Viewpoints

Trudy Rubin: Kurds battle the Islamic State

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan – At Kurdish forward command headquarters, not far from the Syrian border, President Massoud Barzani is planning the next stage of the battle against the Islamic State. The headquarters, a collection of white trailers, is nestled in an isolated stretch of green and brown land in the northwest corner of Iraq, where Syria, Turkey, and Iraq meet.

On the flight up from Erbil, the helicopter pilot points out hills where there are still skirmishes with Islamic State fighters, but the mood here is very different from eight months ago. In August, the jihadis were moving toward Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, after seizing Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, only 50 miles away.

Buoyed by U.S. airstrikes, Kurdish peshmerga fighters have retaken 90 percent of the Kurdish land seized by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and liberated some Arab areas beyond that.

“The peshmerga managed to break the ISIS myth,” says Barzani, seated at a long table flanked by a wall of plastic-covered maps. “They are not invincible. But to say they are completely destroyed is not believable.

“They are still a threat, but decreased to a great degree. Our major military plan is to solidify our front lines.”

Now Barzani is deep in consultations with the Iraqi government and coalition forces on how to organize an offensive on how to retake Mosul. This will be a critical battle, because Mosul is a historic Sunni Arab city, which ISIS has brutally transformed into the capital of its “caliphate.” Drive ISIS from Mosul, shrink its geographic hold, and its aura and momentum will diminish, although the group will still have bases in Syria and elsewhere.

The Kurds are key to any Mosul offensive, so everyone wants to talk to Barzani. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently visited him with a delegation of Iraqi military leaders, and they agreed to set up a joint command center with U.S. and other coalition partners to prepare for a move on Mosul, although things are still in the very earliest phase. Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, was just in Erbil to discuss details.

And the Kurdish leader will visit Washington the first week in May to consult with the White House and Congress on how to push the jihadis back.

The big question is whose forces will liberate Mosul. Barzani’s peshmerga fighters will be key, because they are the most reliable fighting force in the country at the moment. But the Kurdish leader makes clear the peshmerga won’t be in the lead.

“We as Kurds are going to assist, but the people of Mosul, the tribes, the remnants of the police and the army should have the main role,” says Barzani, wearing his traditional red-and-white headdress and peshmerga khakis.

“Our role will be supportive within a comprehensive strategy,” he says, a strategy that must be worked out among all the players. The need for such a strategy is crucial because any Mosul offensive will be extraordinarily complex.

First come the sectarian considerations.

The Kurds don’t want to invade the heart of Mosul, because it is a historically Sunni Arab city. They’d like the Iraqi army to play a leading role, but that force virtually collapsed when the extremists invaded. The army’s officer class had been corrupted under the previous Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki. It is being retrained by U.S. and other coalition forces, but no one knows when enough revamped brigades will be available for Mosul.

Barzani also made clear that Iranian-backed Shiite militias are not the right force to liberate Mosul (in the battle for the Sunni city of Tikrit they burned and looted Sunni homes). While praising the militias’ “good fighters,” he stressed that “without one central command and control you cannot be successful.” In other words, no role for Shiite militias that operate outside national army command.

I asked whether the Kurds had any expectation that the Sunni inhabitants of Mosul might rebel against their tormentors. Masrour Barzani, the Kurds’ savvy intelligence chief and son of the president, interjected: “We see a lot of people very unsatisfied with ISIS control, but they know how brutal ISIS is.”

If Mosul residents see an external force poised to strike or if the Islamic State collapses, one might expect a local rebellion. “But to expect them to rise up before that is unrealistic,” Masrour Barzani said.

President Barzani added that the battle was political as well as military. The Iraqi government had to give the Sunnis of Mosul reason to believe that they had a “bright future” under the Shiite-led government, a future preferable to living under the Islamic State.

“If the local people won’t support ISIS,” Barzani insisted, “ISIS can’t stay.” (I’ve seen no sign yet that government sweeteners for Sunnis are in the cards.)

Throughout our conversation, the two men stressed their gratitude for American airstrikes and the close relationship between Kurdish and U.S. forces.

As an example, Masrour Barzani cited the “extraordinarily good coordination” between the peshmerga and coalition forces in calling in airstrikes against ISIS targets. “We’ve embedded our own liaison officers in the front lines who give the coordinates,” he said, “and we have a joint coordination center.”

He said similar coordination would be essential for all participants in a Mosul offensive. However, success would depend on the competency of all the players, including Iraqi forces, who greatly need improvement. “The creation of a joint cooperation center is not that difficult, but if the forces on the ground don’t cooperate, it won’t produce the same results,” he said.

President Barzani says he will be discussing “the war on ISIS and our future as a nation and the general environment in the region” when he goes to Washington.

“We would like to seize the opportunity to express our gratitude to the United States and the president,” he stressed. Barzani will also be asking for more heavy weapons, such as armored vehicles and antitank missiles, and assurances that, if weapons are delivered via Baghdad, they will reach Erbil swiftly.

The Kurds have proved, again, that they are an essential partner in the region and that the fight against ISIS can’t succeed without them. That means U.S. officials should listen closely to their requests and ideas on how to make a Mosul offensive succeed.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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