by Wayne White
Much like the vicious rampage against suspected German Army “cowards” and “traitors” by SS fanatics in Nazi Berlin in 1945 as the Red Army closed in, Islamic State cadres have been on a frenzy executing real or imagined spies and traitors in Mosul (including the less fanatical among their own). Increasingly beleaguered, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) started executing fighters trying avoid frontline service and disillusioned foreign fighters seeking to leave last November. Such fratricide (and atrocities) will intensify as IS shrinks.
The more the self-styled “caliphate” crumbles, however, vigilance will have to be ramped up considerably to intercept IS true believers when they themselves try to leave in search of new havens. By the time Donald Trump assumes the presidency, this may well be the leading priority, not blasting away even more at the remnants of IS in Syria and Iraq.
In fact, if Iraqi forces in general—including elite formations like the Special Forces—weren’t so casualty-averse, the advance into Mosul would have been a lot faster. Instead, even crack units have stopped for an entire day in some cases after losing one or two men. Sad to say, but Saddam Hussein’s veteran army (battered militarily by the 2003 US invasion and then swept away through wholesale dismissal by Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator J. Paul Bremer) would likely have taken Mosul by now. IS fighters, aware of the lack of grit within today’s Iraqi Army (regardless of unit training proficiency), can employ a few snipers, scattered mortar fire, and a few car bombs to greatly slow or stop the advance of an Iraqi force vastly superior in numbers and firepower.
In Mosul, where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly is holed up underground, IS forces are a remnant of those that fought so fiercely and in larger numbers in battles like Kobani. This is no surprise since the Islamic State has lost many thousands of its best fighters and most of its heavy weapons, suffered continuous attrition from almost two years of incessant bombardment, and watched the flow of foreign fighters from abroad dry up because of repeated military defeats (plus the loss of most access from abroad). Plummeting salaries have also hurt as IS finances fell off steeply.
Hence, in its last major engagement, although only losing half the city of Fallujah (IS’s first major sanctuary) in June, its forces abandoned the rest, with many fighters caught fleeing in the open and decimated by air strikes. So, this time around, abuse-prone Iraqi Shi’a militias, kept from the forefront of the Mosul battle, have swept west of the city across relatively open ground, cut off a major IS escape route to Syria, and begun closing in on the city of Tal Afar 40 miles west of Mosul. These militias have found IS defenders to be weak and prone to withdrawal as they fight mostly token delaying actions.
How IS Has Survived
For some months now, the IS’s main source of survival has been the many problems reducing the threat from its many enemies on the ground. Iraqi Army (and Iraqi Kurdish) deficiencies are far from its sole advantage. Despite Turkey’s much ballyhooed joining of the war against IS, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan directed most of Turkey’s military action against the anti-IS northern Syrian Kurds. Then, this summer, when Turkish forces did actually enter the fight, they did so only to cut the IS’s last small opening to the outside world, mainly because doing so blocked advancing Syrian Kurds from linking up with their compatriots in Syria’s extreme northwest.
Hence, the Syrian Kurds, the most effective anti-IS force in Syria backed by the US, have been coping with Turkish countermoves, air strikes, and limited supplies. Lately, when Syrian Kurds and US-backed Syrian rebels began an advance on the IS capital of Raqqa in early November (a cunning diversionary move during the Mosul battle), Turkey warned the Kurds on November 8 not to enter Raqqa, throwing that venture into confusion.
Elsewhere, Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces, following a lightning campaign wresting Palmyra from IS back in May, have shown virtually no interest in doing more. Instead, revealing Moscow and Tehran’s dominant agenda of saving the Bashar al-Assad regime, pro-regime forces have done little more than blast away at relatively moderate Western-backed rebels in and around Aleppo.
President-Elect Trump spoke on Monday with Vladimir Putin, reportedly about “threats and challenges facing both nations,” among other things, with no indication from either side of anything discouraging Putin from continuing to run amok in Syria. Russia unleashed its aircraft carrier “Kusnetzov” the next day, supposedly on IS and other militant targets in northwestern Syria. In fact, human rights observers and others reported, by contrast, an intense pounding of mainly US-backed anti-regime rebels (and civilians) in Aleppo. Perhaps Trump now realizes that the chat, quickly followed by Russian military attacks not directed against IS, did nothing to restrain Moscow or redirect its actions in Syria against common threats—just the opposite.
What Obama Achieved
By contrast, President Obama has navigated through a nasty thicket of obstacles in order to weaken IS. This meant doing his part in ousting the Iraqi prime minister who inflamed Sunni Arabs into joining IS, working to get Iraqi forces back into some semblance of fighting readiness, addressing one problem after another posed by a largely unhelpful Turkey, overseeing a coalition air campaign in the face of the Saudi-led diversion of most moderate Arab airpower to Yemen, and, finally, Russia’s damaging intervention. This difficult spadework led to the current unfolding endgame. Sadly, with IS now the focus, little has been done to address the appalling human rights violations against rebel populations in western Syria, but Moscow took that task from difficult to near impossible when it came to the rescue of the Assad regime last year.
Yet, Republicans are reluctant to concede that Obama and company have achieved much of anything against IS. So, do not be surprised when Donald Trump, finding the original “caliphate” closer than ever to death’s door by January 20, 2017, claims most of the credit for ending IS as a geographic entity.
Ironically, despite Trump’s priority of “bombing the s###” out of IS, he had better be prepared for a far more important mission: doing all he can to block the flight of surviving IS diehards to new safe havens elsewhere. He will have to re-energize Jordan and Saudi Arabia especially to block the most appealing escape route: over vast, barren frontiers not especially well guarded now that could give IS extremists their best shot at reaching potentially valuable safe havens in Yemen, Somalia, and beyond.