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Gordon Campbell on US pressure to expand our role in Iraq

Gordon Campbell on the US pressure to expand our role in Iraq

Tomorrow, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee and Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating will be in Brussels for a ministerial meeting of the so-called “Counter-Daesh Coalition.” [Daesh is another term for Islamic State.] Here’s how Brownlee’s press release described the purpose of the meeting:

Ministers will discuss a range of regional and international security issues, in particular their respective responses to the fight against Daesh, and how the campaign will evolve over the next 12 months.

Foreign news services are being more forthcoming about what those “next 12 months” will entail – essentially, the defence ministers will be under US pressure to increase their “training” role preparatory to an assault on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq:

US officials – who have been pushing Iraq to launch an assault on Mosul following recent successes including the recapture of the city of Ramadi – have repeatedly highlighted the need to increase the number of Western trainers in Iraq. The question is expected to be taken up during a February 11 meeting of coalition defence ministers.

[Coalition spokesman Colonel Steve]Warren said the coalition currently envisioned launching roughly 10 brigades for the Mosul assault, with each one representing 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers. “These are all to be trained,” Warren said of the soldiers. “Some of the brigades have already been trained but we want to give them additional training…”

The Mosul attack is projected to take place in about three months' time. Mosul will be the third of the major cities from which ISIS/Daesh military forces are scheduled to be expelled during 2016. The others are Ramadi in Anbar province, Iraq (which has already fallen) and Aleppo in northern Syria which is in the process of being ‘liberated’ from IS control this week, amid a terrible loss of civilian life, and refugee flight.

In each previous case of a city liberated from IS forces, civilian areas have been laid waste. Significantly, far more media space has been given this week to the plight of civilians during the Aleppo onslaught – because of the role that indiscriminate Russian air strikes have played – than in the Ramadi situation, even though very similar damage to civilian centres occurred. In addition, it seems hypocritical for (a) Western politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and (b) Western news outlets to be wringing their hands about the horrible situation in Aleppo, in the very same week that Brownlee and his US-led colleagues are planning a similar exercise in Mosul.

Currently, New Zealanders are not even being told of the pressure Brownlee is coming under this week to boost our ‘training’ effort in Iraq. Do we intend to comply with what the Americans will be asking? Brownlee and Key need to be informing the public – mindful of the civilian suffering and refugee flight unfolding right now during the expulsion of ISIS/Daesh from Aleppo – what steps we plan to ensure that similar carnage does not ensue in Mosul, and what humanitarian aid we intend to be putting in place, alongside the strictly military effort. The prospect of civilian carnage is already being reported.

Islamic State fighters' determination to hide among civilians in Ramadi raises concerns about upcoming battles in Mosul, Islamic State's northern stronghold which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to retake this year, and Falluja, the longest-held militant city sitting at Baghdad's western gates. "Falluja is full of families, not like Ramadi... And in Mosul more than 70 percent of the (two million) residents are still there," said General Fadel Barwari, a senior counter-terrorism officer. "The biggest problem is how we enter the city while they are using families as human shields," he told Reuters on Saturday at a command center in southern Ramadi. "

What kind of experience and training – if any – do the New Zealand trainers at Camp Taji have for these situations, where using civilians as ‘human shields’ has already proven to the first response by IS/Daesh? Mosul will also be an extremely sensitive political situation. While the Iraqi Army fought more capably in Ramadi than it had done elsewhere, the bulk of the fighting in Mosul will still be carried out by the Shia militia and by the Kurdish peshmerga – and if Mosul falls to either or a combination of the two, this will inflame the Sunni population in Iraq, who will treat such a victory as a dangerous expansionism by Shia and Kurdish communities that they regard as bitter rivals.

Losing Mosul would be a hammer blow to IS/Daesh. On past performance, they will destroy the city and its population as they depart. Even so… by year’s end, the one-time caliphate seem destined to have become only a guerrilla force, and will no longer hold significant territory. It would be useful if Brownlee and John Key could tell the New Zealand public what the implications of that evolution will be, in defence and security terms – starting with the logic of our response to the US request this week for a more significant training role in Iraq. Canada seems to have already buckled.

Canada may have stopped its air strikes in Iraq/Syria as promised by Justin Trudeau on the election campaign trail last year, but Trudeau has simultaneously trebled the number of Canada’s special forces in ‘training’ roles, and will pour in an extra $1.8 billion over the next three years into Canada’s military missions in Iraq and Syria. That's indicative of the kind of pressure that the coalition members are coming under from the US. Will we respond in kind ?

Footnote : Remember when Russia first got involved in the civil war in Syria, and pundits were sure that this would become a quagmire for Vladimir Putin? It sure doesn’t seem to be turning out that way. The Assad regime backed by Russian air power is on a roll right now. The most systematic analysis of the Russian campaign so far can be found here in this Washington Institute report.

It is all turning out pretty well for Putin and Assad:

Moscow's strategy since September has been shaped by three goals. The first is to protect the coastal Alawite area where Russia has installed its logistics bases. The second is to strengthen Assad, pushing the rebels far from the large cities of Homs, Hama, Latakia, Aleppo, and Damascus. The third is to cut the rebels' foreign supply lines. The first two objectives have largely been met: there have been no attacks on Latakia or Tartus that could interfere with the Russian bases there, and no large city has fallen to the rebels. To the contrary, the rebels evacuated the Homs neighborhood of al-Waar in December because they were desperate, not seeing any help coming. Now that the Azaz road has been cut, the third goal is halfway reached. Russia and its allies seem to have the means to meet their ambitions, with Assad's manpower weakness offset by complete air superiority and Shiite militia reinforcements.

So far, Saudi Arabia and its friends in the region have watched on with dismay as the Assad/Iran/Russia juggernaut has rolled back the Islamic fundamentalists that the Saudis created and funded. Last week, the peace talks to end the Syrian civil war collapsed only days after they began.

Here’s what the Saudis plan to do in response, if the Brussels meeting decides to intervene militarily.

Saudi Arabia said on Thursday it was ready to participate in any ground operations in Syria if the U.S.-led alliance decides to start such operations, an adviser to the Saudi defence minister said.

"The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against Islamic State) may agree to carry out in Syria," Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, who is also the spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV in an interview.

And if the coalition meeting in Brussels decides it won’t come to the aid of the Saudis’ fundamentalist friends and allies, the kingdom may do it themselves, and virtually alone if need be.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE all committed over the weekend to sending ground forces to join the conflict. However, the extent of their mooted commitments has yet to be confirmed amid sustained pressure from allies, including the US, to keep any deployment largely symbolic.

Oh, and as all that heats up… its hard to find any consistency in New Zealand’s policy. We’re meeting in Belgium to discuss how to spend millions to contain Islamic State, while we continue to shower Saudi Arabia, the main ally and funder of Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, with free dairy farms and other freebies worth millions.

New Hampshire and beyond.

Too early to comment on the New Hampshire results, which weren’t in at time of writing. In between Iowa and today’s New Hampshire primary, the big news has been the brutal demolition of Marco Rubio by Tony Soprano (aka Chris Christie) last Saturday night. If you haven’t seen it, it's like seeing a panicked marshmallow being hit by a bulldozer.

Even if Rubio’s campaign survives this disaster – and its hard to see how he can – it will haunt him all year. It could also belatedly turn Christie into a genuine contender. Today, New Hampshire will be interesting for who comes second and third – and by how much. It will be a test of how much air has gone out of Donald Trump’s balloon and where it will go, now that Rubio is damaged goods. (Will the relentless media coverage of John Kasich as the latest moderate Republican hope finally bear some fruit?)

On the Democratic side, if Hillary Clinton even gets close to Bernie Sanders, she’ll take that as a victory - before the contest then heads off into regions that will be far more congenial for her.

Lightning Strikes Twice

A year ago, I did a column in Werewolf about this obscure early 1990s band, and now music writer Bill Wyman has done pretty much the same article in the New Yorker, about the same band.

Truly, the Vulgar Boatmen is the mini-cult that will not die.

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