Current Affairs

The Peshmerga Factor

Kurdish peshmerga fighters take position in Bashiqa, near Mosul (Íomhá: TheGuardian/Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Talking of the conflict in Iraq there is a good piece in Vice magazine by Hetav Rojan on the military troubles of the autonomous Kurdish region in north-eastern Iraq. The much-vaunted image of the Kurdish militias, the so-called Peshmerga, has taken a battering in recent weeks as the forces of the Islamic State have pushed their way into several contested towns formerly under the protection of the Kurds. With the IS troops (and hangers-on) better equipped than most of their opponents the demands from the Kurdistan Regional Government for military aid is growing louder. So far the United States, France and Britain have all responded favourably though what is on offer seems to be largely in the area of small arms, ammunition and training. Of course what the Kurds are seeking is armoured vehicles and anti-armour weapons, mortars and artillery, and above all aerial support. This would up-scale their military forces from basic infantry level to something more substantial which would certainly worry the authorities in Baghdad (not to mention Tehran, Ankara and perhaps even Damascus). As things stand the Kurdish proto-nation in northern Iraq is defended by a far from unified force of armed groupings with differing levels of organisation, equipment and training, some of which are little better than private armies (and with private loyalties). There is no professional “Kurdish Armed Forces” as such though that may change in the coming months and years.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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 guerilla tactics, using Kurdistan’s mountainous geography to their own advantage.

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).

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.

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.”

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