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The competing territorial claims of the Turks, Kurds, and Iraqi central government could result in an ethno-sectarian conflict after the military offense, warns York University professor Sabah Alnasseri

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Iraqi government’s offensive against Islamic State in Mosul is in its third day. The Iraqi general in charge of the operation, General Sirwan Barzani, says that it could take 2 more weeks just to enter the city and two months to liberate it from the Islamic State. Iraq’s head of Special Forces, Lieutenant General Talib seemed to contradict the general when he said that taking over the city could be faster than expected. Let’s have a look. TALIB: Plans are being implemented faster than expected. The movement of the forces was fast and they were fast in circumventing the city from all sides. The forces closed in on the city of Mosul and therefore the liberation of the city will be fast. You know that we cannot disclose plans and timings due to military security and military reasons but we are fully confident that the city will be liberated in a very short time, god willing. PERIES: The effort to retake Mosul has become of great importance for the Iraqi government and its backers in Washington because it is the last major city controlled by ISIS. So far, the UN estimates that about 900,000 people have fled the city. But in the coming months, they expect the population of 1.3 million in the city to be also leaving and fleeing Mosul. Joining us now to discuss the situation is Sabah Alnasseri. Sabah is an associate professor at York University in Toronto and editor of Arab Revolutions and Beyond: The Middle East and Reverberations in the Americas. Sabah, so good to have you with us. SABAH ALNASSERI: Good afternoon from Toronto Sharmini. PERIES: So Sabah why don’t you start by explaining to us this contradiction between the general and the head of special forces in Iraq? ALNASSERI: I mean in an operational sense, Sirwan is right. This conflict will take longer than what the Iraqi government or their allies expect. It will not finish within two days or two weeks or even two months. We talked about this the last time on the Real News and I was expecting that it will take maybe till the winter, a new year. So he’s right in this sense. But a problem is as I said at the first [inaud.] of conflict, [inaud.] government, the [inaud.] around the question of who controlled what in the city of Mosul after it’s so called liberation because the Kurds they have some claims. At least took part of the city in Mosul and they aren’t government of course consider Mosul as part of the rest of Iraq and not of the part of the territorial integrity of the original government of Kurdistan. This of course will make a lot of conflict because as we saw in [inaud.] before when the Kurdish[inaud.] kicked out ISIS from there, they tend to displace the Arab population from the city and bringing Kurdish population change that the [inaud.] of the city. So that’s one of the conflicts between the two governments around the territorial integrity or claims to parts of the cities depending on the ethno-sect term, the standing of it. PERIES: Now Sabah, at least officially at this point, both the Peshmerga and the Iraq forces are joint in this effort. Apparently there’s about 28,000 Iraqi and Peshmerga troops fighting to liberate Mosul along with the US forces and special forces support and they’re all expecting to expel the 5,000 or so ISIS fighters that are on the ground in Mosul. How successful do you think this effort is going to be in terms of expelling ISIS from Mosul? ALNASSERI: I mean we can increase the number from 20,000 to at least 35,000 if we include the so called, the popular mobilization which is the Shiite militia, mostly trained by Iran. So if you include these forces and not only the Iraqi army and the anti-terror unifier [Bashkaga], but also the so called [inaud.] joining the fight against ISIS. So you can realistic estimate, up to 35,000 soldiers and fighters and so on taking part in this operation. And it’s very difficult to estimate how many ISIS fighters within this city. There’s an estimation of 4,500 to 5,000. Some estimate up to 8,000. But those numbers are not so significant because I think ISIS has 2 years since 2014 when it took Mosul. 2 years’ time to prepare for base operations. That meant they build treaties around the cities. They put oils. They put oil in RPDs, landmines, set traps to make it very difficult for any troupe of the Iraqi army who put Peshmerga to enter the city. That’s why I’m saying this is will not take two days of either month. This will be a productive long conflict. Even before the army was enlisted. PERIES: Now let’s of course take a look at what the cost of all of this is now. The UN estimates about 900,000 people have already left the area but 1.3 million or so is still remaining there. What will happen to this population and what are the conditions they’re living under now? ALNASSERI: Yea that’s the second issue I wanted to talk about. Namely as we saw in Fallujah and Ramadi and Tackrida, the thought that the civilian population ultimately will pay the price. We saw map only the displacement of the population. A massive displacement. According to the United Nation, maybe up to 1 million people will plea for a big space for Mosul, the biggest refugee crisis in the world now. That’s because due to the lack of resources in capacity to accommodate these people, we’re still, what we saw in Fallujah and Ramadi that the special of these so called popular mobilization movements, the shiete militias, they torture and kill many of these civilian families in the cities. So we will expect that these atrocities that turn atrocities in Mosul’s special [inaud.] because many of these Shiite militias assume that these people, these families are not just families made up of members of ISIS or so called ISIS or they have some kind of affiliation for ISIS, etc. So we’ll see some kind of sectarian killing just like in Fallujah and Ramadi. That’s the second issue. The third issue, I’ll refer to the first conflict between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi government. But there’s also a third conflict between Turkey, the Kurds, and the Iraqi government. The Turkish government sent troops a few months ago to Ba’ashiqah which is next to Mosul. And you have Turkish troops stationed in Ba’ashiqah and the Turkish person, the [Partgon], want the Turkish to participate in this operation against ISIS. Not because he’s against ISIS or wants to liberate Mosul but Turkey wants to secure some territorial gain in Mosul, especially why the Turkmen or 3 million Turkmen are in Iraq, Turkish Iraqi population, to secure the long term presence of Turkish people and military in Mosul, especially in Turkey lives. That will bring conflict between the Turkish and the Kurdish government on one hand and the Turkish and the Iraqi on the other. Not really because of this security and military issue but because of the sectarian issue. If you listen to what the President of Turkey, Erdoğan was saying, he said after the liberating of Mosul all the [inaud.] will stay in the city. So that means he’s also [inaud.] against not only the Shiites in the city but also many people don’t know that the Turkmen in Iraq, a lot of them also are Shiite. So there are Shiite Turkmen and [Sin] Turkmen. That means the Shiite Turkmen will be also victim of the sectarian policy. So that’s the third conflict that we would expect to happen once the ISIS is kicked out from Mosul. The 4th, just maybe the most important -. PERIES: Just hold on for a second Sabah. If you could just give us a brief history here in a terms of why do the Turks feel that they have this historic claim on the city of Mosul. ALNASSERI: You see in 1926 when the new Iraqi state was created under the British empire, there was an agreement with Turkey that Mosul, Vilayet Mosul, which is the province of Mosul, would be part of the Iraq state. The Turkish government at that time had accepted this new map of Iraq provided that Mosul will stay as part of one Iraqi state. But now Turkey fears if Iraq fall apart and Mosul may become under the Kurdish occupation as they consider, Turkey will put claim toward the city of Mosul. Want Mosul to be part of the Turkish state. For here is as I said another conflict in the making, taking place even before the operation starts in Mosul. PERIES: Alright and now you wanted to make a fourth point. ALNASSERI: I think this is the most significant one. Just like in Fallujah or Tikrit before. The problem is you don’t have a well-functioning Iraqi state unless a well-functioning security apparatus and an army. So what happens is and in the last operations in Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, and [inaud.] when ISIS fighters were working up from these cities, most of the Shiite militia, all the Peshmerga actually were dominating and controlling the whole operation and as I said, practiced either ethno-demographic shifts like in the case of the Peshmerga or sectarian killing like in the case of the Shiite militias. That means just like the force and this is more significant because Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq with almost 2 million population. There are more post conflict, post liberation, arrangement for the city. The only thing as far as I know or as far as I heard was that it came from the Iraqi government that they want to divide Mosul in 6 or 8 [ethnocitarian contombs]. That means they want to [cantombize] the city of Mosul. Making it a future potential for all possible conflicts and suggesting that this is the only possible way to have a peaceful [inaud.] in the city which is absurd because if you look at the city of Mosul and [inaud.] when it was occupied by ISIS, at least it had a functioning government. All people were presented there were no conflict, nothing. So the plan which actually also, the Kurds are okay with it because they hope to get part of the 3rd day of Mosul as part of Kurdistan. Would create an enormous sectarian end of conflict in Mosul in the first conflict at the time. That is as I said, maybe the worst case scenario that will happen in the next few months. PERIES: Then of course there was some speculation that ISIS leader Baghdadi is actually in Mosul. What is the local press saying about that? ALNASSERI: Well all these rumors and speculation they are just as such, rumors and speculation. This is not so important. It’s important in one they may be military propaganda sense. Because you know especially the Iraqi army, the Iraqi government want to suggest that liberating Mosul would be the end of ISIS. So assuming that Baghdadi is in Mosul, the head of the [inaud.] that means the fact of the end of the presence of ISIS, which is not the case. We can say that ISIS moves freely between Iraq and Syria. So the only way to make sure that ISIS is weakened significantly is for the Iraqi army to occupy [inaud.] which is to the west of Mosul and that’s the corridor of the root for ISIS to move between Iraq and Syria. So the problem and I think, the Shiite militia, they have this in mind when they recruit a thousand of their forces which is now in Syria, they’re both in [inaud.] precisely to do this. But the problem with this when this Shiite militia control [inaud.] it will of course weaken the movement of ISIS and then they can make it difficult for ISIS to flee the city of Mosul. But too for the civil population of [inaud.]. Considering the sectarian nature of these militias backed by Iran and other [inaud.]. So the situation is anything but flowery. PERIES: Alright Sabah. I think you so much for your analysis here and look forward to you providing us an update, hopefully next week. ALNASSERI: My pleasure and thanks for having me Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Sabah Alnasseri was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His publications cover various topics in Marxist political economy, Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, theory of regulation, and Middle East politics and economy.