The past week saw Kurdish forces take back most of the territory they lost to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. In Western (Syrian) Kurdistan, the defenders of Kobane have enjoyed slower, but consistent, gains as well. Those who claimed air power alone would never defeat the Islamic State once again appear stuck in the old habit of ignoring the Kurds. Air strikes combined with a determined and even lightly equipped local force seems to be doing quite well, thank you very much. They will do even better if the West sends the Kurds more weapons – at present Kurdistan is only getting a small fraction of what goes to Baghdad.
Speaking of Baghdad, the southern front against the IS is not faring nearly so well. According to the latest reports, much of the Baiji oil refinery recently fell back into IS hands. According to The Long War Journal, “More than six months after the Islamic State launched its offensive to take control of northern and central Iraq, the northern Baghdad belt remains contested between the Iraqi military and allied Shiite militias on one side, and the Islamic State and its Sunni allies on the other.” A few days ago IS fighters also routed the Hezbollah Brigades just north of Baghdad.
It probably does not help that newly revived Shiite militias stand accused of brutalizing Sunni Arab populations in areas they capture from IS. Pictures even emerged of militia fighters beheading people, making such Shiite volunteers difficult to distinguish in practice from their IS enemies. Under such circumstances, Iraqi Sunni Arabs would have an incentive to support IS fighters to the bitter end. No similar reports of atrocities have emerged from Peshmerga liberated areas.
If the Kurds keep reassuring Sunni Arabs not directly implicated in IS crimes that they will be dealt with mercifully (the foreign fighters are another matter however), one could expect an easier Kurdish campaign in the north. Supportive air strikes, tenacious Peshmerga fighters on the ground, and increasing numbers of Sunni Arab allies – such as Mosul governor Atheel al-Nujaifi has been trying to rally – should make a very effective combination as the battle moves southwards.
Many question whether or not the Peshmerga should push their fight against the IS beyond Kurdish lands, however. Even the likes of Governor Nujaifi were bitter foes of the Kurds not long ago, and advancing into hostile Sunni Arab population centers feels like a bad idea. Precisely this kind of serious concern underpinned Kurdistan Region President Barzani’s recent comments to al-Arabiya TV regarding the recapture of Mosul: “The Peshmerga would only play a supporting role, because the Kurdistan Region doesn’t want the start of a Kurdish-Arab war.” A few days ago Rudaw also reported that “Kurdish leaders, including President Barzani, have said that the priority is defending the Kurdish autonomous region against ISIS and that they are not willing to fight in Iraq’s Sunni areas.”
Three principal factors will pressure the Kurds to take their fight against IS jihadis beyond Kurdistan’s soil, however. First, Baghdad, Iran, the United States and others will do whatever they can to convince Erbil to keep up the offensive. If major Kurdish operations against the IS come to an end as the Kurds secure all the lands they claim, outside actors’ incentive to arm and supply Erbil will also decline accordingly.
Second, capturing more land from IS control offers many benefits. It gives Erbil something to trade back to Baghdad in return for its recognition of Kurdish acquisition of disputed territories like Kirkuk. It would also make IS pay a higher price for its decision to attack the Peshmerga last summer. This would in turn improve Erbil’s deterrent posture against all potential attackers in the future.
Third, holding a strictly defensive position vis-à-vis the IS over a more than 1,000 kilometer long border would represent a strategic and tactical nightmare. The jihadis would effectively be ceded back the initiative in the war. They could attack Kurdish lines wherever and whenever they detected weakness, much as they did last August. If the defenses proved too strong they could comfortably retreat to Sunni Arab areas under their control -- until a better target emerged.
Under such conditions, the best Kurdish strategy might be to avoid taking the lead on large Sunni Arab cities such as Mosul, but to make big forays into IS territory elsewhere – keeping the Jihadis wondering when and where the next offensive might appear – and handing captured territory to allied anti-IS Arab fighters – at a price, of course.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor (with Mehmet Gurses) of Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.