At the Kurdistan Front

Weekly Standard, 12/9.

A war is being waged along a 900-mile front between two entities that today constitute de facto quasi-states stretching across the old border between Syria and Iraq. These are the Islamic State to the south and a contiguous area of Kurdish-controlled territory to the north. Recently, I traveled to the latter, in regions of northern Iraq and northeast Syria, like the town of Derik, where I spoke with a Kurdish soldier who had recently been in a firefight with IS forces in the neighboring village of Jeza’a.

“We were fighting for 17 hours,” said the Kurd. He was with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), affiliated with the PYD, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s party, or PKK. “There must have been about 500 of them,” he said of the IS militants. “Only about 90 of us. They’re strange, the way they keep on coming at you. We got on each side of them. In the end, you should have seen the trucks that came to take the bodies away. Stacked up.”

He paused and took a drag on his cigarette. “I wasn’t hurt bad,” he continued. “I dislocated my shoulder when I had to jump over a wall after one of them threw a grenade. Then they got me out of there. I killed three of them. It’s not nice, you know. One of them was just a kid of about 16. But you’ve got no choice.”

So what does an IS attack look like, I asked. Do they just come running headlong at you?

“They don’t run,” he replied, looking directly at me as if to acknowledge the eeriness of the thing he was saying. “They walk,” he said. “At a normal pace. Towards you. Like they’re not afraid. And you have to shoot them before they shoot you.”

The fighting at Jeza’a was one of the most intense clashes to have taken place between the Islamic State and the YPG. The battle formed part of a broader IS-Kurdish war taking place along a contiguous frontline stretching from Jalawla on the Iraq-Iran border all the way to Jarabulus on the line separating Syria from Turkey.

At Jeza’a, the Islamic State was trying to close the corridor that the YPG had opened in order to bring Yazidi refugees from the Sinjar Mountains to safety at the Newroz refugee camp outside Derik. The more than 100,000 refugees who made their way to Newroz are exhausted and traumatized. The Islamic State considers the Yazidi to be “devil worshippers” who are thus denied the few privileges afforded the so-called people of the book, i.e., Christians and Jews. Yazidi women were sent to the prisons of IS-controlled Mosul, where they were later sold as slaves or forced to wed IS fighters.

Conditions at Newroz are primitive, but there is food and shelter. Further east, in the Kurdish Regional Government area of northern Iraq, the towns of Dohuk and Erbil are swollen with refugees who fled Mosul and Sinjar. The Islamic State’s march toward the KRG capital of Erbil was stopped only by the intervention of the United States Air Force, and they know that any attempt to push forward would result in their obliteration from the air. The KRG’s Peshmerga forces are facing them in hastily assembled positions cut into the dirt. These frontlines are for the moment strangely silent.

In Erbil and in Dohuk, the half-built structures that until very recently were symbols of economic growth and expansion have been converted into makeshift homes for refugee families from further south. You see refugees everywhere. In the evenings the cities have a teeming, crowded feel to them. But the foreigners who came with the oil companies that moved in to do business when the KRG was the most stable part of Iraq are mostly gone. The bars and restaurants that opened up to cater to them are empty. On a Thursday evening in the Deutscher Hof restaurant in Erbil, one of the few places that serves cold beer, only a couple of British security contractors are at the bar. The Indian staff tell me that a month ago, the place would have been packed at this time.

A considerable portion of Erbil’s Kurdish population also left when it looked likely that the Islamic State was on its way. Some sources spoke of a departure of up to 30 percent of Erbil’s residents. The Peshmerga, with the help of Iraqi special forces as well as U.S. air support, have begun to push back against IS. The Mosul Dam, a highly symbolic conquest for the IS, was retaken on August 21. Since then, IS has lost ground in a number of other places. The Peshmerga are now in the process of reconquering oil fields close to Mosul.

West of the Syria-Iraq border, meanwhile, the YPG is continuing its own fight against the Islamic State. I visited the frontline area at the Yarubiya border crossing. The YPG seized the crossing in early August, and now controls both the Iraqi and Syrian sides of it. IS still holds a neighborhood immediately adjoining the crossing. Sniping from both sides and mortar fire are regular occurrences. But the morale of the YPG seemed high. “They can’t shoot,” a female fighter told me cheerfully after we sprinted across open ground to a concealed position a few hundred yards from a mosque where the IS sniper was operating.

Conversations with Kurdish officials indicate that they do not consider the fight with IS in Iraq and Syria to be a battle for the preservation of those two states. Rather, the Kurdish national agenda is visible just barely below the surface. General Maghdid Haraki of the Peshmerga, an effective-looking figure clearly influenced by American military style, put it most bluntly when he told me, “We have a different land, different language, different mentality. I don’t know why the world won’t see this. They just see ‘Iraq.’ ”

A senior KRG official linked to the political leadership was more circumspect. “Iraqi Kurds are today still part of Iraq,” he said. “But if a sectarian civil war starts in Iraq, we want no part of it. And if the mess continues in Iraq and Kurdish rights are not granted, then what is the point of it? Anyway, Kurds, like any other nation, have the right to determine their own future.”

Nonetheless, the fact is that the Kurds are not unified and their divisions are not easily resolved. The central rift is between the two rival pan-Kurdish movements. One is Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic party, which controls the KRG. The other is Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK, listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization for its three-decade-long campaign of violence against Turkey.

Still, when it comes to Kurdish self-determination, PKK-associated officials sound similar to General Haraki and his colleagues. Nilufer Koc, of the PKK-associated Kurdistan National Congress, told me in Erbil that “what’s needed is a referendum on independence here in Iraqi Kurdistan. And when we clear the issue of the referendum, if a new Iraqi government continues to reject Kurdish rights, then the Kurds need to take what belongs to them.”

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