Many discussing a military strategy to defeat ISIS and its terrorist forces increasingly cite the peshmerga as a potential ally, and argue that the peshmerga should be a major part of any strategy to defeat ISIS. Who and what exactly are the peshmerga, though?
The peshmerga—literally “those who face death”—have a vaunted reputation as agile guerrilla fighters who harassed Saddam Hussein’s forces and survived months if not years up in the mountains. One of my best memories of Kurdistan was in March 2001, accompanying a peshmerga veteran from the fight against Saddam in the 1980s to the mountain marking the southern boundary of Duhok city: He showed me Assyrian carvings that expats who have transited Duhok for years don’t know exist; afterwards, we gathered some of the greens and roots that peshmerga lived on when they could not make it down to a village to have for our dinner.
But in the years after the 1991 establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, the peshmerga came down from the mountains; many demanded government positions to which they felt they were entitled, but scarcely qualified.
Kurdistan’s political factionalism made matters worse. The peshmerga were and, alas, still are organized more as party militias than as a professional military. Between 1994 and 1997, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga (supported by Iran) and Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga (supported, at times, by Saddam Hussein) fought it out because of revenue sharing disputes between the two main Kurdish parties. Kurds say that 3,000 prisoners remain missing from that time, presumably executed by the rival peshmerga forces.
While the Iraqi Kurds have, since around 2001, made efforts to “unify” the peshmerga, the peshmerga forces—like the corollary party intelligence services—are unified more on paper than in reality. Take, for example, recent fighting: It was the PUK peshmerga that seized Kirkuk, tying that city closer to Sulaymani, where the PUK and its offshoot Gorran predominate. The KDP peshmerga were those fighting to retake the Mosul dam after ISIS forces briefly took it.
While many Kurds sing the peshmerga’s praises, there is tension beneath the surface. ISIS may have caught the West by surprise, by the Yezidis living in and around Sinjar had been asking the KDP peshmerga for weaponry and reinforcements for weeks before ISIS took Sinjar and slaughtered hundreds of men and enslaved hundreds of women and girls. The KDP refused to send reinforcements, and most Yezidis—and many other Kurds—are bitter. The reasons given for why the KDP peshmerga refused reinforcements range from incompetent leadership to corruption (the resources had been embezzled or spent elsewhere) to more cynical desire to trade on the Yezidi suffering for weaponry. Regardless, Reuters last week published an account of a 14-year-old who escaped ISIS captivity; she had been given as a gift to fighters on the frontline. Her tale is tragic, but her redemption is important:
“When [the militants] left us I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. I saw a bag full of cell phones and I called my brother,” Shaker told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from a camp for internally displaced people in Iraq. On the phone, her brother Samir told her to go to a nearby house and ask for help and directions to reach the border where fighters from the Kurdistan State Workers Party (PKK) were battling Islamic State militants. He said the PKK would help her reach safety… The two girls set off toward the front lines. “I couldn’t walk straight, my legs were shaking and my heart was beating so fast. We ran and walked and we never looked back,” Shaker said. After two hours on the road they heard gunfire. As they got closer, they saw a group of PKK fighters and started running towards them. “I was crying and laughing at the same time,” she said. “We were free.”
Too often when Americans talk about the peshmerga, they forget the Popular Protection Units (YPG) which have fought—and defeated both ISIS and the Syrian regime—long before the KDP and PUK peshmerga joined the fight. I had visited Syrian Kurdistan at the beginning of the year, and wrote about my observations here. More recently, Aliza Marcus and Andrew Apostolou have written along similar lines in the New York Times.
It remains incredible to me that the United States continues to blockade and boycott the only section of Syria that is controlled by a secular group committed to both the destruction of ISIS and one which has given refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians (and now Iraqis) without reference to their religion or ethnicity. We do so because Turkey historically has demanded the United States consider the PKK to be a terrorist group, even as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched peace talks with the group. The United States should not be more Turkish than the Turks, nor deny the space to an effective secular group that otherwise would be controlled by ISIS.
Certainly, despite its democratic rhetoric, the PKK remains a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Öcalan. Then again, despite its democratic rhetoric, the KDP remains also a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around Masud Barzani, the son of its founder Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Just as the KDP once fought the PUK over resources, much of the antagonism fed to the West about the YPG today traces back to either Turkey or the KDP. In the latter case, it’s again about resources.
When the United States first became involved in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, various Iraqi political actors took advantage of the U.S. military’s lack of understanding of the political terrain in order to get the United States to target rivals and internal adversaries. When it comes to the ISIS threat today, the same pattern is repeating as Kurdish peshmerga seek U.S. help to empower them against not only ISIS but also their rivals. The United States should not get sucked into such a game: If the Pentagon plans to support the peshmerga, it should support all of them with an emphasis on providing the most support to those actually doing the bulk of the fighting. In such a case, it’s time to support the YPG without any further delay. It should also insist that the Kurds professionalize the peshmerga, unify the Iraqi peshmerga, and take them out of family hands. There is no reason to insist on a different standard of professionalism in Iraqi Kurdistan than in the rest of Iraq.