Can the Kurds Hold Out Against ISIS?

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Kurdish forces faced their first major defeat in Iraq over the weekend, when militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized the towns of Sinjar, Zumar and Wana. The United Nations, citing local reports, estimated as many as 200,000 civilians fled Sinjar alone.

Until this weekend, Kurdish armed forces, known as the peshmerga, were viewed as a bulwark against ISIS’ advance. When ISIS captured Mosul in June, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled the city and many headed toward Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.

While the Iraqi army crumbled in Mosul, Kurdish forces moved in to Kirkuk to secure its oil fields. Initially, ISIS also avoided fighting the peshmerga who appeared more experienced and organized than the Iraqi army. The weekend’s events indicate that has changed.

“The Islamic State wanted to postpone the Kurdish battle, but geographically speaking and because of the escalation of events the Islamic state had to enter this battle now,” a spokesman for ISIS, which now goes simply by Islamic State, told the Financial Times. “The Islamic State wants all its territory without borders from Iraq to the Levant.”

What happens next? FRONTLINE spoke to Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, about whether the Kurds in Iraq can hold against ISIS, and what the latest developments mean for the peshmerga fighters.

Can the Kurdish peshmerga hold out against ISIS?

I think they can. Obviously, it’s been quite a surprise. They’ve taken a black eye. They’ve been spectacularly unprepared so far. They claim it’s because they don’t have enough weapons but I don’t think anybody believes that. They’re just using that as a line to get more aid from the U.S. I think they just had their pants down, as most people have when it comes to ISIS. Clearly most of these militias have been jokers, and ISIS is not.

They’re going to have to regroup, and they can do it. We know the peshmerga are capable of fighting. They have experienced commanders. They’re getting air support now from the Iraqi government. And I’m sure all kinds of assistance is coming in from countries like Turkey and Iran. Everybody’s going to want to get in there and help them in their time of need.

What’s at stake for the Kurds? What are their territorial ambitions in the region?

They want to get as much of the oil as they can. They don’t want a powerful Sunni force that’s irredentist with lots of oil wealth next to them. [ISIS now makes $1 million per day in oil profits in Iraq, per Iraqi oil industry officials.]  They’re going to have to deal with this because it seems quite clear today that ISIS is not taking Baghdad, it’s not going for Aleppo as many people believed. It looks like they’re going to go after the Kurds, and go after the oil. ISIS is going to pick on what they believe are the weaker elements, which have the money, the oil.

And the Kurds are kind of a stepchild for the international community, because nobody recognizes their independence. Stupidly, the Kurds are pressing for independence at a time when they need international help, and it’s a very bad combination. Lots of countries, like Turkey and Iran — and Baghdad — are anxious that they not ask for independence. This situation may force the Kurds to dial back their demands for greater political independence.

There have been some reports of Syrian Kurds crossing the border to help Iraqi Kurds fight ISIS. How much cooperation is there between Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds?

I assume that’s happening. There’s a natural solidarity amongst the Kurds. The PKK [Kurdistan Worker’s Party] and the PYD [Democratic Union Party] in Syrian Kurdistan have been given the cold shoulder to a certain degree by the Iraqi Kurds because of the Turkish question. Turkey defines them as a terrorist group, and so the Iraqi Kurds haven’t wanted to support them. They’re competitors with the PKK.

This is a way for the PYD to get into the good books of the older and stronger brother next door in Iraq. So there’s a lot of diplomacy that’s going along with this volunteering.

What do the latest developments say about ISIS’ capabilities, as it’s now opening a second front against the Kurds?

They’ve been fighting the Kurds in Syria. They’ve been attacking in Hasakah, and so forth. They haven’t been leaving the Kurds alone. They’ve been going for the cheap and easy targets; that’s what ISIS has been doing. In some ways, this makes sense — this front against the Kurds. They’re isolated internationally, and not as prepared as the Iraqi military that has been trained by the U.S., and backed fully by Iran — or the Syrian government that is backed by Russia and Iran and has a professional army and air force.

The Kurds don’t have an air force. They’re going to be fighting on equal terms with ISIS, instead of on much superior terms. In many ways, this is consistent with ISIS strategy so far, of growing up in these rather desolate regions in — whether it’s Raqqa in Syria or the Anbar province in Iraq. They’ve gotten easy gains by taking territory that nobody was prepared to expend a lot of military might into tending.

Taking on the Kurds is smart, because the Kurds are sitting on their rear. And the Kurds have oil.

The Kurdish region has reportedly requested weapons from the Obama administration. How seriously would Washington consider such a request especially since it’s not through the Iraqi government?

They’re torn obviously. They want to hurt ISIS. They need to defend the Kurds — the Kurds are one of their primary allies in the long run in this region. It’s very short-sighted of America not to help the Kurds, based on some legal policy. My hunch is, America’s going to find a way around it. It doesn’t make any sense not to help the Kurds.

Maliki authorized air support for the peshmerga on Monday. What does this kind of unprecedented move say about the Iraqi government’s fear of ISIS?

They’re in the same boat. The Kurds and Baghdad are competitors, but they’re both confronting this new force. ISIS is killing people with abandon and is extremely anti-Shia and wants Baghdad at the end of the day. If Iraq’s government can support the Kurds to take on and bloody ISIS, it’ll be a cheap way for Baghdad to get somebody else do their heavy lifting. Even though in the long run they’re competitors, it makes complete sense to help them now.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters take their positions behind a wall on the front line with militants from the Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), 62 miles south of the oil rich province of Kirkuk, northern Iraq, Wednesday, June 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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