On the front line against Is­lamic State

The Kur­dish in­tel­li­gence chief in Iraq says Is­lamic State can be beaten, but U. S. troops and more weapons will be nec­es­sary

The Kurdish Globe - - NEWS -

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 Pres­i­dent Ma­soud 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 Shi­ite­dom­i­nated 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.

“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.”

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