Kurdish Advances Can Contain the Islamic State, but Not Defeat It

Kurdish Advances Can Contain the Islamic State, but Not Defeat It
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter fires a weapon towards an Islamic State Group position, overlooking the town of Sinjar, northern Iraq, Jan. 29, 2015 (AP photo by Bram Janssen).

SINJAR, Iraqi Kurdistan—The crash of the incoming mortar came from way behind the Kurdish lines; the shells were landing in the rear. Yet the excited and somewhat fearful commotion among the peshmerga fighters was instant. Men were looking through the peek holes at the Islamic State (IS) lines a few hundred yards away, trying to locate the mortar. Kurdish officers were on the phone, calling for a coalition airstrike.

The warplane soon came roaring in, but by then the mortar had disappeared among the houses. A second coalition jet targeted an IS fighting unit—the next, a tank. The Kurds rely on these airstrikes a great deal. In the two days I spent on the frontline with them earlier this month, they called in about a dozen, trying to counter repeated assaults by the jihadis from the Kurdish positions on the hills overlooking the city. “We are grateful to the coalition,” Col. Delgash Zebari, deputy commander of the 12th Peshmerga Brigade, told me. “If it weren’t for their help, maybe we couldn’t hold these areas.”

Sinjar is currently the most active part of the 600-mile frontline separating Kurdish forces and IS fighters in northern Iraq. It illustrates the weaknesses of both sides well. The peshmerga are short on professional fighters and have too many poorly trained reservists. They have few heavy weapons, though they have received some anti-tank missiles from the West that are now being put to good use against IS’ ubiquitous car bombs.

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