Global Independent Analytics
Danny Orbach
Danny Orbach

Location: USA

Specialization: Modern Japanese History, Modern Chinese History, Military History, History of Counterinsurgency, History of Disobedience, Dynamics of Atrocities in Wartime

The Kurdish Phoenix

It remains to be seen whether the Kurds will maintain their internal unity and cooperation with other Iraqi and international participants, and will continue to enjoy their friendly and secular image in the eyes of Western audiences.

Why did the Kurds fail in the war against ISIS, and how did they recover?

In early August 2014, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), also known as the Peshmerga, received a crushing defeat in the war against ISIS. The defeat surprised and shocked many observers in Iraq, the United States and other countries. The Peshmerga (literally: those who face death), had been hailed by Western commentators as  “disciplined and effective" until they were badly beaten by ISIS militants. Though thousands of Peshmerga fighters were stationed in the city of Sinjar, an ethnically mixed Kurdish, Yezidi and Arab town in the province of Nineveh, they were routed by a small force of about 300 Jihadis. Peshmerga's defeat generated panic in the Kurdistan region and beyond. ISIS forces were a stone's throw from the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and foreign firms began to evacuate. And yet, within a few months, the Kurds were able to recover, enlist the international aid and liberate much of the territory that ISIS had captured.

How and why were the Kurdish government and army able to recover so quickly? The answer has to do with an interesting combination of external factors, skillful diplomacy and a rethinking of military strategy. In order to properly understand the surprising recovery of the Kurds, it is important first to examine the roots of their failure in August 2014.

The Guns of June: Intoxicating Days of Victory

In early June 2014, the spokesman of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in Erbil, Brigadier Halgord Hikmat, was drunk with joy. He called it "a very nice time to be Kurdish." And his glee seemed well-founded. While the formidable army of ISIS was storming throughout northern and eastern Iraq, the Kurds appeared to be the only force able to resist it. On June 8, ISIS forces stormed Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province, and occupied the city without much of a fight. Five divisions of the Iraqi army, equipped with modern American hardware, dissolved and disappeared, their soldiers finding refuge in safer areas. Their equipment, including armored vehicles and heavy artillery, was commandeered by the triumphant Jihadis. Iraqi forces also melted in front of ISIS onslaughts in eastern Diyala Province and Kirkuk, the oil-rich city neighboring the Kurdistan Region. As Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG said later in an interview with Al-Arabiya, "an army on which the Americans and NATO worked for ten years collapsed within ten hours."

Kurdish authorities reacted swiftly. The dismal failure of the Iraqi army increased their confidence in their own military prowess, and they were swift to embark on settling old scores. Kirkuk and its oil-rich environs were long claimed by the Kurdish autonomous region. That area, once a home to a large Kurdish population, had been "Arabized" by successive Iraqi regimes. Besides being a source of lucrative natural resources, it was considered by the Kurdish national movement to be part of the Kurdish homeland, its "Jerusalem." Sensing the weakness of the Iraqi Government, the Peshmerga forces counterattacked in Diyala and Kirkuk, pushing the fighters of ISIS out of their newly conquered territories. From the point of view of Brigadier Hikmat and his forces, victory was sweet: not only were the Kurds able to occupy what they have had long seen as their own, but the Peshmerga proved their superiority to Iraqi forces.

Storm Clouds Gathering: Before ISIS' Offensive

The Peshmerga were indeed the best organized non-Jihadi force in Iraq, certainly better organized than the Iraqi army. However, their victories in June hid a long list of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. First of all, in summer 2014 the Peshmerga forces were still divided between two Kurdish parties, KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), hailing from rival guerilla armies. Five years earlier, in 2009, the Kurdish parliament, divided equally between the KDP and PUK, had decided to unite the two parties' different Peshmerga forces into a national army. The integration process was slow and, by summer 2014, still unfinished. A Kurdish journalist told me in an interview that only 10% of the forces were directly controlled by the Peshmerga Ministry in Erbil while others were still under partisan command. When ISIS attacked the Kurdistan region in August, this fragmentation hampered attempts to devise a unified military strategy.

Another problem was the Peshmerga's aging equipment. They had heavy weaponry, but it was thinly spread along a front of 650 miles, and much of it was antiquated Soviet hardware. ISIS, on the other hand, sported US-manufactured heavy weapons, artillery and armored cars (Humvees) looted from the collapsing Iraqi Army. The Peshmerga were also short of fuel, as ISIS had taken over the Baiji Refinery, a problem that undermined the mobility of Kurdish forces. Furthermore, many of the soldiers were underpaid due to a combination of neglect, corruption and difficult political conditions. Like many other Kurdish government ministries, the Peshmerga Ministry was full of "ghost officials" who were on the roster but did not work, while actual soldiers had to survive on a low salary of 500 USD per month. Due to economic problems and disagreements with the government in Baghdad, even these salaries often failed to arrive on time.

The strategy of the Peshmerga, devised in the 1960s by local leaders and foreign advisers, was also ill-suited to cope with ISIS. In essence, it was designed for guerilla warfare in mountainous terrain against the heavy and inefficient Iraqi army. The Israeli general Tsuri Sagi, a military advisor to the Peshmerga in the 1970s, later testified that the Kurdish fighters were reluctant to charge forward as conventional military units do, preferring guerilla tactics of stealth and sharpshooting. A Turkish military adviser who worked with the Peshmerga between 1999 and 2004 further testified about their poor urban warfare skills, lack of training and almost non-existent capability to launch offensive operations in the unfamiliar flat terrain of non-Kurdish Iraq.  

In Summer 2014, the Peshmerga were in the midst of a transition. On the one hand, their guerilla capabilities were gradually fading. As the military analyst Kenneth Pollack explained, due to the demographic transitions in Kurdish society, most younger recruits now came from the big cities and not from the countryside. Therefore, the Peshmerga had too many "softer" urban recruits and not enough tough country boys used to hunting and shooting. Stretched along the borders in derelict camps and checkpoints, they had also lost their mobility and flexibility.  On the other hand, the Peshmerga commanders, now responsible for holding military bases, villages and towns, failed to develop a viable strategy for conducting open, conventional warfare. They were particularly ill-prepared to face the "shock and awe" offensive of ISIS.

Shock and Awe: ISIS' August Offensive

The Northern Iraqi Front, June 15, 2014, before ISIS' August offensive. Islamic State territories are marked in red, Kurdish territories in yellow. Source: The Independent

The Front in Sinjar after ISIS' August offensive. Source: BBC

The ISIS offensive in early August 2014 caught the Kurds by surprise. KRG President Masoud Barzani had long seen the confrontation with ISIS as an internal Iraqi war, a squabble between Arab Sunnis and Shiites in which he had no stake. In addition, some Kurdish businessmen were engaged in a thriving black market oil trade with Islamic State smugglers. Therefore, when ISIS forces attacked the Kurdish-held towns in Nineveh Province, Barzani was unprepared to respond.

On August 3, ISIS armies occupied the city of Zumar. At the same time, they launched a fierce offensive on Sinjar, an ethnically mixed town with a sizable population of Assyrian-Christian and Yezidi minorities. Zumar was geographically isolated from the Kurdish region, and provided a golden opportunity for ISIS to score an easy victory. In a setback that shocked international observers, the celebrated Peshmerga fighters did not resist the offensive. According to the testimonies of survivors, they evacuated Sinjar under the cover of darkness, leaving the Christian and Yezidi populations to the mercy of ISIS marauders. The large-scale massacre that ensued dealt a severe blow to the reputation of the Peshmerga, and fanned the fire of the ISIS offensive. Militants swarmed across the surrounding villages and occupied the Mosul Dam, as well as key villages around the region's oil fields. A few days later they took over the towns of Makhmour and Gwer, the latter situated only 15 miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

The ISIS assault teams were flexible, mobile and highly skilled in urban and rural warfare, quick to disperse or concentrate forces as necessary. Decision-making was and remained decentralized, in order to minimize dependence on permanent structures of command and control which could be obliterated from the air. Local commanders received general tasks, but retained control over their implementation. And yet, the motorized assault units, 80 to 300 men strong, kept up an impressive level of coordination in joint offensive operations.

This strategy was based on devastating surprise attacks on several axes, and took advantage of the dense road system built under Saddam's rule. ISIS compensated for the overall small number of its fighters by deception (e.g. donning Kurdish military uniforms), feint attacks and prudent concentration of its forces. In a classic Clausewitzian move, ISIS planners lured enemy forces away from their main axis of attack to achieve numerical superiority against the Peshmerga's weak points.

Attacks often began with intensive artillery bombardments. This "softening" was usually followed by refashioned traditional terror tactics such as car, truck and vest suicide bombings, adjusted into an integrated military strategy of shock and awe. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founding father of Al Qaida in Iraq, was notorious for his extensive use of car bombs, which he set off to spread terror and foment sectarian violence. ISIS used the same strategy, but in order to conquer territory.

In Jalula, a Kurdish-held town in Diyala Province occupied by ISIS on August 11, one suicide truck destroyed the Peshmerga headquarters, and then another one exploded in the center of town. Then, a second wave of suicide bombers decimated tens of soldiers at various check points. When chaos broke out and soldiers fled their posts, the main body of attackers charged and took over Jalula almost without a fight. Immediately after the occupation, ISIS engineering teams dug ditches, destroyed bridges and mined the roads along expected routes of Kurdish counterattack.

An interlinked aspect of ISIS's strategy was to have a psychological impact through committing and publicizing acts of brutality. During the occupation of towns, ISIS militants fired machine guns indiscriminately at civilians in the streets. Immediately afterwards they made house-to-house sweeps, executing Shiites and Sunni hostile elements on the spot. Many of these atrocities were filmed and videos were publicized online. The armies of the Islamic State generated shock and awe, frightened the defenders and created waves of refugees. This had several advantages for ISIS. First of all, they cleared the territory of hostile elements, which made it easier to control. Second, the waves of refugees further encumbered the economies of their remaining enemies. As a bonus, in a region rife with sectarian enmities, an influx of refugees could sow dissention and internal unrest in enemy territory.

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