Have the Kurds cut the ISIL/Daesh State in Two, Blocking Supply Lines?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

Al-Mada newspaper in Baghdad had an interesting article in the aftermath of the fall of Shinjar to the Iraqi Kurdistan Peshmerga. The piece argued that the Peshmerga (Kurdistan’s paramilitary, meaning ‘one who stands before death’) have now effectively cut of the supply lines between Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq for Daesh (what Arabs call ISIS or ISIL). Daesh was originally al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and then the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ but went over to Syria after the revolution broke out there in 2011, and gradually took over the northeastern Syrian province of Raqqa as its base, and it was from there that they came back into Iraq and provided a framework for the Mosul uprising of June 9, 2014 against the Iraqi government.

Historians refer to polities that exist on both sides of a mountain range, united by passes, as a “saddlebag empire.” These were common in South Asia, where southern Afghanistan and Punjab were often part of the same kingdom despite the barrier of the Hindu Kush mountains. What I have called the ‘neo-Zangid’ state of the Daesh unites the area from Aleppo to Damascus, across Mt. Shinjar , just as had the medieval ruler `Imad al-Din Zangi. It is a sort of contemporary saddlebag empire.

But now not only have the Peshmerga taken the Mt. Shinjar area away from Daesh, helping rescue the besieged Yezidis but they have at the same time cut the supply routes between the terrorist group’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, and its Iraqi power base, Mosul. If you take shears to a saddlebag, it can’t straddle the horse’s back any more and will fall down.

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The al-Mada article goes on to say that the the Peshmerga do not want to go on to take Talafar, 56 km west of Mosul, because it is a largely Turkmen town. Turkmen, who speak a language closely related to that of Turkey, have some conflicts with the Kurds, especially over the province of Kirkuk, and a Kurdish advance into a Turkmen city would be awkward. The Kurds will therefore wait until a united military campaign, including the Iraqi army, can be launched.

Nevertheless, the article says, by taking the western elevated areas, they have managed to isolate Mosul from Syria. Arab forces in Ninewah who oppose Daesh also affirmed that Raqqa cannot at the moment resupply Mosul, and they said they thought this change would be decisive for the coming liberation of Mosul.

Massoud Barzani, the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, termed the advance into Mt. Shinjar “a historic epic”, adding that the Peshmerga would continue to fight until the last inch of Kurdish territory under Daesh control was liberated.

Barzani continued that Kurdistan “is ready to discuss supporting and helping the national unity government to regain Mosul, on condition that it has a clear strategy and war plan for the attack.”

He said that the Peshmerga had cut the two Daesh supply routes from Syria to Mosul, Rabi`at Shinjar and zummar Shinjar.

A Peshmerga commander said that the paramilitary had conquered 70% of Shinjar District, and that 20 Daesh fighters surrendered at Sununi near Shinjar.

The political danger here is that Sunni Arabs view the Peshmerga advance as an attempt by Kurdistan to annex part of mostly Sunni Arab Ninewah province. Going forward, ethnic sensitivities will play a larger role. For the Peshmerga to help liberate Mt. Shinjar’s Kurds is not controversial.

Related video:

RT: “RAW Battle: Kurdish Peshmerga fighting against ISIS in Iraq’s Sinjar”

18 Responses

  1. I might add: the most likely reason for this recent KDP offensive is political. The Peshmerga earned enormous disgrace in the area, and rage amongst the Yezidis, by promising to defend the population, refusing them weapons of their own, and then instantly fleeing when Daesh attacked back in August. This is what set off the humanitarian catastrophe to begin with. Since then they have dilled and dallied while the PKK and YPG actively intervened, rescued most of the civilians, and provided those who stayed with arms and training such as they could afford to give, creating a Yezidi militia and working with it. They are the only reason the population as a whole was not slaughtered. Meanwhile, the KDP regime held back, and went to their US and European patrons to use the plight of Yezidi (which they had largely produced) to plead for even more billions in arms, training, and other forms of international assistance. The Yezidis I spoke to a few weeks ago, both in Iraq and in exile in Syria, spoke only of how much they hated the KDP for doing this, and were unanimous that the only solution was to organise Shengal as an autonomous canton (the Syrian Kurdish territories have adopted a canton model partly inspired by Swiss direct democracy) with grassroots bottom-up democratic institutions along the same lines as left-wing Kurds have been developing in Rojava. Obviously this is the last thing the Barzani family and similar strongmen want – they are extremely threatened by this popular democratic model, which is with its strong emphasis on the liberation of women, and Barzani was until recently collaborating with Turkey to put a total economic embargo on Kurdish Syria – and thus the military intervention is clearly meant to head any such possibility of Yezidi self-governance off.

    • The Peshmerga did what they could under the circumstances.

      They can be credited with supplying the Yazidis with foodstuffs and some weaponry.

  2. It is indeed the intention of the KRG to “annex part of Nineveh province” but only the areas where Kurds are a strong majority. They plan to do this democratically through a referendum, and will only hold the referendum for areas where virtually the entire population is Kurdish and will vote in favour. Even in Kirkuk province, which has some significant non-Kurdish minorities, such a referendum is likely to pass because the Kurds are seen as better administrators than the Shias or Sunni Arabs. The Kurds have no interest in incorporating Arab territory which would only cause headaches for them in the future.

    • thx Richard. But I don’t think this will be acceptable to Iraq nationalists, who don’t count territory by ethnicity. Does Turkey get Talafar?

      • I don’t think there are any Iraq nationalists to speak of in the Kurdistan region. And from what I was repeatedly told there, the intention is to hold a referendum only in localities where there is no doubt about the outcome. Iraq’s so-called Turkmens (“Turkic-speakers”, nothing to do with their namesakes in eastern Iran and Turkmenistan) are another issue, since their numbers don’t warrant the creation of an autonomous region anywhere, but they appear to be doing better under Kurdish jurisdiction than being controlled from Baghdad.

        • It is part of Ninewah province, which the Iraq nationalists won’t relinquish easily. I’m just saying that there will be trouble about this, and maximalist Kurdish plans for expansion look to me Milosevich-like. He just wanted Serbia to expand to cover all the Serbs, too, and was willing to kill anyone who objected.

          There are likely 800,000 Turkmen, who are enough for an autonomous region if they want one; nationalism is constructed, and the Turks certainly claim them. I don’t think most Turkmen would agree with your ventriloquism of them as happy under Kurdish rule.

    • The Chaldean-rite Catholics in the Nineveh province have sustained severe persecution since the fall of the Baathists to the point that they risk their lives by merely leaving their home.

      The Kurds are viewed as more tolerant and less of a threat than Islamic Arab extremists in administering the Nineveh province.

  3. Got to keep asking, what is/are the informing principles behind all the churning and killing and taking and re-taking? As Dr. Cole is at pains to point out regularly, our human political economy is sort of killing the habitability of our human habitat. And all the “Call of Duty”-“Game of War” excitement and horror are just continuation of the linear descent into a big human die-off.

    If the goals of the game are to make a survivable place for humans here on Earth, with enough to go around for everyone, the means and methods are woefully inapt and inept. But it’s pretty clear that all this is about stealing “the widow’s mite,” link to en.wikipedia.org, so the Few who can (with the help of lesser predators and parasites) fill their bottomless bellies and tickle their insatiable fancies, and get to die in opulent comfort, free of any of the consequences their appetites and predilections dump on the rest of us ordinary people.

    So let’s cheer the people we identify at the moment as white-hat Cowboys, for maybe dealing a big blow to the ISISSSSSnake, but thank Lockheed-Martin for sponsoring “Foreign Policy”‘s “Situation Report” today, concluding that

    The U.S. effort to bankrupt the Islamic State isn’t working. Washington and its allies are well aware that it would be nearly impossible to defeat the Islamic State without strangling its finances. Airstrikes have lowered the group’s oil revenue to $1 million to $2 million per day. However, Washington has been unable to come up with strategies to cut proceeds from kidnapping and extortion. Details about the inner workings of the group’s finances also remain a mystery.

    FP’s Jamila Trindle: “The unprecedented effort to figure out how the Islamic State money machine works and how it can be stopped is led by an international standard-setter called the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Now, only two months into the investigation, set to wrap up by February, expectations are already dimming…. FATF President Roger Wilkins said that though his team is still gathering intelligence, it may not be able to put a dollar figure on the Islamic State’s funding streams.” link to foreignpolicy.com

    Do “the Kurds” have a key to creating even a marginally more decent state in the wreckage of Messopotamia? They depend on oil revenues, have lots of “internal tensions,” are the subject of lots of Great Gamer fiddling and perversions. Can they keep the saddlebags from being rejoined, or worked around by the Horde? We’ll have to wait and see… and whether or not, will the planetary combustion-based War Culture and our Empire and other Players ever convert to alternative energies, in all the ways that phrase could be understood?


  4. Re: “…….a marginally more decent state….”

    The Peshmerga were overthrown in the early 1990s when Iran had withdrawn their support. They were rejuvenated due to imposition of an American/British-enforced “no-fly zone”.

    In 1996, there was a little-known Kurdish Civil War that occurred between the Talabani and Barzani factions that was smoothed over with the mediation of Central Intelligence Agency official Robert Baer. The Barzani faction later had organized a coup attempt to overthrow the Baathist regime with other Kurds, but this was compromised and a number of Iraqi army officers were arrested and executed. The CIA later cleared Baer of any involvement in the failed coup attempt.

    Overall the Peshmerga has historically been a source of assistance to the U.S. government, including the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. Key points of help:

    (1) eradication of the Ansar Al-Islam jihadist extremists in control of an area of northeast Iraq after the fall of the Baathists;

    (2) the capture of Saddam Hussein;

    (3) creating a viable “second front” in the north of Iraq during the 2003 coalition invasion that diverted Baathist government troops to the north and likely saved hundreds of American lives of soldiers fighting in the south.

    Then there are the Communist Kurdish militants known as PKK, led by imprisoned charismatic Kurd leader Abdullah Ocalan, that are fighting ISIS now and are credited with saving lives of Yazidi Kurds in Iraq and also liberating areas of Syria from ISIS.

    Overall, the Kurds have been a pro-West and positive influence in Iraq and Syria in the last two decades and would likely be more stable if their current autonomy would be augmented into independent state status, however their history has been replete with internal power struggles between the conservative Barzani and liberal Talabani clans and also the militantly Marxist PKK adherents.

    • Thanks for the reminders of how Kurdish parts have been ‘useful to and cooperative with The West.’ My silly question, given the cleavages and endless resort to violence in favor of local power and tribal-subset advancement, is whether there’s the tiniest chance that The Kurds, taken as a group and with the leadership and political economy and weaponry and Outside Influences and pressure in place an in play, whether that set of humans can or could set the fre for a decent life for my fellow Ordinary People. Not likely? Not even a blip in the Grand Policy Debate, it would seem, which is mostly about who gets weapons and air support and is Useful To The rapacious corporate kleptocratic West…

      • Re: “…..a decent life for my fellow Ordinary People.”

        The consensus is that during the last two decades the Kurds have done, with some surprise to observers, a creditable job of administering the areas in which limited autonomy has been ceded to them.

        As in Syria, the regions controlled by Kurds in Iraq during this period have enjoyed relative stability and prosperity.

        There are some scholars, including Professor Daniel Pipes, who have advocated the creation of an independent Kurdish state, given their recent successes in administering areas under their limited control – this would promote stability in the region – and for its inhabitants.

  5. Well, most of the day I thought this was very good news and certain to put Daesh’s control of Mosul in jeopardy over the next few months. But after hearing German journalist Jurgen Tofenhofer on PBS Newshour talk about his ten day trip to Syria and Mosul, Iraq, I’m not so sure. He’s the first western journalist to be allowed access to area controlled by ISIS. Tofenhofer wrote to the “caliphate” requesting a security clearance and they sent him a document authorizing his safety. So he took a chance and flew there from Germany. According to him Daesh is MUCH stronger than the west imagines.

    • ISIS is a giant with feet of clay. Mosul is completely dependent on the Kurds goodwill. The Kurds can cut the water and electricity supply to Mosul and even inundate the town with half a meter of water. Actually they could flush the entire city. They will not do it but they could do it. In the not so long run ISIS will collapse completely. Tofenhofer got the information that the ISIS leaders want him to have. Nothing else.

  6. The other way of looking at the Kurdish advance is the “Bridge Too Far” model. It is a very narrow long corridor, said to be five miles wide, and seventy miles long. Easy to cut, and only defensible, as long as there are intense western air-strikes. In order to make those strikes which carried the Peshmerga forwards, the US had to stop bombing in Anbar, and as a result, the Iraqi army lost a lot of territory round Ain al-Asad airbase. There will be demands to restore the Iraqi position. In that case, the Kurdish corridor can be cut, and the Peshmergas in Sinjar isolated. Not that any frontlines in that area are impermeable. As were are now told, ISIS have now retaken Baiji, though I suppose not the refinery. We haven’t had the ISIS counter-attack in Sinjar yet.

    • To the north the now liberated zones connect with the YPG held areas of Rojava and ISIS is severely overstretched. They are fighting and having heavy losses in several fronts. ISIS is on the verge of collapse. At least in Iraq.

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