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SitRep: Mosul Burns as Iraqi Forces Push Closer; Putin and the Nuke Game

SitRep: Mosul Burns as Iraqi Forces Push Closer; Putin and the Nuke Game

 

The fight for Mosul is on. On Monday, Iraqi and Peshmerga forces began the long-anticipated drive to kick the Islamic State out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the group’s last urban foothold in the country. Thick black clouds of smoke have already appeared over the city, the result of oil and tire fires ISIS fighters have lit to obscure coalition air operations.

Latest reports say that about 4,000 Kurdish Peshmerga forces are fighting their way through villages on the eastern outskirts of the city, as jets from the U.S.-led coalition pound targets on the ground. Overall, about 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, Peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters are expected to take part in the fighting against an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 Islamic State militants holding the city. And U.S. Special Operations Forces are near the front advising Iraqi forces, as some pictures on social media are beginning to show.

Sectarian headcount. Conspicuously absent from most troop counts are the Shiite militias who played a part in the fighting for Fallujah and Ramadi, but whose presence — and alleged crimes against local Sunnis — only underscores the sectarian rivalries that will confront Baghdad once the fighting in Mosul stops. “The forces that lead the liberation operation are the brave Iraqi army with the police forces,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Sunday. “They will enter the city and no one else.” But the Iranian-backed Shiite fighters are operating near the city, and Sunni villagers near Mosul are increasingly uneasy.

Americans see slow going. Commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, the U.S. Army’s Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, released a statement Monday saying that the operation to retake Iraq’s second-largest city “will likely continue for weeks, possibly longer.”

The Islamic State has had two years to dig in, and Iraqi forces are expected to have to contend with a sophisticated tunnel system the terrorists have built under the city. But first they have to get there. Last week, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said U.S. intel has seen “everything from berms and trenches being prepared, [bombs] being placed in buildings and cars and along roads along the way, charges being placed on bridges, giant pits full of tires and oil being readied to be lit quickly and create these giant obscuration fires” that are intended to make coalition pilots unable to pinpoint targets.

And once the fighting (eventually) stops? It won’t, according to the coalition. After the conventional push through the city comes an expected counterinsurgency campaign to beat back a likely a guerrilla war launched by pockets of ISIS fighters. Canadian Army Brig. Gen. Dave Anderson told reporters at the Pentagon earlier this month he expects ISIS fighters to go underground, much as they have done around Ramadi and other cities that the Iraqi army has retaken. “It’s definitely not over” once the city falls, Anderson said. “If anything, it’s gonna be more difficult.”

Training after retraining. Once the major fighting is over, Iraqi troops will be pulled out of the city and sent for four weeks of counterinsurgency training, while about 30,000 to 45,000 Iraqi security forces will surge into the city to hold it, including local police, military officials have said.

More on Dabiq. Mosul will dominate the news, but we shouldn’t forget about Dabiq, the ISIS-held city that Turkish-backed forces wrested from the group over the weekend. ISIS has been fond of a touting a hadith prophesying an apocalyptic clash in the Syrian city, in which an Islamic army raised from Medina would defeat one from Rome. The battle was supposed to usher in the apocalypse and the Islamic State had touted their control of the city as a sign of divine providence. Wits on social media are now taunting the group with a fake press release from the Amaq news agency, an Islamic State mouthpiece, announcing that “due to unforeseen circumstances, the apocalypse at Dabiq will be postponed until further notice.”

The E.U. vs. Russia. In an important scoop from FP’s John Hudson, he reports that the European Union appears to be getting over some of its traditional reluctance to criticize Moscow. Foreign ministers from the alliance — slated to meet Monday in Luxembourg — “are planning to formally and explicitly admonish Russia for supporting the Syrian government’s deadly assault on Aleppo, an attack that ‘may amount to war crimes,’” according to a document Hudson obtained. And that isn’t all. The European ministers “are also expected to support the imposition of sanctions on as many as 20 Syrian government officials who have had a role in the bombardment.” In other news, the U.S. and the U.K. are considering new sanctions on Russia and Syria in response to the continued brutal bombing of Aleppo.

Feels like the very first time. American and Russian diplomats led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met yet again in Switzerland over the weekend, the first major face-to-face meeting since the cease-fire they brokered in Syria fell apart last month. Short story shorter: no agreements were reached.

Putin and the nuke balance. “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling and military brinksmanship have upended the rules that long governed relations between Moscow and Washington,” FP’s Dan De Luce and Reid Standish write in a great new piece. The moves present the United States with a dangerous dilemma.

“U.S. and European officials are increasingly alarmed over Putin’s willingness to risk military confrontation and threaten to use his country’s nuclear arsenal over issues the West sees as unrelated and separate,” the two write. “That makes it devilishly difficult for the United States and its European allies to find an effective response to Putin’s audacious tactics that in recent years range from Russia’s annexation of Crimea, to its air war in support of the Syrian regime, to Moscow’s suspected hacking of America’s presidential election.”

Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

China

China is gearing up for its sixth manned space flight, with astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong set to take off from a launchpad in the Gobi desert aboard the Shenzhou-11. The astronauts will spend a month in space, twice the length of China’s longest manned space mission thus far. Once in space, Jing and Chen will conduct a series of tests and experiments designed to pave the way for future space missions, including the launch of Tianhe-1, a Chinese space station China plans to launch in 2018.

Ukraine

Arseniy Pavlov, a Russian militant who fought alongside Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine, was killed in an apparent assassination after an explosion in his apartment building in Donetsk. Pavlov, nicknamed “Motorola,” garnered controversy throughout his ascent in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, with accusations of bigamy and for his admission to killing 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war. Donetsk authorities have accused the Ukrainian government of killing Pavlov. His death comes amidst factional infighting within Ukraine’s rebel enclaves and the unsolved killings of a number of rebel commanders.

Trouble in the caliphate

There are signs of dissidence within the Islamic State’s Mosul stronghold as the U.S.-led coalition embarks on an operation to liberate the city. Reuters spoke to locals in the city, who told the wire service that authorities from the jihadist group recently uncovered a plot led by an aide to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to help Iraqi forces breach Mosul’s defenses. The Islamic Slate drowned 58 accused conspirators and burned their bodies after uncovering the plot. Iraqi officials say they’ve been in contact with some Islamic State dissidents, who helped them direct airstrikes.

Mali

An American aid worker has been kidnapped in Niger and taken to Mali in what authorities suspect was an operation by a local jihadist group. Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum said Jeffery Woodke was likely taken by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which splintered from al-Qaeda in 2011. Woodke was taken from his home in Abalak, where he’d been working for the aid group JEMED.

Think tanked

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman takes a look at the changes to China’s Second Artillery Corps in a new report, “The PLA Rocket Force: Evolving Beyond the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) and Nuclear Dimension.” The traditional home of China’s nuclear forces, the Second Artillery has undergone a number of changes as China modernizes its military and Cordesman’s report explores the implications for Chinese military doctrine and strategy.

 

Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images