Black Tiger Military Base, Mala Qara Village, Iraq — Less than 60 miles from Islamic State–held Mosul, Commander Sirwan Barzani enters a room filled with troops and maps. His Kurdish peshmerga soldiers promptly leap to their feet in deference.
Commander Barzani and his troops — peshmerga literally translates to “those who face death” — are on the front line of a perilous fight against the Islamic State. This summer, he tells me in excellent English, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq “just woke up and saw [that we suddenly had] more than 1,000 kilometers of border with the most dangerous terrorist group in the world.”
Until recently, Sirwan Barzani was less a military man than a political figure and a businessman. A man widely reported to hold a stake in both Korek Telecom, one of the biggest mobile-phone operators in Iraq, and one of the biggest shopping malls in Erbil, the commander is also the nephew of Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan.
After the Islamic State began aggressively attacking, Sirwan Barzani joined the Kurdish peshmerga forces, and his uncle appointed him to his position, along with several other Kurdish strongmen. Though his family connections have certainly played a role in his success, Commander Barzani has shown himself reasonably competent in the past two months, leading an effort to reclaim villages captured by the Islamic State.
When Commander Barzani and his soldiers arrived in the region, the Islamic State was only three kilometers from the Black Tiger Military Base, which he controls. In the past month and a half, his peshmerga troops, often working under U.S. air cover, have made significant advances, he says, expelling Islamic State forces from more than 40 villages, as well as the cities of Makhmour and al-Gweir.
Still, they face steep challenges, Commander Barzani tells me. The Iraqi government considers the peshmerga merely a regional force and controls their funding, he says. In recent months, Baghdad hasn’t given them much money or weaponry, and it’s even imposed strict salary caps for the peshmerga. The New York Times reported last month that Commander Barzani had dipped into his own personal funds to provide cars, food, and weapons for his troops.
“Of course, you cannot have a well-trained peshmerga, a well-organized peshmerga, without weapons, without budget,” Commander Barzani says. Comparatively, “almost four divisions were taken by [the Islamic State] from the Iraqi army,” he says. “They took everything, all the weapons, including the American weapons, mortars, armored cars, Humvees, Hummers — everything.”
The peshmerga have faced a steep learning curve fighting the Islamic State, Commander Barzani says; his troops have historically fought in the mountains, and the Islamic State is attacking from the desert and plains, a vastly different landscape. The Islamic State also makes heavy use of explosives, planting a vast number of roadside bombs in the territory it captures and lacing homes and buildings with TNT. In the past 45 days alone, the commander says, 11 of his peshmerga have died in battle, and more than 100 have been injured by explosives.
Finally, the Islamic State has proven adept at psychological warfare, Commander Barzani says.
“They started this almost one year ago, [using] all the media — social media, Facebook, the Internet — [to show] how they are killing the people, how they are taking their kids, how they are killing children, how they are taking the women, females, so it’s really psychological war, and I can say that they are succeeding,” he says. “Most of the peshmerga, you know, they are from [this] same region, so when ISIS came, some of them [said they had to first] take their families and kids to the safe area [before they could join the fight]. . . . That’s a challenge for us.”
Nonetheless, Commander Barzani says, he believes his forces are learning fast and will prevail, at least in the region.
“The peshmerga, we are fighting for more than 100 years for our rights, for our [unity], for our democracy, for our land, and we will continue, and we will push them back. We’ve fought Saddam . . . so we will fight ISIS easily. . . . I think maximum in two months, we will push them back from the Kurdish area.”
Commander Barzani says he wants the United States and the international community to provide him with weapons and begin offering air support by helicopter in addition to the jet strikes, which he says have been highly effective. He says he believes the peshmerga can drive the Islamic State from the Kurdish regions without U.S. ground forces.
The rest of the country is a different story, he says.
Though the Iraqi army is well-trained and has more weapons, he says, it also grapples with stark factions. Though he did not have statistics, he said many Iraqi army troops have actually joined the Islamic State. Many of turncoats are “the ex-Saddam Ba’ath Party, the Republican Guard. . . . But even the new army, some of them are joining ISIS.”
“For the rest of Iraq — and this is my personal idea — I can say it’s impossible to finish [the Islamic State] in Iraq without soldiers on the ground, ground troops from NATO or America on ground. . . . I think it’s impossible with the Iraqi army.”
Sectarian divides have long plagued Iraq, and the commander says he sees post–Islamic State Iraq splitting into at least three confederations or “killing each other, I think, for at least the next 25 years or more.”
He says there has been more momentum recently for an independent Kurdistan.
“As a Kurd nation, as a people, all of them — and you can feel that in any street, in any house in Kurdistan — they love the Western people, not just the political, unlike other Muslim countries,” Commander Barzani says. “And as a democracy, we can say that compared with the area — not to compare with America or Europe — but compared to the area, we are the best. We are the best as a democracy. We are a government now, and all parties participate in the government.”
But the international support behind independent Kurdistan remains lacking, for reasons Commander Barzani says he can’t fully comprehend.
But whether Kurdistan remains a part of Iraq or eventually splinters off, the international community must understand that it plays a critical role in the fight against the Islamic State, Commander Barzani says.
“Please help us,” he asks me to write. “Our war against ISIS and the terrorists is for all the world, not for Kurdistan only. We want weapons and help for the refugees and for the peshmerga to fight the most dangerous terrorist group in the world. That’s my message.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.