Iraqi Kurds save the day but don’t like leaving home
London - In the wake of territorial gains in June against the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria, Kurdish militias are potentially within striking distance of the militants’ stronghold of Raqqa.
In neighbouring Iraq, the peshmerga army of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is holding back ISIS along a 1,200-kilometre frontier, having regained much of the territory the jihadist insurgents grabbed a year ago.
After a year in which ISIS has been broadly on the offensive in its self-declared caliphate spanning much of Syria and Iraq, the success of Kurdish forces on both sides of the border has been a rare source of optimism that the movement can be pushed back and ultimately crushed.
The apparent unity and commitment of Kurdish forces in both countries contrasted with the initial collapse of Iraqi government troops and the patchy response of a plethora of competing forces in the quagmire of the Syrian civil war.
That may have led to unreasonable expectations of the ability and even willingness of Kurdish forces to become involved in a wider fight against ISIS. In both Iraq and Syria, the Kurds have shown themselves willing to make sacrifices to defend Kurdish-populated territory. But they may be more resistant to acting as boots on the ground for the anti-ISIS coalition beyond their home turf.
The expectations are certainly high. They have led to demands in the United States and elsewhere that the Kurds should receive greater direct military aid to boost the counteroffensive.
A US congressional bid to authorise US President Barack Obama to directly arm KRG forces was narrowly defeated in the Senate in June. A majority of senators actually backed the measure but it failed to meet a 60-vote threshold in the 100-member chamber.
The administration had opposed the move on the grounds it would have weakened the authority of Iraq’s central government.
Despite that, the US military continues to regard the Kurds as key players in the anti-ISIS campaign, indeed often the only reliable allies on the ground.
“We see great progress being made in Syria,” said US Marines Corps Brigadier-General Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led coalition campaign against ISIS in Iraq. “We see repeated abilities of Kurdish forces to repel attacks in the Kurdish forward line in northern Iraq,” he said during a June 19th Pentagon briefing.
“What we’ve seen is that the peshmerga, enabled by the coalition, continue to be very successful against Daesh,” Weidley said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “I don’t believe the peshmerga have yielded any terrain to Daesh since the beginning of last winter. We see them, as well as the anti-ISIS forces up in Syria, being able to make considerable gains against Daesh.”
He stressed, however, that these successes were firmly linked to coalition air strikes supporting Kurdish forces on the ground. These strikes, in turn, were much easier to mount in the relatively underpopulated areas of the Syrian and Iraqi frontlines, he noted.
It is unlikely that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria could have held the border town of Kobani in late 2014 without such air support. Even the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil might have fallen a year ago without last-minute US intervention from the air when ISIS forces were less than 50 kilometres away.
The ISIS advance on Erbil and the peshmerga’s subsequent retreat from predominantly Yazidi and Christian territory dented the force’s reputation and exposed the fact that much of the KRG army had little direct experience in warfare.
The force also faced the problem of being largely divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Additionally, pay was regularly delayed because of budgetary disputes with Baghdad, forcing fighters to double in civilian jobs such as driving taxis.
Some of those problems have been overcome, partly with arms supplies and training programmes provided by a range of international allies. KRG President Masoud Barzani has also spent many days in morale-boosting visits to the front.
The fight in Iraq has been dramatically matched in Syria, where KRG peshmerga fought alongside the YPG to oust ISIS from Kobani on the Turkish border. A resumption of ISIS attacks in late June indicated the insurgents have not given up trying to recover the town.
Syrian Kurds have gone on to recapture strategic border areas seized by ISIS. In late June, YPG units spearheaded the storming of Ain Issa in northern Syria, putting them within 50 kilometres of Raqqa. But there seemed little immediate prospect the Kurds would push their advantage outside Kurdish-populated territory.
As in northern Iraq, the Kurds show the greatest commitment when they’re on home territory. Salih Muslim, head of the Syrian Kurdish political wing, said the YPG had no plans to move on non-Kurdish Raqqa. That, he said, would be up to other groups battling ISIS.