Aleppo Airstrikes

Syrians inspect the damage following airstrikes in Aleppo this week

After two years of panic over the future of the Middle East, the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Mosul will soon be under full assault. While the battle will be hard, it is expected that IS fighters will be forced to leave the city.

The recapture of Mosul is seen by US President Barack Obama as what will be his last major foreign policy win before he leaves office at the beginning of 2017. What is less discussed in such triumphalist tones is that preparations for the battle are behind schedule, that it will be hard and probably long, and that much of the city will be destroyed in the process.

While Australian media has been highlighting this country’s role in training Iraqi forces for the attack, the anti-IS force will actually comprise four, sometimes antagonistic, military organisations — of which the Iraqi army is only one and not necessarily the most effective. The Shia Hashd al-Shaabi Shiite Militia will also play a major role in the assault, as will smaller and less cohesive Sunni militias.

Importantly, too, Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north, which have been consistently effective, will be critical to the outcome. Each group has independent commanders and sometimes independent sub-commanders. This may then lead to “allied” competition as to who will control the city following its liberation.

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The only thing that is certain is that, assuming an anti-IS victory, the Iraqi government will not have the capacity to rebuild the city after it is re-taken.

While the slightly overstated “good news” story in Iraq is being played up, the fragile ceasefire in Syria is now not only dead but increasingly, too, are hopes for a negotiated settlement to that conflict. For many, the fighting did not stop, but what killed the “ceasefire” was the US-led air attack on a Syrian military group and what appeared to be a retaliatory Syrian/Russian airstrike on a UN aid convoy.

Recriminations have mounted on both sides but, at base, the Syrian regime believes it may now be able to militarily win this war, so negotiation has become redundant. There is no sense, however, that such a ‘victory’ will accommodate Syria’s two-thirds Sunni population. Indeed, for the Sunnis, “victory” will likely mean a return to oppression.

In the interim, the Battle for Aleppo is taking on almost mythic proportions for its brutality, loss of life and indiscriminate, probably criminal, bombing of civilian areas. Well over 25,000 people have been killed in Aleppo so far and, under renewed air assault, the number rises daily.

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As with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, these events have directed attention away from the conflict in Afghanistan. Then, the focus away towards Iraq allowed the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate unnecessarily. After refocusing on Afghanistan, allied forces drew down in 2014.

Since then, Afghan National Security Forces are proving less capable than their allied trainers wanted others to believe, and the Taliban, their al-Qaeda allies and now an offshoot of IS are on the offensive. The Australian base at Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan Province is now under Taliban control, while Helmand Province, regarded by Obama as a symbol of what could be achieved, is all but under Taliban control.

Anti-government forces now control, or actively contest, a third of Afghanistan. It is now a legitimate question to ask when — rather than if — the Afghanistan administration will fall.

It may be that IS will be defeated as a conventional army in Iraq, if not as an insurgency. Arguably, too, the Syrian conflict has become a proxy war between the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But none of these conflicts have gone as planned, much less hoped for, by the US and its allies, including Australia. But, if it were again needed, they have highlighted the limitations of external unilateral military intervention.

*Damian Kingsbury is a professor of international politics at Deakin University