the Front Line Against the Islamic State
By Sohrab Ahmari
Wall Street Journal
December 4, 2015
Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani’s forward
base on the Iraqi-Syrian border isn’t easy to reach. On a bright Sunday
morning, two members of his staff drive me there from Erbil, the capital of
Iraqi Kurdistan. We race four hours around Kurdistan’s barren hills, passing
numerous checkpoints, a circuitous route that avoids the tentacular territory
that Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has carved out of Iraq and Syria.
It is late November, and the Kurds have just severed one of
those ISIS tentacles by capturing Sinjar, 15 months after the jihadist army
overran the Iraqi city and forced Kurdish Peshmerga forces to beat a hasty
retreat. The Kurds’ comeback at Sinjar means the main highway linking
ISIS-controlled Mosul, Iraq, and the so-called caliphate’s capital in Raqqa,
Syria, is now cut off.
Security is tight at the base. Mr. Barzani, who heads the
Security Council of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, is dressed in
fatigues, with a pistol at his waist. We sit in a trailer that serves as a
conference room. A portrait of Kurdish-nationalist hero Mustafa Barzani—Mr.
Barzani’s grandfather; his father is KRG PresidentMasoud Barzani—hangs above
opulent furniture with golden, rococo details that look oddly out of place.
Liberated Sinjar lies 40 miles southwest. A little beyond it is an ISIS front
that stretches for 650 miles.
“The Kurds have broken the myth of ISIS,” says Mr.
Barzani, who speaks English fluently. Including Sinjar, Peshmerga forces have
retaken 7,700 square miles of territory and nearly double that if you count the
successes of Syrian Kurds across the border. The Kurds’ front-line efforts
combined with coalition airstrikes, Mr. Barzani says, have removed about 20,000
ISIS fighters from the battlefield.
He attributes the Sinjar triumph to Western air cover, good
planning and a swiftness that surprised ISIS fighters. “Excellent
intelligence” also helped, Mr. Barzani adds, because it allowed the Kurds to
defuse the jihadists’ main defensive barrier, a network of remotely controlled
booby traps and improvised explosive devices, before it could be detonated.
Military analysts had predicted days of house-to-house combat. “But it
didn’t happen,” Mr. Barzani says. It was all over in 48 hours.
While ISIS fighters may be inspired by a “radical,
terrorist, extremist ideology,” he says, the Peshmerga go into battle with a
fervor “to defend their territories and defend their people.” It was the
same spirit that deterred previous attempts, by Saddam Hussein’s regime
and others, to eradicate the Kurds, he says. “That has been the only reason
that we as the Kurds still exist.”
But Kurds alone can’t put ISIS on the path to defeat,
especially with the group still able to recruit new members and acquire weapons.
Defeating the jihadists will require stanching the flow of funding, arms and
fighters. War needs to be carried out on the ideological front too. “If Islam
doesn’t accept what ISIS is doing,” he says, “the Islamic scholars have to
talk to their own people, to say ‘Islam rejects this. You cannot terrorize
people.’ ” This, he adds, “is an Islamic duty—the West cannot help.”
The most important factor remains geography. Islamic
State’s legitimacy rests on its ability to exercise sovereignty over land. The
Kurds have reclaimed much of their territory, but now the front has moved to
“other parts of Iraq, and in Syria, where you don’t have such a reliable
force to fight on the ground while airstrikes target the enemy,” Mr. Barzani
That’s an implicit rebuke to the Obama White House, which
says it can “degrade and destroy” ISIS without committing U.S. ground
forces. The American strategy of airstrikes and special operations, Mr. Barzani
says, is “very effective in terms of weakening ISIS, disabling their
movements, targeting their leadership. But you can never defeat an enemy if you
don’t have ground forces.” And contrary to Republican presidential hopeful
Sen.Ted Cruz, the
Kurds can’t serve as “our troops on the ground”—at least not outside
their traditional territories.
Consider Mosul. The second-largest city in Iraq, today it
remains under ISIS control. Mosul lies just 50 miles west of Erbil, and were it
not for coalition airstrikes that came in the nick of time last year, the
Kurds’ vibrant capital would almost certainly have fallen to ISIS as well.
Today Peshmerga surround Mosul. Kurds have pledged to help
dislodge ISIS from the city, but they can’t spearhead the operation. The
majority of Mosul’s 1.5 million people are Sunni Arabs, the core ISIS
constituency. The Kurds think it’s up to the Iraqi central government in
Baghdad and the coalition to take the lead on Mosul.
The job calls for a “liberating force, not a force that
can create sensitivities in that community,” Mr. Barzani says. That is, a
Shiite-dominated Baghdad must win the trust of Sunnis and encourage them to rise
against ISIS. That’s a tall order for an Iraqi government increasingly under
Iran’s thumb, and dependent on Shiite militias whose preferred
counterinsurgency methods are burning Sunni villages and drilling Sunni skulls
with power tools.
It doesn’t help that Washington has for years tolerated
Baghdad’s ethnic and sectarian chauvinism, an indulgence that even colors U.S.
military support for the Kurds. The Obama administration, bowing to Baghdad’s
demands, insists that arms shipments intended for Kurdish forces be routed
through the capital, despite the near-complete breakdown in relations between
the Kurds and the central government.
‘We haven’t received the kind of equipment we want or
the amount we need,” Mr. Barzani says. Ammunition shortages are sometimes
acute, and many of the Iraqi Kurds’ heavier weapons are antiques wrested years
ago from Saddam Hussein’s regime. ISIS, by contrast, fields 12 divisions’
worth of armored vehicles and heavy equipment, Mr. Barzani says, much of it
originally supplied by the U.S. to the post-Saddam Iraqi army and later captured
by the jihadists.
One Washington argument against directly arming the Kurds
is that the Peshmerga aren’t a professional army but a citizen militia with
units that pledge allegiance to Kurdish political parties rather than to the
Mr. Barzani bristles at this: “Peshmerga to us is the
honor of our nation. America after the fall of Saddam trained a professional
Iraqi army for 10 years and spent billions of dollars. They couldn’t withstand
ISIS for 10 days. . . . You tell me which is a professional force, Peshmerga or
the Iraqi army?”
Fourteen Peshmerga brigades, of about 2,500 soldiers each,
have already been integrated under a Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga, but reform
takes time, and defending the homeland from the world’s deadliest terror
outfit takes precedence. “Please do not tell us that this is the reason,”
Mr. Barzani says. “It’s a political decision that so far they haven’t
supported the Peshmerga in the way that they need and deserve to be
The Kurds, he notes, are fighting the West’s fight. “We
are giving blood. We are giving flesh. We are giving lives, which are much more
valuable than any weapons system. . . . To help us win this war, you—the
world, the West, the United States—must provide us with better weapons.”
Advanced tanks, medical-evacuation helicopters and vehicles resistant to
roadside bombs would be a good start. (A U.S. package that includes some of
these systems is on its way, Peshmerga officials told Kurdish media on
The Obama administration also won’t transfer arms
directly to the Kurds because it is averse to doing anything that might
jeopardize a unified, federal Iraq—even after the rise of ISIS revealed Iraq
to be something of a geographic fiction. How sovereign is a state, after all,
whose armed forces have lost control of its borders and can’t enter vast
swaths of nominally Iraqi territory, including the Kurdish autonomous zone and
“The biggest problem is to run away from reality and work
with illusions,” Mr. Barzani says. “Iraq is a fabricated state that has
failed. It has always been a failure. It exists on the map. On the map, it has
some borders, but these borders weren’t drawn naturally.”
The Iraq created in the World War I peace settlement lasted
nearly a century, with Sunnis lording over Shiites, Kurds and other groups for
much of that time. The trouble, Mr. Barzani says, was that “people living in
this country have never had a common ground.” Once Saddam was gone, Sunnis and
Shiites sought vengeance, and sectarian terror escalated once Mr. Obama hastily
withdrew U.S. troops in 2011. Syria’s furies arrived in Iraq soon after.
The Kurds took better advantage of the post-Saddam moment.
Having attained autonomy with the help of a no-fly zone after the 1991 Gulf War,
the Kurds built new democratic institutions and fortified existing ones
following the 2003 U.S. invasion. Kurdish democracy isn’t perfect, but Kurdish
society is free in ways unimaginable in most of the region. Iraqi Kurdistan
welcomes foreign investors, and it has trod a pragmatic path in its relations
with neighboring powers like Iran and Turkey.
Most important, Iraqi Kurds have proved themselves reliable
Western allies, most recently in the anti-ISIS struggle. “In this entire area
the Kurds are probably the most pro-American people that you can find,” Mr.
Barzani says. “Forever we will be thankful for the U.S. support since the day
of toppling Saddam’s regime.”
Sooner or later, ISIS will cease to exist, or else the
future is even bleaker than it now appears. When that time comes, the various
communities in Syria and Iraq, U.S. friends and foes alike, will ask where they
belong on the new map. It’s better, then, to see today’s tectonic shifts as
an opportunity to revisit the old Mideast configuration. For Mr. Barzani that
means Kurdish independence and what he hopes will be an amicable divorce from
“Why does every nation on earth have the right to be
independent, to have self-determination, except Kurds?” he asks. “Is this
justice? Is this what the world wants?” The Turks and the Iranians each have
their own state, while the Arabs have 22. “So why cannot the Kurds have one?
We’re not asking for any more, and we won’t settle for any less. It will
happen.” He adds: “It doesn’t have to be by fighting.”
The Peshmerga, meanwhile, steel themselves for Islamic
State’s next move. Since the Sinjar victory the jihadists have been testing
the Kurds’ defenses, assaulting perceived weak points. So far, the attacks
have been repelled, but ISIS has many fighters and operates with a murderous
unpredictability. “Where they counterattack doesn’t have to be in Sinjar,”
Mr. Barzani says. “It can be anywhere.”
It could even be in London, New York or San Bernardino.