[UPDATE: Just received reports from the NGO coordinating committee and some of our partners in Erbil that the US has begun airstrikes against IS forces between Mosul and Erbil. WP reports that US planes are attacking IS mobile artillery. http://www.washingtonpost.com/... There were also airstrikes against IS near Kirkuk.]
While the world's attention has been focused on Gaza, fighting between the "Islamic State" (IS) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) dramatically escalated today. I am currently in Kurdistan and wanted to give a brief update on recent developments, provide some analysis, and make some predictions about the future.
Last weekend, IS attacked and occupied the Kurdish/Yezidi city of Sinjar, killing and abducting hundreds of Yezidis and chasing at least 50,000 up a rugged mountain, where they remain surrounded and face annihilation. The Yezidis are a non-Muslim religious group whose beliefs are based roughly on Zoroastrianism, with elements of other pre-Islamic and Sufi beliefs. They are considered "devil worshipers" by IS, and have been targeted for forced conversion or execution. This was the first major IS attack directly against territory controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga forces, and the defeat was both frightening and concerning for everyone here. The KRG has been helicoptering in some water and food to the people stuck on the mountain, who have some weapons and continue to fight off incursions from IS. [Update: US aircraft airlifted in 5800 gallons of drinking water and pallets of food to the refugees in the mountain.] Meanwhile IS kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi women and girls, who because they are not "people of the book" (i.e. Jews or Christians) can be considered the property of whoever captures them, at least in the strange theology of IS.
Until this event, the Iraqi Kurds had been content to watch the IS conflict pretty much from the sidelines. They considered the IS fight to be mostly between the Shia' led government in Baghdad, and the disaffected Sunni minority, and had pursued a defensive policy of fighting back only when attacked. The shock of this recent offensive has not fully sunken in, but people are gradually realizing that a real war is starting, and it will last not months, but potentially years. One positive outcome is that the Kurdistan government has agreed, once again, to coordinate military action with Baghdad. This is essential if IS is to be defeated. Discussions of independence or the status of Kurdistan in Iraq can wait for now.
Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani issued a statement, which amounts to a declaration of war against IS: http://www.krg.org/...
Following the events of Mosul, Kurdistan has only defended itself. However, the terrorists started to provoke and attack Kurdistan, resulting in the recent distressing incidents. Therefore, we decided to go beyond the defensive position and fight the terrorists to the last breath. We have ordered the Peshmerga forces to attack the terrorists and the enemies of the people and the land of Kurdistan with all their power.IS's genocidal targeting of religious minorities is considered an outrage by the Kurdish population, and Sunni mosques have opened their doors to house displaced Yezidis - an event that would have been unimaginable just six months ago. However, the ethnic and religious minorities, including the Christians and the Yezidis, are desperate and angry at the lack of effective military support from the Kurdistan government. Barzani did make specific mention of genocide against religious minorities as one of the reasons for deciding to attack IS:
The people of Kurdistan are accustomed, in their culture, to respect and abide by religious pluralism and coexistence... The recent developments in the areas of Zumar and Sinjar and the tragedy that faced our Yezidi brothers and sisters are heartbreaking. We reassure the people of Kurdistan that we will not relinquish an inch of the territory of Kurdistan and that we will defend Sinjar and our Yezidi brothers and sisters dearly, and that Sinjar Mountain will continue to stand tall. This beloved and indigenous part of our nation will remain proud and it is our duty to protect it.Over the last five days, IS attacked Mosul Dam, but it is not clear that they have actually taken it as in the Reuters report. [Update: IS controls the dam. KRG is now admitting that they withdrew: http://yalibnan.com/... ] What is indisputable is that the dam is considered one of the most likely to catastrophically fail in the world. The dam was built on a friable, soluble gypsum and karst limestone formation which requires continual maintenance and may someday fail regardless. The sides of the mountain where the dam is are filled with swiss-cheese holes, and the mountain around the dam is slowly dissolving. Without constant maintenance, of a sort the IS is incapable of, the dam may fail at some point in the future: http://www.businessinsider.com/... If the dam fails, it could send a wall of water into Mosul, and cause damage as far south as Baghdad. IS seeks to control the dam in order to control a significant portion of Iraq's electricity.
On Thursday, IS shelled and occupied a number of Christian towns near Mosul, including Qaraqosh, which is the largest majority Christian town in Iraq. http://www.bbc.com/... The inhabitants fled into Kurdistan. This is also a major loss, and people have been fleeing the ancient communities in the Mosul Plain all day. I saw thousands of refugees crowded into 'Ain Kawa, a Christian suburb of the Kurdish capital Erbil today, squatting in buildings under construction and literally covering every square yard of space inside the main church grounds. IS is expected to blow up the churches, including perhaps Mar Matti, which has been continuously inhabited since 363 CE. It is a huge disaster for Iraq's Christian population, the largest and oldest Aramaic speaking community in the world. Aramaic is the language that Jesus spoke, and there is an unbroken tradition of Christianity here since at least the second century.
[Update: The Kurds withdrew from the communities on the east side of the Tigris near Mosul, and have dug in along a frontline on the hills just west of Kalak - this was the frontline in 2003 before Saddam Hussein was deposed, and is only about 25km from the Kurdish capital of Erbil.]
The KRG announced that it attacked IS in Makhmur, only 40 kilometers from the capital Erbil, where I sit as I write this. I'm not sure about who really attacked whom. It is possible that IS attacked the Kurds, who fought back. Makhmur has a population of about 150,000. Erbil city is filled with Kurds from Makhmur who have fled the fighting. Fighting raged all day, but the KRG is reporting that IS has been pushed out of Makhmur and the Guer district. One of our lawyers heard a report that Turkish war planes backed up the peshmerga forces, and I did hear a fighter plane earlier today. This remains unconfirmed. If true, it means that Turkey is actually fighting on the same side as the Iraqi Kurds, an event I would have considered absolutely absurd when I first started working here 20 years ago. I would take it with a big grain of salt until confirmed. [Update: I just saw video of the Turkish planes on TV, and I suspect it may actually be true. Kurdish TV also shows peshmerga in Makhmur city tonight.]
US policy has avoided providing any direct military support for the Kurdistan region, out of concerns that the Kurds might eventually declare independence. At least two planeloads of weapons arrived at Erbil Airport in the last couple days. People here speculate that the US is finally arming the Kurds. [Update: President Obama issued a statement in which he authorizes the following: US airstrikes should the Kurdish capital of Erbil be attacked, airstrikes to open a corridor to evacuate the Yezidis from Sinjar Mountain if they are necessary, and unspecified aid to the Iraqi and Kurdish governments - presumably military aid. There are no specifics on the extent to which the US will provide military assistance. White House transcript here:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/... ] France is also in discussion about providing assistance, including military assistance.
The war with IS also proceeds to the east and south of the Kurdistan region, as well as around Baghdad. This is also an area populated by religious and ethnic minorities, and the war here is complicated because the Kurds are fighting in part of this area, and the Iranian Quds force and other Iranian military are joining with Shia' militias and the Iraqi army in other parts. It appears that the Kurds are coordinating more closely with the Iranians and the Iraqi government. [Update: 300 Iranian special forces are in the Kurdish city of Kifri, apparently with the support of the KRG.]
Several minority groups are under extreme risk in this area as well. The Kakai are a heterodox sect related to Shia' Islam, probably from the 14th century. IS kills them whenever it captures them. They are under attack near Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu. The region also hosts many Turkmen communities. Turkmen are Turkish speakers, but not from the Ottoman Empire. They are communities that trace their origins from Timurlane in the 15th Century, and from the "Qizilbash" Turkic tribes, a Shia' group, in the 16th century. IS will kill them as well. Turkey has expressed concern for the Turkmen populations and the fact that they seem to have provided air support to the Kurds in their fight today suggests that perhaps Turkey may support some sort of an intervention to save the Turkmen from possible mass killing. The Turkmen town of Amerli, population about 20,000, has been surrounded by IS for the last 40 days but heroically continues to hold out despite being attacked daily. If IS captures this town, they will likely execute many or even most of the men, as they are heterodox Shia' and Kakai, and considered "idolators". Food is running out and they are desperate for someone to open an evacuation corridor: http://www.middle-east-online.com/... [Update: Saraya ad-Difa' ash-Sha'abi, a Shia' militia, has attacked IS in some villages near Amerli, so relief might be on the way.]
There was also heavy fighting reported today in Salman Beg, which is outside the Kurdistan region in this eastern district where many Turkmen and Kakai live. I heard on the radio tonight that the Kurds joined with some Shia' militias to attack IS there, and fierce fighting allegedly is still continuing. The Kurds and IS have fought back and forth over another large town in the area, Jalawla, with a population of about 60,000.
[Updated information on Sunni groups] This is turning into a major war, as big or bigger than what is going on in Syria. IS spearheads the fighting, but a lot of the fighting is also conducted by Sunni insurgent groups who feel, perhaps in error, that they can eventually control IS. On the more moderate side, these include Sunni tribal fighters who abandoned the Awakening Movement out of disgust at Maliki's exclusionary policies, IS has already started threatening the Sunni tribal leaders, so if they think this marriage of convenience will work, they are mistaken. More serious are former Saddam regime loyalists like Izzat al-Duri, the only major figure in Saddam's government to escape capture. Izzat al-Duri called for the elimination of the Yezidis since the 1980's and was a major figure in the destruction of all the Yezidi villages in 1987-88. His JRTN (Naqshibandi Army) militia will gleefully join in the killing and expropriation of land and property. The Islamic Army of Iraq also allies itself with IS and consists of former army officers and men, including elements of Saddam's Republican Guard, who have joined with IS in an overall Sunni uprising. While most of these groups are fine with genocide, it appears that one is not. The General Military Council of Revolutionaries, which consists of some former regime loyalists, condemns the genocide of Yezidis: https://twitter.com/....
While IS is estimated to be at less than 10,000 men and their flags are the ones that appear everywhere, this war is also being fought by Sunni tribal fighters and former army personnel. Unfortunately, many of the older Sunni military officers now joining IS participated in past mass killings of Kurds, Yezidis and Christians, as well as in the brutal campaign against Iraq's Shia' majority, who rose up against Saddam in 1991. The Sunnis who are fighting with IS seem to feel that they can moderate them, but IS has a habit of taking over through the use of exceptional violence - which is already starting as IS has killed some Sunni tribal leaders suspected of future disloyalty in Ani, Falluja and Hit.
IS has been able to advance, even against the Kurds, for two reasons. First, they are terrifying - they routinely torture and execute prisoners, force captured women and girls into "marriages" with jihadists, and nobody wants to take the chance of being caught. Second, they are far better armed at this point than the Kurds. They have hundreds of tanks, armed personnel carriers, mobile artillery, all taken when they overran the Iraqi army. The Kurds have very little heavy equipment, most of which they took from the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, Still, they are outgunned. Until that imbalance is addressed, things look grim.
My overall impression here tonight is that most people are in a state of denial. It's the start of the weekend and people are out for picnics, ignoring the hundreds of vehicles filled with refugees on the road. People are not frightened that IS is going to penetrate in to the heart of the Kurdistan region, but it seems to me that few realize yet that this is going to turn into a long war. IS will not be able to defeat the Kurds, but the prospects for ethnic minorities are poor, and the KRG is not ready for a war. The last decade of peace means that the older peshmerga are the only ones with actual combat experience, and the society has not yet mobilized for the wider war that is coming.