Explaining why Shia militias have launched a military operation against the Iraqi town of Tel Afar as part of the Battle for Mosul.
Where is it happening?
Tel Afar, a town 60 kilometres west of Mosul, home to predominantly Sunni Turkmens though Shia Turkmens used to also live there before fleeing Daesh in 2014.
What is going on?
Today, Shia militias began an assault on the Daesh-held Turkmen town. The Shia militias operate as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a collective of Iranian-backed, predominantly Shia paramilitaries who have recently attained official status. They are therefore a branch of the Iraqi military, and are thus answerable to the Iraqi government, who are in turn responsible for making sure they adhere to the laws of war.
Shia militias fighting under the banner of the PMF have been accused of perpetrating “war crimes” and other severe violations of international humanitarian law by groups such as Amnesty International.
Because of this, the Iraqi government has been under a lot of pressure to keep them out of the fight for Mosul, but Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has shown that he is not strong enough to stand against the wishes of people like Qais Al-Khaz’ali, one of the PMF’s most senior commanders and a leader of the sectarian Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq militia. Al-Khaz’ali has openly stated that the PMF will be involved, whether people like it or not.
As such, the PMF likely feel that 60 kilometres is far enough away from Mosul so that they will be able to stay out of the limelight (for now), yet near enough to have an operational impact on efforts to retake the city.
What is likely to happen?
Tel Afar is positioned on one of two roads directly leading from Mosul that head to the Syrian border. This road passes by Sinjar, made infamous due to Daesh atrocities against the Yazidi ethno-religious minority, and an area where Kurdish separatists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are now deployed.
By moving on Tel Afar, the PMF claim they will be blocking Daesh from retreating westward from Mosul to Syria. However, that does not seem convincing, particularly as the PMF have not been there long enough to mine cross-country trails that would then force Daesh to use main highways.
In reality, the vast majority of people the PMF will come across fleeing towards the Syrian border will be Sunni Arab civilians, and it is already a well-established fact that the PMF have been responsible for committing horrific atrocities against them over the past couple of year. The same is likely to be repeated again if Tel Afar falls to the PMF, only this time they will say that their sectarian atrocities were against Daesh terrorists.
Tel Afar is also close to a small airport, which can be used as a further staging ground much as Qayyarah has been (but to a smaller scale) to Mosul’s south. However, Daesh are likely to have mined the airfield and sabotaged the facility, so it will be some time before it is operational again which in turn raises doubts about its operational significance.
Finally, the PMF have repeatedly threatened Turkey and Turkish troops stationed in Zilkan near Bashiqa. Turkey has previously warned that it would not allow sectarian atrocities to be committed in Mosul, and it would not allow the PMF to move on Tel Afar. The PMF’s action in Tel Afar can thus be seen in light of their desire to antagonise Turkey, essentially calling their bluff to see what, if anything, Ankara might do.