The Kurds' Heroic Struggle Against ISIS

ISIS is getting its ass kicked by the Kurds.

In Syria's Hasaka Province, where the Iraqi and Turkish borders converge, YPG fighters have ISIS on the run, and they've just retaken two more villages outside the long-besieged city of Kobane on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forced ISIS to flee Sinjar near Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the site of horrible massacres against the Yezidi minority last year. As many as 5,000 civilians were killed, thousands of women were dragged off as sex slaves, and tens of thousands were forced to flee onto a mountaintop without food or water.

Sinjar was the penultimate straw for Washington and the start of the war between Iraqi Kurdistan and ISIS. The last straw for Washington came just weeks later when an ISIS column made a beeline for Erbil, Iraq's Kurdish capital, in American Humvees stolen from the Iraqi army in Mosul.

The Kurds are the only people in the region whose willingness to fight matches that of ISIS, and unlike ISIS nearly all their fighters are recruited internally. They haven't issued any worldwide calls for enlistment. They don't troll social media looking for disgruntled young people abroad. With just a handful of exceptions, no one from outside the region volunteers to fight alongside them. They receive little support from the West and no support from the neighbors.

On the one hand it's astonishing that they're able to maintain a firewall hundreds of miles long against so vicious an enemy with so little help, but the Kurds have fielded better fighting forces than the Arab states for decades. Shortly after the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq's Shias and Kurds mounted simultaneous uprisings against the government, together wresting control of most of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. He managed to massacre his way into retaking the Shia parts of the country, but his army—the fourth-largest in the world at the time—was no match for the Kurds in north. Women and children left the cities on foot and took refuge in the mountains while the men stayed behind to purge the regime more than a decade before the rest of the country was finally rid of it.

Picking a fight with the Kurds is a little like going to war against Lebanon's Druze or the Israelis. It's like trying to invade and occupy Texas. Only ISIS leaders, at this point in history, are drunk enough on their own ideological belligerence to think they can best the people who whooped Saddam Hussein's military machine while everyone else who tried was gunned into ditches.

But ISIS is learning, and its commanders are asking the Peshmerga for a ceasefire. The Kurds, though, are even less likely to negotiate with who the Kirkuk chief of police calls “blind snakes” than Americans are. We have two continents and an ocean between ourselves and ISIS, but a hardy person could walk from Mosul to the Kurdish autonomous region in a less than a day, and that border is as potentially porous as the Mexican-American border.

Iraq's central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are planning operations to reclaim Mosul from ISIS later this year, but Baghdad is loathe to give the Kurds much help in the meantime. Kurdistan is still at least technically part of Iraq, and its officials have to ask the central government for money and weapons. At times Baghdad grudgingly says yes and other times it says no. Everyone knows the Kurds want their own state, and the central government doesn't want them to grow so strong that they can finally tell the rest of Iraq to sod off and damn the consequences.

So they need help from outside, but they aren't getting much. Bayan Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the US, says most of the promised American weapons shipments still haven't arrived.

Washington is so afraid of cheesing off Baghdad and Turkey, which are both hostile to Kurdish independence, that it's still willing to largely blow off its only genuine and competent allies in that part of the Middle East. The Kurds are by far the most pro-American people over there, more so even than the Israelis, and the only reason they aren't yet powerful enough to be reckoned with internationally is because they haven't achieved full independence. They are still, after all these years, the world's largest stateless people and treated as second-class allies in favor of Turkey, which has been obnoxiously unhelpful in the Middle East for more than a decade, and Iraq, which is a de-facto Iranian client state.

The US may eventually get its alliance priorities straight. In the meantime, the Kurds are doing yeoman's work nearly alone and without even much recognition, let alone thanks.



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