carried out by the Syrian regime and Russian military forces. Can you talk about how the U.S. employed similar tactics in Fallujah?

FALLUJAH HAD an uprising back in 2014, and the locals expelled the Iraqi state and set up a council consisting of local tribal sheiks, military and ex-military figures, and other insurgents who had previously fought against Americans.

Over the next six months, the Iraqi army more or less indiscriminately shelled the city, killing or injuring thousands of people. And it was through that immense destruction that this revolutionary council started to lean more and more heavily on ISIS, because ISIS had all the heavy weaponry. In this way, ISIS was able to co-opt and eventually take over the council and then take over the city.

Beginning this year, Iraqi forces succeeded in surrounding the city of Fallujah and, backed by U.S. air power, imposed a siege in which no food or medicines could get into. Meanwhile, ISIS was not allowing anybody to leave the city.

So you had really horrific scenes of starvation, people boiling animal fodder or eating grass to survive. People who tried to escape were being shot. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces were still indiscriminately shelling the city, with the U.S. complicit in the whole process.

When I was in Baghdad and asked U.S. officials about it, they pretended as if they didn't know what was happening--even though they were very much behind all of this.

IF ISIS is defeated in Mosul, it seems that one likely consequence will be a renewed scramble among the various forces to reap the territorial and political benefits of a successful military campaign. What do you think?

YOU REALLY have a United Nations of militias currently surrounding Mosul and hoping to share in the spoils of retaking it. There's the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal militias, Shia militias, Christian militias, the Iraqi army and then the various air forces of foreign countries. And there is going to be a lot of unease, if not outright fighting, between some of these groups.

Then, of course, there is also the sectarian issue. There are Sunni tribal forces that want to reclaim some of this territory, and they have internal rivalries dating back to the period of the occupation--plus they want to keep out the Shia militias who are seen to be very sectarian.

That's just for Mosul, but this is actually playing out across the country. For example, in a town called Tuz Kharmato, there has already been months of on-and-off fighting between the Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias.

In other places, there is fighting between different Sunni factions. For example, in the town of Tikrit, after Shia militias essentially took the town back from ISIS, certain Sunni tribes allied with the Shia militias and fought against other ones--in some cases burning down houses or executing civilians.

Then there is the scramble for reconstruction money. This is a big problem right now in Anbar, where there is a lot of money that's supposed to come in for reconstruction to rebuild the city of Ramadi, and various forces are trying to get ahold of those contracts. There's a logic around such contracts that was established by the U.S. occupation more than 10 years ago, and those dynamics are replaying exactly the same way today. So that's also a major flashpoint.

In fact, there are many different flashpoints because this society has become so fragmented at this point, especially after two civil wars and an occupation.

But the biggest battle may be within and/or between Shia militias and the Iraqi state--because some Shia militias are backed by Iran, while others aren't backed by Iran and are more nationalist. The big question is whether these militias are going to be subordinated to and paid by the Iraqi state, or if they are going to remain independent.

A lot of the Iran-backed militias want to remain independent and don't want to come under the control of the Iraqi government. So you already begin to see Shia intra-militia fighting between groups trying to position themselves in the post-ISIS period when the question of where they stand and whether they're going to subordinate to the Iraqi state will become hugely important.

IS THE main prize the significant oil reserves in and around Mosul?

YES, THEY'RE jockeying for oil, but they're also jockeying for contracts. The more you destroy a city, the more reconstruction that will have to follow. Somebody's going to get the contract to rebuild, and that's a lucrative endeavor.

So they are jockeying for that, and they're jockeying for state funding. The state has a budget for paying militias, and the question of who controls that budget and which militias get that money and which militias don't is very significant.

IS IT possible to anticipate the spillover effects of the war to retake Mosul inside Syria?

THE LOSS of Mosul is definitely going to have an impact on ISIS everywhere, and in Syria, they've been squeezed in every direction, so their territory has been whittled down to areas around Raqqa and parts of Deir ez-Zur. This is part of a process in which I think in a year or two, they're not going to hold much territory in either Iraq or Syria.

But the dynamics in Iraq and Syria are so different. Iraq today is ultimately the result of the occupation and two civil wars, whereas in Syria you have the outcome of a popular broad-based revolutionary movement. There are still local grassroots structures in place, even if they are much weaker today than they were a few years ago.

But in Iraq, those kinds of structures are very limited. They're mostly in major cities like Baghdad. Otherwise, you see a lot more deep fragmentation across the country.

THE U.S. hopes that the Mosul campaign will bring stability to Iraq and the region. Could they succeed in this, or will it deepen sectarian and other conflicts?

IT'S LIKELY that ISIS will be defeated militarily, but the political circumstances that led to the rise of ISIS have not been addressed at all.

In Mosul, for example, some people initially greeted ISIS as liberators when their fighters first conquered the city in 2014. And there was a reason for that: people were so disgusted with the Iraqi state and its widespread use of torture, its discriminatory polices against Sunnis, the massive corruption.

Today, the Iraqi state still exhibits all the same features. In fact, the Iraqi military's war on ISIS has served to perpetuate those dynamics.

On the sectarian issues, there is still a low-level sectarian war right now in Iraq, where people, mostly Sunnis, are being disappeared by either militias or the Iraqi security forces.

For example, in Babil, every week, there are people who appear on television or radio to say that they've lost their loved ones--five, 10, 15, 20 people who have been disappeared, and there's no news of what's happened to them except that we know they've been taken by Shia militias.

Jurf as-Sakhar is a Sunni town that's essentially been cleansed. Nobody's allowed back into the town, and it's being controlled by Shia militias. And as I mentioned earlier about Tikrit, there are cases of people being taken out of houses and executed, and some gruesome videos have been posted on YouTube.

So it's a very grim situation, in which Sunnis lack any type of political representation that can defend their interests, let alone a genuine cross-sectarian movement that could defend the interests of all people in Iraq--which ultimately is the only solution to the problem of sectarianism.

In the absence of that, the potential for groups such as ISIS, Salafist groups and other religious groups, to reassert themselves is, I think, very real, because people under these circumstances will support whoever they think will give them protection.

That's why ISIS initially had that degree of support--not because people in Mosul actually agreed with the ideology of returning to the time of the caliphate, but because they wanted protection. They were desperate for some force that would stand up to the Iraqi state.

And that dynamic hasn't changed. When the U.S. talks about bringing stability, what they really mean is they want to minimize the immediate threat to U.S. interests--and I don't think the U.S. perceives low-level killings of civilians in cities as a threat to their interests. I just don't think they care about it.

But the paradox of U.S. power over the last 15 years is that what the U.S. wants in the Middle East and elsewhere is to have client regimes in place to ultimately make these places safe for American businesses. The paradox is that by trying to do that, they've actually created the conditions where we may not see that any time soon.

Iraq is not going to be a place ruled by a friendly client regime, nor a place where it's imaginable that American corporations will be able to operate easily. In fact, the U.S. has little ability to direct Iraq's oil resources, which was one of the main motivations for the Iraq war in the first place.

History has its way of intervening, but when the U.S. talks about stability, what they actually mean is not stability in the sense that you or I would think about it. What they mean by stability is making the region safe for American interests.

THE ASSAD regime portrays all opposition to his regime as "terrorism" and all Syrian military efforts as a contribution to fighting ISIS in the "war on terror." But what is the larger context in which the conflict in Syria is unfolding?

ASSAD IS actually the biggest cause of ISIS in Syria. The devastation that he's wrought on Syrians is the main reason that ISIS even exists in Syria. And what's remarkable about what's happened over the last year is that U.S. policy in Syria is essentially helping Assad.

For example, in the most recent ceasefire, the U.S. demanded that the rebels extricate themselves from al-Qaeda. The problem is that Jabhat al-Nusra, which was formerly a part of al-Qaeda, has a dominant position within the rebel movement because they have a lot of resources.

Without giving the other rebels resources to enable them to extricate themselves, the rebels have no choice but to stick with Jabhat al-Nusra or be wiped out. Since they aren't able to separate themselves from al-Qaeda, Assad uses this as a pretext to bomb these areas, as he has with devastating results in Aleppo.

This is only causing people to run further into the arms of al-Qaeda, because they're the ones who have the most money and the most weapons. And this is only further justifying Assad's stand.

So ultimately, as you mentioned, what Assad is doing is taking the logic of the "war on terror" to its logical conclusion, which is that anybody who opposes his state is a terrorist. And the U.S. is aiding and abetting that by insisting on a separation between Nusra and the rebels, without actually supporting the rebels--without actually helping them to defeat Assad.

MANY ON the left in Western countries believe that there is no popular resistance to Assad beyond Salafist forces like Jabhat al-Nusra. What's your opinion?

I'LL GIVE you an example from Deraya, which is near Damascus and was an area without Nusra or ISIS. It was run by a civilian revolutionary council that emerged after the uprising, and the military factions there were subordinate to this civilian revolutionary council. It was everything that Assad says doesn't exist--and it existed a stone's throw from Damascus.

I think Assad recognized the embarrassing nature of this fact, and that's why Deraya was subjected to an immense siege that left people starving. In a very tragic turn of events recently, the leadership of the revolution in Deraya was forced to negotiate to leave the area and to allow Assad's forces to take over.

Part of the reason is they simply did not have the military support. In fact, there are stories circulating that Free Syrian Army units from southern Syria had wanted to go and support the Deraya rebels trapped by Assad's siege, but they were blocked by their American sponsors.

There are examples like this in other places. There's a town called Ma'arat an-Numan, in Idlib governate, where locals have been protesting against Assad and Jabhat al-Nusra forces for almost 150 days. They support a secular rebel faction and oppose Assad. But again, this received very little support or publicity.

So the real tragedy here is that these groups do exist, but they're in a very difficult position because they're being bombed and isolated. They're being targeted not only by the regime, but also by the Islamists--particularly by ISIS and Nusra.

So they're operating under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but I think the fact that they're still operating, even if in an attenuated form, is inspiring. Here we are, five years in, and every Friday, there's still a major protest in Ma'arat an-Numan against both the dictator and Nusra.

SO IF there are forces that aren't Islamic fundamentalist and are opposed to the Assad regime, why wouldn't the U.S. give them the support that they need to stand on their own?

FROM THE beginning, I think it's been clear that the U.S. has not been interested in a revolutionary victory in Syria. I think they're terrified at the prospect of the Syrian state collapsing.

I think their ideal situation would be something like what happened in Yemen. They want Assad to step down, and then someone within his regime takes over, the state institutions persist, a few of the rebels are brought into the government to help with the optics, and then things continue as before.

I think that's the end goal in terms of what the Americans want in Syria. That's not what most Syrians want. They're not going and protesting and risking their lives just so Assad can step down and his cousin can come to power. They want to overthrow the state. They want to overthrow the whole oppressive apparatus that has ruled their lives for the last four decades.

That's not something the U.S. is willing to countenance. And I think the U.S. has made it clear that it's content to focus on destroying Nusra and letting Assad stay in power.

SETTING ASIDE those on the left who actually support Assad, there's another current, probably larger and more influential, that considers Islamic fundamentalist forces to be the chief threat and the Assad regime to be a lesser evil. They focus on the crimes of the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalist forces, which they consider to be one and the same. What's your take on this outlook?

FIRST AND foremost, Assad is the primary cause of Islamic fundamentalism in Syria, directly and indirectly. Directly, he was sending al-Qaeda and other hard-line Salafist fighters into Iraq during the Iraq war and the U.S. occupation. Then, when they came back to Syria, he threw them all in prison and kept them there until the uprising.

Then in 2011, after the Arab Spring inspired a protest movement in Syria, he knew he had to paint the protesters as Islamist and al-Qaeda-inspired, in order to undermine their influence at home and abroad. So he purposefully released all of these Islamic fundamentalists into the movement.

In fact, if you look at the leadership of the major Islamist groups, from Nusra to Ahrar al-Sham, almost all of them were in prison and were intentionally released by Assad. That's the first point.

The second point is that when people are being faced with incredible amounts of devastation, they will go and join whoever will protect them and their families. So when I was in Syria in 2012, I was at a protest, and the protesters were denouncing Assad but they were also denouncing Sheikh Arour, a prominent Salafist preacher based in Saudi Arabia. And they were saying, "Down with Arour and down with Assad."

Many of the same people who were protesting against this preacher are now members of Nusra. And it's not because they all of a sudden discovered religion; it's because they had to side with whoever would protect them in the course of two years of devastation. And in the same way, if circumstances shift, then people will also shift accordingly. People's consciousness, their ideas about the world, is ultimately based on their social and material circumstances. When those circumstances are the life-and-death world of war, it's not surprising that people will draw conclusions like the ones those protesters eventually did.

So I think it's important not to look at a complex civil war from where we're sitting without understanding the real life-and-death choices that people have to make. Everything seems so clear-cut and ideological here, but actually on the ground people make choices and they're very pragmatic.

Ultimately, if you're serious about wanting to defeat fundamentalism and Salafism in Syria, the first step has to be to end the regime of Assad because as long as he's there, these forces are going to continue to be there.

IN THE first presidential debate, Trump attacked Clinton for her "career-long failure" to defeat ISIS, even though ISIS only appeared on the scene in the last couple years. Clinton, on the other hand, seems to have a more muscular approach than Obama to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. What's your take?

FIRST, THE question isn't whether Clinton did enough to defeat ISIS, but the role she played in creating the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive. As a U.S. Senator, she voted for the Iraq war and occupation, which played a major role in the rise of ISIS. On the domestic front, she voted for the USA Patriot Act and was a major proponent of the type of Islamophobia which I think plays into both ISIS's messaging and the "lone-wolf radicalization" phenomenon that we have seen. So I think she does bear a lot of culpability going back many years.

But in terms of her foreign policy and comparing it to Obama's, it's not necessarily that she's more militaristic than Obama, but that the way she conceives of deploying American power is a little different. If you think of what an Obama doctrine might be, he is very much reacting to U.S. setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan after spending trillions on military intervention in those countries.

So Obama is loathe to put boots on the ground, relying instead on proxy forces and deputizing various groups to do the fighting for him. So, for example, in Afghanistan, there are way more men under arms today fighting on behalf of the American or the Afghan state than there were when Obama took office. And that's because he created hundreds and hundreds of militias. A similar process played out in Yemen where the "war on terror" partnership deepened tremendously under Obama.

So I think Obama has been trying to move towards a 1980s model of intervention, where the aim is to get paramilitaries and death squads and regimes to carry out your foreign policy objectives, as opposed to the open-intervention model that Bush used. And I think that what will be different under Clinton is that she'll be moving a little more toward the open intervention. Not all the way back, but a little bit more than Obama was willing to countenance. But Syria is perhaps the one place where Obama is being very hesitant to deputize the proxy forces.

Under a Clinton administration, I think we'll see more weapons sent to Syrian rebels, but we should be clear that this is not because Clinton wants Syrian rebels to win, or that she wants the revolution to succeed, but it's because she wants to force Assad to the negotiating table. She thinks that upping the pressure a little bit is what's needed to force a negotiated exit and have somebody, perhaps even from his inner circle, take over. This would be the U.S. imposing the "Yemeni solution" on the Syrian conflict.

So Clinton has a different strategy from Obama, but it's towards the same goal of a negotiated settlement.

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