On 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 says.

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 Kurdish government.

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 supported.”

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 Wednesday.)

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 ISIS-held territory?

“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 Baghdad.

“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.