Can a Mosul victory be Obama’s ‘October surprise’?
WASHINGTON - With fewer than 150 days before he hands the Oval Office keys to his successor, US President Barack Obama is making the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) the focus of his administration’s strategy in Iraq and Syria.
Think-tank experts, retired generals and administration officials are talking of an imminent battle to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, before the end of the year. Seizing Mosul from ISIS could serve to enhance Obama’s legacy and possibly emerge as an “October surprise” to help Democrats in the November election.
Experts, however, warn that having the right preparation for the Mosul battle is more crucial than the timeline.
The buzz around liberating Mosul started in April when Obama told CBS television that “my expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall”.
The recent advances of Kurdish peshmerga forces east of Mosul as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s vow to “raise the Iraqi flag” over Mosul have only increased speculation about a looming battle to recapture the city.
The United States also has increased the number of advisers and trainers working with the Iraqi Army; in July, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that an additional 560 troops would be sent to Iraq to help prepare for an Iraqi-led recapture of Mosul.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation who is based in northern Syria, said Mosul “needs to be surrounded first before the real operation can be launched”. “ISIS supply lines between Iraq and Syria need to be cut… and great manpower is needed,” he added.
This manpower is expected to be made up of “Kurdish forces, fighters from Sunni Arab tribes, the Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary groups” said van Wilgenburg, though differences and disagreements among these groups could impede such an operation.
Logistically, the Kurdish forces “will launch an operation in southern Shingal, while the Iraqi security units push into western Anbar to control the Syrian border gate of al-Qaim and then move towards al-Ba’aj,” according to van Wilgenburg, who warned that “until the encirclement of Mosul is complete, they cannot launch the operation”.
Political talks around taking Mosul have started in an attempt to coordinate matters of governance and provincial powers over the city. Lack of good governance and distrust in the security services were among the factors that helped ISIS swiftly seize Mosul in June 2014.
Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani recently hosted talks between US and Iraqi officials and representatives of the Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces in Erbil to discuss post-military operations in Mosul. In a statement released after the talks, Barzani said that “post-liberation Mosul will not accept the old order” and that “drastic changes need to be made for the benefit of the people of Mosul”. Among the likely changes are redistricting Nineveh province and creating a more inclusive political power structure in Mosul.
The term “October surprise” refers to a political event that has a last-minute effect on November elections and that is what some are calling the Mosul operation. A US official who asked to remain anonymous said Obama himself saw ending the ISIS foothold in Mosul as a “critical part of his legacy” but denied any link to the election calendar.
Politico, however, reported in an article titled Get ready for Obama’s ‘October Surprise’ in Iraq that the Mosul offensive “is now tentatively scheduled to begin sometime in early October with a final battle coming at the end of that month.” Retired Army Lieutenant-General Michael D. Barbero told the Washington Times that “some US officers in Baghdad believe the Obama administration is rushing plans for a Mosul offensive so it takes place before the November presidential election”.
Such a move would not be a complete surprise contends Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He referred to past efforts by sitting presidents to inject national security into the presidential race, such as in 2004 when George W. Bush raised the terror alert only days before the vote to secure his second term.
Virtually all polls give Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton a lead over her Republican rival Donald Trump and the liberation of Mosul would bolster the Democrats’ chances of keeping the White House.
But van Wilgenburg warned against rushing a military operation and emphasised the importance of preparedness and first encircling the city. While a quick victory in Mosul could reverberate positively for the Democrats, a short-sighted effort could bring dire consequences for both Obama’s legacy and the Democratic ticket.