No one is yet talking about victory in the war against the vicious group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).
Today’s shocking attack in Paris underlines the threat that terrorist fanatics pose to civilized society everywhere.
But on the battlefronts of Iraq, IS has lost its edge. Iraqi Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airpower, have now retaken virtually all the territory they lost to the group over the summer, according to Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the department of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
In an interview with VOA on Tuesday, Bakir said he had come to snowy Washington to introduce a new U.S. representative for the KRG, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahmanand to discuss with U.S. officials “what’s next” to liberate Iraq.
The Kurdish Peshmerga, a force of some 150,000 men and women, is doing its part but “where is the Iraqi army and where are the Sunnis?” Bakir asked.
Even with U.S. air support and technical assistance, the Kurds cannot recapture Mosul, a multi-ethnic metropolis with a Sunni Arab majority, he said. As long as Mosul remains in jihadi hands, the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have fled to Kurdistan from other parts of Iraq will not dare return home, Bakir said.
“They are not the same ISIL [an alternative acronym for IS] of six months ago,” Bakir said. “They have been demoralized and lost a lot of foreign fighters.” But “we will not feel safe and secure until ISIL is thrown out of Iraq.”
“Mosul is key,” he said. Once IS is defeated there, he said, it will be much easier to expel the group entirely from the country. He added that the city also has symbolic importance as the place where IS declared its “caliphate.”
After initial setbacks, the Iraqi Peshmerga has not only recouped its losses in Iraq but has managed to assist beleaguered Kurds across the border in Syria. The border town of Kobane is now 75 percent in Kurdish hands, Bakir said. But to tackle Mosul, “we have to be ready and have to do it right. We have to have the Sunnis as part of this process.”
Bakir would not predict when Sunni and other Iraqi forces would be ready to confront IS in Mosul.
At a Defense Department briefing on Tuesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby echoed Bakir’s assertion that the IS offensive has been blunted.
“What we haven’t seen in the last several weeks has been any renewed offensive moves by ISIL of any significance,” Kirby said. “They have largely taken a defensive posture in the last several weeks.”
But “nobody is taking that progress for granted.” Kirby added. In addition to controlling Mosul, he said, IS is still threatening members of the Yazidi minority in and around Mount Sinjar, parts of Anbar province and the city of Baiji, adjacent to Iraq’s main oil refinery.
In a recent article in “Foreign Affairs,” authors Robert Pape, Keven Ruby and Vincent Bauer argue that the U.S.-led air campaign has failed to prevent IS from consolidating control within Sunni territory in Iraq and Syria even if it has checked their expansion beyond those areas.
According to the authors, “the crucial next step is to identify pockets of Sunni resistance” to IS in Iraq. They suggest two potential sources of anti-IS recruits: the Nineveh provincial police force of about 24,000 and Sunni tribes that have opposed IS in Anbar province, including the Jaghaifi, near Haditha, and Albu Nimr, near Hit.
Reversing IS’s “momentum in Iraq will also likely weaken the group in Syria at least compared to other Sunni groups, changing its trajectory from a rising dominant force to one of numerous fragmented factions,” the authors state.
In preparation for a possible offensive against Mosul, the Pentagon has announced that it will train 12 new army brigades in Iraq including 3 in the Kurdish region.
Bakir said the Kurds want more of their forces to undergo this training and are also seeking direct deliveries of tanks, Humvees and anti-tank weapons as well as technical assistance in dealing with improvised explosive devices.
Previously trained as guerrilla fighters, the Peshmerga have had to learn how to fight on more conventional battlefields as well as to deal with terrorists, Bakir said. Hundreds have been killed since the summer and more than 3,000 wounded, he said.
The Kurds are also seeking more humanitarian aid to help them deal with some two million refugees and internally displaced Iraqis who have fled to northern Iraq in recent years – an enormous burden on a society of only 5 ½ million people.
Abdul Rahman, the new Kurdish representative in Washington, called the humanitarian situation for these people “dire.” “The refugee camps become lakes of mud when there’s rain,” she told VOA. “Your heart breaks for the people who have to live like that.”
Outside the camps, others are living in makeshift shelters along the roadsides, in forests and in partly constructed buildings, she said. “Most Kurds have been refugees” at some point in their lives, she said.”We know what it is to lose everything.”
While Iraqi Kurds still harbor aspirations for independence, they have shelved those aims for now to present a united front against IS with the central government in Baghdad. A new budget and oil revenue sharing agreement has been approved by the cabinet of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and is awaiting parliamentary approval.
If there is a silver lining in the crisis, Adul Rahman said, it is the improved relationship between Baghdad and Erbil since the removal of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Kurds have also been able to seize territory they consider part of historic Kurdistan, including the oil-rich city and environs of Kirkuk, and are welcoming an influx of foreign diplomatic missions to Erbil. Just last week, China opened a consulate general there, India has submitted a request and Saudi Arabia is scouting for a suitable location, Bakir said.
Abdul Rahman’s arrival in Washington underlines the Kurds’ desire to cement their most important diplomatic relationship.
A former journalist and KRG representative in London, Abdul Rahman is filling a quasi-ambassordial post that has been vacant for two years since Qubad Talabani, son of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, returned to the KRG to become deputy prime minister.
“Our message in sending a new representative to Washington is that we consider the U.S. a friend and an ally,” Bakir said, noting ties that go back to the 1991 Gulf War.
“We hope that we can build on this longstanding relationship. We share the same values and we fight for the same objectives. The U.S. can count on us to be a reliable partner for the betterment of millions of people,” he said.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.