MESOP REPORT : US attempt to aid Kurds may backfire by helping Isis

By Borzou Daragahi in Cairo – FINANCIAL TIMES – 14-8-2014 – With a handful of powerful air strikes the US has re-entered a battle zone it officially abandoned two-and-a-half years ago and all but absconded from even earlier. This has eased pressure on both Kurdish and Iraqi forces struggling to contain the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaeda offshoot army known as Isis, that has been seizing territory in the country’s north for two months.

But on the ground in Iraq, the precision strikes have had only limited impact on battlefronts: they failed to roll back Isis’s advance and can be seen as a propaganda victory for the group, letting its still intact leadership paint its quest for control of the Middle East as part of a war to halt US and western domination.

The US air strikes were described by President Barack Obama as a way to protect the self-ruled Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Erbil and Kurdish religious minorities, including Yazidis and Christians, under assault by Isis. However, even Kurds who are grateful for them acknowledge that their forces’ limited military capabilities are failing to counter Isis’ sophisticated gear and tactics.

“A couple of 500-pound bombs from F-18s and a couple of drone attacks are not going to stop Isis,” Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Iraq and dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, told the Financial Times. “If we’re going to say that this is all about securing Erbil, which Isis never intended [to take over], the mission is over and we can go home.”The US air strikes have momentarily lifted the spirits of the Kurds and helped them push Isis back at Qwar and Makhmour, towns along the border delineating the three-province Kurdish region established since 1991. “It is evident that it is us who is making the progress,” said Holgard Hekmat, spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga armed forces. “Battles are ongoing and the American strikes are continuing and we’re succeeding.”

Mr Hekmat claimed Iraqi and Kurdish security forces were on the offensive, planning out a new phase in the battle against Isis at a joint operations room outside Erbil staffed by Kurdish, Iraqi and US security officials. But Isis has also proven it can adjust its strategy and already appeared to have shifted its focus away from the KRG and toward the city of Kirkuk, which many believe it will soon attack.

Independent observers describe a checkered and troubled battlefield picture. Even Kurdish officials praising Washington’s support plead for additional gear, complaining that their ageing Russian equipment is no match for the advanced US weaponry Isis pillaged from Iraqi bases after storming through northern Iraq in June.

“At a few fronts, Isis is advancing and their attacking abilities haven’t been weakened,” said Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish political commentator who has visited peshmerga along the front lines. “Isis is bringing reinforcements. Many of their fighters have been killed and yet they still have not weakened.”

So far US forces have failed to target Isis’s buildings, weapons storage facilities or the leadership based in the desert near Mosul. “What the peshmerga and the Kurds need now is incessant American strikes,” said Husham Hashemi, a Baghdad-based expert on Iraqi insurgent groups.

The US intervention also does not address the question of Isis’s grasp on stretches of northern Syria, which give it space to recover, rebuild and regroup. “Syria gives Isis strategic depth,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They can go across the border and they can take equipment across the border.”

Limited strikes may backfire, pushing Isis to take on a more clandestine profile without damaging its capabilities or removing its leaders. Isis fighters operating in the open are now certain to change their posture, entrenching themselves in urban areas where they will be harder to hit. “We had one chance to hit their leadership and their command-and-control structures, and now it’s over,” said Mr Crocker.The US involvement also may serve as a recruitment tool for Isis, convincing pious young men reluctant to join the group’s fight against fellow Muslims that they are struggling against American imperialism. “For every drop of blood shed by the Iraqis, Americans will shed a river of blood,” one Isis supporter wrote on Twitter.

“Isis is going to change their propaganda message if the US starts trying to get more involved,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an Erbil-based analyst at the Jamestown Foundation. “I’ve seen on social media that they seem to not really mind that America is involved. Propaganda-wise, the American involvement is not so bad at all for them.”