jeudi 11 septembre 2014

Les peshmerga kurdes ne méritent pas leur haute réputation militaire

Isis makes further advances in Syria while West vacillates over Iraq

Pershmerga forces are not capable of resisting extremists, while Washington is blind to the threat further north

Patrick Cockburn Author Biography

Thursday 14 August 2014

As the West dithers about how to respond to the plight of Christians and Yazidis fleeing fundamentalist gunmen, the fighters of Isis, which calls itself Islamic State, are making important gains hundreds of miles away in Syria.

In the last two days they have taken the towns of Turkmen Bareh and Akhtarin 30 miles from Aleppo, enabling them to take over the strategically valuable country on the way to the Turkish border. The Isis offensive started on Tuesday, reinforcing the position of the movement as the dominant force in the military opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Isis already controls one-third of Syria, including most of its oil wells, while Sunni rebel groups hostile to Isis are fleeing, disintegrating or joining the victors.

These little-reported developments in Syria illustrate how far the US, UK and their allies are from developing a strategy to deal with Isis and the rapidly expanding caliphate, now encompassing much of northern Syria and Iraq. Western policy in the two countries remains contradictory and self-defeating. In Iraq, the West supports the government in Baghdad and its counterparts in the quasi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in their battle to stop Isis. But in Syria Western policy is to weaken and displace Assad, though his government is the only force in Syria capable of battling Isis successfully. The West, Saudis, Turks and Qataris claim they are training and funding a “moderate” military opposition but this no longer exists in any strength on the ground.

The only other military force which can resist Isis in Syria is the militia of the 2.5 million-strong Kurdish minority. Divided into three enclaves, the Syrian Kurds have been holding off Isis attacks for weeks. Surely we should be helping these doughty fighters whom Isis cannot crush?

Unfortunately, we do not do so because they are the military arm of the PYD, the main authority among the Syrian Kurds. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which the US, EU and Nato label as “terrorists”. This is a pity because the PKK has plenty of recent military experience and rushed to combat Isis with some success when the armed forces of the KRG fled.

One of the revelations of the last week has been that the Peshmerga (“those who confront death” in Kurdish) did not deserve their high reputation as a military force. This should not have been the surprise it was. One veteran expert on Kurdish affairs has long referred to the Peshmerga as the “pêche melba”. Brave self-sacrificing guerrillas they may have been in the 1980s, but they have not fought anybody for over a decade. Even in 2003, the last time they heard a shot fired in anger, the Peshmerga advanced slowly, supported by a massive US air umbrella battering Saddam Hussein’s demoralised army that was not shooting back. It is even difficult to find out how many Peshmerga there really are, as Iraqi government officials discovered when the KRG asked the central government to pay for them.

Even if the Peshmerga were more effective, they would have difficulty in defending their 650-mile-long border with Isis-controlled territory. There were reports yesterday of Isis fighters massing at Qush Tappa for another push against the Kurds. But limited American air strikes have more effect than might be imagined because they help restore Kurdish morale. Nevertheless, Isis is gaining crucial ground around Baghdad in the Sunni towns to the south of the capital, enabling Isis potentially to surround the capital.

At Jafr al-Sakhar, a Sunni town 37 miles south-west of Baghdad, local men are joining Isis and are being paid between $400 and $500 a month, though payment may be irregular. Imad Farouq, a 22-year-old local man, told the online magazine Al-Monitor that “the main reason why some young people are attracted to Isis is because they are looking for jobs and it is easy to join it. Isis has opened the door for Sunnis in the area that stretches from southern Baghdad to the outskirts of Fallujah, by providing a good salary.” If Isis takes over this area, it will encircle Baghdad on three sides.

The Sunni Arabs in Iraq number five or six million and the evidence is that they still back the Isis-led revolt. They might split later – many Sunni are alienated by the bloodthirsty savagery and crude ideology of Isis – but there is no sign of this happening yet. Suspicion of a Shia-dominated Baghdad government runs high, particularly as the Sunni fear that, if it retakes their cities, its revenge for recent defeats will be merciless. Moreover, Isis is well prepared to prevent any stab in the back by its allies and has been swift to consolidate its power.

The replacement of Nouri al-Maliki by Haider al-Abadi as Prime Minister is not a magic wand that will suddenly make the Baghdad government acceptable to the Sunni. They are wondering how much has really changed. Ibrahim al-Shammary, the spokesman for the Islamic Army, a resistance group, asks in a tweet: “Whoever rejoiced about Abadi; how does he differ from Maliki?” After a decade of Shia rule, government apparatus is filled with adherents to Shia religious parties who have no intention of giving up power.

Baghdad and its Western allies have been over-optimistic about the chances of the departure of Mr Maliki opening the door to compromise with the Sunni. President Obama and the Europeans have spoken of great things that are to be expected from an “inclusive government”, the phrase implying a real share in power for the Sunni. This might have worked in 2010 but not today when the Sunni have already seized power in Sunni-majority provinces. Sunni politicians in Baghdad hoping for top jobs dare not return to their home cities and towns where Isis is likely to cut their heads off.

Hostile takeover: the rise of Isis

Q What is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis)?

A Isis, which also takes the name the Islamic State, is an armed group that is an offshoot of al-Qa’ida which has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria. In the areas it  controls it has also introduced sharia law, or law according to the Koran, which insists on a way of life detailed in Muslim texts including harsh punishments for crimes and a treatment of women that were common in the seventh century.

Q Whom is it fighting?

A In Syria, Isis is fighting the Syrian government, Syrian rebels, Syrian Kurds and their fundamentalist rivals the al-Nusra Front. In Iraq, Isis is fighting government forces and the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is also being hit by US air strikes.

Q Who are the people behind it?

A Isis is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who gained experience fighting the US in Iraq after 2003. Most of its soldiers are Iraqi and Syrian but it has large numbers of foreign fighters. Most are from the Middle East but with significant groups from the Caucasus and Europe, including the UK.

Q Why is it so successful?

A It has a strong core of former soldiers and fighters who have trained large numbers of new recruits.  They are committed and  prepared to die for their cause. It also seems to be well funded and recent successes against the Iraqi army have given it access to large amounts of modern weapons. Its opponents seem badly led, under-equipped and fearful of Isis.

Q Is it committing genocide?

A Isis is keen to publicise its shooting and beheading of men of military age and its crucifixion of people it judges to be criminals. It is also clear that it gives non-Muslims the opportunity to convert, pay a tax or flee. There is, as yet, no evidence that it has killed women or children or anyone who could be a soldier  against it, or that it has tried to kill an ethnic or religious group en masse.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising’, published by OR Books, available at
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Why the Kurdish Peshmerga Have Many Troubles in Stopping the Islamic State

By Hetav Rojan
August 13, 2014 | 12:05 am

The Islamic State’s blitzkrieg advances across large swathes of Iraq have reached the gates of Iraqi Kurdistan and the last week has seen some of the heaviest skirmishes between Kurdish forces, the peshmerga, and the Sunni militants.

Islamic State fighters sought to overpower the ancient Christian and Yazidi settlements around Mount Sinjar, northern Iraq, by using the element of surprise against the peshmerga deployed nearby. By August 7, thousands of religious minorities were fleeing their ancestral lands, trying to escape the Islamic State ultimatum of convert or die. Many were forced to take refuge, and dozens have died, on the barren mountain without food or water.

Seizing several strategically valuable towns, the Islamic State rapidly gained ground on Erbil, the regional capital. Peshmerga forces attempted to push back the militants, but were met with strong resistance. And the jihadist push for Erbil has revealed some weaknesses with the peshmerga, which was thought to be the only effective bulwark against further Islamic State expansion.

Iraq's Yazidis who fled to refugee camps say they will never go home. Read more here.

Outdated Arms and Inadequate Logistics
While the peshmerga is technically one force, the two main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both have their own affiliated peshmerga groups. Both KDP and PUK forces have large stocks of Soviet-era weapons, vehicles, and artillery at their disposal.

When Saddam Hussein fell from power, the peshmerga was able to capture significant amounts of the Iraqi army’s battle tanks, howitzers, and sizable stock of small arms. However, a source from within PUK’s peshmerga told VICE News that spare parts for armored vehicles and artillery are scarce, making it hard to maintain offensive capabilities. Then there’s a very real shortage of small arms ammunition and artillery rounds, so the peshmerga forces are starting to lose the upper hand in battle.

The fall of Mosul on June 10 also meant a remarkable equipment upgrade for the Islamic State (then known as ISIS), as the Iraqi government’s roughly 30,000 soldiers abandoned their bases, leaving behind a massive cache of US-supplied armored vehicles and heavy weaponry. This hardware made its way to frontlines in Syria and elsewhere in Iraq, bolstering the Islamic State’s rapid annexation of the Mosul Dam and Sinjar.

Even though the peshmerga can easily outgun the Islamic State in numbers, the Sunni fighters may nullify that advantage with their better-quality weapons and more effective tactics.

The US arms Kurdish troops as a political crisis brews in Baghdad. Read more here.

Lack of Hands-On Battle Experience
This may seem strange, as the Kurds are well known for their decade-long armed struggle for freedom. The thing is, the higher-ups in both KDP and PUK peshmerga forces fought Hussein and his army back in the day with guerrilla tactics, using Kurdistan’smountainous geography to their own advantage.

Back then, the enemy was a large, conventional army, untrained in guerrilla warfare and with a rigid hierarchy and bureaucratic chain-of-command. These peshmerga cadres are now facing a completely different foe: well-equipped to the task at hand, battle-hardened through years of unconventional fighting in Syria, and made up of smaller units supported by a flexible command chain.

The flat plains of Nineveh province also confront the peshmerga with an entirely different battle terrain than the mountains they have previously trained for.

Furthermore, the peshmerga have not been deployed in active battle in almost a decade. Although there have been build-ups and stand-offs with Iraqi forces around Kirkuk, the young peshmerga soldiers are inexperienced in battle.

In contrast, when Kurdish guerrilla factions of the PKK and the YPG entered the fray from Turkey and Syria to join the fight around Sinjar, the battle was quickly tilted in favor of the Kurds. These groups have battle-hardened soldiers in both their rank-and-file and senior leadership, who have honed their tactical and operational skills in Syrian and Turkish battles for years (in Syria often against ISIS itself). There is no question about it, Iraqi Kurdistan's peshmerga could not have put up with the Islamic State alone.

Finally, when fighting in majority-Arab areas such as Nineveh and Diyala provinces, speaking Arabic is crucial for intelligence gathering and maintaining good ties with civilians. The fact that many young Kurdish peshmerga solders don’t, as Arabic education is no longer mandatory within the KRG, is also a weakness.

Europe is still pondering what to do in Iraq. Read more here.

Internal Rivalries and Poor Unit Integration
The KDP and PUK haven’t exactly had good relations in the past. They were the main antagonists in a civil war between several Kurdish militias during the mid-1990s, referred to as “the brother killings“ in Kurdish history.

Although a peace treaty was later signed, this strife persists to this day as a mutual mistrust between the parties and extends into the separate peshmerga forces, who are consequently trained separately and do not perform larger joint exercises. This division also shows on the battlefield where poor unit integration and petty rivalries can cause problems.

The temporary loss of Makhmour and the ongoing fighting around Kirkuk is testament to poor coordination and clumsy disposition of forces. Both KDP and PUK forces have clumped together around Kirkuk, for example, while the competition for influence over the oil-rich province seems to have sparked tension between the two parties. When the Islamic State pushed into the greater Sinjar area on August 1, only two smaller peshmerga brigades were stationed there. This obviously put severe strain on their defensive capabilities and they shortly phased into a limited withdrawal.

Adding to the mix of internal rivalries, the Kurdish guerrilla factions from Turkey and Syria have also have strained relations with the KDP. This is mainly because of the power-sharing situation in Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan, where Massoud Barzani’s KDP feels that the YPG is playing an overly dominant role. While they have previously lacked coordination, these groups have been effective in pushing back Islamic State fighters.

It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the Kurdish forces will overcome the inherent divisions that might be blurring their main objective of getting rid of the Islamic State. The coming days may show whether the different factions will unite into a cohesive front, and how much more the Islamic State will push into Kurdish-held territory now it has lost the element of surprise.

Islamic State: Part 4. Watch here.

Follow Hetav Rojan on Twitter: @HetavRojan
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