National Security & Defense

Holding Down the Fort in Kurdistan: Peshmerga Play Defense against ISIS

A Peshmerga soldier mans a bunker. (Photo: Younes Mohammad)

Telskuf, Iraq — The front lines in the fight against ISIS stretch for 1,000 kilometers, from the villages north of Mosul, along much of the Tigris, to the region north of Tikrit. It is a no-man’s-land, separated by fixed positions along vast trenches. Like the no-man’s-land of the Great War, to cross it from either side is to be subjected to heavy fire and the near-certainty of death. It is also no-nation-state’s-land, defended on both sides by armies of quasi-states, Kurdistan and the Islamic State, that do not appear on any officially sanctioned map.

Nineveh Province is, in theory, territory of the Iraqi government, though that government’s forces did not defend it last year when ISIS attacked, and they have demonstrated little willingness to liberate it. Since 2014, much of the territory north and east of Mosul, a region with many Christian and Yazidi communities, has been occupied by ISIS. For those on either side of the trenches who are willing to spill blood, the government in Baghdad has little relevance.

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Telskuf, a city in Nineveh, lies 30 kilometers north of Mosul, south of Dohuk. Until last summer, Telskuf was inhabited by 12,000 Christians, who represented a continuous Christian presence of more than 1,000 years in this region. Last year it was occupied by ISIS militants briefly before they were beaten back. Before their retreat, they deployed dozens of IEDs, many in a local church.

Telskuf is now deserted. Only peshmerga and a few Christian militia members occupy its homes. It resembles a city from a post-apocalyptic film. Most of Telskuf’s residents are now in al-Qosh to the north or in Erbil’s Ainkhawa district, home to tens of thousands of Christians; others have already made their way to the West. In May, authorities finally persuaded the last civilian residents of Telskuf to depart — three elderly women who had stubbornly remained in their homes.

Inside an abandoned Christian home in Telskuf, peshmerga commanders chain-smoke from cigarette packs labeled with the warning “Smoking Kills.” They have more immediate threats on their minds. Peshmerga general Khader Husayn explains that the peshmerga need both light and heavy equipment: M4s, armored Humvees, antitank weapons, mortars, and training. On a couch is an M16, captured from ISIS. “When ISIS is weak, they will just attack the Iraqi military in places like Anbar” to capture more weapons and ammunition, the general explains. Outside peshmerga headquarters one sees an armored M998 Humvee and a Chevy truck with a heavy weapon mounted in the bed, both captured from ISIS. The Kurds will likely have occasion to reclaim more soon.

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“If ISIS believes it is about to be attacked, it will launch a strike, as we saw in Ramadi,” the general says, adding that most of the weapons captured there have been moved to Mosul. ISIS regards the Kurds, not the Iraqi army, as the more formidable enemy. The peshmerga repeatedly express gratitude to America for the air support, without which they could not have stabilized the front lines.

A few hundred meters to the south of Telskuf are the defensive positions of the peshmerga. One can see trenches stretching east and west, with other peshmerga outposts every few hundred meters. To the south are two villages. Standing next to a mounted “Dishka” (DShK) heavy machine gun, the outpost commander points to the villages, perhaps two kilometers away, and says, “Daesh.” The last major attack along these lines from ISIS came in mid-April, and the Kurds repelled it.

The tactics of ISIS were new to the peshmerga, who have adjusted, proving far more resilient (and reliable) than the Iraqi military, despite being less well equipped.

The tactics of ISIS were new to the peshmerga, who have adjusted, proving far more resilient (and reliable) than the Iraqi military, despite being less well equipped. ISIS then came in the night in a suicide attack: a truck packed with explosives. The truck came across the open terrain toward the peshmerga but was destroyed before reaching the Kurdish lines, thanks to new countermeasures. Several meters in front of the fixed positions along the trenches, the Kurds deployed high-powered lights that are aimed each night toward ISIS lines. The Kurds also use improved communications to surge forces to repel ISIS advances quickly. “In a moment, we can have a thousand men here,” the commander says. ISIS will typically lie dormant in the day. “If they do something, it will be at night, often between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m.,” out of fear of coalition airstrikes, he says.

What the peshmerga lack in equipment and training they make up for in toughness. When asked if they believe they are ready to go on the offensive, one peshmerga soldier replies, “If we are given the order, we will go.” Such an attack as presently constituted would, of course, mean slaughter — much as a soldier in the First World War had little hope after “going over the top.” They have no armored vehicles, no tanks, no artillery support. They are, however, well positioned to hold what they now possess. They point to weapons recently arrived from the coalition: antitank weapons of a type inferior to the Milan but nonetheless useful. (Some peshmerga have, they say, named their sons “Milan” after the missile.)

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Historically, the peshmerga have consisted of units representing different political parties, such as the PDK or the PUK. The ISIS threat has forged greater peshmerga unity and coordination. Though they present a united front when speaking to Westerners, in reality the militias remain highly politicized. If Iraqi Kurdistan achieves nationhood, ISIS will likely be seen as the catalyst. The greatest deterrent to Kurdish independence in the meantime is the disapproval of Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors — Turkey, Iran, and the Iraqi central government. However, no threat on their border is greater than those across no-man’s-land: the soldiers of the Islamic State. Absent more-aggressive coalition intervention, ISIS is not likely to be dislodged soon.

#related#U.S. and coalition airstrikes combined with improved peshmerga defensive tactics reduce the likelihood that ISIS will expand its borders in northern Iraq. However, they are nowhere close to being able to conduct an offensive campaign. Neither is the Iraqi military. The status quo is unlikely to change. Talk of an offensive to liberate Mosul is simply unrealistic. Neither the Iraqi military nor the Kurds seem inclined to shed a drop of blood for Mosul — a fact better understood here than in Washington. They speak either of American or international intervention, neither of which is likely.

The Obama administration appears to have concluded that this is a problem that Iraqis must sort out for themselves — especially Iraq’s Sunni population, many of whom welcomed ISIS after being alienated by the government of Nuri al-Maliki. The problem with this thinking, of course, is that those doing the fighting regard themselves not as Iraqis but as Kurds or soldiers of the caliphate. Sources in Kurdistan say that there are as many as five hundred such ISIS soldiers in Kurdistan now. They are likely awaiting orders to strike. If they do attack, the peshmerga in the trenches may find themselves facing ISIS on either side.

Andrew Doran served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2018 to 2021. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.


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