North Africa, West Asia

Dispatch from Erbil

US strikes against Islamic State fighters heading towards Erbil will not make a significant impact against a group that can fight across multiple fronts in multiple countries.

Sam Morris
11 August 2014

The situation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has drastically changed since the end of the Holy month of Ramadan. The Kurdish Region has been dragged into all out conflict with the newly established ‘Islamic State’. Apart from sporadic fighting in areas like Jalawla and Handaniya, the Kurds had managed to sit out of the conflict that had blighted Iraq and left half of the country out of central governmental control.

The game has changed

August will prove to be a difficult month for Kurdistan. The Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s fighting force, have been forced to move from defence to an offensive strategy. On Friday, August 1, fighting broke out in Zumar, west of the Mosul Dam. Over that weekend the fighting continued, including the strategic border crossing of Rabia. On the Sunday Peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar, and the Islamic State fighters overran the city. The reason for Peshmerga withdrawal is still open to debate. Whether they were under-equipped and fled or it was a strategic regroup, does not matter: the results have been disastrous. With the UN reporting that 200,000 fled from the city, tens of thousands fleeing to Jebel Sinjar, there is a humanitarian disaster under way. Reports are coming in that some have been reached, but many others remain stranded. This has forced action from all sides. 

The Peshmerga have undoubtedly proved more resilient than Iraq armed forces, but their reputation has been dented. No longer are they seen as infallible, suffering a number of defeats at the hands of the Islamic State and being forced to retreat in a number of areas. While support for the Peshmerga locally remains steadfast, a realisation of their true capabilities has come to light. A week before these developments, Masrour Barzani, Head of the Kurdish intelligence services, warned that the KRG was overstretched. Moving into areas deserted by the Iraq Army, Kurdish territory has effectively expanded by over 40%.

Their defence of Rabia and fighting in Sinjar district have required support by the Syrian Kurdish, Popular Protection Units (YPG). The YPG have been fighting Islamist groups in Syria for years and can be said to be the only group there to fight against them effectively. While YPG support is necessary in the fight for Sinjar, Peshmerga leadership will undubitably feel embarrassed for requiring assistance from their brothers across the border.  What is true now, is that the Kurdish Region’s capabilities are being put to the test.  

There is now all-out conflict, and the Kurds are fighting on multiple fronts. While going on the offensive in areas around Mosul and to the west in Sinjar, the Islamic State has pushed back in areas of Makhmur and Hamdaniya, west of Erbil, edging ever closer to the KRG capital. Possibly to test Kurdish defences or a concerted counter attack to ease pressure in other areas. A strategy that they have utilised in the past in Syria.

Coordination is key

What is clear is that there is urgent need for further military coordination between Erbil and Baghdad. Nouri Al-Maliki has confirmed that Kurdish Peshmerga will receive air support from the Iraq Air Force. However, further coordination is needed, on a strategic and political level. If Kurdistan and the central Iraq government have any hope of dealing with the threat of the Islamic extremism tearing Iraq apart, they need to coordinate.

There is no need to wait for a new government to be formed or a prime ministerial candidate to be put forward. Kurdish ministers who have been boycotting the Iraqi Parliament, should return to Baghdad. The political sabre rattling has to be put aside when there is an existential threat such as this.

Their Iraq Army counterpart’s have received better training and equipment than the Peshmerga forces. The Kurdish Peshmerga require more than just air support. The security in the south is directly linked to that in the north. It is in Baghdad’s interests to increase coordination. With the gloves now off on all sides, a lack of communication only benefits the newly formed Islamic State. Born through a vacuum of inaction, coordination is the only way to effectively combat it. Domestically, regionally and internationally.

International impact

Beyond local relations, international support and coordination is vital. Kurds are now at the forefront of this fight against religious extremism. Regional and international powers have contributed to the growth of this issue through inaction over the last few years. Failure to act quickly in Syria created the vacuum into which extremist groups stepped. “Iraq-fatigue” from prolonged intervention by western states has meant their eye has been off the ball. Support is needed.

The intervention-averse Obama administration were forced into intervention when fighting between the Islamic State edged closer to Erbil, putting US assets at risk. With US airstrikes under way US President Barak Obama has now publically stated that this will not be over quickly. He also underlined the fact that while the US has begun military strikes, the solution to the problem would have to come from Iraq itself. Along with airstrikes, the United States have now also started to directly arm the Kurdistan region. However, more is needed. With the Peshmerga fighting against US-made heavy weaponry, it is the responsibility of the United States to assist the Kurdistan region to defend itself, beyond airstrikes.

More needed

The first confirmed strikes are taking out Islamic State military positions on the frontlines close to Erbil. It seems that FA-18 fighter jets destroyed American- made M 198 Howitzers, an embarrassing consequence of the failures in Iraq. The American air strikes will not drastically change the situation on the ground. It will stem the flow of fighting towards Erbil, but it will hardly ease the humanitarian tragedy in Sinjar.

Continued fighting is a sign of things to come. America’s defence of the Kurdish capital has resulted in the push to fight elsewhere. Renewed fighting in Jalawla and the south away from the threat of US airstrikes seems to be the strategy from the Islamic State. It is a strategy that has so far been successful. Ultimately, the current situation shows their capacity to fight on multiple fronts. Far from being their sole focus, the Islamic State have been on the offensive from Arsal in Lebanon to Dier Ezzor in Syria and alongside their conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan. This clearly shows the capabilities of the newly established caliphate, emboldened by its victories in Iraq.

There is a responsibility for the international community to act, and act fast. The Islamic State is a global problem and it requires a global solution. Reaction in Syria has been slow, as it has been in Iraq. It is innocent civilians that are paying the price for this inaction. US strikes against Islamic State fighters heading towards Erbil will not make a significant impact against a group that can fight across multiple fronts in multiple countries. It is just another step in an ineffective and piecemeal reaction. Training and equipment is needed, alongside air cover. Supremacy in the skies needs to be matched with improved capabilities on the ground. Now is the time for action.

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