The battle for Mosul is in full swing. The Iraqi Golden Division, Kurdish Peshmerga and other forces are engaging with Da’esh across the outskirts of the city. Mosul is a tough nut to crack. Da’esh has been preparing for some time, buying up stocks of AGTM anti-tank missiles on the black market. AGTMs have been used to deadly effect against regime-allied forces in Syria by opposition groups. Da’esh has deployed AGTM teams around Mosul with fearsome results, their Amaq News Agency publishing an abundance of videos of spectacular explosions and “cook-offs” of Humvees and Abrams tanks.

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An Iraqi Abrams tank cooks off after the ammunition explodes following an AGTM hit outside Mosul. Source: Amaq News Agency.

Close air support has been provided by the US coalition. Without it, it’s hard to see how the motley array of anti-Da’esh forces could make significant progress against a well-motivated and entrenched foe. Several hundred Peshmerga and Shi’a Turkmen fighters from the Badr Corps were required to deploy to Kirkuk after a mere 30 Da’esh fighters took control of some 60-70% of the city. In another crescendo of failure, the Iraqi forces deployed in Rutbah were simultaneously routed by an equally small number of fighters and fled into the desert. The group is well versed in the art of regrouping and launching lightening offensives.

The Shi’a militias from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMU) have also joined the battle. Known as al-Hashd ash-Sha’abi, these militias come from an array of Iranian proxy groups like Faylaq al-Wa’ad al-Sadiq and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. The Hashd have committed all manner of horrific war crimes against Sunni populations in territories retaken from Da’esh. 900 people are feared to have been massacred in and around Fallujah alone.

Although the Hashd have been touted by western analysts & supporters as the “most effective” force versus Da’esh, their actions have made the crisis worse. Their slaughter and expulsion of civilians and destruction of mosques have pushed some terrified Iraqi Sunnis into supporting Da’esh out of fear. Da’esh are a Sunni group, in Iraq their support stems from Sunni communities in Anbar. Having Shi’ites charging into Sunni cities while waving sectarian banners, burning civilian homes & promising “revenge” has been incendiary. It was the sectarianism of the Iraqi army that allowed Da’esh to rout Maliki’s forces and almost take Baghdad two years ago.

A member of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) kisses a shiite flag on the top of a military vehicle on the outskirts of Bartila
Shi’a militiamen kiss a banner with an idealised portrait of Imam Ali on it. Source: Middle East Eye.

The Iraqi government – or what’s left of it – and its allies have purposefully ignored the fact that you can’t fight sectarianism with (more) sectarianism and expect to found an inclusive state. But founding a pluralistic Iraq has never been their intention. Despite repeated promises by the US coalition that the Shi’a militias would be kept out, the militias are openly taking part. It’s quite hard to tell where the Iraqi army ends and the militias begin. Military vehicles of the anti-Da’esh forces are almost universally sporting sectarian Shi’a banners and idealised portraits of Imam Hussain as they assault one of Iraq’s largest Sunni communities. Which is probably why over 1 million people are expected to flee the city.

The Shi’a militias laid waste to Tikrit with US air cover, looting and abducting residents (hundreds of whom are still missing). They then laid waste to Ramadi with US air cover while disguised in Iraqi security forces’ uniforms. Mosul is next. Abadi himself reportedly told the US in private that he plans to expel 750,000 Sunnis from Mosul, completely contrasting with his public statements. Yet US officials have kept up the support. The Iraqi Kurdish administration has refused to take them, Baghdad certainly doesn’t want them, and winter is coming. Hundreds of thousands of people look set to be driven into the freezing Iraqi deserts. Nothing will radicalise people more than that.

The militias don’t just have airstrikes behind them. They are supplied with US Humvees, Abrams tanks, M16 rifles & more. Although this weaponry was supposed to have gone to the Iraqi army on paper, it always ends up being delivered to the PMU. This has been public knowledge since 2014, but the Obama administration has kept up the flow of arms. Baghdad even turned over helicopters to Kata’ib Hezbollah, a group described by some as the Shi’ite version of Da’esh. The US gave $1.6 billion worth of military equipment to the Iraqi government in 2015, most of which was openly delivered to the militias.

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A member of Kata’ib Hezbollah poses with a US Abrams tank that was recently delivered to his men. Source: Kata’ib Hezbollah Facebook pages.

Why would Obama give weaponry and close air support to sectarian militias? Simply because this is part of his plan to assist Tehran in its quest for regional dominance, upending traditional alliances to build a new regional order with Tehran at the helm. Using the hollowed-out, thoroughly militiafied Iraqi state as a beachhead, Obama and Khamenei plan to use the Shi’a forces to drive Da’esh out of Iraq and across the border into Syria. Once in Syria, Iraq will be used as a beachhead for an Iranian invasion of the country from the east, thrusting into Deir Ezzor and pressing onward to Aleppo. The justification for this military action will be, of course, the fight against Da’esh.

But things are never that simple.

The Hashd themselves are already deployed in Syria, and militia groups fighting under their banner were there before their official formation in 2014. Shi’a militias of all stripes rushed to Damascus from 2012 to protect Iran’s interests. Damascus lies at the foot of the anti-Lebanon mountains bordering Lebanon. The Damascus countryside has long been used by Iran as a means of smuggling everything from conventional arms and chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The fall of Assad would not only leave Hezbollah cut off from its land bridge of supplies, but would leave it surrounded by a hostile free Syrian state, a country of millions of Sunnis angered by the party’s decision (at Iran’s behest) to side with Assad in 2011. This would break up the so-called Shi’a crescent and leave Iranian assets facing possible military retaliation from across the Syrian border.

Using the defence of the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab as an ideological rallying cry, groups like Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas recruited thousands of Shi’a Iraqis to fight in and around Damascus, heavily Shi’ifying the city and ethnically cleansing Sunni residents in an attempt to rebuild the Syrian population from scratch and ensure a loyal support base for Assad. When Aleppo looked set to fall to the opposition, the militias deployed there too. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq formed the Haidar al-Karar Brigades for the fight. Faylaq al-Wa’ad al-Sadiq brought hundreds Iraqis into Syria, Harakat al-Nujaba deployed thousands of men, and the list goes on. The militias took part in atrocities against the Sunni population, as seen on the profile of one Lebanese-Iraqi Layth Ayman Munshdi (Facebook: Layth Syr).

The presence of all these fighters stems from 2012 and 2013 – long before Da’esh built up any meaningful presence in Syria. Their purpose is to fight against the enemies of Iran and Assad, and that’s what they’ll do when they move in from the east. To imagine that militias that have fought against the Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), Ahrar al-Sham and others since 2012 will enter Syria and be content with stopping once they’ve conquered Da’esh-held territory in Deir Ezzor, Raqqa (if the YPG don’t get to Raqqa first) and eastern Aleppo is far-fetched in the extreme. What those militias will do is form a second Iranian front from the east in the fight against all of Assad’s enemies. Iran, Assad & Russia are already attacking from one side. Now they want to suffocate the opposition from two sides (see the map below).

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A rough example of the ambitions of Iran’s forces.

Once Anbar is pacified and Mosul destroyed, it will be Deir Ezzor’s turn. Once Deir Ezzor is cleared and the regime garrison in the city relieved, a ground invasion will be launched towards Aleppo to overwhelm its defenders and complete the starvation and ethnic cleansing of the inhabitants. Thousands of Shi’a militants will arrive sooner than expected, many of them won’t need to take months advancing across Syria. The fall of Mosul will free up thousands of Shi’ite militiamen to be airlifted to Aleppo and Damascus. flights packed with Shi’a militiamen and arms of all calibres move from Baghdad to Damascus every day. If Mosul falls the freed-up militiamen will reinforce the regime in Ghouta, Aleppo and Hama as they await their comrades’ arrival from the east.

US-backed forces are set to push from the north & join their Shi’a allies in dismembering Syria. The US is pushing the PYD to move on Raqqa, Da’esh’s capital in the east, within weeks. There has been little substantial preparation, but the election is coming up. Obama wants to depart the White House as the president that “freed” Mosul and Raqqa, at any cost. The city is well-defended and densely populated. As with Mosul, nothing short of total urban warfare will be needed to subdue it (as was the case with Manbij). History repeats itself, the PYD often views Sunni Arab civilians with just as much disdain as the Shi’a militias. Thousands of Arabs and Turkmen were displaced from Tal Abyad alone in their 2015 offensive.

As we’ve seen in Aleppo, Ramadi, Tikrit and elsewhere, the humanitarian consequences could be some of the worst in human history. If over one million people will to flee from Mosul alone, then imagine how many will end up fleeing Aleppo, Homs, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other cities when the militias come? It could end up creating a second refugee wave that would make 2015 look like a picnic. The PMU are known for not differentiating between enemy fighters and civilians. In Syria, they have not just massacred whole Sunni communities, but expelled them too. Over 8000 people were cleansed from Daraya alone. These displaced populations are summarily replaced with foreign Shi’ites from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to change the demographics of the country. 300 Iraqi families were recently moved into Daraya.

These aren’t fanciful ideas invented by myself, these are the plans they openly proclaim. Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave a speech in which he yelled “We are coming O Ninawa, we’re coming O Raqqah, we’re coming O Aleppo, we’re coming O Yemen!” Maliki has a lot of clout with militias, as leader he was the architect of the 2013-2014 Anbar offensive against unarmed civilian protesters which fuelled the rise of Da’esh. “We are coming everywhere where “Muslims” are fighting apostates!” To put this remark in context, the Sunnis are the “apostates”. Maliki literally proclaimed that he will bring Iran’s war to every Sunni land.

Hashd ash-Sha’abi spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi said on Saturday the militias would be ready to go to Syria once Mosul is, in the words of Reuters, “finished“. President of the Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri (Iraq’s former Minister of Transport) also announced his readiness to send his forces into Syria after they’re done with the Sunni regions of Iraq. “Because we believe if Daesh is not finished in Syria then they will be a real danger to Iraq…”

This will undoubtedly happen if Khamenei gets his way. Syria is so crucial to Iran that it was described by one Iranian official as the “35th province” of Iran. Tehran sees it as part of Iran’s backyard, and means to put all of Syria under Assad’s nominal control. It’s his stated aim, and he can’t do or say anything without approval from Tehran and Moscow.

The Devil’s in the details here. Obama’s goal has always been to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Da’esh. “Degrade” means to slowly sap the strength of the group. “Ultimately destroy” refers to the ground offensives that are currently being waged. Not just against Da’esh, but against whole Sunni cities. Obama and Khamenei have destroyed practically every Sunni settlement in Iraq, and most of them in Syria, by using Da’esh as a pretext. In Iraq, their men literally fought side by side to do it. Furthermore, the stated aims of the US coalition have included pursing the group in Syria by capturing and holding territory. This policy is fully in line with the stated aims of the militias, hence why their rumblings about heading into Syria have warranted no protest from the State Department. The US will continue to provide with close air support.

Let’s imagine for a second that the militias cross the Iraqi border, reassert control over Deir Ezzor and move onto opposition-controlled Aleppo or Idlib. Would the Obama administration provide close air support vs the Syrian opposition? It’s not impossible. The Obama administration came incredibly close to striking Jabhat Fateh al-Sham alongside the Russians before the Kerry-Lavrov pact collapsed. John Kerry was sabre-rattling against Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam before the deal was even signed. The crux of international hypocrisy would be the sight of the USAF providing close air support to the PMU as they invade Aleppo. They already droned anti-regime fighters in Idlib and called them “ISIS targets”, despite the group having had no presence there since 2014.

While building up the PMU, the Obama administration has followed the same blueprint it enacted with the YPG, the PYD’s armed wing:

  1. Shower the group with arms and close air support while touting it as the “most effective” force against Da’esh.
  2. Provide legitimacy to the group in statements and in the diplomatic arena.
  3. Step back as the group uses its strength to strike enemies the US cannot openly act against.

In 2014 the YPG was showered with arms and provided with airstrikes. Meanwhile, the US built up the YPG’s larger-than-life reputation as the only worthy partner in the coalition’s fight. All the US needed to do was to sit back and watch as the YPG started an all-out assault on the opposition. No US airstrikes were needed. The YPG was doing their work for them, providing deniability. Directly attacking the opposition and helping to besiege a city of hundreds of thousands would damage the reputation of the United States, so why not have a friendly group do it for you? Actual US involvement in tightening the siege need only be minimal. Obama limited direct involvement to droning a gathering of opposition leaders as they were planning a battle to lift the siege.

The US followed the same plan with the PMU. They have been showered with arms, praised by the Obama administration and left to do as they please when fighting forces that the US cannot directly engage without provoking a backlash. Thousands of PMU fighters with US Humvees and arms keep on turning up on the battlefields of Syria. Note that the US also refers to the PYD’s armed wing (YPG) as the “SDF” in order to distance the administration from claims that it provides direct support to a wing of the PKK, a designated terror group (the US abruptly blocked National Counterterrorism Center pages that described the PYD as a PKK affiliate).

The US would almost certainly provide PMU fighters with close air support if they struck into Da’esh territories in Deir Ezzor and Aleppo, and would probably describe them as “Iraqi security forces” in order to do so. Note that the PMU were officially placed under the wing of the Iraqi Interior Ministry in the last two years (despite being under the actual control of Tehran) in order to provide an air of legitimacy. US forces already coordinate with the PMU in a shared base, yet step back as the militias slaughter Sunni civilians. Deniability is key.

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Iraqi Shi’a militants sit in a US Humvee in Aleppo.

The goal of Obama’s foreign policy, in the words of Tony Badran, is as follows:

President Obama is overseeing a radical rupture with past American policy in the Middle East. Now that it has been confirmed that Washington has been secretly negotiating with the Iranians for a year, deliberately cutting out its allies, it has become apparent that the White House is determined to extract the US from the region and upend the American order that has been in place for decades. In the process, the Obama administration is building up Iran at the expense of historical partners.

Rapprochement in Context

But why is the US so eager to ally with Tehran and help Khamenei build an empire? The answers are relatively simple; the primary motivation seems to be a desire to keep down the Sunni majority in the Middle East. Unlike the Shi’a powers and the Israelis, the Sunni countries (their governments aside) have consistently been less malleable and less accepting of US involvement in their countries. Outpourings of rage and discontent have been widespread in nations like Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and Afghanistan. The Iranians, on the other hand, have played their hand well. They and their proxies have constantly displayed a desire to work with the US and accept its hand in the region – provided they are given something in return.

Despite talk of longstanding hatred between the two, Iraq helped to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. Iran helped to transmit funds and weapons in support of US intelligence. Despite having initially preferred a Northern Alliance leadership headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, they backed America’s chosen role for Afghan leader by supporting Hamid Karzai. Javaz Zarif would later call Bush “ungrateful” for their efforts. In 2003 they opened their airspace to US jets during the invasion of Iraq. An invasion they later claimed to oppose.

In 2003, Iran offered concessions to the US which included an end to support for Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance groups, helping the US to “stabilise” Iraq and a more transparent nuclear program in exchange for an end to US “hostility”. Cheney refused the offer. Now their jets are now sharing the skies over Iraq as they strike the same targets.

Tehran has long presented itself as a bastion of “resistance” and “anti-imperialism” in the face of the United States’ encroachment on the Middle East, yet has actively enabled this encroachment at every turn. Khamenei aided and abetted the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and was even prepared to sell the Palestinian people and Hezbollah down the river in exchange for a deal with Bush.

Maybe it’s no surprise that Obama often seems genuinely infatuated with ideas of Persian ascendancy and glory. When speaking about the Iran deal in 2015, Obama temporarily left the topic to daydream.“There’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication… inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power”, mused Obama to himself.

Furthermore, Obama believes that all will be well if he forms an alliance with Iran. His legacy will be as the president who “made peace” and ended any hostility between his country and an ostensible enemy. Obama sees his salvation in the palm of Khamenei’s hands, his attempt to end his presidency with a worthy legacy as a peacemaker. He will drain every drop of Syrian and Iraqi Sunni blood to get it. This is why Obama made countless concessions to the Iranians at the nuclear negotiations, why $400 million in cash was sent to Iran in an unmarked plane, and why the Syrian people were thrown to the dogs when their cries didn’t fit his legacy-building ventures.

Deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication Benjamin Rhodes could barely contain his excitement when the deal was put into potion. Speaking to some Democrats, he declared that the nuclear agreement between Iran and the “P5+1” (permanent members of the UNSC, plus Germany) was not only. “the best opportunity we’ve had to resolve the Iranian (nuclear_ issue”, but “probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy..” For Obama, “this is healthcare . . . , just to put it in context.” Rhodes wasn’t aware that he was being recorded at the time. According to a US insider at the time, Obama obsessively held meetings over Iran, to the extent that  “There were more meetings on Iran than there were on Iraq, Afghanistan, and China. It was the thing we spent the most time on and talked about the least in public (emphasis added).”

Accommodating Tehran’s every whim to keep Khamenei appeased and the Iran deal in place is his last chance (he thinks) to achieve something that will be perceived to be a lasting and positive change. US wrestling with a nation widely perceived to be hostile through peace (for once) and achieving something, anything, is seen as a good thing in the post-2003 age of deep cynicism about interventions. It doesn’t matter what it is, how flawed it is or how many millions of Muslims/Arabs/”brown” people died in the process. It’s simple looks good on paper, and would make for a memorable Wikipedia entry after decades of endless US war. “Obama ended decades of hostility with Tehran…”

Conclusion

In short, the PMU regaining Mosul and the borders with Syria could be disastrous for both Syrians and Iraqi Sunnis. The already-strained Syrian opposition would be attacked from both sides. The civilian populations of Anbar, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor would be slaughtered and expelled, with Assad and Khamenei ruling the ruins of their livelihoods. This is why so many of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni men have joined Da’esh or given the group their support. They have no love for a cultic terror organisation, yet the alternative the “free world” world offers is slaughter and displacement of their families and friends. If you gave any sane person the choice between totalitarian dictatorship or murder of their families, the former would always triumph.

Da’esh has frequently coordinated with Assad and Iran to bring misery to the very people they claim to protect, it’s unlikely that they will totally annihilate it. The reason they’re moving so strongly against Da’esh is by no means benevolent, it’s because their dystopic “caliphate” stands between their forces and the Sunni populations of Anbar and much of Syria. Khameni, Assad and Obama are arsonists posing as firemen; they need terrorism to justify atrocities and perpetually authoritarian policies. A minor presence of the group’s fighters will probably be tolerated in the deserts. They might not have much of a choice, the US troop surge failed to subdue the group in 2007. But its presence will be the pretext to annihilate Syria’s anti-government forces, as well as hundreds of thousands of people.

The Syrian revolt is a nuisance for both Obama and Khamenei – the sooner it’s finished. the better. This is why Obama has sought to tighten the siege of Aleppo and destroy Mosul and Raqqa before he leaves office. In his eyes it will present his successor with a fait accompli and force him 0r her to continue his policies. As usual, innocent people will continue to pay the price for the machinations of the US coalition and its allies. Smothering the cries of the oppressed is a bloody business.

This is not just a localised war in Syria and Iraq, it’s an existential fight for the survival of the Sunni Muslim community. Today it’s Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Tomorrow it will be Mecca. Iran’s proxies have repeatedly vowed to invade Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s men are increasingly surrounding the flailing kingdom. Add that to the anti-Saudi measures and positions being adopted in the US, and there can only be one outcome. How long before US-backed Shi’a militias march into Saudi Arabia to eradicate “Wahhabism”?

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