© Azad Lashkari / Reuters
Peshmerga forces walk in the east of Mosul during operation to attack Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2016.
(Scroll down for updates.)

Continuing our coverage of the Mosul offensive (see: Iraq Launches Major Op to Retake Daesh-held Mosul), the U.S. coalition envoy Brett McGruk says the "steady advance towards Mosul" is continuing. The combined forces of the Iraqi army, Kurds, and PMU are reaching their objectives ahead of schedule, despite some losses on all sides (including a Daesh military commander, Dwud Abdul Wahab, and a Kurdish commander, Fahmi Mohamed Qadir). Despite the fact that most Daesh fighters have already left the city, Obama still says "Mosul will be a difficult fight, and there will be advances and there will be setbacks." We guess that means the coalition will drop a few bombs here and there and pretend they're facing massive resistance on the ground. But there's a point to such rhetoric. Obama is talking up the Mosul offensive in advance of creating 'facts on the ground' through US participation in the offensive itself. The point being, if the US is directly involved in or has a controlling stake in the operation, it will be in a position to influence the future geopolitical game of competing oil and gas pipelines that this entire conflict and ISIS is all about.

The Kurdish Peshmerga cleared nine villages (200 square kilometers), moving the front line 8km closer to Mosul, Iraqi troops retook Nimrud and recaptured 50+ oil wells, and coalition jets hit 17 targets (destroying four explosive-rigged vehicles), the main obstacle being booby traps and "suicide bomber trucks" - vehicles packed with explosives that some brainwashed jihadi deliberately drives towards enemy troops before detonation. One Peshmerga major told AP his fighters are afraid to step out of their vehicles due to the dangers. While the Kurds agreed not to enter Mosul itself, they have apparently been given permission to retain control of the villages they liberate. The spoils of war...

Meanwhile, despite all their bluster, the Turks still haven't involved themselves in the operations. I guess that means Erdogan plans to move to "Plan B", whatever that is.

The world is having one more of its many 'duh!' moments as it suddenly realizes that besieging a city creates conditions ripe for humanitarian catastrophe. UN rep Lise Grande told AP: "The challenges in this scenario are unprecedented. We don't often have up to one million people potentially on the move; it's very rare in scale and size." The International Organization for Migration is warning that Daesh may unleash chemical attacks and use "tens of thousands of people ... as human shields." But no, the same thing is absolutely not happening in Aleppo, just in case you're wondering.


Luckily, the White House is taking a firm humanitarian stance, by promising not to hold back:
I think the first thing for us to acknowledge... is that, while ISIL has been in charge of Mosul, they have engaged in a violent campaign to bring that city under their control. They're killing civilians all the time," Josh Earnest told a press briefing. "So, the idea that we - that somehow the Iraqi security forces - should delay the operation because of their concern or the humanitarian situation in Mosul, that doesn't make sense."
Just wow! This is precisely the situation in Aleppo. Yet, as usual, it's only bad when America's enemies do it, never when America does it.

One thing the Syrians and Russians haven't been accused of is killing and torturing civilians fleeing Aleppo. The same can't be said for the PMU, however:
Sunnis Fleeing Mosul Face Torture, Killing by Iraqi Troops, Shia Militias

The report of the Amnesty International exposes the terrifying backlash against civilians fleeing the Daesh-held terrorists raising alarm about the risk of mass violations as the military operation to recapture Mosul gets underway, according to official statement.

Sunni Arab civilians in Iraq who are fleeing their homes during the battle over Mosul will likely face torture, disappearance and death at the hands of the Shia-dominated government's forces and Shiite paramilitary groups, the rights group Amnesty International said in a report Tuesday.
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Amnesty based its warning on interviews with more than 470 former detainees, witnesses and relatives of those killed, disappeared or detained while fleeing other cities as Iraqi forces battled to expel the Daesh (also known as ISIL/ISIS/IS/Islamic State). "As the battle to retake Mosul gets underway, it is crucial that the Iraqi authorities take steps to ensure these appalling abuses do not happen again," Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director Philip Luther said.
It's not so much a Sunni-Shia issue. What mostly motivates such abuses is that the militias see the civilians who remained in their villages and cities after Daesh took them over as sympathizers or worse, collaborators. (See: The Syrian and Iraqi wars: Washington's myth of Sunni/Shia sectarianism and Washington's Sunni myth and the Middle East undone.)
© Tim Anderson
As for the Daesh fighters who have fled the city, plenty more sources are raising it as an issue. First, Iraq's volunteer forces are complaining that U.S. coalition warplanes are allowing Daesh convoys to flee Mosul to Syria without being targeted:
"Much surprised the ISIL convoys that have been escaping from Mosul to Syria have not come under attack by the coalition fighter jets," a Hashd al-Shaabi source said. He said that the ISIL is now confused in Mosul as the Iraqi security forces have gained a lot of information about the concentration centers of the terrorist group in Mosul.
The source was Ryan al-Kildani, Secretary-General of the Christian Babylon Brigades militia.

Russian FM Sergey Lavrov commented on the situation with mild sarcasm and a stern warning:
"As far as I know, the city is not fully encircled. I hope it's because they simply couldn't do it, not because they wouldn't do it. But this corridor poses a risk that Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL] fighters could flee from Mosul and go to Syria," Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday, commenting the ongoing siege of the Iraqi city.

"We will be evaluating the situation and take decisions of both political and military nature if this happens,"he added. "I hope the US-led coalition, which is actively engaged in the operation to take Mosul, will take it into account."
And Zakharaova responded with typical wit:
The question should be posed from another point of view: maybe the information campaign in regard to Russia, which has become more intense in the recent weeks, has preceded the developments that are expected in regard to Mosul? Because a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe is approaching
The Syrian Army also claim the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are allowing Daesh safe passage into Syria"
According to the army's statement released via state media, the US-led coalition plans to entail securing roads and safe passages into Syria to allow the terrorists consolidate their presence and create "new battleground realities" in eastern Syria.

"Any attempt to cross the border is an attack on the sovereignty of Syria... and would be dealt with all forces available," the statement said.
A senior Syrian field commander in Aleppo expanded on the danger:
"Saudi Arabia and the US are making strenuous efforts to grant Deir Ezzur city to the ISIL. We are aware of their goals and will not allow the US and its allies to implement their scenarios there," the commander said on Tuesday. "There is reliable intelligence available to show that the US along with Israel and Saudi Arabia want the ISIL to withdraw from Mosul peacefully and without sustaining any toll and damage and enter Syria with all its equipment, crews and fighters," he added.

Noting that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are accomplices in ISIL's crimes, the commander warned that the supporters of the terrorist group would regret their deeds.

His remarks came after at least 20 more civilians were killed in another air assault by the US-led coalition fighter jets on a number of villages in Eastern Deir Ezzur. Local sources in Deir Ezzur said that at least 11 people, including women and children, were killed in the US air attacks on al-Sha'fah village in the Eastern parts of Deir Ezzur. "9 other civilians were also killed and 15 more were wounded in the US airstrikes on Baqouz village," the sources added.
In addition to terrorists fleeing to Syria, an EU "security commissioner" warned that the Mosul offensive could result in ISIS militants fleeing to Europe, which is kind of funny, because that's what EU security services have apparently been facilitating for quite some time. (See: The Story of Jaber al-Bakr: From White Helmets to Berlin Bomb Plot.)

Robert Fisk brought up all these concerns in his latest piece:
For weeks now, Western media and the American experts it likes to quote have been predicting a Stalingrad-style battle to the death by Isis inside Mosul - or a swift victory over Isis followed by inter-sectarian Iraqi battles for the city. The UN is warning of massive refugee columns streaming from a besieged city. But the Syrians ... suspect that Isis will simply abandon Mosul and try to reach safety in the areas of Syria which it still controls.

Already, Syrian army intelligence has heard disturbing reports of a demand by Isis in towns and villages south of Hasaka - a Syrian city held by regime forces and Kurds in the north of the country - for new electricity and water supplies to be installed for an influx of Isis fighters from Mosul. In other words, if Mosul falls, the entire Isis caliphate army could be directed against the Assad government and its allies - a scenario which might cause some satisfaction in Washington. When the Iraqi city of Fallujah fell to Iraqi army and militia forces earlier this year, many Isis fighters fled at once to Syria.

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader who sent thousands of his men to fight (and die) in the struggle against Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, said in a speech marking the Ashura commemorations last week that the Americans "intend to repeat the Fallujah plot when they opened a way for Isis to escape towards eastern Syria" and warned that "the same deceitful plan may be carried out in Mosul." In other words, an Isis defeat in Mosul would encourage Isis to head west to try to defeat the Assad regime in Syria.
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The US-based Military Times online magazine (which, as the saying goes, is "close" to the Pentagon) has argued that General Townsend, who has a mere 5,000 US troops on the ground in both Iraq and the far north of Syria, must "pursue Isis into Syria, where the US has few allies on the ground" - which is quite an understatement - while Townsend himself is talking of "a long, difficult fight" for Mosul. He has also referred to a "siege" of Mosul. These are the dire predictions in which the Syrians do not believe.
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Nasrallah himself made an intriguing allusion to this in his speech. He suggested that if Isis forces are not defeated by the Iraqis themselves in Mosul then the Iraqis - presumably the Iraqi Shia militia which are one of the spearheads of the government army - "will be obliged to move to eastern Syria in order to fight the terrorist group".
As Fisk concludes, it's no wonder Syria and Russia are working so hard to capture Aleppo - that would free up forces to combat the threat posed by the influx of Daesh from Syria.

As for Aleppo, the Russians unilaterally proposed an 8-hour "humanitarian pause" for October 20 to allow medics access to the besieged part of the city, evacuation of injured civilians, and free passage for civilians and fighters to leave the area. (The Syrians pledged their commitment in a letter to the UN Security Council.) While the UN welcomed the suggestion, and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called it a "positive step", the U.S. State Department cynically called it "a bit too little, too late".


While the American leadership knows it is lying, the Western public doesn't seem to realize that Russia and Syria would prefer to settle the conflict peacefully. But they cannot do so as long as the West continues to break its promises, support terrorists, and lie, lie, lie. And they cannot do so as long as the terrorists it targets continue to be painted as "civilians" or "moderates". Deputy FM Sergey Ryabkov's words are actually true, but they're falling on deaf ears:
"The US and Russia have a special responsibility for what is happening. We demonstrate not only in words but in deeds the interest and commitment to a political solution, to alleviating the humanitarian situation in and around Aleppo," Ryabkov told reporters. The diplomat stressed Washington's inability to carry out its obligations under agreements with Moscow to ensure safe civilian passage along the designated Castello road. "We have not seen a more dramatic, radical break between US vows of commitment to a peaceful solution and their actions and behavior in their contacts with clients in Syria," Ryabkov said.
This latest proposal is yet another chance for the U.S. to prove its good will, if it has any. The UN, for example, is ready and waiting to begin aid delivery into east Aleppo once the fighting stops and the rebels unblock the corridors into the city. And the Russians are willing to extend the ceasefire beyond 8 hours - up to 2 or 3 days - if all involved parties agree. As a show of good faith, the Russians and Syrians halted all airstrikes today, two days earlier than planned, in order to pave way for further humanitarian action. Two corridors exist for civilians and militants to safely leave eastern Aleppo. The terrorists are free to go to rebel-held Idlib. Seriously, in a war like this, that is an offer of Ghandi-like proportions. The Americans would sooner wipe out an entire village than provide safe passage for militants in order to protect civilians.

But the U.S. doesn't even need to prove any good will: it is not a party to the ceasefire. So far, it looks like this is strictly between the Russians/Syrians and the rebels/terrorists. This was a stroke of genius. The problem with the previous two agreements was the presence of the Americans in the negotiations. Solution? Don't include the U.S. in the negotiations! Deal directly with the people on the ground, who are the only ones that matter.

The Russian response to the U.S. breaking the last ceasefire was simple: "no more unilateral ceasefires". But what they meant by that was: "no more ceasefires where we're the only ones who keep our end of the bargain and the Americans shirk all responsibility." Now they have introduced a truly unilateral ceasefire, where they have decided the conditions. The previous ceasefire was too complex to work - too many holes for the Americans and their proxies to exploit, like on the Castello road. The agreement was that both sides would pull back. As soon as the Syrians did so, the rebels starting moving in to those positions, prompting the Syrians to retake their positions, thus allowing the Americans to say, "See! The Syrians aren't fulfilling their end of the deal!" And due to their media control, that's the only side people hear.

But by setting very basic conditions - without any concessions to the Americans - this means that it will be screamingly obvious who is the guilty party if the ceasefire does not work. Because that's all it is: a ceasefire. Stop shooting. Let civilians leave. Let the "moderates" leave.

Of course, that's the sticking point, which Defense Minister Shoigu highlighted: "Every party genuinely interested in swift stabilization in Aleppo should take real practical steps towards it rather than drag their feet for political gains." This is the crux. In order to be a success, the "moderates" must separate from the "extremists", either on their own or with guidance of their American masters. As Lavrov put it: "It is a goodwill gesture in the hope that the declared pause will be used to finally separate from Jabhat al-Nusra and like-minded groups from those armed groups that are supported, equipped and armed by the United States, a number of European and regional countries." This is really an ultimatum: now's your chance, take it or leave it. (Russia has circulated a draft statement in the UNSC on the necessity to separate moderate opposition from terrorists in Syria.)

The UN says, "we need all weapons to fall silent. We need assurances from all parties to the conflict, not just a unilateral announcement that this will happen." That's fine for Syria and Russia - they'll provide assurances, and actions to back them up. This is bad news for al-Nusra. Russia has 'em by the short hairs. Because, as Joaquin Flores over at Fort Russ puts it, "only real terrorists won't leave Aleppo":
Implicit here is that Russia is playing a little public relations game - those willing to leave are 'moderate', as in moderately not suicidal, and those who stay are 'hardline jihadis', by definition, since their end is certain once bombing resumes. Of course Russia long ago called the bluff, reiterated recently and admitted by the US in the now leaked details of the September ceasefire agreement, that there are no 'moderate opposition' - the US was never able to 'separate these' in reality. It's a great strategy to eliminate those not willing to retreat - it's better to have to later face those willing to retreat than those not willing to retreat. So Russia is doing a little 'separating' of its own.
The Russians have made the condition of "separation"/"disassociation" unequivocally clear this time. "A clear disassociation from Nusra is required, in verifiable deeds and not just in words," says German foreign minister Steinmeier. And the Americans, not being part of the agreement, cannot blame the Russians for not holding up its end of the bargain. This is between Russia/Syria and the rebels/terrorists.

Chances are that the U.S. will once again opt to stoke the fires of conflict, carnage, and chaos rather than accept the only available means for peace. But I think they will lose the PR battle on this one. Either the "rebels" will refuse, in which case the UN and all parties observing the situation will have their answer as to who really wants peace, or they will accept. If they accept, that will allow for the beginning of the end of the humanitarian crisis. That's a long shot. But at the very least, it will provide the moral justification for liberating Aleppo of the Nusra scum holding its population hostage. They're already not looking too good:
"The situation in Aleppo remains extremely difficult. The militants of the Nusra Front terrorist group, understanding that they are doomed, have intensified shelling of residential areas in western Aleppo," chief of the Russian General Staff's Main Operational Directorate, Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy, told journalists in Moscow on Monday.

Rudskoy also added that terrorists carry out public executions of residents, who try to leave the eastern districts of Aleppo. He noted that the West ignores reports of civilian casualties in Syria and refuses to react to crimes of terrorists. "These facts are ignored by the Western countries. They do not want to either record militants' crimes, neither react to them," Rudskoy said.

The Lieutenant General pointed out that shelling of civilian infrastructure by terrorists in Aleppo has killed more than 130 children since the beginning of September. "Shelling of social objects such as schools, mosques, markets in western Aleppo by militants has become systematic. Thus, seven schoolchildren were killed in mortar shelling in the Sulaymaniyah district, while more than 130 children were killed by militants since the beginning of September," he stressed.

Video of the latest "moderate" attacks on western Aleppo:


What can the U.S. do to avoid this mess? How about this: Update (Oct. 19):

The Russian military says it is constantly monitoring the situation in Mosul via "space and aerial reconnaissance devices": "Our main focus is on the militants' possible attempts to escape from Mosul or by agreement freely leave the city in the direction of Syria," Gerasimov said. "One must not chase the terrorists from one country to another but destroy them on the spot."

Naturally, Baghdad has remarked that the "speed at which the Iraqi forces are moving forward exceeds the expectations of the commanders" - to be expected when the enemy has already fled the city or gone underground...

Save the Children charity reports that in the past 10 days, 5,000 people crossed from Iraq to Syria, arriving at the Al-Hol refugee camp, which shows just how easy it would be for Daesh to do the same (i.e., the same strategy used to get them into Europe). But still, the Pentagon says it hasn't yet seen the large exodus of people everyone has been expecting.

Apache helicopters supported night-time operations in the city.

Russian and Syrian jets haven't conducted any airstrikes on Aleppo in the past 24 hours. The 8-hour pause planned for tomorrow has been extended to 11 hours after several calls for "more time" (e.g., from UK's UN envoy Matt Rycroft). Lt. Gen. Sergey Rudskoy says all people leaving the city will be monitored in real time with web cams and drones and will be broadcast live. There are eight corridors, six for civilians, and two for militants (one west to Idlib, the other north to the border), who are free to bear arms. Syrian forces have ordered a withdrawal from the two militant routes. Basically, Nusra has no good reason not to accept this offer.

However, according to the Russian General Staff chief Gerasimov: "we have noticed no steps to separate the opposition and al-Nusra Front":
"From the military point of view, terrain and landscape at the Syrian-Iraqi border provide an opportunity for the US-led coalition to prove its commitment to fighting international terrorism (operation in Mosul) in practice. In contrast with Syria, where our American partners have not made a single step in this direction so far," he added.
In other words, will the Americans attack Daesh militants fleeing Mosul and heading into Syria, or simply allow them free passage? I know, rhetorical question!
Pentagon: Daesh Leaders Leave Mosul Amid Iraqi Forces' Offensive

Daesh leaders have fled the Iraqi city of Mosul, while the majority of foreign fighters stayed to defend the stronghold, Operation Inherent Resolve commander Gen. Gary Volesky said in a briefing on Wednesday. "We have got indications that [Daesh] leaders have left, a lot of foreign fighters we expect will stay," Volesky told reporters.

'Daesh Ranks Panicking, Commanders Fleeing' From Mosul to Syria Amid Offensive

[Said Mamuzini, the representative of the Arab Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP):] "In the ranks of Daesh there is panic right now. The jihadi commanders ordered the execution of militants who refuse to participate in the battles. Meanwhile, over the past few days since the operation many Daesh commanders fled from Mosul to Syria with their families," Mamuzini said.
So what are you doing about it? Ahh, that's right: watching them trot over to Raqqa so you can invade Syria next to "liberate" it: US Building Force to Retake Syria's Raqqa From Daesh.