With Kurdish forces in ascendancy against IS in Syria and Iraq – coalition must focus on empowering vital allies of today, not training of Syrian and Iraqi forces that may come too late

As the barbarous threat of the Islamic State (IS) has become the top global concern, Kurdish forces have taken center stage in the fight in Iraq and Syria.

Peshmerga forces have been instrumental in breaking any notion of invincibility of IS. Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG), have proven that on both sides of the border, the US-led coalitions biggest bet against IS are the Kurds.

Since the siege of Kobane was broken after months of fierce battles with the help of Peshmerga forces and hundreds of coalition airstrikes, YPG forces have been on the offensive, retaking hundreds of villages in the area and dealing a blow to IS.

Advances also included sections of the vital highway that connects IS forces from Aleppo to Raqqa, as YPG and Peshmerga forces closed on another vital border crossing with Turkey – Gire Sipe (Tel Abyad).

YPG forces also took control of the strategic town of Tel Hamees in the Hassakah province in recent days, clearing dozens of villages along the way. The battle against IS, cannot be confined to local battles in Iraq or Syria – the battle is one and the same.

With the Peshmerga continuing to choke IS supply lines around Mosul, Shingal and key areas on the border with Syria, YPG led advances break a vital IS bridge linking forces across the border.

However, as symbolic as Kurdish gains appear to be in Syria, they are by no means irreversible. IS may have lost strategic ground and their pride will be hurt, but they far from a spent force.

Whilst coalition air strikes have been pivotal in Kurdish advances on both sides of the border, it brings into full view the lack of short-term urgency in the US strategy.

The US plans to start training the first batch of moderate Syrian fighters as part of its wider initiative to defeat IS. Unfortunately, the 5000 or so fighters will only be ready by end of year and in total there may be 15000 fighters after 3 years.

This is where the vast cracks in policy appear. The battle against IS is now, not end of the year or in 3 years’ time.

Crucially, the YPG were supported by Syrian rebel fighters. It proves that as fractured as the opposition forces are in Syria, alliances can be affective. YPG forces need support now if they are to firstly hold onto their gains and secondly if they are to continue their vital push into IS strongholds.

Syrian Kurds have proved an affective fighting force but they remain somewhat in the shadows of Turkish suspicion and anxiety over empowering them any further.

Turkey has to choose between a strong Kurdish force that will be vital to defeating IS and bringing stability to the Turkish border, which has been the real gateway for IS, or seeing that IS regains the upper hand whilst moderate Syrian forces get trained.

The people greatly afflicted by IS cannot wait whilst Syrian rebels or Iraqi forces are trained. Only this week the militants abducted over 200 Christian Assyrians in the same area that YPG forces later liberated.

If US continues to focus on Syrian and Iraqi forces, the gains against IS will be diluted. As much as YPG forces need arms, Peshmerga forces are in need of heavy weaponry and equipment. Yet the US has focused on training Iraqi battalions to retake Mosul.

Ironically, the same Peshmerga forces are then expected to make further sacrifices in joining the battle for Mosul, when local Arabs have not been enticed to fight.

With coordinated action across the borders, IS can be split further and their effectiveness greatly hampered. Does the US provide necessary arms and support to the Kurds now in their ascendency, or do they drag out the war waiting to train Syrian forces?

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

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