This roundup includes our latest podcast, publications and stories of interest for the week of 17-22 October.
Publications & Podcasts
Making Russia Policy
The Battle for Mosul Begins (STRATEGIKON podcast)
John Bruni and David Olney discuss the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s attempt at liberating the Islamic State’s ‘jewel in the crown’, and its implications in this week’s STRATEGIKON podcast. Listen here
Stories to Watch
The Battle for Mosul Begins (17 October)
The Battle for Mosul Begins. After months of skirmishes, airstrikes, training, planning and deploying, an Iraqi Army detachment some 20,000 strong, alongside approximately 10,000 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and an undisclosed number of Shiite paramilitaries, have encircled the major Iraqi city of Mosul – a city that has been under Islamic State occupation for two years.
Flush from its recent victories in Ramadi (November 2015-February, 2016) and Fallujah (May-June 2016), the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi, itself in turmoil following a spate of corruption scandals that saw thousands of protesters storm the Iraqi parliament last April, needs a major and decisive victory. The capture of Mosul therefore serves two significant points: (a) to legitimize Haider al-Abadi’s rule within Iraq; and (b) land a knockout blow to Islamic State in Iraq. Mosul is the most significant urban space seized by Islamic State during its expansion into Syria and Iraq – a city rich with a diverse ethnic and sectarian population.
The problem for the Iraqi Army and its ‘tactical’ allies fighting for the recapture of Mosul is that the Iraqi Army and its commanders are not necessarily happy fighting alongside Iraqi Kurds and Shiite militias, because of these latter groups marching to their own political agendas. Also, Islamic State has had two years preparing for the defence of Mosul, so house-to-house urban guerrilla warfare is expected, possibly making this campaign protracted. Knowing that its hold on Mosul is tenuous IS, may play for a legendary ‘last stand’ that will resonate among current and future generations of jihadists – a ‘mother of all terrorist battles’.
Al-Abadi cannot allow this to happen. But, his ability to control events on the ground is limited. Furthermore, Western support in the form of airstrikes puts the West at safe distance from the ground slog that the Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga and possibly the Shiite militias will have to go through to clear the city of Islamic State fighters. Without direct Western special force involvement in this battle, and with the Iraqi Army’s reputation as an effective fighting force dubious at best, one can only hope that this battle will go to plan – that the Iraqi Army enters the city in good order, that the Peshmerga co-operate as best they can and that the Shiite militias stay outside the city. Al-Abadi needs a quick and clean victory, however, this battle seems unlikely to go in that direction.
Launch of China’s Tiangong-2 (17 October)
China successfully launched a manned rocket to rendezvous with its space laboratory, Tiangong-2. While this news was greeted with some enthusiasm internationally by space buffs, the significance of this Chinese mission is that the country is rapidly accelerating its efforts at being a global ‘space power’.
From a military perspective, space programs are important because the more sophisticated they are, the lessons learnt from putting people, laboratories, stations and satellites in space can be directed to improve the capacity of ballistic missiles to land their conventional and/or nuclear payloads on land-based and sea-based targets. Command of this ‘high ground’ also gives military forces on Earth greater capacities to identify threats, navigate to targets and unleash weapons against enemies. This is why the Americans and Russians invested so heavily in their respective space programs during the Cold War. Yes, it was partly to fulfill the desire for exploration and science, but behind these noble aims was (and remains) the prime directive of the military establishment – to build faster, more capable and accurate missile systems and more powerful satellite constellations. China is still well behind the United States and Russian space programs, but barring major war, political turmoil or economic collapse, how far behind it remains over the next decade, is anyone’s guess.
Ecuador cuts off Assange’s Internet (18 October)
Julian Assange, an Australian computer programmer and editor-in-chief for WikiLeaks, recently reported that the government of Ecuador cut off his access to the Internet. The reason behind this action is not yet known, but speculation has it that it is a result of WikiLeaks’ release of sensitive documents, including confidential information on the US and British governments.
The Internet was cut off right after WikiLeaks released transcripts on Hillary Clinton’s address to Wall Street, which raised the ire of many. In response to this, WikiLeaks tweeted that they have activated the appropriate contingency plans, which include the release of encryption keys on its Twitter account.
The recent series of events (i.e., 1) the Ecuadorian Embassy cutting Assange off from the Internet 2) WikiLeaks’ release of encryption keys on its Twitter account) raises questions about the conditions of Assange’s detainment at the Ecuadorian Embassy. Given that the UN deemed efforts by Sweden and the UK to detain him unlawful in February 2016, Ecuador’s course of action must influence Assange’s ability to gain fair legal treatment.
The reason why this story is important internationally, including Australia, is because of the continuing importance of cyber-space as a domain to pursue action against governments, organisations and individuals. The rise of WikiLeaks and fellow traveller, Anonymous, has been a source of embarrassment and anxiety for institutions and persons that partially or fully work in the shadows – and this includes all governments, whether autocratic or democratic in nature. The ‘transparency’ of the Internet offers no protection to the powerful, and in Assange’s case, not even to whistleblowers that believe they hold the moral ‘high ground’.
Philippines Separating from the United States – Duterte (19 October)
A major diplomatic storm erupted when, at a news conference on a trip to China, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte publicly declared that his country was separating from its longstanding ties to the United States. This statement was greeted with surprise by Washington, from the pro-American Filipino elite in Manila and with quiet satisfaction from the Chinese Politburo. Duterte’s statement, however, was designed to shock. To shock the US out of its apathy regarding its ties to the Philippines. It is highly unlikely that Manila would countenance breaking its relationship with the United States. Indeed, towards the end of the week, Duterte moderated his bellicose anti-American tone and members of the Philippine political establishment started to come out against any such position. This ‘storm in a tea cup’ is likely to have been deliberately designed to strike a better deal with the United States in terms of military modernization, foreign aid and investment and overall security guarantees. It may have set the Chinese up into believing that there is a major political cleavage between Washington and Manila when in fact, there is none. Ultimately, the pro-US element among the Filipino elite is far stronger than the pro-Chinese one. Ideally, Manila wants the benefit of security guarantees from the Americans, while expanding economic ties to the People’s Republic of China. But, as the South China Dispute escalates, Manila understands that its importance to the US position in Southeast Asia becomes highly valued and will attempt to extract more concessions from the Americans as a consequence.
The Third US Presidential Debate (20 October)
After two of the worst presidential debates in US political history, Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton strode the stage for round three. The outcome was predictable – another ‘win’ for Clinton. She appeared on top of her brief and able to take on Trump, who’s campaign ran off the rails just before the second debate after the release of an audio from 2005 confirming in his own words his crass ‘male prowess’. Trump is now trailing Clinton and his campaign is rated as ‘unrecoverable’.