ISIS’s two largest diversionary attacks have continued apace. In Kirkuk, it seems the heaviest fighting is over for the most part, with over 160 people dead on both sides, but it’s very likely that some ISIS operatives still remain in the city and could be capable of launching attacks, including suicide bombings. This Kirkuk assault was by all accounts a sophisticated operation and that speaks to the degree to which ISIS is still capable of putting up a fight when it wants to do so. But while Kirkuk succeeded as a diversionary tactic, the ISIS assault on Rutbah may just be succeeding, period. Al Jazeera reported that ISIS took “full control” of the city today, while something called “Iraq Insider” reported that ISIS…had been driven to the outskirts of the city and that Iraqi security forces were in the final stages of securing the city. Obviously these things can’t both be true. Iraq Insider cited the governor of Anbar province, who isn’t exactly without incentive to, let’s say, exaggerate the performance of Iraqi forces. On the other hand, Al Jazeera cited it’s own reporting, as far as I can tell, which isn’t hugely compelling when it’s clear they don’t actually have anybody in Rutbah. Because I don’t know anything about “Iraq Insider” I guess I’m more inclined to believe Al Jazeera’s reporting, but for now let’s just agree that Rutbah is a Land of Many Contrasts and leave it at that.
Operations around Mosul also continued apace, with Kurdish forces carefully proceeding to capture Bashiqa and Iraqi military forces continued to push in from the south amid reports that ISIS fighters are leaving the city and making a run for the (Syrian) border. Everybody seems to expect resistance to pick up over the next few days as the advancing Iraqi forces push past the circle of outlying towns and villages that ISIS more or less didn’t mind losing, and begin to really approach Mosul itself. So far it’s estimated that almost 800 ISIS fighters have been killed, out of maybe 5000-6000 in the area to begin with, and that’s not accounting for however many of them have made a break for it.
Off the battlefield, investigations are underway into Friday’s strike on a mosque in Daquq, just south of Kirkuk. Human Rights Watch believes the mosque was hit by an airstrike, which pretty much leaves the Iraqi air force and the US-led anti-ISIS coalition as the two suspects, though it doesn’t seem they’ve totally ruled out the possibility of some kind of artillery strike (which would bring the Kurds and ISIS into the mix). The coalition has apparently “definitively determined” that it was not responsible for the strike, and as we all know, in house investigations of this kind are always the most reliable way to get to the truth. And Washington is reportedly “scrambling” to try to contain the fallout of Turkey’s entry into the Mosul operation yesterday, against the explicit wishes of the Iraqi government. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently been telling people in Turkey that his forces are prepared to ensure that “Sunni” Mosul doesn’t fall into the hands of Iraqi Shiʿa militias.
There’s some speculation that, once this is all over, Erdoğan will encourage the Kurdistan Regional Government to break away from Baghdad using Mosul as its capital and/or largest city. And yes, thanks for asking, it is true that Turkey intervened in Syria to prevent the formation of an independent Kurdish state there, but Ankara actually likes the right-wing, staunchly anti-PKK KRG, and would see an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq as a buffer against Iranian activities in Iraq and Syria. The upshot here is that there is a small but not small enough chance of a war breaking out between Baghdad and the KRG and/or Baghdad and Turkey, once ISIS is out of the picture.
Aleppo is up next.
Not much to report in terms of new developments–the beatings will continue until morale improves–apart from one tidbit. Russian and Syrian forces reportedly dropped leaflets over eastern Aleppo today, warning the people still there that this is their “last change” to leave. Which likely means an invasion is imminent. Per Twitter, several eastern Aleppo residents found a creative use for the leaflets:
A ground invasion is inevitable, but it also puts the Syrian army in close, street-to-street combat with the rebels, and the Syrian army hasn’t had the greatest success rate in those kinds of fights. Really, the only military aspect of the war wherein the Syrian military has had a total and decisive advantage has been in terms of its (and Russia’s) air power. Invading eastern Aleppo negates that edge somewhat (unless Assad is prepared to bomb his own army) and puts things on a slightly more even footing. Which likely means a drawn-out invasion rather than a quick government victory. So, as bad as things in eastern Aleppo are now, we may be witnessing the calm before the real storm.
On the plus side, John Kerry “voiced concern” to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the renewed Aleppo violence, so I’m sure that will help. In fact, maybe Kerry’s concerns moved Moscow to make this statement earlier today:
A top Russian diplomat says the Kremlin will not consider another humanitarian cease-fire in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov spoke Monday, after a 72-hour truce expired in the city, and Russian and Syrian warplanes launched waves of new airstrikes. Moscow and Damascus insist the strikes are aimed at jihadists, while monitors and Western governments say they indiscriminately target an increasingly desperate civilian population.
Ryabkov, speaking to Interfax news agency, said any new truce would require “our opponents” to ensure what he called “appropriate behavior” by “anti-government fighters” seeking to topple the Damascus government and oust President Bashar al-Assad. In a statement, Ryabkov accused unnamed anti-government groups of sabotaging medical evacuations that had been scheduled to take place during the cease-fire.
Good stuff. The Russian assertion that the United States has some power to bend, say, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to its will is an interesting theory, I guess, but there’s no evidence to support it. So when the Russians say they won’t consider any more humanitarian ceasefires unless the US makes JFS behave, it’s setting out an impossible condition so that it can blame the US for the indefinite continuation of airstrikes, even though the indefinite continuation of airstrikes is what Moscow wants.
The administration has reportedly considered, then tabled, the idea of providing vetted Syrian rebels with heavier anti-aircraft weaponry. The problem with this idea is that it’s not clear it will do anything but deepen the war and escalate tensions with Russia. Well, that and the fact that even previously vetted Syrian rebels have increasingly adopted extremist jihadi ideologies and allegiances and maybe shouldn’t be trusted with the kind of weaponry that could, I don’t know, bring down a civilian airliner mid-flight. But maybe I’m just being paranoid.