Prof. Eyal Zisser
In recent days, global attention has shifted from Syria to Iraq. From the bleeding city of Aleppo, which is being crushed under bombs dropped by Syrian and Russian planes, to the city of Mosul, which Iraqi and Kurdish forces are closing in on with U.S. air cover.
The battle to retake Mosul has already been described by U.S. President Barack Obama as a major milestone in the struggle against the Islamic State group, and, if it goes well — which is still completely uncertain — it will be cause for a press conference at the White House, after all the failures and disappointments that the American administration has had in the Middle East in recent years.
But the real story behind the campaign for Mosul is not the struggle against Islamic State — rather two equally important wars are taking place under the auspices of the battle against the terrorist organization. Some may say it’s good that Islamic State exists, so that it can be used to advance interests that have nothing to do with the war against its extremism.
The first war is Turkey’s war against the Kurds in an effort to prevent them from establishing autonomy, or even a state, that could destabilize Turkey from within. The Turkish military has already been active in Syria for about two months, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that no military campaign against Islamic State in Mosul can go forward without Turkey’s involvement in order to ensure that the area does not fall into Kurdish hands and serve as the foundation for an autonomous state in northern Iraq.
But the more interesting war is the one being waged by the Shiites in Iraq, and by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, against the Sunni Arabs in the Fertile Crescent. And indeed, the masses of refugees fleeing Mosul prove that the campaign to overtake the city is yet another step along the path to rid the entire area of its Sunni population.
In the future, historians will wonder whether the forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq were carrying out a systematic, intentional policy in accordance with an organized and calculated plan hatched in Tehran, or perhaps in Damascus or Baghdad — or whether it was chance and circumstance that led to this result. So, too, will the question of Russia’s and the United States’ involvement in this process of ethnic cleansing be answered in the distant future.
But on the ground, it is the canons, missiles, explosives and bombs dropped by Syrian and Russian planes — and in Iraq, American planes as well, though they are at least trying to hit Islamic State targets — that do the talking. The chemical weapons used by the Syrian regime against its opponents also speaks volumes. The same is true for the robbery and terrorism, and even the slaughter, carried out by Shiite militias trained by Iran and aided by Russia in Syria — and in Iraq, aided by the Americans.
The bottom line is that Syria and Iraq — which until a decade ago were home to more than 20 million Sunnis, making up more than 60% of the Syrian population and a quarter to a third of Iraq’s — are emptying out of Sunni residents and today, less than half remain.
Nearly 8 million Sunni Arabs have left Syria, finding refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But it’s not over yet. Just last week, Assad vowed to clean out the terrorists from Aleppo and after it, from all of northern Syria. In translation: to clean out the 2 million to 3 million Sunnis who live in these areas (Assad, for his part, claims that his war is against the rebels, as many Sunnis in Syria support him). And the battle for Mosul, which will lead to Shiite control over the Sunni region of north-western Iraq, will launch millions more Sunni refugees from Iraq toward Turkey.
This is how the problem of Islamic State terrorism is being solved along with the problem of instability in Iraq and Syria. There will be no Sunni Arabs nor anyone to oppose Assad’s regime or a Shiite leadership in Baghdad. This is ethnic cleansing — even if no one is calling it that — under the auspices of the international community.