Supporting the Kurds and Free Syrian Army on the ground is essential to win against ISIL.
Sulaimania, Iraq – “The difference between them and us, is that they are coming to die on the battlefield, while our men want to defend their homeland and then return to their families,” said one Iraqi Kurd who has been on the front lines in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“There are among them Indonesians, Pakistanis, Chechens, and even Chinese. They’ve all come here to die in battle, to be martyred. How do you kill a man who wants to be killed? That’s the dilemma.”
There are dilemmas wracking every player on the scene in Iraq today, and no fewer among the country’s Kurds, whose patience and patriotism are being tested by the seemingly never-ending war against ISIL. The mantra among average Iraqi Kurds these days is that if the Americans wanted to end the war, they could have done so.
As the United States comes under fire for its half-hearted efforts against ISIL, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters continue to man the front lines across northern Iraq. According to one brigade commander, morale is high, but the challenges are many.
Some 150,000 Kurdish Peshmerga troops are on active duty across the north of Iraq, even though they have not been paid their wages for over three months and carry outdated weapons. Political squabbling between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, has meant that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has not received its share of the annual budget, and regional government employees, including the Peshmerga, have not been paid their salaries.
Still, Sheikh Jaffar, commander of the Peshmerga’s 70th brigade, says morale among frontline fighters remains high “because they are fighting for their homeland”. Nationalist fervour is palpable among the Iraqi-Kurdish population, with reports of babies being named “Kobane” in solidarity with their brethren in the northern Syrian town, which was under siege by ISIL from September 2014 until January 2015.
Besides the issue of wages, Sheikh Jaffar says his troops are faced with a number of logistical challenges, which could make or break the ground war against ISIL.
“Right now, ISIL has placed landmines just about everywhere, and many Peshmergas have been martyred or severely injured because of that,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview at his barracks in Sulaimania.
Sheikh Jaffar said the Peshmerga need landmine detectors, along with heavy weaponry, RPGs, handguns, heavy artillery, tanks and even helicopters – “we need everything”, he said. He expressed gratitude for the US-led air strikes that have significantly aided the troops on the ground since August 2014, but insists it is not enough to win the war against ISIL.
This is about carving out a state for the Sunnis, and the Kurdish Peshmerga are spilling their blood for it. The poorest of our people are fighting someone else's war again - just like in 2003 - and they might as well send us the bill for the weapons we are using too.
“The Peshmergas advance and the coalition air strikes target ISIL bases or artillery before we reach the area,” he said. “Any progress on the ground against ISIL has been made possible by the support given to us by the US and the coalition.”
These sentiments were echoed by Falah Mustafa, the KRG’s de facto foreign minister.
“The fight against ISIL is our duty. It means the security and stability of this region and the ability of this region to survive,” Mustafa told Al Jazeera in an interview at his office in Erbil. “We are proud of our Peshmerga in halting the progress of ISIL and liberating the territories we lost to them, but the war on ISIL isn’t over yet. And losing to ISIL is not an option.
“From the Americans and our other friends, what we need is heavy weapons, ammunition, capacity-building and continued cooperation in the air and on the ground,” he added. “We are the coalition’s partner on the ground and we have shown the rest of world that ISIL can be defeated, and it’s not some invincible force.”
Sheikh Jaffar is equally confident.
“We can win this,” he said. “We can kick them out. We managed to stop them from coming into Kirkuk last year with our outdated weapons and no help from the Americans or anyone else. Now with the help of the coalition, we can achieve much more.”
Invincible or not, there is a serious concern that the asymmetry in weaponry and capacity may tip the balance at some point. According to Kurdish official figures, more than 2,000 Peshmerga fighters have been killed, and over 6,000 injured since the war began. Some local media reports place the figures much higher.
A veteran Peshmerga who fought the Baathist army during the Kurdish resistance in the 1980s, Sheikh Jaffar says he has never seen fighters like ISIL in his entire life.
“I’ve been a fighter all my life, and I’ve never seen such a difficult war. These guys will drive a car full of explosives through a Peshmerga barracks just to kill the Peshmergas. They cover themselves with explosives, and if a Peshmerga comes near them, they detonate,” he said. “The difference between [ISIL] and us is that they are ready to kill themselves. They are willing to blow themselves up for their cause, while we want to fight and defend our land.”
Sheikh Jaffar calls them “Drrinda” – Kurdish for barbarians. But he concedes they are “well-trained barbarians”.
“[ISIL fighters] have expert knowledge on all kinds of sophisticated weapons, and they are trained in how to set landmines and make bombs,” he said.
To what extent the Kurdish Peshmerga forces coordinate their efforts with the Iraqi army or the mostly Shia Popular Mobilisation Units is a moot point. One source close to the Kurdish region’s security agency said that “at least the Shia militias and the Kurds are not fighting each other”.
“Yes, they are fighting a common enemy, but not for the same reasons,” he said. “This does not mean they are friends and it may not necessarily rule out a clash at a later stage.”
With the Russians now entering the scene to help fight ISIL, could it be an alternative source of support and weapons for the Kurds if the Americans do not deliver?
“That’s a difficult question,” said an Iraqi Kurd close to the region’s security agency. “It would mean a quick fix, but it would come at a cost in the long term. Are we ready to lose our friendship with the Americans? I’m not so sure.”
Dana Qadir, a businessman based in Sulaimania, said “it’s all a big theatre”.
“The Western powers have already decided how all this is going to end. The borders of the new map have already been drawn up,” Qadir told Al Jazeera. “This is about carving out a state for the Sunnis, and the Kurdish Peshmerga are spilling their blood for it. The poorest of our people are fighting someone else’s war again – just like in 2003 – and they might as well send us the bill for the weapons we are using too.”
Whoever’s interests the war against ISIL ultimately serves, on the ground, Iraqi Kurds remain immensely proud of their Peshmerga, and military paraphernalia sell like hotcakes in the bazaar.
Dara Rauf, a Peshmerga who fought under Sheikh Jaffar in Kirkuk last year, said: “Our commanders come with us to the front line and take the same risks we take. This helps to keep our morale up, because they are with us every step of the way. They eat with us and fight with us.”
Asked whether he was worried, Sheikh Jaffar laughed heartily.
“No, I’m not worried,” he said. “But we need those weapons.”