Battle of Tal Afar: Conflict of interests and influence

By Dr. Huda Al-Nuaimy, Deputy Director General Scientific Research
Al Istishari Al Strategy, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Member of the SIA Advisory Board

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Sunday, August 20, 2017, the beginning of operations to liberate the city and district of Tal Afar, the last major stronghold of Daesh (otherwise also known as Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL) in the province of Nineveh in northern Iraq.

The operation comes after more than one month from the Iraqi Prime Minister’s victory announcement in Mosul city after nine months of fierce fighting. Abadi explained that all Iraqi forces, including the federal army, police, counterterrorism forces, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the local militias will participate in the military operation, supported by the US-led international coalition.

US military spokesman Ryan Dillon announced that the US-led coalition forces were preparing for the battle of Tal Afar with Iraqi forces and that they had launched at least 50 air strikes against Daesh before the fighting began.

According to military commanders, the primary forces that took part in the battle of Tal Afar were from anti-terrorist units, the 9th and 16th armored divisions of the Army, the 3rd Brigade of the Rapid Intervention Forces, the Federal Police, and four Shiite factions (Al Abbas fighting division). The brigade of Ali Al Akbar and the Imam Ali Brigade, in addition to the Brigade of the Hussein 53 whose majority of fighters are from Tal Afar.

According to a spokesman for the PMU, Ahmad al-Asadi, Iran and Hezbollah also participated in the battle.

The battle of Tal Afar raised the specter of increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, which the United States would not be able to limit or undermine. Tehran is the most influential variable in guiding contemporary Iraqi politics through its deployment of official intermediaries (whether they be as military advisors), through the provision of arms to the Iraqi military or the presence of Iranian Shiite clergymen.

The task of the PMU Shiite militias is to achieve Tehran’s overall ambitions in Iraq by reshaping the map of the Sunni areas – fulfilling the central objective of Iraqi Shiite and ultimately Iranian dominance over Iraq. In doing so, this plan also extends the strategic reach of Iran deep into Iraq’s territory, keeping Sunni Iraqis off balance, divided and ultimately weakening their influence in Baghdad as a political force.

Tal Afar… Geostrategic challenges

The district of Tal Afar is considered the largest district in Nineveh province. It is located about 70 kilometers from Mosul. Daesh took control of the district on June 15th 2014, after a series of confrontations. Iraqi forces withdrew from Tal Afar and as a result, displaced thousands of citizens. Tal Afar is surrounded by three smaller towns, two of which, Rabia and Al-Ayadiya, are controlled by Daesh. The third town, Zemar, is controlled by Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga forces.

Tal Afar is strategically important due to its proximity to Syria and Turkey. It is situated about 50 kilometers to the south of the Turkish border and about 60 kilometers to the Syrian border, making this location one of the axes of regional conflict.

The United States and Turkey are both concerned about the likelihood of Iranian control over this city.

The possession of Tal Afar is critical for Iran because it will allow the country to secure a land corridor thus enabling Iran to send fighters and military resources through Iraq on to Syria and Lebanon – assisting both Hezbollah and Syrian government forces. By controlling the Syrian-Iraqi border in this way, extends Iranian strategic influence to the Mediterranean Sea.

Joseph Martin, commanding general of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command for Operation Inherent Resolve, said that he expected the Iraqi Army to lead in the battle of Tal Afar, pointing out that US advisers would be there with them, and that the United States would not cooperate with Shiite militias. However, evidence confirmed that the militia units of the PMU had imposed a siege on Tal Afar. They deployed to the south and west of the city in the areas of Tal Ibtah and the military airport to the town of Sinjar, while Peshmerga forces were concentrated in the north and Iraqi military forces to the east in the region of Badosh. One of the most significant challenges that faced Iraqi security forces was that the neighborhoods of the city are very similar to those of the western side of Mosul, meaning that they were intertwined and their houses are old and of poor quality, belonging, as they do, to people of low-income.

The influence of sectarianism on the city’s population was obvious. Sunni Turkmen tended to be loyal to Turkey, while the Shiite Turkmen to Iran. These different loyalties may in time ignite a heated conflict inside the city, possibly facilitating the process of either Iranian or Turkish military intervention and occupation.

Military, political and demographic challenges

The liberation of Tal Afar from Daesh was accomplished on 26 August 2017, six days after the Iraqi Prime Minister announced plans for the city’s capture from Daesh. A remarkable feat, considering the exhaustion of Iraqi forces from their recent combat with Daesh over the city of Mosul. This could be one of the reasons explaining their weakened offensive capability during the battle of Tal Afar. The Iraqi government decided to use the same military units that participated in the battle of Mosul – Iraqi Army’s anti-terrorist forces – which are considered the spearhead in most battles, and which have the main task of penetrating defensive lines that are the hardest to overcome.

The repercussions of the diplomatic crisis between Baghdad and Ankara

Turkish refusal to withdraw its forces from their Zilikan camp, 50 kilometers from the town of Baasheqa north of Mosul, may well escalate again.

Ankara’s concern lies in the emerging ‘alliance’ between Iraqi Shiite militias and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) to launch attacks against Turkey, or to facilitate the delivery of weapons and supplies to the PKK fighters in their long-running war against the Turkish Army.

At the same time, Turkey fears a demographic change in Tal Afar that will negatively impact on the interests of Ankara, as the Iraqi Kurds will seek to re-establish their premier position in Tal Afar at the expense of the dominant Turkmen majority.

In addition to the above, Turkish warnings of sectarian violence affecting the Sunni Turkmen population in the city, also figures in the consideration of Turkish national security. Underlining this point Turkish president Erdogan on October 29, 2016 said:

“The Turkmen city of Tal Afar is a matter of great sensitivity to us. Should the PMU commit terrorist acts in the city, our response will be different.”

Erdogan said the information he received did not confirm any such action, and gave no details on how a ‘response’ would be different.

Baghdad does not reassure Ankara on the issue of sectarian violence. It is often stated by Iraqi officials that the PMU does not participate in ethnic and sectarian fighting.

On this basis, a political challenge facing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi revolves around limiting the consequences of the Turkish-Iranian involvement in the aftermath of the battle for Tal Afar. Most analysts are likely to expect a diplomatic outcome to resolve the conflict between these two sides well before thinking about implementing military plans, tough talk notwithstanding.

We need to be reminded of what happened when the Iraqi Army attacked the city of Mosul last October and decided to exclude Shiite militias from participating in the battle. The PMU managed to move around Mosul and head west towards Tal Afar to fight for control of this city’s suburbs. Only US and Turkish threats forced them to stop and not to storm the city, instead they withdrew to the west, toward the town of Baaj on the Syrian border.

It is unlikely that the battle of Tal Afar will lead to the restructuring of Iraq for the better. Regional forces have found opportunity to expand their influence in not just Tal Afar but in other places in Iraq under the guise of fighting Daesh.

Iran wants Tal Afar to be their key base from where to open a strategic corridor extending from Tehran, penetrating northern Iraq, passing through northern Syria until it reaches Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast, then opening up a sea-route south to Lebanon to service Hezbollah.

As for Turkey, it fears of the establishment of a military axis comprising Iraqi Kurds, the PKK and Iraqi Shia, and insists on blocking the establishment of more Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. This will now be extremely hard to do since the KRG’s 25 September 2017 independence referendum has delivered a victory for the independence vote. KRG President Masoud Barzani may well be watching his borders as Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara prepare their responses to this development, one that threatens their respective hold over Kurdish territory.

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