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Tom Clonan: 'It is possible that the US and Russia may carve up Syria and Iraq between themselves'

Both Aleppo and Mosul are being besieged by pro-government forces strongly supported by foreign air power but the media coverage is very different, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

THE ASSAULT ON Aleppo in Syria has loomed large in world headlines in recent weeks. Images of Omran Daqneesh – the young Syrian boy caught up in Russian air strikes and President Assad’s barrel bomb attacks on Aleppo – went viral in much the same way as last year’s shocking images of little Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Kos.

Source: مركز حلب الإعلامي AMC/YouTube

Aleppo is under siege by the Syrian regime, backed by Russian firepower.

The images of Omran Daqneesh – covered in dust and clearly in shock – have become emblematic of an ‘evil’ assault on the city of Aleppo by Assad’s Syrian Arab Army backed by Russian and Iranian forces. The world’s media – myself included – have condemned the indiscriminate bombing and ground assault by Shia forces on a city of approximately one million citizens. The story of Aleppo seemed to demonstrate clearly the difference between the ‘bad guys’ – Shia and Iranian forces backed by the Russians, and the ‘good guys’ – Sunni resistance groups within the city.

President Assad has consistently and stubbornly referred to these Sunni resistance groups as ‘terrorists’ and has linked them to Islamic State. Islamic State are present in Aleppo and control large parts of the strategically important city. Yesterday, President Assad announced that President-elect, Donald Trump, may yet prove to be a natural ally to Syria’s fight against Islamic State and Sunni ‘terrorists’.

The US is backing a Shia-led, Iranian-backed assault on Mosul.

In a rapidly evolving and potentially confusing parallel development, President Obama’s administration is backing a – wait for it – Shia-led, Iranian-backed assault on the city of Mosul in neighbouring Iraq. Mosul has a population of over one million citizens. Like their counterparts in Aleppo – which is only 400 miles away – the citizens of Mosul are trapped within the city and are being used as human shields by Islamic State who captured and occupied the town in June 2014.

Here is where it gets confusing. ISIS-held Aleppo is being ‘attacked’ by ‘murderous’ Shia and Iranian-backed forces led by Assad and assisted by Russian air power. The international media consensus is that this is a bad thing. A very bad thing indeed.

However, just a few hundred miles down the road, ISIS-held Mosul is being ‘liberated’ by ‘heroic’ Shia and Iranian forces led by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and assisted by US and British air power. Russian air strikes in Aleppo are ‘bad’. However, US and British airstrikes in Mosul are represented as a positive development.

Good guys/ bad guys?

This tale of two cities – where US and coalition forces are fighting alongside Iranian-backed Shia militias in one country, and are attacking similar Iranian-backed Shia groups just across the border – is illustrative of the tangled web of shifting alliances and general mayhem that characterises current US and EU foreign policy in Iraq and Syria. In short, it is a mess.

The current assault on Mosul began one month ago. Supported by around 1,000 US and British Special Forces and Air Force personnel, the combined Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi Army attack has been slow to approach the city. US and British combat aircraft – in tactics not unlike those of the Russian Air Force in Aleppo – have dropped thousands of high-explosive bombs and ‘smart’ munitions on Islamic State targets within the densely populated city centre of Mosul.

According to the United Nations and other NGOs operating in the region, Islamic State has rounded up approximately 100,000 women and children and are using them as human shields around ISIS strong points within the city centre. There are no figures or estimates available as yet as to the numbers of civilian casualties arising from coalition airstrikes in Mosul.

In the approach to Mosul, Islamic State have targeted advancing troops and Iraqi police with dozens of truck and car bombs driven by suicide bombers – such as Irishman Khalid Kelly. Advancing forces have also uncovered networks of fortified tunnels constructed by Islamic State around the perimeter of the city. Over 50 such tunnels have been discovered and partially destroyed. They are part of a network of defences and strong points constructed by Islamic State within Mosul over the last two years and are designed to funnel advancing troops into ambush areas and ‘kill zones’ where they will exposed to intense concentrations of fire and massive improvised explosive devices.

Islamic State, by using the civilian population of Mosul as human shields in this desperate last-stand are in breach of the Geneva Conventions and are committing war crimes. As Iraqi Special Forces enter the eastern and southern suburbs of al Zahra, Intisar and Karama, fanatical Iranian-led Shia militia groups – known as Hashid Shaabi – have closed off escape routes to the west of Mosul and have taken Tal Afar and other towns along the border with Syria. For the 7,000 or so ISIS fighters trapped within the city, there can be no escape at this point.

As a consequence, it is reported that ISIS have embarked on a killing frenzy within the city. Men and boys – some as young as nine years old – have reportedly been separated from their families and executed. Advancing Iraqi troops have uncovered mass graves containing men and boys at villages such as Hammam Alil.

Mideast Iraq Islamic State Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016, a man stands on a street in Qayara, some 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq. Source: Marko Drobnjakovic

As the Iraqi 15th and 16th Army Divisions backed by US forces complete this encirclement of Mosul– Washington has just given the green light for another major military operation against the city of Raqqa in Syria. Raqqa, the centre of Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, is the target of the United States led Operation ‘Euphrates Anger’ and is designed to remove the last physical stronghold occupied by ISIS.

Based on their recent experiences in Mosul and observations of the Russian and Assad-led assault on Aleppo, the US military expects to liberate Raqqa from ISIS by mid January – just before Donald Trump takes office. This would allow President Obama to announce that his administration had ‘neutralised’ Islamic State’s geographical presence – once a territory of over 35,000 square miles – throughout Iraq and Syria.

In this confused and desperate situation, on the one hand, we have Russia and President Assad along with his Iranian backers relentlessly attacking Sunni resistance in Syria. On the other hand, we have the US and President Haider al-Abadi along with his Iranian backers relentlessly attacking Sunni resistance in both Syria and Iraq. In this awful tale of three cities, innocent civilians are the principal victims of air strikes, ground assault and Islamic State savagery.

What happens after the cities fall will determine the future of the entire region.

In the aftermath, as President Trump enters the White House, it is possible that the US and Russia may carve up Syria and Iraq between themselves in some ‘deal’ brokered by the Donald and his self-confessed admirer, Vladimir Putin.

The only glimmer of hope is that whatever unholy alliance emerges from the ruins of these cities, perhaps the civilian populations of Iraq and Syria might have the opportunity to return home and somehow rebuild their shattered lives. As for President Assad – he may yet survive to fight another day with his new-found ‘natural ally’ against ‘terrorism’.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

The Battle for Mosul: Islamic State is vastly outnumbered in its last stand in Iraq>

A city on the brink of destruction: Can anything save Aleppo?>

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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