Analysis |

Kurds Chalk Up 1st Victory Against Islamic State

Retaking of Mosul dam, along with other developments such as new Sunni support in war against Islamic State, may signal new shift in war. Meanwhile, U.S. is relying on the Syrian regime's readiness to battle IS.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Kurdish peshmerga fighter prepares his weapon at his combat position near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq, Aug 17, 2014.
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter prepares his weapon at his combat position near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq, Aug 17, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Mosul dam, Iraq's largest, is the site of what is the first major victory for Kurdish forces over Islamic State fighters since the latter invaded the country over two months ago. Foreign media are reporting that the Kurds have essentially wrested control over the strategic site, which was seized by IS in early June.

In their battle over the dam, which supplies water and electricity to large areas of northern Iraq, Kurdish forces were provided with arms and ammunition from the United States and European countries. The forces encountered roadside bombs of the type familiar from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; guerrilla warfare also slowed their advance. U.S. aerial support was particularly helpful in the fighting over the weekend, but no substitute for the exhausting ground campaign the Kurds have waged in the vicinity.

Another important development is that Sunni tribes from Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, have joined Iraqi Army forces in their fight against IS. This is in addition to the local uprising by tribesmen in the Deir al-Zour province in Syria against IS forces – an uprising for which hundreds of those men have paid with their lives.

Is this the start of a shift in the war against the Islamic State? Up to now, its 13,000-strong forces have relied upon civilian support from the Sunni tribes – who have been motivated to help the IS due to a deep sense of oppression by, and desire for revenge against, the Iraqi government – as well as support from former members of the Ba’ath who were expelled from the governmental establishment.

As long as Nouri al-Maliki ruled Iraq, there was no chance to cut off this public Sunni support from IS, which did not encounter any serious resistance from the Iraqi Army forces in the north of the country, where it was perceived by the local population as an occupying force. However, in light of the recent appointment of Haider al-Ibadi as prime minister, and his pledge to form a government in which Sunnis will have due representation, a foundation has been created for the necessary change in the status of the Sunnis, who in the past have demonstrated their ability to rein in Al-Qaida forces. Of course, it is still too early to see whether that pledge will be upheld.

In addition to participation in the government itself, the Sunnis are also seeking a release of their prisoners, budgetary allocations, and the reinstatement of tribesmen to service in the Iraqi Army, in order to build a sense of unity and trust. But the very willingness of the tribal leaders to hold a political dialogue with the new regime is a positive sign that might also be expressed in the way the war is being waged against IS.

Another important aspect of that war involves drying up the Islamic State's sources of funding. This would require retaking control of the oil fields in Syria and Iraq; closing off the oil smuggling routes from Syria to Turkey; and taking control of the border crossings from eastern Syria to northwestern Iraq. That kind of campaign requires that large ground forces be dispatched to the areas where the Kurds cannot handle the burden alone.

Meanwhile, IS appears to be nearly stretched to the limit in terms of its military capabilities. Its forces are deployed over hundreds of kilometers of roads and are busy maintaining control of the cities they have conquered. For the time being at least, a southward advance to the Baghdad area – where armed militias of Shiite organizations and affiliated movements are operating, and which is being defended by elite units from the Iraqi Army – does not appear possible.

But while in Iraq there are forces that have the potential to rein in IS, in Syria the situation is more complicated. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s planes have been bombing the enemy strongholds in the Ar-Raqqah area in the last two days, but in Aleppo the Syrian forces are retreating and allowing the Islamists to expand their control. Unlike the Kurdish forces in Iraq, the rebel forces in Syria do not have the benefit of an American air umbrella, nor does the U.S. have any plans to increase its military aid to them.

For its part, Washington is now relying on the Syrian regime’s readiness to battle IS forces, as it now views them as a much bigger threat than Assad remaining in power. The upshot is that the U.S. is managing two seemingly separate battlefronts – the one in Iraq, which allows outside intervention, and the one in Syria, which blocks it. But the Syrian arena is the source of a large part of the funding and it provides the so-called logistical corridor for IS in Iraq, so there will be no way to avoid treating these two fronts as a single arena of battle, with all of the diplomatic implications that go with that.

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