In Kurdistan, Islamic State is already losing


Asha Castleberry is a former US Army Officer who served in the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq in 2014. She is now a Global Fellow for PS21.


Mere hours before the Paris attack on 13th November, Kurdish Pashmerga forces ousted Islamic State fighters from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. The victory highlights progression in defeating the group – also known as Daesh – in Iraq and a clear success for the coalition’s current strategy of using effective air strikes and providing training, advice, and assistance.  Subsequently, the international community did not get the chance to absorb this victory due to the unexpected Paris attacks.  The Paris attacks generated more criticism about coalition efforts in countering Daesh and inflicting global fear mongering.  Realistically, the Paris attacks indirectly tells us that Daesh is actually losing the war in Iraq and Syria. The counter-offensive victory in Sinjar adds to the growing list of liberated areas.


One of the best tactics of defeating Daesh is by not falling for the rhetoric that this barbaric group is very strong.  The belief that Daesh is strong prevent us from seeing that they are losing area and disregarding positive gains. The international community should not ignore positive news. Media critics should not downplay the Sinjar victory.  The Peshmerga Forces – well known to be more combat effective than the Iraqi Security Forces – defeated ISIS with a decisive counter-offensive with supportive airstikes.  ISIS failed to hold the area allowing the Peshmerga forces to gain control of the main road between Sinjar and Baaj districts, reversing an ISIS victory in December 2014.


Regaining key areas like Sinjar will help establish effective lines of communication.  In preparation for a major offensive against ISIS-held Mosul – Iraq’s second city –  the Peshmerga now have effective lines of communication This should help Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to better support joint operations with the Iraqi security forces.


The Sinjar victory also helps counter Daesh’s information campaign. Daesh’s military strength is central to its attraction for foreign fighters in particular. An increasing number of foreign fighters are joining Daesh because the terrorist group are regarded as winners.  Psychologically, everybody wants to be part of the winning team – and to do that, Daesh has repeatedly claimed to be building itself a new sovereign country.  The lost of Sinjar undermines that belief.


Prior to Sinjar, Daesh had already lost areas in Tikrit, Fallujah, Kobane, and Hasakah. Daesh was only viewed as strong because they were able to seize terrority in two vulnerable countries. Both Iraq and Syria were weak – albeit for different reasons. In Iraq, security forces lacked cohesion and central leadership was corrupt and ineffective. In Syria, the entire country has collapsed. This allowed Islamic State to expand and build hubs.


The area recaptured by Kurdish forces this month was where the US-led campaign began in summer 2014. The sight of thousands of ethnic Yazidi men, women and children crowding onto a mountain top surrounded by Islamic State raised fears of imminent genocide.


To keep up the positive momentum, immediately providing adequate and sustainable services for a liberated Sinjar is a priority.  KRG needs to be able to hold Sinjar in order to further illustrate their victory against Daesh.  KRG needs to implement a strong strategy on how and when to accommodate returning refugees and rebuild local infrastructure.  The Yazidis lived under poor conditions and developed strong resentment towards the Sunni community. The failure to provide prompt services will destabilize conditions.


Greater political cohesion between KRG and the central government in Baghdad remains critical, particularly in the run up to the Mosul offensive. Sectarian strife will threaten joint coordination between the Shia-led Baghdad government, Sunni communities and the Kurds.  This is still a challenge.  Recently, Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has said Iraqi and sometimes Iranian backed Shia Militia are not allowed in KRG after clashes occurred between the Kurds and Hashid al-Shaabi militias in Tuz Khurmatu- a disputed area between Baghdad and KRG located in Saladine Province.


This will only complicate operational coordination for the Iraqi Security Forces only if they attempt to work with the Shia militia for the Mosul counter-offensive. The situation is already very complicated. Iraqi PM Abadi promised that the Shia militias will not take part in the Mosul offensive but he must make sure that his subordinates are committed to his decision. Evidently, Baghdad is struggling to remove leadership within the militias that are not committed in addressing sectarian strife.  Since August, PM Abadi has began to implement his political reforms, which were praised by the international community. These reforms are aimed at addressing the kind of problems that allowed the ISIS take-over in 2014, particularly through removing corrupt leaders and unravelling an often sectarian based patronage system. This process, though, remains fraught with difficulties, not least due to the refusal of the majority of MPs to agree the reform programme.  .


The belief that Daesh is insuperable is exaggerated.  The Paris attacks inflicted more global fear but the victory in Sinjar symbolizes that they are losing strength on the homefront. The cunter ISIS coalition continues to recapture ISIS areas but must be able to secure these victories, provide services and achieve political stability.  As Daesh continue to lose terrority, they will pursue desperate measures to show that they are still strong by intensifying asymmetric tactics in the west. However, the international community should not fall for the hype.  Globally, both policy and media skeptics need to understand that Daesh wins when they continue to convince people worldwide that they are winning in Iraq and Syria and persistently generating fear mongering towards Syrian and Iraqi refugees.


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