Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Sitrep - 19 October, 2016

The delayed assault on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul appears to be underway. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told reporters “the hour has come and the moment of great victory is near.” The militant group Islamic State (IS) took control of the city on the Tigris River in 2014. Iraq Security Forces (ISF) are now conducting shaping operations ahead of a main attack.

More than 50,000 ISF troops have converged on Mosul expecting to battle between 2000 and 5000 IS fighters. The group has had plenty of time to prepare booby traps and a maze of improvised explosive devices. Mosul is a large city, at one point housing two million people, so any fighting will be slow and tough as the ISF move from house to house in clearing operations.

It is unclear how long Baghdad expects its phases of combat to last. The initial steps could be completed in days or take weeks. Follow-on operations inside the city may last the rest of the year or run into 2017. And success depends on the cohesion of the many argumentative groups conducting Baghdad’s campaign. Washington hopes the assault won’t break up prematurely.

Further south off the western coast of Yemen, US Navy warships were targeted three times in a week by unidentified groups on the mainland. Described as a Chinese-designed cruise missile, the munitions launched at the USS Mason and USS Ponce either fell short or were intercepted by on-board countermeasures. Neither vessel was harmed.

In response, multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles from nearby warships responded by striking radar installations and other undisclosed sites in Yemen. The Pentagon suspects the rebel Houthis, although the group denies it was responsible. A Saudi airstrike in early October killed 140 people attending a funeral, including a dozen Houthi senior officers. The missile attacks could therefore be revenge considering the US supports the Saudi intervention with logistics and intelligence material.

However, the US isn’t likely to escalate its involvement in the country. The civil war is low on Washington’s priority list and coverage in US media is nearly non-existent. Yet if the Houthis or their Iranian supporters are attempting to close the strait of Bab el-Mandeb to international shipping, the US considers that a high enough threat to place US Navy assets in the waters. Ensuring sea lanes remain open is the bedrock US grand strategy.

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