Monday, September 22, 2014

Divide and what?

Updated 9/29/2014

Saturday's freeing of the 49 Turkish hostages held by ISIS may have been by a military rescue operation according to the Turkish government, or maybe by the serene clemency of his caliphic majesty Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi according to the caliphic Twitter account, says a  remarkable piece by Metin Turcan in Al-Monitor that gives me what feels like a better sense of what's going on politically inside ISIS-occupied Mosul:
Two major factors may have been at play. The first was the changing balance of power in Mosul: According to Turkish intelligence sources, US airstrikes seriously degraded IS communications between key centers in Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa and Tikrit it controls. IS withdrew most of its Mosul forces to inland areas. US airstrikes were instrumental in changing the power structure of Mosul by strengthening the role of the Army of Naqshbandi and the Council of Mosul Tribes. Both favored the release of the hostages. The second major factor was the severe reaction from the Sunni world after IS released visuals of the beheadings it carried out of three Westerners. As such, IS' release of the Turkish hostages signifies a change in IS strategy and signifies a move to win over Sunni public opinion.
The takeaways are:

(1) ISIS is only one of a number of forces coexisting in northwestern Iraq, alongside the Naqshbandis (a group tied to the old Saddam Baath party, Sufi by religious identification and thus theologically opposed to the Salafist Caliph) and the Sunni tribes (who are apparently very tight with Turkish intelligence), and no doubt lesser entities as well, so the situation inside the occupied cities is a lot less stable than you might think.

(2) The US airstrikes are doing something that is not especially shocking or awful but may be effective, Like the strategy I was sort of whistling-in-the-dark for a couple of weeks ago, in which the war aims would be modest, and aimed more at dividing than ruling: at recruiting members of Iraq's and Syria's minority groups into a coalition in which the US would (sooner rather than later) have no real role.

(3) The beheadings were not some kind of elaborate and counterintuitive plan to achieve a strategic goal; they were a stupid goblin mistake.

There's something else, too, a dog that may not be barking. I believe we don't have any casualty reports from the airstrikes over ISIS territory, which isn't too surprising, in the sense that there aren't reporters in there, and that the caliphic troops wouldn't especially want their own casualties known, but you'd think they'd be anxious to denounce civilian casualties incurred by the Americans, and yet they don't. Is it possible that US forces have begun learning to avoid murdering wedding parties and picnics, and there really aren't any?

Cross-posted at Booman Tribune.

Update: Here it comes...

US and coalition partners—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and UAE—have begun airstrikes on "ISIS targets" within Syria. I hope they know what they're doing. It's not impossible that they do, but it's hard to feel confident.

Update 9/29/2014:

Nobody seems to be saying it, but if Turkey is more explicitly joining the anti-Daesh coalition, as reported by NPR, even talking about contributing ground troops, that suggests to me that they were not cooperating with ISIS in the hostage release last week: since standing off in the battle is the only possible quid they could have exchanged for the quo of the hostages (I know there are other kinds of cooperation between Turks and Isids, like the ability of volunteer fighters to get across the border from Turkey to Syria or smuggling oil in the other direction, but there's no reason to think the Turkish government is directing these things from Ankara or even has any ability to control them).

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