Aleppo and Mosul: A Tale of Two Cities

October 24, 2016

It was widely reported last week that Syrian opposition fighters backed by Turkish warplanes and artillery dealt a major psychological blow to ISIL by capturing Dabiq which, though a small town of marginal strategic importance in northern Syria, had crucial ideological and propaganda value for ISIL. Again last week, the Iraqi operation to recapture the city of Mosul, called by some the “great battle”, was launched and is receiving wide media coverage.

Major media outlets give different figures regarding the troops involved. One says that the coalition’s 94,000 troops vastly outnumber their opponents. Another refers to about 30,000 pro-government forces taking part in the operation. The number of ISIL fighters in Mosul is generally given as 5,000. Whatever is the exact figure, add to the tens of thousands of troops heading towards Mosul, hundreds of tanks, heavy artillery and coalition aircraft ranging from jet fighters to Apache helicopter gunships, reconnaissance aircraft, heavily armed drones as well as hundreds of American advisors and ISIL will be scoring a great propaganda victory by standing up against the world.

That ISIL will be ousted from Mosul is a certainty. What is equally certain is that the people of Mosul will pay a high price for their liberation. The UN has warned that its capture may cause the single largest humanitarian crisis of the year with up to a million people needing shelter and a forced population movement that no single institution can cope with. Pictures of devastation from liberated Ramadi, Tikrit and Falluja unmistakably show that it will take years if nor decades for Mosul to recover provided that there is political/economic/cultural stability.

The question why the world allowed ISIL more than two years in Iraq’s second largest city remains. The Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the UNSC could have tried, individually or collectively, to gather a multinational force from “uninvolved regional countries” to take on ISIL at a much earlier stage. Unfortunately, despite all the talk about the sufferings of the Syrian and Iraqi peoples, other interests, narrow interests have prevailed.

ISIL’s defeat in Mosul is not going to be the end of the story. As some observers have mentioned there will be pockets of resistance. As they have done in Kirkuk last week ISIL’s sleeper cells will remind the Iraqis through horrific acts of terror that the battle is not over. And, the terrorist organization will grab every opportunity offered by continuing political and economic instability elsewhere in the broad Middle East. Iraq, however, will remain a test case. In the past, despite ethnic and sectarian differences, the Iraqis had a strong sense of national identity as revealed during the eight-year-long war with Iran. Prime Minister al Abadi must do everything in his power to restore that. This would have been easier had his predecessors started making an effort a decade ago. Now, with a good number of external actors also in the picture, this will be a herculean task.

In Syria, there is still no end to Aleppo’s torment. Russia declared a humanitarian pause in military operations but continues to single out the failure of the “moderate” opposition to separate itself from al Nusra as the problem.

In brief, it is Aleppo for Russia and Mosul for the US-led coalition. It seems that the two cities have become symbols of the plight of their peoples under the grip of radicalism, terrorism, regional and major power competition. Maybe, it is time for someone to start writing another “Tale of Two Cities”.

As for Turkey, here is the short list of our professed policy priorities:
• military operations including air strikes against the PKK, YPG and ISIL in Turkey and beyond our borders in Iraq and Syria,
• participation in the coalition operations against ISIL in Mosul and a seat at the table when Mosul is freed from ISIL.
• security operations targeting potential suicide bombers, and
• security operations against Fethullah Gulen’s terrorist organization.

This is a formidable agenda and how we got here boggles the mind. While each of these items appear to represent legitimate acts of the state to defend itself, a deeper scrutiny demonstrates that they are being pursued largely as a function and in support of matters of domestic policy. In the last decade, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) has increasingly challenged Ataturk’s legacy and as such the tenets of Republican foreign policy. Turkey’s secularism, the Lausanne Peace Treaty have become subjects of criticism at best, but more often than not of sarcastic condescension. His dictum “peace at home, peace in the world” has regrettably been reduced to a recipe for passivity and is being scrapped for the so called “pro-active” policies. As the new “Tale of Two Cities” unfolds, we witness almost on a daily basis how these “pro-active” policies have brought the country to the brink of a security abyss, as confirmed in the words of a member of the Turkish government, in this case someone no less than its Deputy Prime Minister…

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