For a time, there was a pleasant fiction that the Kurdish capital of Irbil was safe. With much of greater Iraq splintered by the Islamic State’s brutality, Kurdistan seemed protected, insulated, economically booming and buoyant enough to recently extend its borders to nearby Kirkuk. Plus, the narrative went, Kurdistan had its pesh merga — a vaunted militia of grizzled fighters who fought Saddam Hussein and whose name, after all, means “those who confront death.”
In the past several days, however, it has become clear that rumors of Kurdistan’s safety have been exaggerated. Earlier this week, the Islamic State, in yet another sign of its nascent strength, captured the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar, which had been under the protection of the pesh merga. Pictures soon circulated on social media of executed members of the Kurdish security force, Islamic State militants fluttering their black flag and hundreds of thousands of fleeing residents.
It got worse. Perhaps for tactical reasons, Kurdish forces reportedly relinquished control of Iraq’s largest dam and the largest Christian city in the country with little fighting. Then, as airlines suspended flights to Irbil, the militants besieged villages just 30 miles west of the Kurdish capital, a boomtown where “people are panicking,” Kurdish journalist Namo Abdulla told The Washington Post. “They are panicking in Irbil. People are fleeing and going into the mountains. They are terrified. The militants love death more than they love life. They don’t care about anything; they just want to kill.”
On Thursday night, President Obama authorized limited airstrikes against Islamic State militants to protect Americans in Irbil and Baghdad and possibly free thousands of Yazidis, an ethnic group trapped on a barren spit of earth called Mount Sinjar. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” Obama said, presumably referencing a tearful plea delivered by politician Vian Dakhil, the lone Yazidi in Iraq’s parliament. “Well, today America is coming to help.”
He added: “When we have the unique capacity to avert a massacre, the United States cannot turn a blind eye.”
The news will perhaps temper some Kurdish panic. “There is an old staying in Kurdistan,” Abdulla said. “The Kurds have no friends except for the mountains. They are right now running for the mountains. But tonight, Obama showed that he is another friend.”
But against a foe like the Islamic State, which analysts say has territory and resources unmatched in the history of extremist groups, the Kurds may need more than friends. They may need more guns.
The lopsided war between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State, analysts say, was perhaps decided months ago. That was when the jihadists captured Mosul, Iraq’s largest northern city.
The Iraqi forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who were equipped with American arms, fled. “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, who is from Mosul, said at the time, according to a Washington Post report.
Pictures soon circulated online of militants smiling beside captured Humvees and other weapons. Those gains, in addition to the financial windfall of capturing the city, enabled additional military excursions and set the stage for today’s Kurdish retreat before the Islamic State. “The pesh merga are running out of ammunition,” Abdulla told The Post. The Islamic State has “seized American weaponry from the Iraqi government and now they’re outgunning the Kurdish forces. Despite the strength of the pesh merga before, the pesh merga just can’t fight them now.”
Ali Khedery, a former American official in Iraq, agreed in an interview with the New York Times. “They are literally outgunned by an [Islamic State] that is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it.”
According to Steven A. Cook, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, Kurdistan finds itself sharing a 650-mile border with perhaps the strongest extremist group in recent history with little more than antique weapons. “The Kurds are suddenly vulnerable,” he wrote earlier this summer. “No one wants neighbors like [Islamic State leader] Abu Bakr al Baghdadi … but that is now the Kurds’ reality. They know that they will have to fight at some point and notwithstanding the near universal respect for the pesh merga, they have old and unreliable Russian equipment.”
And in its recent push toward independence, the region has also been on the outs with Baghdad — meaning that while it’s supposed to get a share of U.S. weapons supplied to Iraq, it hasn’t gotten “a single bullet,” Masrour Barzani, the Kurds’ intelligence and security chief, told The Post. He added: “Let Washington know how serious the situation is and how big of a need we have for military support…. We are left out to fight all these terrorists, all these problems on our own.”
The lack of weaponry, however, hasn’t seemed to ding the pesh merga’s courage. And it’s possible the Kurds have more up their sleeve than anyone suspects and have decided to consolidate their forces around their more-established holdings. This week, Kurdistan declared war on the Islamic State.
“We decided to go on the offensive and fight the terrorists to the last breath,” Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani said. “We have ordered the pesh merga to attack the terrorists and enemies of Kurdistan with all their power.”