Counting on the Kurds

The Peshmerga's Prospects Against ISIS

Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate on the eve of Newroz Day, a festival marking their spring and the Persian New Year, in Kirkuk on March 20, 2015. Ako Rasheed / Reuters

Within Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) relies heavily on Kurdish Peshmerga as coalition boots on the ground. Since international air strikes commenced in September 2014, the Peshmerga have regained about 25–30 percent of territories lost to ISIS. Territorial gains have also limited ISIS’ access to oil and gas resources, drying up some of its revenue streams. But the Peshmerga haven’t been a total success story; Peshmerga forces are using coalition air strikes to engineer territorial and demographic changes that are antagonizing Sunni Arabs—the very communities the United States needs on its side to degrade ISIS. Coalition military support to the Kurdish Peshmerga in Syria is also irritating Turkey, a major regional ally, and further hindering a shared regional framework of action.


The Kurds are a committed and pragmatic partner in the battle against ISIS. Kurdish Peshmerga have fought radical Islamist groups for years and have a history of striking politically expedient alliances to protect their interests and territory. During the Kurdish civil war in the late 1990s, Iraq Kurdish party Peshmerga battled against the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan. In post-Saddam Iraq, they fought alongside U.S. forces to expel Ansar al-Islam from their territory.  During the al Qaeda insurgency, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) negotiated security and intelligence pacts with Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and local leaders to secure its borders, alongside the creation of commercial and political deals. Despite threats to secede from Iraq less than one year ago, the KRG is now coordinating with Iraqi security forces (ISF) to form a joint security committee with Sunni Arab forces. Together, they are planning to help liberate Mosul. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), maintains a tacit agreement with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and de facto control of the Rumeilan oil field, which provides the group with state revenue in return for security assistance in the Kurds’ autonomous cantons in northern

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