Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers hold an Islamic State flag found in the town of Bartella, which Iraqi forces recently retook. (Marko Drobnjakovic / AP)
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After a silence of two years, church bells tolled again in Bartella, Iraq, after the Iraqi army retook the largely Christian northern town from Islamic State this week. The soldiers in the photograph above are celebrating their victory.
Not pictured are U.S. officials, who may be cheering the prospect of Islamic State fighters soon being driven from Mosul—the last bit of territory the group holds in Iraq after taking large parts of the country in 2014—into Syria. There they would create yet more problems for Syrians, who are suffering a five-year civil war under President Bashar Assad.
As Robert Fisk, Middle East reporter for The Independent, wrote early this week: “… if Mosul falls, the entire [Islamic State] caliphate army could be directed against the Assad government and its allies.”
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“When the Iraqi city of Fallujah fell to Iraqi army and militia forces earlier this year,” Fisk explained, “many [Islamic State] fighters fled at once to Syria.”
For weeks now, Western media and the American experts it likes to quote have been predicting a Stalingrad-style battle to the death by [Islamic State] inside Mosul—or a swift victory over [Islamic State] followed by inter-sectarian Iraqi battles for the city. The UN is warning of massive refugee columns streaming from a besieged city. But the Syrians—after witnessing the sudden collapse and evacuation of Palmyra when their own army retook the ancient Syrian city earlier this year—suspect that [Islamic State] will simply abandon Mosul and try to reach safety in the areas of Syria which it still controls. …
Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader who sent thousands of his men to fight (and die) in the struggle against [Islamic State] and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, said in a speech marking the Ashura commemorations last week that the Americans “intend to repeat the Fallujah plot when they opened a way for [Islamic State] to escape towards eastern Syria” and warned that “the same deceitful plan may be carried out in Mosul.” In other words, an [Islamic State] defeat in Mosul would encourage [Islamic State] to head west to try to defeat the Assad regime in Syria. …
Assad’s own army, with its 65,000 fatalities in a battle that has now lasted five years, has already been bombed by the Americans at Deir Ezzor at a cost of at least 60 dead—Washington described this as a mistake—and is now preparing to challenge the huge influx of [Islamic State] fighters which could cross the border after the collapse of Mosul. Nasrallah himself made an intriguing allusion to this in his speech. He suggested that if [Islamic State] forces are not defeated by the Iraqis themselves in Mosul then the Iraqis—presumably the Iraqi Shia militia which are one of the spearheads of the government army—“will be obliged to move to eastern Syria in order to fight the terrorist group”.
Given the possibility that Syrian troops and their Russian allies may have to confront this same group, it’s little wonder that they are trying to conclude their capture of eastern Aleppo—whatever the cost in lives—before the fall of Mosul.
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