Western powers have adopted an ambiguous attitude towards the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government since last August: supporting it to fight ISIS yet giving it inadequate support on the ground.
Have you ever had a friend that you can call at anytime to bail you out of anything? A friend that puts things into perspective when the rest of your friends pressure you to take the wrong decision?
When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took Mosul last June, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) did just that. It called onto the Baghdad government for provoking the rise of ISIS through its sectarian policies, and cautioned its United Sates ally for its blind support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. President Masoud Barzani also stated that since Iraq was falling apart, the Kurdistan Region would be left with no other choice but to seek independence.
The only army to directly face ISIS
A few weeks later, ISIS made a devastating move against KRG by occupying the Mount Shingal (Sinjar) and Mosul Dam, respectively west and north of Mosul, and advancing towards the city of Duhok. As the Yezidi community came to the forefront of the attack, the Kurdish defense forces, the Peshmerga, were faced with their toughest challenge: regaining the lost territory and become the only army to face ISIS on the ground without the help of militias or foreign neighbors.
While the Peshmerga have been assisted by coalition airpower since last August, they have been hung out to dry in front of an expansionist enemy that had no obvious ideological axe to grind with KRG. ISIS’s nemesis has always been Shiite Islam and its political avatars, namely Iran and the Allawi Assad government of Syria. Many in KRG feel that ISIS’s move against the Kurds was a tactical decision on behalf of the regional powers that do not want Iraqi Kurdistan to become independent. With ISIS at its doorstep, KRG has much bigger fish to fry than thinking of its independence.
A new type of warfare
Around the town of Zumar, on the frontline against ISIS, the situation is one of constant urgency. Speaking from his outpost, Peshmerga General Zaim Ali lays out what it is like to face ISIS every day: “They attack us daily with sniper fire, suicide bombers in armored trucks loaded with TNT, mortars, etc. I studied the art of war in Baghdad, and I was never trained for this, we are facing a new type of warfare.”
In war, you try to protect yourself while killing the other. Here, ISIS fighters actually want to kill themselves while killing you.
Zaim Ali points out three main characteristics for the challenge that he and his men are facing: “In war, you try to protect yourself while killing the other. Here, ISIS fighters actually want to kill themselves while killing you. Then there is the issue of equipment, which we always must try to protect. ISIS just does the contrary, they have lots of equipment and do not worry about wasting a huge truck filled with tons of TNT, they act as it they had unlimited resources.” Then there are the booby traps, everywhere, laid out before strategic retreats under flag posts, gas tanks, inside abandoned houses, with what Zaim Ali calls surgical precision: “Those people are professionals. I do not know who is training them, but they know what they are doing.”
Airstrikes alone are not enough
Airstrikes alone are not going to fly when confronting this type of warfare. It is heavy and light artillery, unlimited ammunition, and bomb disposal technology, which are going to make a difference on the ground for the Peshmerga. At present, all the weapons sent by the US have to transit through Baghdad, whose delivery is almost always delayed or re-routed towards pro-Iranian Shiite militias. While other countries have sent weapons directly to Erbil, it has been a drop of water in an ocean.
The fact that KRG is insufficiently supplied with arms seems to suggest that US and its allies are taking its stand against ISIS for granted. While KRG has always remained a loyal ally to the US, deliberately routing weapons through the pro-Iranian Baghdad government seems to be a way to ensure that KRG receives enough ammunition to stay busy fighting ISIS, but not for defeating it in a definite manner, let alone one day stand against Baghdad or any of its neighbors should it want to declare independence. It is not the first time that the US treats an ally this way, yet Washington should not forget that it has very few friends in the region, and that Iran is definitely not one of them.
The Peshmerga should be given the respect that they deserve as an unconditional ally against ISIS. The Iraqi army that is currently attempting to retake Tikrit and Mosul is doing so with the help of neighboring Iran and pro-Shiite militias, a recipe for sectarian disaster on the long run. More than 1,200 Peshmerga have lost their lives since last August, yet the world only reacts to the carefully produced ISIS horror show featuring flamethrowers, cages, and the beheadings of westerners. Even replicas of Assyrian statues get more attention by the international community than the death of Kurdish fighters. As every Kurdish family is investing in securing its borders, it is time for Washington to recognize its mistake in blindly supporting the Baghdad government, and treat their friends with the respect that they deserve.
-Victoria Fontan is Interim Chair of the Politics and Public Policy Department at the American University Duhok Kurdistan.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.