TIME

ISIS Advance Turns the Spotlight on Weak Kurdish Forces

Caught off guard by the militants, Iraqi Kurdish fighters were forced to retreat

When thousands of ethnic Yazidis first became trapped on Mount Sinjar, the forces of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region seemed like their only hope. Known as the peshmerga, the 100,000-strong Kurdish army is widely considered to be the last capable force in Iraq. But according to some, these fighters didn’t exactly live up to their reputation.

“The peshmerga didn’t tell us to run away, they just left suddenly,” says Said Suliman, who fled Sinjar with 12 members of his family after the peshmerga pulled out of the area. They are now taking refuge in the Kurdish controlled city of Dohuk. “We just hope the peshmerga won’t run from here also.”

According to Suliman, it was Syrian Kurdish fighters, both men and women, who initially stepped in to save the Yazidis as the peshmerga retreated and before the U.S. stepped in. “They are our heroes,” he says. Like many, he first fled into Syria and then back into the Kurdish Iraqi territory during his escape from the mountains.

It may have been the element of surprise that allowed fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) to dispel the peshmerga so quickly.

Until two weeks ago, ISIS had made no claim or advance on the Kurdish areas. While there were skirmishes along the over 600 mile border which the Iraqi Kurds share with the extremist Sunni fighters, for months there was no full-on confrontation. ISIS said their sights were set on Baghdad, not the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and perhaps, because of that, they were caught off guard.

“The fact is they said they want to go to Baghdad and then they come to us,” says Halgord Hekmat a spokesman for the peshmerga in Erbil. “Of course it was bit of a surprise.”

But the Syrian Kurdish fighters knew ISIS as sparring partner. For over a year they have been fighting the Sunni militants inside Syria, where both groups now control territory.

“We are all Kurdish and its necessary when one part of Kurdistan has problem, we all help,” says Juann Ali, a Syrian Kurd who lives and works in Erbil. “In the end, we all have the same goal, to fight for Kurdistan.”

But in the last two decades there hasn’t been much opportunity to fight for that goal. The peshmerga forces were born of Kurdish resistance to Iraqi and Turkish domination, and for decades they defended their mountainous terrain, which stretches across Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish and Iranian borders.

“The Kurds developed a way of fighting based on fighting the Iraqi army in the 70s and 80s, and the Iraqi army sucked. They didn’t need to be that good. They were mostly just defending the mountains, and mountainous terrain is the best to have to defend,” says Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. “The peshmerga doctrine hasn’t really evolved much since then, but warfare has evolved.”

Hekmat says the peshmerga were also hampered by their outdated weaponry. The mostly light artillery carried by the peshmerga was easily challenged by the much more sophisticated American weapons ISIS plundered after Iraqi national forces fled their posts in June. Those forces were controlled by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has now stepped down amid increasing domestic and international pressure to make way for a new leader in Baghdad.

The U.S. air support—on Thursday, President Barack Obama said American forces had helped break the siege of Mount Sinjar—has allowed the peshmerga hold the line against ISIS and create a humanitarian corridor allowing many of the stranded Yazidis to make their way off the mountain. But American strikes are not a sustainable defense plan for the Kurds, who seek autonomy over their affairs.

“We don’t have any weapons, only the weapons we took from Saddam after 2003,” adds Hekmat. “We are just asking for the weapons that every developed military should have to fight against terrorists.”

The Kurds have been asking for better weapons from the US and other international suppliers, and while the UK and France have shown some willingness, the peshmerga say they are still under armed.

“What they are looking for is everything. They want tanks, they want artillery but they also want machine guns, they want rocket launchers and they want mortars,” says Pollack. “They want anything they can get their hands on.”

While they may have insufficient weapons, the Kurds aren’t lacking in passion. The ISIS advance caught them by surprise—but the force has not crumbled.

“Now they are properly deploying the weapons they do have, and their morale has recovered and they are proving a much more formidable foe for ISIS,” says Pollack. “The peshmerga is not as bad as people thought a week ago, but they are also not good as people thought a month ago.”

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