WASHINGTON, November 18, 2014 — Yet another video surfaced from ISIS – this showing the grisly execution of 14 Syrian soldiers and ex-American soldier and humanitarian aid worker in Syria, David Kassig.
Media coverage has emphasized the exploits of the Islamic State almost exclusively, rendering the impression that IS is virtually an unstoppable force.
The unreported facts suggest otherwise. In fact, some trends are emerging that indicate momentum is turning against them. The convoys have stopped, the open advance of militants has given way to furtive movements and caution where there was once exuberant arrogance.
What are these factors in the stalling of the Islamic State’s advance? Some of the setbacks for ISIS can be attributed to NATO coalition airstrikes, which have disrupted the jihadists. But military observers, including Iraqi officials are nearly unanimous in agreeing that airstrikes alone won’t eradicate the threat of ISIS, nor undermine its control of the wide footprint of territory it has seized.
A credible force on the ground is needed to consolidate the tactical advantages of the air campaign. But, from what we’ve seen, the Iraqi Army, whose initial panicked retreat of 30,000 troops from Mosul in the face of the lightning offensive by Islamic State militants, is not the solution. What is?
The answer may be surprising and the story behind it reveals some evolving trends in the region that threaten the ensconced authority of radical Islam and male dominated society.
Enter the Kurds. A remarkable and a unique people in the region. The Kurds occupy a semi-autonomous region, collectively known as Kurdistan, within the national boundaries of 4 countries – Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan is now considered autonomous.
Each Kurdish quasi state within a nation strives for full independence and control of the resources in the geography it resides in. All have been subject to brutal repression and ceaseless attempts on the part of the governments that hold hegemony over their land, to annihilate them. Modern history has seen the rise of nationalist movements by the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran, in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Erbil, is the largest metropolis of any of the Kurdish regions. Situated in Northeastern Iraq, and home to 1.5 million people, it is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is a very progressive city, defying the sort of conceptual notions Westerners have about the Middle East and Iraq in particular. Kurdistan is the most tolerant and hospitable region of Western Asia towards religious minorities like Christians and Jews, outside of Israel.
Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, exemplify the potential of stability, development and secular political structures possible in Arab lands. They are cities and societies in which social changes are slowly but steadily improving the role of women, eroding the patriarchal dominance of families and communities and offering new opportunities for professional attainment, political participation and education.
Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan are also representative of a pro-Western outlook and friendly attitude towards the U.S. They’ve not forgotten how the U.S. enforced the no-fly zones that prevented Saddam Hussein from attacking their homes during the Gulf wars.
Where Iraqis in the center and the North of Iraq and the West bordering Syria, have fled, the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan have fiercely resisted ISIS and have inflicted casualties on the Islamic State. Zumar, one of the Kurds towns in Northeastern Iraq, was temporarily over-run by IS militants in August and held by them until late last month.
But with November came the culmination of the persistent onslaught of Kurdish forces against the occupiers, with ISIS being driven from Zumar. NPR’s Leila Fadel noted the finality of the victory. “ISIS rigged the homes with explosives and left bombs hidden in pots and buried underground. They tagged buildings with the words “Property of the Islamic State.” But those have hastily been crossed out with praise for the Peshmerga now in control”.
Which brings us to Kobani. Because of the United States’ untenable position with regard to NATO ally Turkey’s intransigence in the effort to contain ISIS, the U.S. has applied diplomatic leverage to permit Kurdish fighters to use a vital border crossing into Syria.
The PKK, otherwise known as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a Kurdish political and militant group that has been fighting Turkey nearly 30 years for independence, have been involved in the effort to wrest control of Kobani, a large town in Syria on the Turkish border, from ISIS jihadists.
Turkey, which values dominance over its Kurd population more than it fears ISIS, had previously not only refused to intervene in Kobani, but had impeded efforts by the Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan to rally to the aid of its besieged fellow Kurds.
Now, however, due to pressure from Washington for Turkey to step aside, it is allowing the Peshmerga access to Kobani with armored vehicles and heavy artillery, enabling them to shell ISIS positions. Prior to this, up to 200,000 Kobani residents left the city in a hasty escape. But not everyone left. Some citizens determined to resist and defend the city at any cost. And some help arrived.
Who resisted ISIS in Kobani and in the Sinjar region and who has come to their aid, is the subject of tomorrow’s report and what you will learn is a surprising and fascinating story of courage and determination, not to mention an emerging reshaping of the cultural landscape that may ultimately prove influential across the Middle East.