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Analysis: The significance of the Mosul battle for the Middle East

As Iraqi soldiers together with Kurdish forces and other actors enter Mosul, where they are presently fighting against ISIS from street to street and house to house, JerusalemOnline interviewed various Middle East experts in order to examine, what is the significance of the battle in Mosul for Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the Kurds, the Yazidis and other regional actors?
Bashiq and the mountain of Bashiq. After several shoots from ISIS, Peshmerga and US-led coalition answered. Photo Credit: Keywan Fatehi

The brutality of the murderous terror group known as ISIS has shocked the world.  From the gang raping of Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups to the drowning of people in cages, from rats attacking women’s vaginas to the beheading of Western hostages, and from the massacre of citizens who dared to defy ISIS to the implementation of horrific terror attacks, ISIS is a terror group that has implemented numerous crimes against humanity.  For some time, they have controlled huge parts of Iraq and Syria but with the battle for Mosul leading to Iraqi soldiers entering into the strategically important city, where they are presently fighting street to street and house to house, this might change. In order to evaluate recent events, JerusalemOnline interviewed various Middle Eastern experts in order to examine, what is the significance of the battle for Mosul?

“While the war in Mosul shakes the Arab and Islamic world, creating a conflict of interest in the ethnic communities while the Iraqi Army that is mainly Shia leads the war in Mosul against the ISIS terror organization; they don’t permit the involvement of Turkey and other Sunni countries, which raises concern among the Sunni Muslim world regarding the fate of the Sunnis in Mosul as the Iraqi Army may associate the Sunni citizens with ISIS and implement ethnic cleansing,” Mendi Safadi, the head of the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, told JerusalemOnline. “The concern is growing as there were sharp exchanges between the Turkish and Iraqi leadership in the background of Iraq’s opposition to Turkish involvement in the war against ISIS on its soil.”

“Can the Iraqi forces assisted by Russia occupy Mosul but be permitted more time to focus their activities on clashes with terrorists,” he pondered. “When the conflict of interests between Sunnis and Shias grows, the thing that is likely to weaken the two sides in the war is terrorism and the strengthening of ISIS’s abilities to recruit additional jihadist volunteers to its services and to avenge the betrayal of the Sunnis via additional terror attacks in Turkey as well as against Shia unbelievers in Iraq. Whatever will be, any unilateral move based upon communal ethnic interests will strengthen ISIS and make the War on Terror more difficult.”

Turkish Jewish dissident Rafael Sadi told JerusalemOnline that there is a reason that the Iraqis don’t want Turkey involved in the battle for Mosul: “Mosul until World War I was part of Turkish soil. The population of this city used to be always Turkish and Kurdish. According to the Turkish National Pact, Mosul and Kirkuk is Turkish land. This is engrained with most Turks and Erdogan knows this very well.   He does not hesitate to use this argument to strengthen his electorate and populist agenda as well as to show everyone that he will bring this part of the land back to the Turkish people and to be a hero. This is just an outside show and he cannot move without the permission of the US.   This is not valid anymore. Everybody saw that the Iraqi Army together with the Kurdish Peshmerga almost got the city. The next owner of the city seems to be Barzani’s government.  And Erdogan’s Turkey will forget the ownership of the city.”

According to Sadi, “Erdogan has a much more important mission: not to leave the Kurds connected to the Mediterranean Sea.   If the Syrian Kurds will find a way to reach the Mediterranean, so this means that they will transport the oil without needing the Turks. When the Syrian Kurds have this corridor and connect it to Iraq, they really will be independent economically. If the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have a joint state, the next step could be to ask for part of Turkish land. This is what any Turkish government does not want to happen. The internal problems in Turkey are bigger than what we see from the outside. And the Mosul megalomania is just a small trick to baffle the Turkish people. These are not easy days for Turkey. Every day, the democracy shrinks.”

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PAK Peshmerga forces. They are from Eastern Kurdistan, Iranian Kurdistan, which participated in the Mosul battle. Several of them were women. Photo Credit: Keywan Fatehi

Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a prominent Middle East scholar, explained the significance of the battle for Mosul as follows: “I think it is one of the cornerstones of the Islamic State. It is the biggest area in their hands. There are two major issues. One is economic. It is where the oil production of Iraq is. The other one is symbolic in taking over the second biggest city in Iraq. It is a Sunni area, meaning that makes them the custodians of the Sunnis. Losing the city means losing the aura of presenting them as the defenders of the Sunnis against the Shias in Iraq and other places. Defeating them takes the significance away from Islamic State. If this city falls into the hands of the government, the rest of ISIS will fall also due to the demoralization that will be inflicted upon them.”

“The Sunnis are in a dire state for the Iranians are winning in most fronts,” he explained. “They have a significant presence in Yemen. It is hard to root them out. They already threaten the stability of Saudi Arabia for they have no problem launching missiles on Mecca even if it hits the Kaaba. They are threatening the existence of the Saudi kingdom.  One of the Saudi princes was quoted saying that if nothing significant changes, Saudi Arabia will go bankrupt three years from now. If the oil prices are low and they are supporting wars in Yemen, Iraq, etc., this means that the Saudis have financial problems.   With the continuing efforts of the Iranians to spread their hegemony on the one side and the diminishing role of Saudi Arabia on the other side, the Middle East will be much more Shia than Sunni thanks to the Americans who gave the deal to the Iranians more than a year ago.”  

A tank, which belongs KRG, is shooting. Photo Credit: Keywan Fatehi

While Turkey and other Sunni states were barred the right to participate in the struggle against ISIS in Mosul, as mentioned previously, the Kurds were allowed to participate.  However, according to Kurdish dissident Aso Saleh, not all of the Kurds support Peshmerga participation in the battle for Mosul: “The Kurds in Iraq and in other parts of Kurdistan are divided about the participation of Peshmerga forces in the battle for Mosul. Some think that it is needed to ensure the borders of Kurdistan from terrorists like ISIS but others believe that Peshmerga should not be killed or wounded for an Arab region like Mosul.”

Nevertheless, he emphasized that the battle for Mosul has prompted the Peshmerga forces to be viewed around the world as a group at the forefront in the War against Terrorism after the Iranian, Syrian and Turkish regimes tried to portray them as terrorists. This has great significance for the Kurds, who until the struggle against ISIS received a lot of negative publicity due to the PKK’s suicide bombings and other terror related campaigns in Turkey. 

However, it should be noted that the KRG Regional Government and numerous other Kurdish political groups active in Iraqi Kurdistan don’t support the PKK and are passionately against all forms of terrorism.  Yet for all Kurds across the political spectrum, their struggle against ISIS is a source of pride.  Photojournalist and Peshmerga fighter Keywan Fatahi has documented the Kurdish struggle against ISIS within Mosul.

Nevertheless, according to Saleh, the Kurds are not the main players in the battle for Mosul for the Kurdish forces are merely trying to secure Kurdistan’s border region: “Iran is the main part of this game. I think that after the Mosul battle, the equations in Iraq and the region will change.  Iran’s militia partners which are Shia were illegal before the Mosul war. But now, they are beside the Iraqi Army and defending the people against terrorism. They will remain a part of the political map of Iraq. The second factor is the Sunni groups which were legal before the war but will be illegal in the future maybe. This means the Sunni influence in Iraq will decrease. These two facts result in there being more conflicts between Sunnis and Shias in the country, which will bring the Shias more power and Iran more influence. I think that we will see more conflicts and terror attacks after this battle like in 2006-2008 but this time more from radical Sunni groups.”

The US Representative of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan Salah Bayyazidi told JerusalemOnline in an exclusive interview: “I think that the significance of the battle for Mosul is it is the second largest city in Iraq; it is a place where regional powers like Iran and Turkey might directly or through a proxy clash because of its religious and ethnic significance.  The Kurds also want 1/3 of Nineveh Province including Sinjar.  The Iraqi Sunni Arabs view it as their capital city.  Also, the Christians want to have an autonomous government in several cities in the Nineveh plains where they are the majority.”

“Some people also say it is a small Iraq because all of the ethnic and religious groups that exist there while I am sure that the battle for Mosul is politically and strategically very important,” he added.  “However, the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS will be more important because many involved parties want a piece of Mosul.”

There are more near Bashiq now. Photo Credit: Keywan Fatehi

According to Yazidi leader Mirza Ismail, as the battle over Mosul wages, the plight of the Yazidis remains dire.  From the northern side around Mosul, most of the Chaldo-Assyrian villages have been taken over by the Nineveh Protection Unit while the KRG has taken over most of the Kurdish villages; the Iraqi Army and Popular Mobilization Unit have taken over most of the villages and towns south-west of Mosul. However, the Yazidi villages to the south and east of Sinjar are still under ISIS control: “The problem is that the Yazidi fighters have no weapons and ammunition to attack ISIS in those villages and to take their villages back. One issue that we have is that the KRG has much influence on the West especially on the Obama administration.”

Ismail stressed that the influence of the KRG in the West affects the future status of the Yazidi areas near Mosul.  “Sooner or later, ISIS will go away and the KRG with the West’s support will go and retake the Yazidi villages to the south and east of Sinjar and seek to annex the Sinjar region to the KRG,” he noted. “This is our biggest fear that we face.” The reason that this is problematic to Ismail and some elements of the Yazidi community is that on August 3, 2014, the Kurdish forces left the Yazidi regions, which led to ISIS taking over the area. For this reason, Ismail does not trust the Kurdish forces to protect the Yazidi areas against ISIS and other terror groups.  

However, Kurdish rebel Muhammed Alizadeh believes that Iran stands behind much of the tensions between the Yazidis and the KRG as well as between the Kurds and other ethnic groups within Iraq in the wake of the most important battle in the country since the 2003 American invasion: “Iran pushes the same groups to make problems with the KRG and doesn’t want an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. They also support some terror groups in order to make problems for the Kurds. Tehran’s strategic objective in its intervention in Iraq includes keeping Iraq’s Shia led government in power and stabilizing its border. Iran has attempted to limit its overt involvement in Iraq as a strategy towards avoiding the polarization of Iraq’s Sunni minority, creating a popular backlash against Iran among Iraqis, thus deepening sectarian tensions. Most Iranian aid has thus far come in the form of technical assistance, the commitment of Special Forces troops, and air support. Iran has sent more than 1,000 military advisers to Iraq and spent more than $1 billion on military aid.”

In conclusion, Iranian dissident Mohsen Behzad Karimi told JerusalemOnline that while the background of the battle for Mosul may have been over ISIS, there are additional layers to the conflict between the various regional actors: “Everything is happening in the name of ISIS. It was a major excuse to settle their scores for all of the regional agents. Turkey wants to get involved in the name of ISIS. Iraq is involved in the name of ISIS. Saudi Arabia also and other regional actors. Everyone wants to be there in the name of ISIS but the truth is that they are all there for their own interests. Iran is following this tension and is taking part in this tension to pursue its Shia Crescent. Turkey is after the reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire. Russia is after the reincarnation of the Czars and the Greater Russian Empire. And the Kurds are pursuing this fight for a Greater Kurdistan. However, the Kurds have the key of Kirkuk and Erbil in their hands but they keep running between the regional powers. Barzani is lenient towards everybody. That is one of the main worries for the Yazidi and Christian communities in those regions. Once ISIS is defeated, the chances that the area will be annexed to Kurdistan is very high.”

“For the Iranians, Mosul is not as important as the whole region,” Karimi related. “The Iranians have their supply route through Syria and Lebanon. Having control of the Shia areas in Iraq alongside Mosul towards the Syrian border is really essential for the Iranian government. To have stability and control over this area is needed to connect the Shia Crescent.” Karimi fears that if the West does not react well, then in the wake of the conclusion of the battle for Mosul, the city will transform into a regional center of terrorism like Benghazi and that Iran will take over the control of the area: “If we don’t play our cards safely, and if we let Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional actors pursue their goals, then Mosul will become a regional hob for tensions and threaten regional stability.” Karimi compared the liberation of Mosul to the liberation of Berlin after World War II, emphasizing that the tensions will not be over and the city is going to be divided.

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In front of Bashiq, after a hard day, but it is not enough to get a pause. Photo Credit: Keywan Fatehi
A Peshmerga-Selfy before startng the battle. He wasn't seen again. Photo Credit: Keywan Fatehi

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