|ASSOCIATED PRESS - Kurdish security forces overlook Islamic State-controlled villages east of the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Monday. Iraqi Kurdish forces retook 200 square kilometres and a half dozen villages east of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on the first day of a massive operation to liberate the city from the extremist group.|
Iraqi Kurdish forces retook 200 square kilometres and a half dozen villages east of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on the first day of a massive operation to liberate the city.
Iraqi, Kurdish, U.S. and Canadian generals in Iraq are all predicting victory against ISIL, the most reviled terrorist group of modern times. However, they warn after quick initial gains in open terrain and villages on the outskirts of what was once the country’s second largest city, the battle will likely become a ferocious slog across an urban maze of tunnels, booby-traps, suicide bombers and well-hidden snipers.
“There were less than 10 Daesh in the village,” said Kurdish peshmerga commander, Lt. Mehsen Gardi using the Arabic acronym for ISIL after liberating the village of Shakouli. “But they were running around like rats in and out of tunnels and surprising us with suicide attacks and snipers.”
Left unsaid, although hinted at, is worry over what will happen once Mosul falls.
The biggest elephant in the room is Kurdish independence, but tensions could surface quickly if ISIL’s resistance suddenly collapses, and fighters try to flee across the desert to Syria, where its other redoubt, Raqqa, is besieged by Russian and Syrian forces and coalition warplanes.
Canada’s top general, Jonathan Vance met other coalition military chiefs in Washington Monday to discuss how to fight ISIL and other malevolent forces, such as al-Qaida and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra).
The 30,000-strong force attacking Mosul, which includes about 4,000 Kurds, is thought to outnumber the jihadists six to one.
Among the competing interests are members of the Kurdish peshmerga, who are itching to seize more land for what they hope will be a Kurdish state. Another possibility is the territory that evolves north and east of Mosul is so autonomous, it will be independent in everything but name.
Shia militias want into Mosul to exact revenge on the estimated one million Sunnis who stayed on and, in many cases, initially supported fellow Sunnis in ISIL because they did not like the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
But ISIL’s draconian interpretation of Shariah law eventually became too much for them and an underground resistance evolved that has been fighting back against the jihadists. They do not want the peshmerga and the Shia militias to enter the city, let alone govern them.
Mosul’s large Christian minority, now mostly scattered across Kurdistan, simply wants to be able to return home in peace, as do the Yazidis, whose women were forced en masse to become sex slaves.
As always in Iraq, complicating everything is who gets to tap the rich oilfields surrounding Mosul.
Before then, there is a war to be won. And then, according to the United Nations and many aid agencies, another humanitarian crisis looms, with hundreds of thousands of newly displaced people fleeing east and north.
Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq, said in a worst-case scenario, some 700,000 civilians would require shelter.
Canadians will wonder what the 200 members of the Armed Forces, who have been advising the Kurds, will be doing. Some will accompany Kurdish units as they advance. How far forward and to what purpose is not clear, but commanders have said their orders do not include entering Mosul.
The Canadians’ rules of engagement allow them to defend themselves. It was confirmed in Ottawa this month that some advisers have been going forward more often and have been in gunfights.
Two generals are among about 30 Canadians based in Baghdad. They have been providing high-level advice to Iraqi commanders and supervising the training of some of the Iraqi troops now involved in the assault on Mosul.
Although it has not been heavily advertised, two Canadian Aurora spy planes, based in Kuwait and often operating near Mosul, have been providing specific bomb targeting information for coalition aircrews. The crews receive their orders from commanders who base their decisions partly on the work of a Canadian intelligence cell that studies ISIL’s whereabouts and its vulnerabilities.
Once Mosul is conquered, all eyes will turn to the fight against the jihadists in Syria, which has become extremely complicated because Russia is there with troops, warplanes and warships and supports Bashar Assad’s regime, which is as almost as repulsive to western leaders as ISIL.
The Trudeau government was the only coalition country to withdraw its fighter jets from the air war over Iraq and Syria. However, a Canadian refuelling tanker is still in the region to top up coalition warplanes attacking ISIL in Iraq.
Canada will likely face pressure from allies to rejoin the fight against ISIL’s caliphate in Syria, which is every bit as evil as the pernicious Iraqi variant. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has not said much on the issue except to note Canada is in favour of peace there.