The Road to Mosul: Reporting from the frontline with ISIS

Friday 12/06/2015
Legendary peshmerga commander Abu Rish

LONDON - “The Kurds have grown up in war…. We are here to defend our people… We will smack the Islamic state’s religion out of their heads. Not a day goes by with­out constant fighting.”
These comments by a Kurd­ish peshmerga fighter on the front line with the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Iraq, provide penetrating insight into the stalemate in the war. The comments are excerpts from a 45-minute, action-packed war documentary The Road to Mosul by Vice TV News reporter Aris Roussi­nos, who was with the peshmerga as they held ISIS at bay in Sinjar and Keske junction, the Islamist group’s main supply line between Iraq’s Mosul and their capital of Raqqa in Syria.
The documentary, which inter­sperses powerful background music and frequent gunfire, begins with comments by Roussinos, “Last Au­gust, the peshmerga forces garrison­ing in Iraq’s Sinjar range crumbled under an ISIS offensive leaving only a small force of fighters from Kurdis­tan Workers Party (PKK) and Yazidi militias to defend the mountain.”
But now the peshmerga are back and have set their eye on recaptur­ing Sinjar.
The first part of the film concen­trates on the desolate Sinjar moun­tain, showing pershmerga fighters in hilltop positions, watching ISIS supply convoys move through Sin­jar.
“Everyone knows the final battle for Sinjar will be difficult and costly and until the Iraqi central govern­ment in Baghdad begins to pur­sue the war effectively the under-equipped peshmerga volunteers will be stuck defending these posi­tions for many months to come,” Roussinos says in the film.
A drive along the Syrian border road follows. “It is a long stretch of territory that the peshmerga re­cently captured from the Islamic State and for the whole the road was punctuated with dozens of burned out vehicles. The [US-led] air strikes have had a significant effect on the ISIS strength. Everywhere they tried to make a stand, they have been de­stroyed and the peshmerga have moved forward and taken more ground,” Roussinos explains.
In the village of Hadran, recently captured from ISIS, a 70-year-old man, pain etched on his proud face, shows Roussinos the ruins of his house destroyed by explosives. Thirty-eight members of his family are missing. Yazidi men from the village were executed and the wom­en taken as sex slaves.
The documentary includes a gruesome visit to a grave site, one of many in Sinjar, discovered by pesh­merga in January. “With the border with the Islamic State less than a mile away, international forensic teams are unlikely to excavate the site for a long time yet,” Roussinos comments. Asked if it will be diffi­cult to live with Sunni Muslims in the future, the old Yazidi man retort­ed: “Our people were killed because they are Yazidis. They slaughtered us. How can we live with them?”
The final scenes of the documen­tary are from Keske junction. By capturing the strategic spot and for­tifying the surrounding hilltops, the peshmerga have weakened ISIS abil­ity to defend Mosul.
Roussinos talked to Abu Rish, the peshmerga commander in the Zer­bani division, who called for arming the pershmerga. “The only issue we face is not having enough ammuni­tion. Fighting is no problem,” Abu Rish said.
Introducing a discussion at Lon­don’s Frontline Club, which hosted a recent screening of the docu­mentary, Kevin Sutcliffe, the head of news programming for Vice EU, said he hoped the film would be a springboard for exchanging views about Syria and Iraq.
“It provides amazing insights and on-the-ground experience of two of the countries which now appear to be just a strange war zone,” he said. “We tried to understand what was about to happen in Mosul and Sin­jar.”
Veteran Middle East correspond­ent Patrick Cockburn, author of The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, applauded the documentary saying, “It is a very perceptive portraying of what is happening.
“What comes across is how tough ISIS is. They are not just a bunch of crazy, depraved gunmen.
People are leaving the Islamic State because their children are be­ing conscripted into the ISIS forces. Last year it was pretty obvious that ISIS could freely operate in an area from Aleppo to the Iranian fron­tier.”
Anthony Loyd, roving foreign correspondent for the Times, warned that there is an acceptance in the West that the war is going to go on for a very long time. “Some­how it is seen as an Iraqi and Syrian problem and it does not matter as long as we can protect Britain from terrorist attacks,” he said.
“But time is not neutral when it comes to ISIS. The longer they are there, the more kids they take and train and the better they prepare for attacks against the West.”
Professor Toby Dodge of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics described ISIS as a military terrorist organisation that has grown as a result of the fail­ure of the Iraqi and Syrian states.
“This has created deep pools of insecurity and resentment which has then driven ISIS recruitment. It has now dawned on the US that their policy of air power and prox­ies is not going to work but the US can work with the status quo,” Dodge said.
The Road to Mosul can be seen on Vice News website: