Isis in Iraq: The only way to ensure Islamists are beaten in Iraq is to defeat them in Syria first, say Kurds

Kurdish leaders outline to Patrick Cockburn in Irbil the reality of the front line, where guerilla tactics are being used

Isis is losing ground in Iraq, but Kurdish leaders say its retreat is slow and do not expect to eliminate it unless it is also defeated in Syria.

Real progress is limited, despite exaggerated claims by the Iraqi government that its soldiers have won decisive victories in cities such as Ramadi and Tikrit. 

“The initial attack by Daesh [Isis] in 2014 was like the Mongols, but they could not hold on to fixed positions,” says Dr Najmaldin Karim, the Governor of Kirkuk province in an interview with The Independent. “But this does not mean that they are being destroyed in Iraq and this will not happen until they lose in Syria.” He says that the Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk has pushed Isis fighters some 10 to 20 miles further back but the front line is generally static.

The Iraqi government and the authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government have boasted that they are defeating Isis by recapturing cities such as Sinjar west of Mosul and Ramadi west of Baghdad. But these victories, won with the help of hundreds of air strikes by a US-led coalition, turn out to be less than decisive since Isis did not fight to the end in either place and withdrew in order to limit its losses. 

“Isis is reverting to guerrilla warfare,” says Dr Karim, a native of Kirkuk and formerly a brain surgeon in Washington DC, explaining that people displaced from cities that have supposedly been recaptured by the government are not going home because Isis is nearby or they fear sectarian persecution.

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At Ramadi, for instance, once a Sunni Arab city with a population of 600,000, Isis killed 30 government soldiers on one day last week using snipers and suicide bombers. An elderly couple from Tikrit, retaken by the Iraqi army a year ago, told how they had fled from Tikrit to Irbil for the second time a week ago because of gun battles between pro-government forces and Isis. Even if displaced people and refugees return they may not find much to live in because anti-Isis offensives rely on heavy bombing that, in the case of Ramadi, has destroyed 80 per cent of the city. 

Isis was born out of the Islamic State of Iraq which took advantage of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 to spread to Syria. But it has never been as strong in Syria as it is in Iraq, where it holds Mosul, a city of 1.5 million people, and Fallujah, just west of Baghdad. 

In Iraq it is the only substantial armed opposition movement while in Syria there are many others, though it is the largest and most powerful. In Syria, Isis faces the highly effective Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Russian-backed Syrian army which are threatening its positions in the north of the country. 

Just to the west of the Kurdish capital Irbil, General Sirwan Barzani, who commands a force of 15,000 Peshmerga troops, says that though Isis has suffered losses it can still launch attacks. In an interview with The Independent, he says: “Daesh are getting weaker, but they have a front line of 3,700km [surrounding the self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq] and they can always collect 500 fighters and 10 suicide bombers to make an attack.”

He says that he has about 15,000 men, though not all are on duty at the same time, to defend a front that is about 120km long. 

As in the rest of Iraq and Syria, the front lines are too long to be manned effectively and fortified, so each side can make a lunge forward but gains are difficult to hold. The Iraqi army and the Kurds have the great advantage of American air cover, but Isis takes refuge in elaborate tunnel systems and breaks up its forces into small units of eight to 10 men. Asked if Isis could be defeated, Gen Barzani points out that the US army in Iraq with 150,000 soldiers failed to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq.

It is not only that anti-Isis forces in Iraq are too weak to win a decisive victory, but they are divided. Speaking about an assault on Mosul, which Isis has held since June 2014, Gen Barzani says that the Peshmerga would not try to capture it alone and there are no Iraqi army soldiers in the region capable of doing so.  He says that at Ramadi “between 60 and 65 per cent of the fighting was done by the Hashd al-Shaabi [the Shia militias] but we are told they will not take part in the battle for Mosul.” 

This is different from the usual account of the fighting for Ramadi, where the ground forces in the centre of the city were drawn from Iraqi Special Forces. The US opposes the use of Shia militias in Sunni areas on the grounds that the Sunni inhabitants would fear a sectarian bloodbath. 

Claims in Washington and London that Isis is buckling under attacks by the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga look like wishful thinking on the plains around Kirkuk and Irbil. There have been significant successes but Isis fighters have not lost any of their core regions from which they began to attack two years ago.

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