Kurdish Peshmerga. AFP photo
In 1968 during the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies surprised the South Vietnamese and their American backers by launching a massive surprise offensive against them (in what, at the time, amounted to the largest military operation executed in that war). While they briefly managed to push back their enemies and seize several cities they were militarily defeated by the end of the year after the U.S. and its allies regrouped and counterattacked. However the surprising nature of the attack and the respect in which it shattered the illusion Washington had been promoting that America's enemies in that war were contained and on the defensive and thus unable to launch large and organized offensives. It also saw to a decline in, already waning, U.S. public support for that war.
Even though the Communists suffered far more casualties in that war and lost the respect in which their seemingly suicidal wave attacks shifted U.S. opinion and damaged morale was extremely significant. Today in the Middle East the Islamic State (ISIS) group may well be able to launch something resembling a Tet-like offensive of their own against US allies in the region and give further credence to their propagandistic claims that they are still there and winning.
Obviously there are many conspicuous differences between the two cases. However the core comparison serves as an apt warning. Especially given how willing ISIS members are to die in order to massacre their enemies.
Recently along the Kurdistan Region's lengthy front with that terrorist group Peshmerga forces had to hold back a simultaneous ISIS assault on multiple fronts. At the end of it at least 70 members of ISIS lay dead along with at least 6 Peshmerga. While the ISIS assault did fail to break through the Peshmerga defenses it appeared to have been a well-coordinated mission which included vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). The Peshmerga had to use some of their limited stocks of Milan anti-tank missiles in order to stop those suicidal juggernauts. The ferocity and nature of this kind of attack should dissuade one from readily believing that ISIS is being, or can be, completely contained and deterred.
Also, one has to take into account what is required to boost Kurdish morale as opposed to what is needed to boost ISIS morale: Kurdish morale is effectively being able to keep these suicide-murderers from killing their Peshmerga and civilians while ISIS morale is to be able to reach out and massacre their enemies, combatants and non-combatants alike.
Wednesday’s attacks, the first major ISIS offensive of this kind in that area in nearly six months, showed how rapidly ISIS can still unleash mobile suicide units. If just one armored VBIED had managed to infiltrate the lengthy front-lines it could have led to a devastating massacre.
Earlier this month in neighbouring Syria a triple truck-bomb managed to overrun the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) defenses in a small town in Hasakah Province called Tel Tamer and massacre 50 people and wound 80 others. Such vehicles are extremely difficult to stop with small arms. While the Kurdistan Region does have anti-tank missiles their front-line is so large that many Peshmerga outposts for the most part rely on their small arms which, as the Tel Tamer massacre aptly demonstrated, are very hard to halt such attacks with.
Similarly, while helpful, advanced intelligence gathering equipment and air strikes cannot be counted on all the time to hold back such lethal surprise suicide-attacks on time. ISIS might once again try to probe Peshmerga lines and one breakthrough would be enough for them to claim they are far from losing and can still spread terror.
ISIS would doubtlessly lose such a large and reckless offensive against the Kurdistan Region. Like Wednesday/Thursday they would likely take more casualties than the Peshmerga defenders. But unlike the Peshmerga their mission isn’t to stand in defense of innocents, but to butcher them: Meaning they just need one sizable breakthrough to claim that they are making headway. One hopes the Peshmerga have the means and the support to ensure that is never allowed happen.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.