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
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.”