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America's wars in Syria and Iraq are dangerous and shortsighted

By relying on Shia militias and Kurdish fighters, the American fight against IS is increasingly becoming one that will only generate more wars

The Americans were the ones who rebuilt the Iraqi army after its humiliating defeat in the face of hundreds of Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the summer of 2014. They were the ones who armed, trained and prepared this army for battle. 

As the Mosul offensive continues, it has become clear that it is the Americans who decide whether assaults continue, troops advance or tactical pauses are made

The Americans drew up the plan for the liberation of Mosul from IS. Whether through the operation’s command centre or with the hundreds of American military personnel embedded with Iraqi army and Kurdish forces, they have personally made sure that plan was implemented.

The Americans are the ones who provide the aerial cover for all the fronts of the Mosul operation and, whenever needed, provide artillery support.

And as it became clear on the 12th day of the operation when the Pentagon announced that the advance of forces would be halted for tactical reasons, the Americans decide whether assaults continue, troops advance or strategic pauses are made.

In short, the Mosul operation is an American operation from A to Z.

And it is not confined to Mosul. The same thing has happened in Anbar Province, especially in Ramadi and Fallujah and earlier in Salahuddin. The war against IS in Iraq is, in essence, an American war and the Iraqis, as an army, as militias and as Kurds, are nothing but tools in this battle.

Short-term vision

Many Iraqis do not see a problem with that. Iraq, after all, is seeking to rid itself of the control of a terrorist organisation, a wild fighting group that is not easily defeated. With their mutual interests in mind, the Americans have offered help, support, intellect and leadership. 

So in one way, it does not matter how big the American contribution has been. However, the problem is that the Americans are leading this war in Iraq, and also the one in Syria, with a high level of short-sightedness and hasty, short-term reckoning that lacks a strategic framework. It is obvious that their fight against IS is increasingly becoming one that will only generate more wars. 

It was not just the Iraqis who complained against the crimes committed by the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) in Anbar, Diyali and Salahuddin. International human rights organisations’ reports have agreed that the militias, which enjoy cover from the Iraqi government, are not different in their behaviour from IS.

The mobilisation units advance toward their targets, hoisting sectarian banners; they issue statements threatening sectarian death; they practice torture and carry out extrajudicial killings; and they do not hesitate to loot private possessions and destroy homes or mosques. 

A displaced Iraqi man who fled the clashes between Iraqi forces and IS waits to see his relatives at a refugee camp in the Khazir region, between Erbil and Mosul this month (AFP)

The majority of Sunni Arabs who dwell in the regions already liberated from IS are not able to return to their towns, villages and cities even now.

The Americans stand witness to this growing logbook of crimes committed by the PMUs. They should have taken the sensitivities in the north of Iraq into consideration and anticipated the repercussions of participating in this sectarian beast of a battle in Mosul.

Yet it is obvious that they haven’t. Just like before, the PMUs began in the second week of the battle of Nineveh to advance toward the city of Tal Afar, which is populated by a majority of Turkmans, both Sunnis and Shias.

And as happened before, what is expected to happen, if the mobilisation forces are allowed to storm into the city accompanied by thousands of Shia Turkmans and the promises of sectarian vengeance, is that Tal Afar will witness a campaign of crimes against its Sunni population. 

Lines in the sand

Around the city of Mosul itself, combat missions have been divided between the army and the security forces, which belong to the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and the Peshmerga forces, which belong to the government of the Kurdistan region in Erbil.

The war against IS in Iraq is, in essence, an American war and the Iraqis, as an army, as militias and as Kurds, are nothing but tools in this battle

Apart from a symbolic role, it seems that the force of Sunni volunteers, who hail from the province of Nineveh and who were trained by the Turkish forces based at Bashiqah, have not been allowed to play any role in Mosul – and in stark contrast to the PMUs that are sectarian and alien at the same time.

What is certain is that the political problem relating to Kurdistan region's borders, and what has become known as the disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad, has not been discussed, let alone resolved.

So despite the amicable statements of coordination exchanged between the Baghdad forces and the Erbil forces, the fighting fronts around Mosul have been turned into a map of sand barriers. These new dividing lines determine to what extent the Kurdish forces have advanced and the borders from which they will never ever concede unless, of course, they are forced by arms to do so. 

The city where US policy clashes head on

Not far away from Tal Afar emerges the problem of the district of Sinjar, where identities within the Iraqi communities intertwine like no other place. Sinjar was liberated from IS in November 2015 thanks to significant US air support. However, it remains as derelict as ever.

Although Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, appeared in a press conference in November 2015 celebrating the liberation of the city, the Kurdish force in control of Sinjar belongs to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Here, the city is not only along a road that links northern Syria with northern Iraq, but it is also a key junction where the policies of the American war against IS in both countries collides.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani announces the liberation of Sinjar from IS in November 2015 (AFP)

The Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is heavily present in Sinjar, is nothing but a branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) against whom Turkey has been fighting a long war since the mid-1980s.

At times, the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) imposes itself on the majority Kurdish regions in Syria’s northeast with tangible popular support and an organisational base. But much of the time, the party, which enjoys huge American arms and training support, operates with coercive force.

Just as the Americans claim that their influence in Iraq is limited and that they cannot compel the Baghdad government to prevent the PMUs' role in the war against IS, they also claim that they have no option but to adopt the PYD as an ally in the war against IS-held regions in Syria.

As the Americans turn a blind eye to the crimes of the PMUs in Iraq, they completely ignore the special agenda of the PYD and its feverish endeavour to establish an independent entity along the northern Syrian border that completely separates Turkey from its Syrian neighbour. 

Too many Jokers

The Americans have not fulfilled their promises to Ankara that the PYD's forces would withdraw from Manbij. It was with these promises that Turkey agreed to allow the party’s units to cross from the east of the Euphrates to its west.

There are so players throwing their weight at the regional balance of power that it is unlikely that pro-US gangsters will be able to restore stability ever again

In recent weeks, by virtue of American weapons and supplies, PYD forces have been trying to advance from Afrin, which it seized from the Free Syrian Army with the full knowledge of the Americans, toward Al-Bab city in a race with the Free Syrian Army, supported by Turkey. 

Turkey had said it was ready to help uproot IS from Raqqa if the PYD forces are not involved. But instead of giving its approval before the operation began on Sunday, General Stephen Townsend, the military commander of the US forces in northern Iraq and Syria, in fact confirmed the PYD's participation.

Behind all of this, the Americans realise that this is not just a battle against IS, but also an Iranian offensive aimed at opening a secure road from Tehran to Damascus - even if the price is the downfall of Barzani in Erbil and the banishment of the Sunni Arabs from their cities, towns and villages. 

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance, about 50km north of Raqqa on 7 November 2016 (AFP)

Such a scene does not promise long-term stability of the areas liberated from IS, and not simply because this war will not finish off the organisation. 

The Obama administration’s war on IS will only be the beginning of a Kurdish war with Baghdad, a war between the PMUs and innumerable groups that will not accept an armed sectarian control over the north and the west of Iraq. It will be a Turkish war, directly or indirectly, against the various manifestations of the Kurdish Workers Party inside Iraq and Syria.

During his long conversation with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year, Obama cited Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight to describe how IS emerged in the Middle East. In the film, Gotham City’s stability derives from a power-sharing arrangement among the gangsters until the arrival of the “Joker” soon turns this balance upside down. 

In Obama’s view, IS is the Middle East’s “Joker”. His administration seeks to restore the traditional understanding and balance in the region by reconciling the thugs of local gangs.

But the problem now is that there are so many players throwing their weight around that it is unlikely that pro-US gangsters will be able to restore stability ever again.

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Peshmerga fighter runs to take position as the Iraqi Kurdish forces pushed deeper into the Iraqi town of Bashiqa during street battles against IS on 8 November 2016 (AFP)