Risks abound as coalition fighting Islamic State pins hopes on Kurd forces


The U.S.-led coalition has made Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces primary allies against the Islamic State jihadi group, but over-reliance on the Kurds carries risks, analysts warn.

As the world seeks to turn up the heat on the Islamic State group, some of the West’s main partners on the ground are the peshmerga forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.

The first soldiers officially deployed by the United States in Syria arrived last week in the north to train the YPG, a group that has close ties to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — which is listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization — but which has also notched up significant military victories against Islamic State militants.

In the aftermath of the deadly Islamic State-claimed Paris attacks, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls emphasized the need to support Kurdish forces on the ground.

After the Islamic State group took over swaths of Iraq in 2014, Washington launched airstrikes alongside a program to train and equip local forces.

The U.S. “picked the Iraqi Kurds because they were strategic partners during the 2003 invasion and were, at least in their eyes, the most trustworthy,” said Maria Fantappie, Iraq senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

More than a year on, multimillion-dollar attempts to groom Sunni Arab forces in both Iraq and Syria have yielded limited results at best and failed to sabotage the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Attacks in France, elections in the U.S. and a refugee crisis across Europe are converging to up public pressure for swift and decisive action against the increasingly global threat of the Islamic State group.

Kurdish forces are among the most skilled, organized and determined to battle the extremists in the region.

But analysts warn military action should be matched with political planning for any post-Islamic State era in Iraq and Syria, and that relying too heavily on the Kurds could backfire.

The lack of a road map addressing Kurdish statehood aspirations is an incentive for groups to secure as many future bargaining chips as possible by winning military brownie points now.

Fantappie said that explains why the YPG might be prepared to push beyond Kurdish areas and take part in an offensive to recapture the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria — an almost entirely Arab city.

“Definitely this is on their mind, especially for the YPG, which strives to gain international recognition,” she said.

In neighboring Iraq, forces loyal to regional Kurdish President Massud Barzani last month retook the town of Sinjar, the main hub of Iraq’s Yazidi minority.

Before the Islamic State group swept across Iraq last year, it was under Baghdad’s authority, not part of the autonomous Kurdish region, but Barzani is now pushing plans to maintain control of the area.

Barzani “effectively announced Sinjar’s annexation into the Iraqi Kurdistan region,” said Patrick Martin, Iraq researcher at the Institute for the Study of War.

“There have been no indications that Kurdish fighters are prepared to hand control of the district to the Iraqi federal government,” he added.

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute, which focuses on U.S. policy in the Near East, said any operation to free Iraq’s second city Mosul from the Islamic State group would be headquartered on Kurdish real estate.

“Until (the Islamic State group) is removed from Mosul, the Kurds will remain a key ally. Thereafter, their future is much harder to gauge,” he said.

Knights said that Kurdish expansion was already close to peaking in Iraq and would be limited by a negative reaction from Baghdad, which also receives help from the coalition fighting the extremists.

The same limitation applies to Syria, where too much consolidation of Kurdish influence in the north would not sit well with NATO member Turkey.

Even where the coalition is trying to foster Kurdish-Arab alliances against the jihadis, the relationship is tilted in the Kurds’ favor, Fantappie said.

“By picking the Kurds as strategic allies, you have created an imbalanced relationship between the Kurds and the other communities living with the Kurds,” she said.

In northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance brings together the YPG and Arab forces, but the Kurds have direct access to funds and weapons while their partners do not, she said.

“And this is dangerous because this military support can have unintended consequences … (and) can redraw borders within those countries and create the premises for future conflicts and tensions between the Kurds and their neighbors.”