Peshmerga forces,encouraged by recent victories, look to Shingal and Mosul down the road.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - After a key battlefront victory this week by the Kurdish Peshmerga, a strategy is emerging to retake the ISIS-occupied Shingal region bordering Syria.
Commenting on Tuesday’s capture from ISIS of the strategic Iraqi border town of Rabia, a senior government source acknowledged this marked the first stage of an offensive to take back both Shingal and eventually Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city that fell to ISIS on June 10th.
ISIS seized Rabia and the Shingal region after it launched an onslaught on Kurdish-held territory in late July.
In internal discussions, the Kurdish leadership have been pondering how far to go on the offensive in ground operations against the jihadists, with some proposing that the Peshmerga should take the initiative in a “boots on the ground” operation to take full advantage of U.S. and other allied air strikes.
By capturing Rabia, a small but strategically important village on the Iraqi side of the border with Syria, Peshmerga have blocked ISIS’ main access road from the frontier to Mosul, disrupting the flow of personnel and goods between ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq.
Tuesday’s three-pronged push against ISIS positions also included attacks on Zumar, a town on intersecting highways to Mosul and Shingal, and a string of villages south of Kirkuk.
Peshmerga commander Sheikh Ahmad Mohammad told Rudaw this week: “Rabia will help us to retake Zumar and Sinjar.” Sinjar – or Shingal – is the town from which thousands of minority Yezidis fled to nearby mountains in the face of an IS assault in early August.
“It’s a huge success, it’s just what the Peshmerga needed,” says Sam Morris, an analyst at Erbil-based think tank Middle East Research Institute.
The offensive was immensely significant, he says, because the Peshmerga enlisted two key partners: the Shammar tribe, one of the most powerful Sunni groups in northwest Iraq, who have announced cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government after months of negotiation, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who launched attacks from the autonomous area they hold on the Syrian side.
Working closely with Arab Sunni tribes such as the Shammar is vital to the long-term prospects of an international effort against ISIS, as a coalition of countries fighting the group struggles to find partners to work with on the ground in both Syria and Iraq.
Despite historic disputes between the KRG’s ruling party and the YPG, the cooperation suggests the two sides are coordinating attacks to fight their common foe.
Retaking Shingal is vital for the KRG plan, not only because it would block another transit route—this one stretching west of Mosul into Syria—but because it would reverse what was widely seen as an embarrassing defeat for the KRG.
“It dented the image of the Peshmerga, and made clear that they would need international assistance in the fight,” Morris says, referring to an ISIS advance eastwards towards Erbil, the capital and largest city of the Kurdistan Region. Only U.S. air strikes halted the ISIS offensive in mid-August.
Before the air strikes, ISIS came within 25km of Erbil, prompting many residents to panic and flee. KRG President Masoud Barzani fired five commanders operating in the Shingal region amid allegations of corruption and incompetence. Many Yezidis blame the Peshmerga for fleeing their positions without notifying locals, leaving them to face a brutal ISIS onslaught that led to massacres, enslavement, and humiliation.
“The [Kurdish] counter-offensive in Northern Iraq has been a very horrifically slow process,” Morris says, explaining that “we shouldn’t expect major progress toward the town any time soon, for those villages simply to drop.”
The two routes toward Shingal are fraught with danger. The KRG has confirmed that the Peshmerga has already endured heavy casualties in the current operations, in large part due to the ISIS strategy of littering abandoned towns and roads with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rigging cars, trash cans, and roadsides with bombs.
Whether the Peshmerga now proceed north from Rabia, staying close to the Syrian border, or take the shorter southern through Zumar and the heavily fortified Tal Afar, the march towards Shingal is likely to take considerable time.
Once it is taken, however, the Peshmerga will have a strangehold on ISIS in Iraq, cutting off their transit routes to their bases in Syria. At this point, the senior KRG source says, Peshmerga forces can move into Mosul, supported by Iraqi Security Forces from the south.