In The Media

AUDIO: Mosul operation raises questions about safety of civilians and future of Iraq

by Levon Sevunts (feat. Kyle Matthews)

Radio Canada International
October 18, 2016

As Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga units push deeper into ISIS-controlled territory to recapture Iraq’s second largest city, the plight of Mosul’s civilian population is top on the minds of humanitarian and military experts.

Around 1.5 million people still live in Mosul and the International Organization for Migration said ISIS may use tens of thousands of residents as human shields to hold onto their last city stronghold in Iraq.

Kyle Matthews, Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University and a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said nobody is under any illusion about the possible toll on the civilian population of Mosul as Iraqi and Kurdish forces try to wrestle it back.

“ISIS is a group that doesn’t wear military uniforms, they blend in into the civilian population, they put weapons and other stuff in the civilian areas, so there is a concern,” Matthews said.

Iraqi authorities and the United Nations have been preparing for a large influx of refugees trying to flee the besieged city, but resources are stretched thin to deal with another major refugee crisis in the Middle East. And Iraqi authorities are urging citizens of Mosul to stay put.

“As they go into a city of 2 million people, the size of Vancouver, they realize that ISIS doesn’t have 100,000 fighters, they have about three or four thousand,” Matthews said. “So it’s not like they are going to be fighting in every corner of the city. That’s probably the reason they want them to stay low, stay safe as they begin their operations.”

Tunnels, booby traps and snipers

For the last two years, Canadian Special Forces soldiers in northern Iraq have been training Kurdish peshmerga forces for this extremely dangerous mission, said retired Lt.-Col. Steve Day, a former leader of Canada’s elite JTF2 counterterrorism unit.

“As the coalition forces are moving through that city, the have to clear building by building, which means room by room, and it’s just takes a lot of time to work your way through a city,” Day said. “You’ve got to watch out for improvised explosive devices or booby traps, clearly they’ve got snipers and marksmen that are constantly trying to target and engage you as you’re moving through. To fight in that environment is extremely difficult.”

ISIS has had two years to prepare for this battle, he said.

“They’ve gone subterranean, they’ve gone street level, they’ve gone above street level and it will take a significant effort and time to envelope that city and then slowly and methodically work their way through it, while trying to protect the civilian population,” Day said.

“But make no mistake about it, this is going to be very hard and there are going to be significant casualties as these forces fight with each other and move through this built up area.”

A necessary fight

Despite support from Western countries such as the United States, Britain, France and Canada, which has about 170 Special Forces troops training and advising the Kurds, most of the fighting is expected to be carried out by either Kurdish peshmerga militias or the Iraqi security forces.

“Western countries are not playing the biggest role,” Matthews said. “They are not going to be the ones sending their soldiers in large numbers, it will be Iraqi and Kurdish forces.”

Taking over Mosul is crucial for the future of Iraq, Matthews said.

“What happens to people if you let them live in a city of 2 million people controlled by ISIS, which is targeting minorities, carrying out vicious attacks, pretty much committing every crime against humanity in the book,” Matthews said. “Can you really just allow that to continue and I think there is a good moral argument to say no.”

What happens after?

The biggest question is what happens after Mosul is liberated, what’s do be done at the political level to be more inclusive, to deal with some of the political issues that allowed a few hundred ISIS fighters to take over Mosul in the first place, Matthews said.

“What is the enduring objective or our presence there in the Middle East,” Day said. “I’m not a 100 per cent sure that as the West we actually have a coherent strategy for what we want this part of the world to look like.”

Neither does the West seem to have the strategic patience to deal with an issue of such complexity, Day said.

“If you look at the 15 years we spent in Afghanistan, does the West have the stomach for 30 to 50 years of rebuilding in Iraq?” he asked.

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