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Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict
Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
When Measuring ISIS’s “Resurgence”, Use the Right Standard
When Measuring ISIS’s “Resurgence”, Use the Right Standard
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he takes up position in an area overlooking a village in Khazir, on the edge of Mosul, controlled by the Islamic State, on 8 September 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict

The US-led coalition’s military assistance to Kurdish forces against the Islamic State (IS) is inadvertently accelerating intra-Kurdish fragmentation. The West should coordinate its aid better, build upon Iraqi Kurdistan’s past efforts in transforming its peshmergas into a professional military, and encourage Kurdish coordination with Iraq’s central government in the fight against IS.

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Executive Summary

Loosely organised in an ad hoc coalition, Western countries rushed military aid to Iraqi Kurds in the face of a lightning assault by the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014. They failed, however, to develop a strategy for dealing with the consequences of arming non-state actors in Iraq, a country whose unity they profess to support. Rather than forging a strong, unified military response to the IS threat, building up Kurdish forces accelerated the Kurdish polity’s fragmentation, increased tensions between these forces and non-Kurds in disputed areas and strengthened Iraq’s centrifugal forces. Delivered this way, military assistance risks prolonging the conflict with IS, worsening other longstanding, unresolved conflicts and creating new ones. A new approach is called for that revives and builds on past efforts to transform Kurdish forces into a professional institution.

Despite Western concerns, doing so is unlikely to enhance chances of Kurdish independence. Kurdish parties have become even more dependent, not less, on their alliances with Turkey and Iran since IS’s arrival. Turkey, the country with the ability to give the Kurds the independent revenue stream from oil sales they would need to move effectively toward independence, has given no indication it is prepared to do so and every indication it wishes to preserve Iraq’s unity. Western states’ current practice of channelling weapons to the Kurds via Baghdad and encouraging the two sides to resolve their outstanding disputes over oil exports and revenues also will keep the Kurdish region inside Iraq. Indeed, the development of a professional Kurdish military force is a necessary condition for effective coordination with the Baghdad government in joint operations against IS and in preparing a post-IS political plan.

Coalition military aid is premised on a belief that giving weapons and training to Kurdish forces, known as peshmergas, will in itself improve their performance against IS, a notion Kurdish leaders were quick to propagate. But the evolving state of Iraqi Kurdish politics makes for a rather more ambiguous picture: the dominant, rival parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), have been moving away from a strategic framework agreement that had stabilised their relationship after a period of conflict and allowed them to present a unified front to the central government as well as neighbouring Iran and Turkey. Moreover, their historic leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, are on the political wane, triggering an intra-elite power struggle.

This is, therefore, a particularly fragile moment. Rather than shore up Kurdish unity and institutions, the latest iteration of the “war on terror” is igniting old and new internecine tensions and undermining whatever progress has been achieved in turning the peshmergas into a professional, apolitical military force responding to a single chain of command. In doing so, it is also paving the way for renewed foreign involvement in Kurdish affairs, notably by Iran. And it is encouraging Kurdish land grabs and a rush on resources in territories they claim as part of their autonomous region, further complicating their rapport with Sunni Arab neighbours and the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

On the face of it, after an initial delivery directly to the KDP in August 2014, Western military aid has been provided to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with prior approval from Baghdad. In practice, however, weapon deliveries from a variety of donors are unilateral, mostly uncoordinated and come without strings regarding their distribution and use on the front lines. As a result, they have disproportionately benefited the KDP, which is dominant in Erbil, the region’s capital, and thus have pushed the PUK into greater reliance on Iranian military assistance and an alliance with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish rebel organisation in Turkey. In this context, the KDP and PUK, formal partners in a unity government, have shown little inclination to distribute roles or mount joint operations, preferring competition over coordination. As a result, Kurdish forces have been less effective in fighting IS than they could have been.

While coalition members have tied military assistance to acceptance of the central government’s sovereign role in its distribution, they are jeopardising their stated interest in preserving Iraq’s unity. Indeed, by upsetting the fragile equilibrium among Kurds, between Kurds and Sunni Arabs and between the Kurds and the governments in Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara, they risk weakening it; moreover, by empowering Kurdish party-based forces, they hasten the state’s de-institutionalisation and invite external interference. Given how fragile and fragmented Iraq has become, one can only wonder how pouring more arms into it could have any chance of making it stronger.

Coalition members, working in coordination, need instead to persuade Kurdish parties to complete the reunification of their parallel military, security and intelligence agencies within a single, non-partisan structure by empowering the KDP-PUK joint brigades and the peshmergas’ most professional elements; to cooperate with non-Kurdish actors in the disputed territories; and to develop a post-IS plan with the central government that cements security cooperation in these territories and moves forward the process of resolving their status through negotiation.

The KRG leadership is overdue in putting its own house in order. It may revel in momentary support for its fight against IS, but old problems will soon return, arguably posing a far more serious threat to the region’s stability than IS by itself could ever represent.

An Iraqi fighter with the Popular Mobilisation Forces inspects the site of the Islamic State (IS) group attack, May 3, 2020. AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

When Measuring ISIS’s “Resurgence”, Use the Right Standard

Memories of the Islamic State’s 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak in Iraq and Syria colour views of its present capacity, leading officials and observers either to exaggerate or understate its threat. In Iraq, the group does pose a danger. Gauging it properly is key to containing it.

On the night of Friday, 1 May, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched one of its most ambitious operations in Iraq in recent memory. Several units of the jihadist group converged on Iraqi paramilitary forces securing a rural section of Salahuddin province, engaging them in an hours-long attack that ended with ten paramilitaries dead. The 1 May assault followed a month in which ISIS had become more direct and aggressive in its attacks on Iraqi security forces.

A military official in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the U.S.-led multilateral partnership that has supported Iraq’s fight against the group, noted the complexity of the Salahuddin attack and several others that weekend. He also confirmed that the preceding month had seen a postural shift from the group, even if there had not been a qualitative improvement in its equipment and tactics.

Yet he also emphasised how far ISIS remains from the height of its prowess in 2014, when it could marshal large motorised columns to roll across the desert, seize swathes of both Iraq and neighbouring Syria, and declare a “caliphate”. “Are they [ISIS] recruiting anybody?” asked the Coalition official. “No. Are they putting out a cool video that’s getting put on the front page of the Daily Mirror? No. Are they able to raise money from taxes, oil wells, foreign donations – a little bit, but mostly no. … So their strength has to be measured in those terms”.

In its recent flurry of activity, ISIS has demonstrated nothing close to its capability and reach circa 2014 or 2015.

All of which is true. In its recent flurry of activity, ISIS has demonstrated nothing close to its capability and reach circa 2014 or 2015 – or even its potency in the preceding years, during which the group laid the groundwork for its eventual seizure of territorial control.

But ISIS’s “caliphate” apex was also a unique, anomalous moment. And memories of that moment have distorted subsequent analysis of the group’s insurgency in Iraq, years later.

The result is that both hyperbolic claims that ISIS has returned to the sort of operations and capabilities that immediately preceded its 2014 “caliphate” and attempts like the Coalition official’s to tamp down that alarmism are often framed and argued in terms of that 2014-2015 “caliphate” peak. ISIS’s current capabilities end up being measured relative to a historical experience that was shocking and terrible, but also likely an outlier.

Crisis Group itself has warned of ISIS’s “resurgence”. But that resurgence, if it happens, probably will not look like 2014. Meanwhile, using this “caliphate” standard may make it harder to discern changes in the group’s operations that are incremental but still meaningful for assessing the threat posed by its insurgent campaign – changes like the shift over the course of April, which seems to have presaged the genuine and deadly qualitative escalation on 1 May.

ISIS Leans Forward

The 1 May operation was apparently planned and complex. ISIS first attacked local tribal auxiliaries belonging to Iraq’s paramilitary al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force south of the Salahuddin city of Tikrit. The jihadists assaulted and killed one group of six Hashd fighters, only to hit incoming reinforcements with an improvised explosive device (IED) the group claims it planted in advance, killing three more. Another Hashd fighter was killed in a separate, simultaneous attack. The ISIS units advanced along four axes, according to a Hashd official, who also said some militants approached on skiffs crossing the Tigris.

The new frequency of these direct engagements contrasted with the group’s previous preference for asymmetric attacks.

Throughout April, ISIS had seemingly been aiming more directly at Iraqi security forces. According to its own reporting, as well as diplomats and a military official who spoke to Crisis Group, the jihadist group initiated more head-on firefights with those security forces, as well as more daytime attacks. The new frequency of these direct engagements contrasted with the group’s previous preference for asymmetric attacks on Iraqi security personnel – relying more heavily on means like roadside bombs and sniper attacks – and the steady targeting of rural civilians.

As a Western diplomat from a Coalition member country put it: “They’re bolder, more aggressive. … They use IEDs, as usual. But more and more they engage in firefights, whether with the [Iraqi security forces] or [the Hashd] – and they kill”.

ISIS’s latest, more assertive attacks have been concentrated in a rural belt reaching across Iraq’s centre north, in Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. The stretch includes territories disputed between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region. Since ISIS’s 2017 territorial defeat in Iraq, its guerrillas have taken shelter in especially rugged terrain in these areas. Over April, the group also seemingly escalated attacks on the western edge of Anbar province, along the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders.

“You have some remnants of the organisation, cells, that try to carry out operations here and there – in desert areas, like western Anbar, or on plains, ravines and mountains”, Iraqi defence spokesman Brigadier General Yehia Rasool told Crisis Group. “Areas where the nature of the terrain is difficult, which are hard to totally control”. In Iraq’s disputed territories, the organisation also exploits the stretches of no-man’s land separating federal Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, as well as failures of coordination between them.

ISIS’s April attacks did not mark a qualitative escalation, insofar as they evinced no obvious improvement in the group’s underlying capabilities. The group’s dispersed units used the same uncomplicated tactics they have adopted since 2017 – small guerrilla bands executing one-off attacks with small arms and IEDs.

Using the same means, ISIS units appeared to be making new choices in terms of target selection and timing.

Still, even if the attacks were not qualitatively better or more complex, they did seem qualitatively different. Using the same means, ISIS units appeared to be making new choices in terms of target selection and timing.

On 28 April, ISIS attempted a suicide attack on an intelligence service headquarters in Kirkuk’s provincial capital – an operation with scant precedent since 2017, given how the group has avoided suicide bombings and conserved manpower after losing its territorial control. Security personnel engaged the lone attacker as he approached, and he detonated his explosives before reaching the building. Several men were wounded but none killed. Delivering a single attacker equipped with an explosive belt for a failed attack thus mostly showcased the group’s intentions, not its capabilities.

The group’s coordinated attack on 1 May, however, is different – a real qualitative escalation after the group’s attitudinal change the preceding month.

Unclear Causation

ISIS’s latest attacks are likely an attempt to force Iraqi security forces to retreat into fortified bases and cities, while intimidating local civilians into non-cooperation with the Iraqi state. Such motives would follow a standard insurgent logic, one the group has itself articulated in its publications. In effect, the group has written, government forces would be ceding the countryside by moving into cities and hardened facilities. Then, they “would become encircled in the urban areas they are attempting to secure, which would turn little by little into fortresses”. At that point, ISIS could transform its units from guerrilla bands carrying out limited attacks into “semi-conventional formations that can – with the permission of God Almighty – carry out coordinated, medium-size or even large operations, in terms of their range and the nature of their targets”. But if this logic is fairly clear, why the group has escalated now is less so.

The attacks come after months of tensions and tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions.

The attacks come after months of tensions and tit-for-tat attacks between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions that have disrupted counter-ISIS cooperation between Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led Coalition. On 3 January, the U.S. killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Hashd chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike as the two men left Baghdad airport. Since then, Iraq has been beset by recurrent violence between the U.S. and Iran-linked Hashd factions. In addition, the country has been riven by controversy over whether to expel U.S. forces and end what Iraqi opponents of the U.S. presence call an “occupation”. Over March and April, U.S. and Coalition forces withdrew from a number of forward Iraqi bases, where they were exposed to attack, into a few safer compounds, claiming the move was “long-planned”.

Iraqi counter-ISIS operations have nonetheless continued, and, after an initial interruption in January, so has at least some Coalition support. “We never had a large number of troops [in those bases] anyway”, said the Coalition official. “And in the past week, the Coalition has provided support for Iraqi forces, including drones and airstrikes. We didn’t need infantry sitting in Kirkuk to do that”. Yet it is unclear how the Coalition forces’ withdrawal from these bases – where they worked alongside some of the Iraqi units most directly involved in fighting ISIS – has affected counter-ISIS cooperation and the Coalition’s situational awareness in insurgent hot-spots. Moreover, tensions between the U.S. and Iran’s Iraqi allies have had other effects. According to Western officials, for example, some U.S. surveillance assets that had been used for counter-ISIS operations have been diverted to “force protection” – keeping watch for paramilitary attacks on U.S. soldiers.

ISIS has evidently followed these developments, and in particular the base withdrawals, referencing them in its weekly newsletter for members and sympathisers. It is unclear what conclusions the group has drawn, however, or if they informed its field units’ operational thinking.

COVID-19 does seem to have some impact on Iraqi security forces’ readiness.

ISIS may also be seizing on Iraqi security forces’ distraction by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, ISIS enjoined its members and sympathisers worldwide to capitalise on their enemies’ preoccupation with coronavirus and to continue carrying out attacks. The withdrawal of foreign Coalition trainers from Iraq because of COVID-19 and a related halt to training Iraqi forces seems unlikely to have had an immediate effect on counter-ISIS efforts. But COVID-19 does seem to have some impact on Iraqi security forces’ readiness. Some have been tasked with enforcing curfews and other public health measures, according to military officials. A second security unit that had been based near the paramilitaries targeted on 1 May was reportedly redeployed to urban areas to help implement COVID-19 measures.

“The army has a number of missions; among them is this humanitarian effort”, said Iraqi defence spokesman Rasool about the security forces’ role in enforcing COVID-19 measures, though he emphasised that counter-ISIS efforts were also continuing.

Iraq has also suffered through a protracted political vacuum, going without a functioning government from December until a new government was formed earlier this month. The country has also faced a deepening economic crisis. ISIS may have also timed a surge of attacks to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The coincidence of these various factors in Iraq makes it hard to clearly identify a single cause for ISIS’s latest moves. As a Coalition member country diplomat said: “It’s too early to draw conclusions. But it’s clear something is happening”.

An Unlikely 2014 Redux

Still, ISIS’s current insurgent attacks do not compare to the outsized threat the group posed in the past.

ISIS wants to communicate that it still has this capability. But really, its capabilities are low.

As Rasool, the Iraqi defence spokesman, stressed, ISIS is no longer blowing up massive car bombs or seizing territory. Speaking before the 1 May attack, he said the organisation has reverted to its “old style – one-off attacks, here and there, to send a media message, and to raise the morale of the group’s members who may now be lying low. It wants to communicate that it still has this capability. But really, its capabilities are low; they don’t rise to the quality they were previously”.

Indeed, ISIS insurgent activity is limited mostly to the country’s rural periphery. Iraqis who lived through the group’s 2014 rampage, as well as, before that, its years-long campaign of mass-casualty bombings and mafia-style violence in places like Mosul, know that ISIS’s violence is much reduced.

In parts of the countryside, said a Kirkuk-area tribal sheikh, ISIS “is present, and it’s merciless”. But, he added, “It’s not in cities or urban areas. It’s out in the [rural] districts and subdistricts; in the bush, or in ravines and mountains”.

The impulse to discourage residual ISIS scaremongering is understandable, particularly as Iraq has worked to recover from the war to defeat the group and to address the country’s many, accumulated non-ISIS problems. It is all the more reasonable given the at-times melodramatic descriptions of the putative threat. Analysts have often couched warnings of ISIS’s possible resurgence in terms of the group’s imminent return to territorial control, or to the 2013 and 2014 periods that anticipated its “caliphate”.

In the most recent issue of ISIS’s newsletter, the group itself noted the alarmed media coverage of its escalating operations, as part of “the great shock [the group’s] latest attacks had yielded in enemy ranks”. ISIS’s enemies “are comparing the situation today to how things were before [Iraq’s] cities fell into the mujahideen’s hands” in 2014, the newsletter reported.

The awful spectacle of ISIS circa 2014 and 2015 has also helped frame discussions of jihadist insurgents far from Iraq. To take one example, U.S., French and West African officials recently told the Washington Post that “to avoid scrutiny from the West, [West African jihadist] groups are not declaring ‘caliphates’”.

Now, after the years-long, destructive battle to dislodge ISIS, both Iraqis and their international partners are alert to the group’s threat.

But setting aside terminological issues – local ISIS affiliates would not announce a second “caliphate” to rival the one the main branch declared in 2014, which the group still insists is extant and valid – the proto-state that existed in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to reappear.

In 2014, ISIS seized on an exceptional historical circumstance. The Arab world was in epochal flux, as longstanding incumbent regimes had fallen, and national borders seemed suddenly subject to revision. Money, arms and thousands of foreign fighters had poured into Syria’s roiling insurgency, which by then had diminished the Syrian state’s writ to a fraction of the country. ISIS – whose origins lay in neighbouring Iraq – used the non-state void in Syria as an extensive, resource-rich rear base, from which it prepared an Iraqi surge. In Iraq, the group had already infiltrated a mass Sunni mobilisation against the central state, a movement that was encouraged publicly by Sunni states in the region. Too many people – not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in the West – were too slow to recognise ISIS’s threat. By the time the group had swept through large sections of Iraq and Syria in the summer, then doused local municipal buildings with its trademark black paint, it was too late.

Now, after the years-long, destructive battle to dislodge ISIS, both Iraqis and their international partners are alert to the group’s threat. ISIS maintains that its ultimate aim is a return to territorial control and administration, after an extended war of attrition. But while the organisation remains dangerous – in Iraq and elsewhere – it can no longer surprise its enemies in the same way.

All of which is to say that a redux of 2014 – that type of military blitz, the return of the “caliphate”, or renewed ISIS control of more than a handful of peripheral, rural areas – is hard to imagine. The group would evidently like to duplicate its 2014 surge. But the confluence of factors that permitted it is not there and arguably seems unlikely to be there any time soon. Gauging the organisation’s capabilities in those terms, therefore, is not useful.

It is crucial to stay tuned to subtler shifts in ISIS’s activity, below the 2014 threshold.

In Iraq, ISIS’s “resurgence” seems likely to look less like 2014 and the “caliphate,” and more like the group’s 1 May attack in Salahuddin. That prospect might not animate an international audience, the way warnings of another 2014 would. But for Iraqis – particularly in the rural areas most vulnerable to the group’s attacks – that sort of resurgent ISIS would again be terrifying and lethal.

It is thus crucial to stay tuned to subtler shifts in ISIS’s activity, below the 2014 threshold – qualitative “change”, if not necessarily qualitative “escalation”. That is the sort of change that may alert Iraq and its international partners to the need for a course correction.