Mosul Offensive Will Create More Refugees, Displacement, and Humanitarian Disaster
Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis says the fightback against ISIS requires the abandonment of more military force, and the pursuit of diplomacy with Russia and Iran
PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
The United States will send about 560 more troops to Iraq to step up the campaign against the Islamic State and assist Iraqi forces in a push on Mosul, the ISIS militants’ largest and last major stronghold in Iraq. Some people are calling what’s to come the mother of all battles. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made the announcement Monday, July 11 during a visit to Baghdad, where he met with U.S. commanders, as well as the Iraqi prime minister. Here’s a clip of what the defense secretary had to say.
ASH CARTER: And I’m pleased to report today in that connection that we agreed for the United States to bolster the Iraqi efforts to isolate and pressure Mosul by deploying 560 additional troops in support of the ISF, and especially at the Qayyarah West airfield. This contingent will help the Iraqis establish a logistical springboard for their offensive in Mosul, which Prime Minister Abadi reaffirmed to me that he wants to accomplish this year.
JAY: Now joining us from Washington to discuss this announcement is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She’s the author of many books, including her most recent, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Thanks for joining us again, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: So what do you think of this announcement?
BENNIS: This is a very dangerous escalation. What we’re going to see, I’m afraid, is a massive level of new refugee crisis that’s going to dwarf the existing refugee crisis. We saw that with the liberation of Fallujah just a few weeks ago, when yes, it was a good thing that ISIS was defeated in Fallujah when the city was reclaimed, but what happened was the city was damaged enormously. People were fleeing in the thousands. They fled out into the desert and were left with nothing.
There had been no preparation to take care of thousands of people, tens of thousands of people. It was somewhere between 30,000-40,000 that fled on one day. And there were no camps, there was no water, there was no food, there was no medical care for traumatized, weakened people that had both faced the violence of ISIS and a longstanding siege imposed by the Iraqi government that had left them with virtually no access to food, little water, little electricity, virtually no medical care.
So people were very, very weak and fragile, fled into the desert, and were met with nothing. No preparation. So what now is what’s going to happen in Mosul.
JAY: Yeah, Mosul is about 700,000 people. I think the city is normally about 2 million people when things are normal. But now about 700,000. And they’re expecting it could be the majority of that 700,000 people flee. They’re mostly Sunni Arabs in Mosul, and people are expecting a similar fate as those of Fallujah, because there seems to be no preparation for those refugees, either.
BENNIS: Again, there’s the problem of lack of preparation. There’s also been, apparently, virtually no consultation with people in Mosul. There was a poll taken about three weeks ago in Mosul where 76 percent of the population of Mosul said, we don’t want to be liberated by the Shia militias that fight alongside the Iraqi government. The problem is the Shia militias are generally much better fighters militarily than the Iraqi military itself. They will be part of that fighting. There have been allegations from Ramadi, from Fallujah and elsewhere of huge human rights violations, sectarian-based torture and other things, carried out by those militias. So there’s a great deal of fear of large-scale engagement of both the Iraqi military and their Shia militia allies, as well as the bombing by the U.S.-backed coalition, which means massive destruction of the city.
We didn’t see it as much in Fallujah, but when Ramadi was taken away from ISIS, 80 percent of the city was left in smithereens. There was basically nothing left. So the 350,000 people that were supposedly liberated from Ramadi have no city to go back to. They have no homes.
JAY: And in that poll you talked about, was the question asked whether they wanted to be liberated at all? It is a majority Sunni city. Do they–what do the people want?
BENNIS: It is. It’s very unclear what they want, and it wasn’t clear what else was asked. The publication of it didn’t include all the questions that were asked. Polls were also of questionable value. They’re a–.
JAY: Especially in a place under ISIS control.
BENNIS: They’re a snapshot. They’re done by telephone. But it’s an example of the fact that we shouldn’t take at face value the idea that this is somehow liberation, that this is an unmitigated good. Yes, it’s good to get ISIS out of the control of Iraq’s second-largest city. True. It’s also true that the process of getting rid of ISIS is going to exact an enormous price, not only for the fighters, but especially for the people living under that fight. Whether it’s civilians being used by ISIS as human shields, whether it’s the destruction of massive amounts of the city, as happened in Ramadi, whether it’s the driving of people out of the city to escape the fighting to find nothing prepared for them out in the desert.
And remember, we’re talking about serious desert here, where the temperatures routinely rise over 110 degrees every day. And there’s not water available. There’s not shelter available. There’s not electricity available. This is going to be a humanitarian disaster. And because as far as we know the only real preparations are on the military side, and not being taken seriously on the humanitarian side, this is going to multiply the existing refugee crisis. It’s going to multiply the existing crisis of internally displaced Iraqis within their own country, but forced to leave their homes. It’s going to be a humanitarian disaster.
So the question needs to continue to be asked to people like Secretary of Defense Carter, what preparations are you making? What’s going to happen to these people? How are you going to take care of [inaud.].
JAY: So, Phyllis, why is it good to do this in the sense of okay, ISIS controls Mosul. Well, so what? And in this sense, that why not wait until the people of Mosul are ready to fight ISIS? Why does this need to be done, given the grave consequences?
BENNIS: I think it’s a very big question whether this is, on balance, a good thing or not. The problem that we face is that living under ISIS control is also a horrific reality of violence and lack–not just lack of political freedoms, but increasing pressures, the existing siege that the government in Iraq, in Baghdad, has imposed on Mosul, supposedly to undermine ISIS. But like all economic sanctions, its primary impact is on the most vulnerable. That means children, old people, women, pregnant women, who have no access to good food, to water, to electricity, to medical care.
The problem is, we’re posed with the option of either going to war or doing nothing. That’s never the only choice. And we’re not being given the option to look at what other forces might be brought to bear. For example, the question of economic pressures on ISIS members, many of whom join ISIS because they pay more than other militant organizations. If there was money available, would others leave ISIS and leave the fight altogether? That’s certainly one possibility.
JAY: Yeah. You’d think that–when I was in Afghanistan in 2002, everybody was telling me that the major reason people were fighting for the Taliban was the only source of income they had. And if you simply paid people to stay at home and watch satellite television, the Taliban would have lost perhaps the majority of their fighters. This is anecdotal, but I think there’s certainly a great deal of evidence that people are fighting because it’s the only money they can get. And it’s true for ISIS, as well.
There’s other strategies that could be done. One is undermining ISIS fighters with rewards. Two, telling people in Mosul if you rise up against ISIS there will be arms, you will be supported. You can drop fliers to the city through the air, calling on people. But—.
BENNIS: I mean, let’s stop for a minute, Paul. That has been done before, where there’s a call to rise up. And people found, what a surprise, there was no support. Back in 1991.
JAY: Yeah, people don’t trust–.
BENNIS: First, President Bush called on Iraq’s Shia majority to rise up. And some people did, and they got no support. So I think there’s no outside forces that have that kind of credibility. The question of what it would take to fight back against ISIS is a very difficult challenge. But this is when we go back to what do we do instead of using the military to fight against terrorism? You can’t use military force to win against terrorism. All you do is create more terrorists.
JAY: Well, maybe external military force. But the issue of people fighting ISIS themselves is another story.
BENNIS: Yes. But we’re talking about a civilian population that doesn’t have training, doesn’t have arms. So that may or may not at any given moment be an option. What we need to be looking at as an outside country that’s thoroughly enmeshed in this fight, and having very, very bad impacts as a result of its military actions, we have a situation where we’re not paying enough attention to potential diplomacy. We’re talking about building coalitions to do more bombing. We need to be talking about a coalition that includes Russia, not for more bombing in Syria, but massive, new diplomacy in both Syria and Iraq. We need to be engaging diplomatically with Iran, something that is newly possible as a result of the nuclear deal, because Iran has far more influence throughout Iraq these days than we do.
So we need to acknowledge that and engage. We need to be talking about arms embargoes, not flooding the place with more arms that right now all end up in the hands of the most extremist elements, because they have the most powerful fighting forces on the ground. So we need to completely back away from this notion of simply relying on military force, and instead look at what are the reasons that people join ISIS? How can we change those conditions?
When people say that they see ISIS as a lesser evil relative to the Shia-dominated sectarian government in Baghdad, that’s something we can do something about because we are paying the bills and buying the arms for that sectarian, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that so many people hate so intensely that they see the vicious ISIS forces as a lesser evil.
JAY: And there’s no way for that to change without American-Iranian cooperation.
BENNIS: Exactly. And that’s something we can do something about. Militarily it’s not at all clear that we will do anything good. We know it will do a lot of damage from military assaults like this.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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