Drowned out in the excitement over the presidential primary yesterday was the fierce battle between coalition forces and the Islamic State in northern Iraq. With total figures still uncertain, the battle claimed the lives of dozens of Kurds and one American Navy SEAL. On May 3rd, in the majority Christian city of Telskuf, north of Mosul, ISIS launched a pre-dawn assault on unsuspecting Kurdish and Assyrian forces:
Mortar rounds and artillery began hitting front lines near Telskuf, the largely Christian town, about 4 a.m., according to Kurdish officers and members of the Christian militia that hold the ground there. After bombarding the area Tuesday, militants launched a multi-pronged attack on Telskuf at about 5:30 a.m. from three or four directions, using hundreds of fighters, commanders said. Maj. Gen. Azad Jalil, a peshmerga officer, said they breached Kurdish front lines with more than 10 car bombs, also using bulldozers to push through. The peshmerga then made a “tactical retreat” to reorganize their forces, he said. ISIS militants overran the village.
The attack, spearheaded by vehicle-borne explosives (VBIEDs) and hundreds of infantry, forced the Kurdish soldiers to withdraw and temporarily cede the village to ISIS. So successful was the offensive, that jihadist fighters penetrated three miles behind Kurdish lines. The assault was halted and Telskuf recaptured after heavy airstrikes from American warplanes that afternoon, but only after Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV was killed in a direct fire engagement. At least 120 ISIS fighters perished in the fighting.
The Islamic State’s surprise attack and its (initial) overwhelming success should be sobering for American war planners. And it calls into serious question our ongoing strategy as it relates to “degrading and destroying” the Caliphate. A few things to consider:
1) ISIS Remains Incredibly Dangerous
Despite rosy assertions to the contrary, ISIS remains a potent threat on the battlefield. And while its forces have experienced losses in northern Syria and ceded territory in Sinjar and Anbar province, it nevertheless retains the ability to conduct complex attacks against its enemies and capture territory.
Consider also that, despite almost two years of airstrikes from the world’s military superpower, the Islamic State still controls a large expanse of territory and has yet to be dislodged from Mosul or its de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria.
2) Local Allies Cannot Win the War Themselves
Much has been made in the western press about the prowess of the Kurdish army, known as the Peshmerga. And while arguably more competent than their Iraqi counterparts, the Kurds simply do not have the ability to defend their lines — let alone launch offensives — without massive American support in the form of air power, advisers, and auxiliary special forces.
For all the breathless reporting and American politicians demanding we outsource the war effort to the Kurdish Regional Government, there is a great deal of cause for pessimism that such a strategy would be sufficient to evict the Islamic State from Iraq. The Peshmerga’s record since 2014 has been a mixed bag. It performed dreadfully following ISIS’s invasion of northern Iraq and simply abandoned the Yezidis of Sinjar to genocide and sexual enslavement. For all the unquestionable bravery of the thousands of Kurdish soldiers who have perished in combat with ISIS, the fact remains that the frontlines are largely unchanged since the fall of 2014. Both the Kurds and ISIS remain heavily dug-in outside of Mosul and Kirkuk, with the fighting reduced to a kind of war of attrition along hundreds of miles of trenches.
To add to the mess, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, is effectively a dictator in all but name, having extended his “presidency” past its constitutional mandate. Of course, in a struggle against a millennial cult like ISIS, this would not normally raise any eyebrows. But Barzani, along with the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK), has proven himself unreliable in being entrusted with direct arms shipments without strings. Last fall, he used arms ostensibly intended for fighting ISIS in order to intimidate the populace and political rivals in Erbil.
3) Political and Ethnic Rivalries Could Doom the War Effort
It is a huge error — one made consistently by lazy politicians and writers, (including yours truly) to speak of Iraqi Kurds as monolithic. A sure indicator of ignorance in the press is when one hears the call for arming and supporting “the Kurds.”
It begs the question: which Kurds? The Peshmerga are not organized along American lines with an apolitical officer corps that commands a military beholden to a constitution and a civilian commander-in-chief. Rather, Kurdish soldiers answer to the political party that controls their individual units. For comparison, imagine if the 101st Division was lead by the Republican Party and the 82nd Airborne was lead by the Democratic Party. A recipe for failure for sure, but this is how the Peshmerga is split between the ruling PDK and the opposition PUK parties.
Across the border in Syria, another Kurdish political rival fights its own separate war against ISIS. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) holds the line just north of Raqqa, but is considered a pariah by Barzani’s government in Iraq. Complicating matters is the fact that the PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization according to Turkey as well as the American State Department. But with a straight face, the United States insists that the military wing of the PYD is an invaluable ally in the war against ISIS while simultaneously stating that its parent organization is just as dangerous as the jihadists.
Less often mentioned is the degree to which religious and ethnic animosity factors into the war effort in Iraq. Many are aware of the Sunni-Shia split, but the aforementioned betrayal of the Yezidi population of Sinjar by the PDK in 2014 has had far-reaching effects. The Yezidis, who speak a dialect of Kurdish, largely consider themselves a distinct ethnic group within northwestern Iraq and resent the “kurdification” campaign over the years. But since the genocide of 2014, the distrust has only increased. And in the vicinity of Mt. Sinjar alone, there are three rival Yezidi and Kurdish militias vying for a leading role in liberating villages south of the mountain.
A similar story played itself out among Iraqi Kurdistan’s Christians during the fighting at Telskuf yesterday. In a radius of mere miles, three distinct Assyrian Christian units participated in the battle; some of which work in conjunction with the Peshmerga and some that don’t. But the Christians’ lack of access to heavy weapons forced them to withdraw after ISIS’s initial onslaught:
Brig. Gen. Bahnam Aboush, a fighter with the Christian militia based in the town and known as the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, said his men tried to hold their ground but were overwhelmed.
“We tried to fight them, but we couldn’t due our limited capabilities,” he said. “We have only some old rifles we bought from our own money.”
There is an argument to be made that, rather than supplying weapons to Baghdad or the KRG exclusively, it would be more beneficial for us to expand our support to include direct support to Iraq’s Christians and Yezidis. The Kurds simply cannot be relied upon to be the sole defenders the religious minorities in the KRG, and their track record has proven either their unwillingness or incompetence to do so. But local defense forces comprised of the same ethnic and religious makeup as those they are tasked with defending are inherently more reliable in combat.
While such a strategy would have a minimal impact on the overall effort to defeat ISIS, it would have the beneficial effect of decentralizing our top-down approach t0 containment and placing the onus of self-defense on the groups most in danger and most likely to fight to the death for their survival.
In closing, the American strategy against ISIS is in need of a serious reassessment. Optimistic hopes that the Kurds would not only repel but vanquish ISIS in Iraq were always illusory at best. But, in absence of a concerted and large-scale ground offensive by American forces, there are depressingly few options for Pentagon planners besides relying on those local forces on the ground closest to ISIS.