Free Syrian Army militia backed by Turkish forces took the Syrian city of al-Bab from ISIS militants Feb. 23, although fighting continues in some districts. The ISIS fighters withdrew via a route left open for them by the commanders of Operation Euphrates Shield, the joint Turkish-FSA campaign. (Rudaw, Feb. 23) As US-led Iraqi and Kurdish forces close the circle on ISIS in Mosul, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance on Raqqa. The US commander in Iraq predicts the imminent taking of both Mosul and Raqqa. "Within the next six months, I think we'll see both conclude," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend outside Baghdad Feb. 8. The enemy is "overwhelmed anywhere that they are," added Col. John Dorrian, spokesperson for the US-led Combined Joint Taskforce. (Rudaw, Feb. 8)
This week's recapture of the Wadi Barada enclave outside Damascus by the Bashar Assad regime's forces points to a deft strategy by the regime and its Russian backers. The valley had been excluded from the supposed "ceasefire" because of the presence there of a small number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the former Nusra Front, which was officially excluded from the ceasefire. This means, effectively, the ceasefire not only doesn't apply to ex-Nusra, but also does not apply to any forces that have (often of necessity) allied with ex-Nusra—or even that just happen to be near ex-Nusra and not actively fighting them. This strategy seems to have had the desired effect. Nusra's former ally, Ahrar al-Sham, is now reported to have turned on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, sparking an internal civil war within rebel-held areas of Idlib governorate. (Al Jazeera, Feb. 2; Al Jazeera, Jan. 29)
Three thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) are fleeing the embattled city of Mosul on a daily basis since the second phase of military operations to liberate the ISIS stronghold began in late December, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). "As the war intensifies inside Mosul city and civilians run out of food, medicine, water and power, the number of refugees taking shelter in the Kurdistan Region has doubled over the past 10 days," Hoshang Mohammed, director of the KRG's Joint Crisis Coordination Center (JCC), announced on Jan. 15, "Three thousand have been displaced on a daily basis, 70 percent of whom have come to the Kurdistan Region."
Several militias operating in Iraq have been committing war crimes—using weapons manufactured in 16 different countries, including the US, Russia, China and Iran—according to a report (PDF) issued Jan. 5 by Amnesty International. The report discusses the actions of four particular militia groups—Munathamat Badr (Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), 'Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata'ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) and the Saraya al-Salem (Peace Brigades). These militias operate under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq, which include 40 or 50 distinct militias. Iraq's prime minister designated these PMUs as an official part of the Iraqi military in February.
An Iraqi militia, backed by the government, executed four men suspected of having ties to ISIS, Human Rights Watch reported Dec. 18. Because the men were never tried, HRW claims their executions constitute war crimes. The human rights organization said that although the executions took place in November, the Iraqi government has still not condemned them. It also reported that members of the Iraqi security forces witnessed at least one execution and did nothing. The men were killed in a village outside of Mosul during the militia's operation to retake that city. HRW named the Hashad al-Jabour militia, an alliance of Sunni tribes, as the organization that carried out the executions. Hashad al-Jabour is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a militia group given legal status to fight ISIS.
The Parliament of Iraq on Nov. 26 voted to give militias fighting Islamic State legal status in the country. The 208 votes allow the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Sha'abi) to fight the militant group throughout the country as long as they keep their "identity and character" and do not threaten Iraq's "national security." The bill legitimizes and recognizes the militia network as an extension of the state; fighters will now receive pensions and instruction from the regular armed forces. Opponents to the bill note that "mobilization forces" are traditionally Shi'ite, and that the authorization will allow the militias to continue sectarian fighting with the blessing of the government. Proponents say the militias have been a formidable weapon against ISIS after the US troop draw-down.
It's clear that President Obama had set a goal to take both Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS before leaving office, and bequeath these victories to his successor Hillary Clinton. But both of these battles hold the potential both for humanitarian disaster and a violent aftermath as Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites contend for liberated territory. Now all this will instead be bequeathed to Donald Trump—with no savvy about the region, and a blatant appetite for destruction. This dramatically escalates the potential for disaster. It is pretty clear Trump intends to divide Syria with Putin the way Hitler divided Poland with Stalin. The US will take Raqqa and the east; Russia will establish a reduced Assad state as a protectorate around Damascus and Latakia in the west. Whether the US will be able to control its sphere amid social collapse and sectarian maelstrom is another matter.