The myth of Kurdish military efficacy has been shattered
Throughout the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), we have heard almost non-stop about how Kurdish factions in Iraq and Syria have been “the most effective fighters on the ground” against the extremists.
Notable mentions by the media and the Pentagon include the peshmerga in Iraq, as well as the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria. This over-exaggerated praise led to the perception that, regionally, the Kurds are a force to be reckoned with.
Arguably, however, and after recent events in Iraq and Syria, this myth has come crashing down, exposing the Kurds’ historical vulnerabilities.
In Syria, the myth of Kurdish military excellence was born in the fires of the battle for the northern Syrian city of Kobane. In September 2014, at the height of ISIS’s power, the Sunni extremists advanced through the countryside and surrounded Kobane. The United Nations estimated that 130,000 civilians fled to Turkey in just four days.
Over the next four months, ISIS would breach the city’s defences, be pushed back in several sectors and Kurdish YPG fighters would be joined by their Iraqi peshmerga allies aided by the US-led coalition to eventually force ISIS to abandon Kobane after suffering heavy losses. Kobane was a watershed moment in the fight against ISIS, with the militants suffering one of their first major battlefield defeats.
ISIS was again a factor in the forging of the military myth of the Kurds in Iraq. After the Iraqi Army abandoned its positions in Mosul and many other areas of northern Iraq in the face of ISIS’s onslaught, the US-led coalition provided much-needed support to the peshmerga, who secure large amounts of territory that would remain outside of ISIS’s control for the duration of the war.
This included major oil-producing cities such as Kirkuk, which happened to be disputed between the Baghdad federal authorities and the Erbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
With ISIS having defeated the Iraqi military and forced them back, the KRG was in position to deploy the peshmerga and impose a de facto solution of Kurdish control over disputed towns and cities, such as Kirkuk. This served to boost the Kurds’ international credibility as a force that could not only hold ISIS at bay where other regional US allies failed but also utilise its military prowess to achieve political goals.
However, a common denominator for Kurdish successes in Iraq and Syria is the role played by the United States and the international coalition against ISIS. It was arguably US air power across two theatres of war that allowed Kurdish factions to advance as far as they did.
Again, using Iraq as an example, the peshmerga were far from invulnerable to ISIS and, in fact, also turned tail and fled just like the Iraqi Army did until the United States shored them up.
Perhaps the most infamous example of ISIS’s brutality was its genocidal campaign against the Yazidis of Sinjar, who were left to their fates after the peshmerga fled in the face of an ISIS offensive in 2014. The peshmerga only made a comeback after extensive close air support provided by the Americans.
Once deprived of air support, the Kurds crumbled very rapidly on numerous fronts, even against forces that have made little use of air power against them. For instance, last year the peshmerga collapsed before an advance by the Iraqi Army and allied Shia militias and lost Kirkuk, which some peshmerga had vowed to defend to the death.
Kirkuk was lost in a single day and the peshmerga fighters were simply unable to put up an effective defence without US air power. A similar pattern can be seen in Syria, where a lack of US air support has meant that Turkey and its allies have been able to capture Afrin.
Without external support from great powers, the Kurds are unable to capture and hold territory, which means their ambitions for independence and statehood will probably never materialise without extensive international support.