Foreign Relations & International Law

Iraqi Forces Advance on Western Mosul, U.S. Weighs Deploying Troops to Syria, Netanyahu Meets with Trump

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, February 21, 2017, 11:02 AM

Iraqi Forces Begin Offensive to Retake Western Mosul

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Iraqi Forces Begin Offensive to Retake Western Mosul

Nearly a month after completing operations to push the Islamic State out of the eastern neighborhoods of Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Sunday that the planned push to retake the rest of the city on the western bank of the Tigris River has begun. Approximately 1,000 Islamic State militants are believed to still be entrenched in the city. Iraqi troops and embedded U.S. Special Forces backed by U.S. and coalition airstrikes have begun advancing on the city from the south. Islamic State fighters are resisting the Iraqi advance in villages on the outskirts of the city, but on Tuesday Iraqi forces took the strategic town of Abu Saif, near the Mosul airport. Military planners anticipate a fierce fight in dense urban terrain. "Eastern Mosul was a little more open," one U.S. F-22 pilot told the Los Angeles Times. "You could look out and identify things like Mosul University. In the west, it’s a high-density environment. People live in apartment buildings and areas that are in much closer quarters.” Because of the complicated environment, U.S. military advisers will be assisting closer to the frontlines in western Mosul, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said Monday.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in Baghdad yesterday on a previously unannounced trip; Mattis said he made the visit was “because I need to get current on the situation there, the political situation, the enemy situation and the friendly situation." Part of the trip has been about providing reassurance: Mattis responded to President Donald Trump’s repeated comments in which he suggested the United States should have “taken” Iraq’s oil resources after the 2003 invasion and denied that the United States has any intent of seizing Iraqi oil. "All of us in America have generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I'm sure that we will continue to do so in the future. We're not in Iraq to seize anyone's oil," he said Monday.

While Iraqi forces are pressing toward western Mosul, residents in eastern neighborhoods of the city are worried about the Islamic State’s lingering presence. Many residents have returned to the city in the past several weeks, but they remain under threat from terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings. "Everybody is talking about the liberation but Daesh is still here," one Mosul resident told AFP. "Their drones are flying above our heads, target our homes, our hospitals, and our mosques." The operation has also been marred by recently released videos of Iraqi troops beating and summarily executing captives that have called into question the professionalism of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces.

United States Considering Conventional Ground Forces in Syria

The U.S. Defense Department is considering proposing the deployment of conventional U.S. combat troops to northeastern Syria, CNN reported last week. The size of the deployment has not been discussed publicly, but the proposal follows comments from Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the U.S.-led coalition should accelerate its campaign against the Islamic State.

During the presidential campaign, now-President Donald Trump suggested that he supports deploying tens of thousands of U.S. troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria. In a primary debate in March, Trump said about the prospect of sending U.S. soldiers to Syria, “We really have no choice. We have to knock out ISIS. I would listen to the generals, but I'm hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000 [troops]." Those numbers track with comments made by U.S.Secretary of State John Kerry a year ago about Pentagon estimates of the number of U.S. troops necessary to secure a “safe zone” in northern Syria, and Trump recently discussed establishing a safe zone in Syria on a call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. But even when the 30,000 troop number was floated last year, CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Barbara Starr questioned if those figures would be sufficient. As Gaouette and Starr noted, U.S. military doctrine recommends a combat force three times the size the insurgency it is trying to defeat, not to mention the necessary logistical forces to support that deployment. And then there’s the issue of international reaction: A large U.S. troop deployment working with Syrian rebels, even rebels focusing on fighting the Islamic State, would certainly raise suspicions from the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons.

The report about the proposed deployment coincides with discussions about the strategy to retake Raqqa. Gen. Joseph Dunford, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with senior officials in Turkey last week to coordinate planning. Ahead of Dunford’s visit, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said the Trump administration is more accommodating to Turkey’s position that Kurdish forces should not be involved in the offensive. "If we want the Raqqa operation to be successful, then it should be carried out with Arab forces in the region and not the YPG," Isik said. "The new U.S. administration has a different approach to the issue. They are not insisting anymore that the operation should definitely be carried out with the YPG. They haven't yet made up their minds.”

Netanyahu’s Strange Trip to Washington

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-anticipated trip to Washington, DC, culminated last week with a bizarre press conference in which President Trump said he was willing to consider alternatives to the two-state solution but also publicly and somewhat condescendingly cautioned Netanyahu about settlement construction and the necessity of compromise. On the idea of a final status agreement, Trump said he was amenable to whatever solution was acceptable to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one both parties like," he said. "I can live with either one." That’s a departure from U.S. policy, which has been pretty steadfast in its support for two states, but is also a long way from an endorsement of a one-state solution. Netanyahu at times seemed surprised by the pressure Trump leveled at him. At one point, Trump broke off his comments about the necessity of compromise to turn to Netanyahu and say, “You know that, right?” In another moment that appeared to catch Netanyahu off guard, Trump turned to him to say that he would “like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

The mixed messages are nothing new for Trump’s garbled policy on Israel, but reactions from Israel’s far-right have been positive. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked downplayed Trump’s comments on settlements, noting that it was vague, and took credit for shifting attitudes about the peace process. Israeli far-right parties like Jewish Home, Shaked said, “definitely helped change the picture.” After the press conference, the party leader, Naftali Bennett, posted on Facebook that the “Palestinian flag has been lowered and replaced by the Israeli flag.” Just as telling were the reactions from the Arab League and United Nations, which reiterated their support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in Cairo that there is “no alternative” to the two-state solution.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare. He is also an instructor at the Naval War College and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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