Iraqi Kurds Get Their Groove Back, End Siege of Mount Sinjar

Kurdish forces declared victory and freed Yazidi holdouts, with help from U.S. air power. Is this just a ploy by the Islamic State—or the beginning of the road to retaking Mosul?

12.20.14 11:59 AM ET

Kurdish forces in northern Iraq celebrated their biggest victory yet over ISIS on Friday after breaking, with U.S. air support, the lengthy jihadi siege of Mount Sinjar and freeing hundreds of trapped members of the Yazidi religious sect.   

The Kurds claimed at least 100 Islamic militants were killed in the two-day battle to lift the siege. The victory by about 8,000 Peshmerga fighters will boost the Kurds’ confidence in their efforts to roll back the territorial gains made in northern Iraq by the fighters for the so-called Islamic State.

In welcoming his forces’ success, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani tweeted: “Brave peshmerga have broken the siege of Mount Sinjar. I dedicate this important victory to all Yazidis.” Kurdish forces Friday night were organizing the evacuation of the Yazidis from the mountain enclave where they had been trapped since the jihadis launched a lightning offensive in August.

Lt. Gen. James Terry, who heads the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, said coalition warplanes had mounted 53 airstrikes in recent days to help Kurdish forces to “maneuver and regain approximately 100 square kilometers of ground” near Sinjar. The Kurds say they’ve recaptured even more territory, claiming they grabbed back about 700 square kilometers, though some analysts questioned that estimate.

“It was a very big operation and thankfully it was concluded very successfully,” Masrur Barzani, the son of the Iraqi Kurdish leader, told reporters. With considerable bravado he added: “This operation will of course continue to clear all the areas that are still under the control of ISIS but the details of that, or the timing of that, I am not at liberty to discuss at the moment.”

Zaim Ali, a Peshmerga commander, said: “We have established a military plan to clear ISIS from all of areas.” And he crowed, “ISIS is attacking us only with car bombs.” 

The expulsion of ISIS from northern Iraq, though, is a long way off. Although the operation to liberate Mount Sinjar was a significant advance, it wasn’t free of serious hitches, and they will have to be ironed out before bigger targets are taken on, such as launching an attack on the militant-held city of Mosul, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced in the summer the formation of a caliphate with himself as caliph.

Despite the claim by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal Thursday that a united Iraq is “sharing the resources and responsibilities to defend and serve all our people” and is pushing back ISIS, Iraqi government forces played no major role in the breaking of the Mount Sinjar siege, although government helicopters had been dropping supplies to the cornered and starving Yazidis.

Appeals to Baghdad for military materiel went unanswered. “We asked the Iraqi government to provide the ammunition needed for this operation,” said Masrur Barzani, who heads Iraqi Kurdistan’s national security council. “Unfortunately, they did not send the ammunition and their contribution was nothing, to be quite frank with you, especially for this operation.”

As Kurdish leaders acknowledge, liberating Mosul is beyond the capability of the peshmerga and government forces will be needed. Speaking last week at a terrorism conference in Washington, D.C., former CIA Director John McLaughlin said retaking Mosul was months off, possibly a year.

Some analysts have urged caution about the Kurdish gain. The Kurds claim they broke the siege without suffering any casualties, which suggests that in the final drive for the mountain ISIS commanders decided not to stand and fight and undertook a tactical withdrawal instead, possibly with the intention of striking back later. That pattern has been seen before in northern Syria, with the highly mobile militants giving up ground when pressed—only to later return.

The news of the breaking of the siege, though, is coming as music to the ears of Obama administration officials, who are pointing to the freeing of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar as a sign of real progress. Their plight—thousands of other Yazidis were killed or enslaved by Islamic militants—along with the murders of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff were cited by President Obama as reasons to act to stem Islamic State advances.

Obama officials and Pentagon chiefs also lauded this week the claimed killing of several top ISIS leaders in U.S. airstrikes in recent weeks. “I can confirm that since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, announced Thursday. Among those claimed dead is Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, the most senior militant leader slain this year. Also believed dead is Shihab Ahmed Hassan al-Luhaibi, the head of security for Mosul. On Wednesday, U.S. warplanes targeted a car he was traveling in on the eastern side of the city.

Al-Turkmani’s death, if confirmed, represents a serious blow for ISIS. A former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army—his real name was Fadel Ahmed Abdullah al-Hiyali—he served in both major military and political roles for the militants, as befitting a veteran of Iraqi military intelligence, and was al-Baghdadi’s deputy. He oversaw the ISIS governors in Iraq. Like his boss al-Baghdadi, he was captured by U.S. forces and served time in Camp Bucca.

But al-Baghdadi has plenty of other lieutenants to draw on and al Qaeda has shown how resilient the jihadis can be in surmounting the loss of top leaders.

The immediate aim of Kurdish forces now will be to try to retake the town of Sinjar, which lies along a road linking Mosul to Syria and is a major supply route for ISIS.