YPG

Superb Maps from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Kurdish Issue

Iraq War November 2015 ISW MapI have been generally quite impressed with the mapping of the current war in Iraq and Syria. This is a complicated and rapidly changing conflict, and I find it highly convenient that major newspapers, magazines, websites, think tanks, and the indispensible Wikipedia provide comprehensive and often-updated cartographic coverage. The best maps that I have found come from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which describes itself as “a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization.” Although non-partisan, the institute does in general advocate forceful military actions by the United States. According to its mission statement, the ISW believes that:

[G]round realities must drive the formulation of strategy and policy. In pursuit of this principle, ISW conducts detailed, open-source intelligence analysis to provide the most accurate information on current conflicts and security threats. ISW researchers spend time in conflict zones conducting independent assessments and enhancing their understanding of realities on the ground. Through reports and timely events, our research educates military and civilian leaders, reporters, and the public to enhance the quality of policy debates.

(Although it is rather beside the point, the ISW is unusual in the field of security analysis in that is dominated by women. Three of its four leaders are women, and its founder and president is Kimberly Kagan, wife of Frederick Kagan, who in turn is the brother of Robert Kagan and the son of Donald Kagan, both of whom are well-known writers on security issues. Three of the six analysts at the ISW are female as well.)

As an example of the cartographic excellence of the ISW, I have reduced and reproduced here one its more recent maps of the situation in Iraq, by analyst Patrick Martin. Like many of the better maps depicting this conflict, it differentiates populated areas from sparsely inhabited zones while emphasizing the control over cities and transportation corridors. Its level of detail, however, is unsurpassed, especially when it comes to the Kurdish-controlled north. Although many maps of the current war in Iraq group the various Kurdish forces together, they are actually divided into several cooperating but still somewhat competitive contingents. Four Kurdish groups appear on this map. Two are based primarily in northern Iraq (the Kurdish Democratic Party [KDP]) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK]), one is based in northern Syria (the People’s Protection Units [YPG]), and one is associated primarily with southeastern Turkey (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK]). As can be seen on the map, several areas are under the combined control of two or more of these organizations. The situation is especially complicated in Sinjar, the main Yezidi area that was recently retaken from ISIS.

The ISW also produces detailed descriptions of its maps. The extended caption of the ISW map highlighted in this post (by Patrick Martin) is worth reproducing in full, as it captures many of the complexities and challenges encountered in the struggle between Kurdish and ISIS forces. As can be seen, ISW analysts are concerned about tensions existing among the various Kurdish contingents and among the region’s different ethnic and religious groups:

Kurdish forces recaptured the Yazidi-majority district of Sinjar, west of Mosul from ISIS on November 13 [2015]. Confrontations between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will grow increasingly likely as both seek to control Sinjar, while Kurdish control over the mixed-demographic district is already leading to heightened tensions between Yazidis and Sunni Arabs. Kurdish forces included Peshmerga affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP); PKK-affiliated fighters from the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG); Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces; and local Yazidi militias. The city of Sinjar remains under mixed KDP Peshmerga and PKK control. Areas east of the Sinjar were recaptured primarily by the Peshmerga, with the exception of Tel Qasab, a village southeast of Sinjar, which was captured by a YPG-affiliated Yazidi militia. However, areas west of Sinjar reportedly involved few Peshmerga. These areas remain primarily under the control of the PKK, YPG, and PKK-affiliated local Yazidi militias. Villages north of Sinjar and Sinjar Mountain contain forces from all Kurdish fighting forces excluding Peshmerga affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and it is unclear as to what specific villages are controlled by which forces. Areas north of the mountain have been under mixed Peshmerga and PKK control since before the Sinjar operation, which ISW is retrospectively representing on this map. ISW has also retrospectively assessed that the KDP Peshmerga do not have control over the Kasak intersection area, northwest of Mosul, which is still held by ISIS. KDP Peshmerga control the town of Kasak itself, but not the surrounding roads. ISW has thus adjusted the depicted control of terrain in the Kasak area.

ISW maps of other conflicts, such as that of Afghanistan, are also superb, as will be noted in a forthcoming post.

 

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ISIS Advances and the Kurds Retreat In Northern Syria

Kobane Military SituationThe struggle involving the Islamic State (alternatively, ISIS or ISIL) in northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq is finally receiving abundant coverage in the global media. Today’s (Sept. 21) New York Times, for example, features several articles on the issue, focused mostly on the international complications generated by the conflict. Many publications in the U.S., however—including the Times—have either downplayed or ignored altogether the major offensive that the Islamic State is currently conducting against Kurdish forces in the Kobanê region of northern Syria. A major Kurdish enclave is currently gravely imperiled, threatening another human rights catastrophe. As reported today in Reuters:

“ISIL (Islamic State) are continuing to advance. Every place they pass through they kill, wound and kidnap people. Many people are missing and we believe they were kidnapped,” Welat Avar, a doctor, told Reuters by telephone from Kobani. “We now urgently need medicines and equipment for operations. We have many casualties … ISIL killed many people in the villages. They cut off the heads of two people, I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

A Kurdish politician from Turkey who visited Kobani on Saturday gave a similar account of the Sunni militants’ tactics. “Rather than a war this is a genocide operation …”

Kobane Googler EarthAs a result of the ISIS advance and the corresponding atrocities committed, tens of thousands of Kurds are streaming into Turkey, which has recently opened a stretch of its border to Kurdish refugees. The situation on the Turkish side of the boundary, however, is evidently chaotic, resulting in clashes between the fleeing Kurds and Turkish police forces. Most Kurds do not trust Turkish authorities, who they believe are tolerating, if not actively collaborating with, the Islamic State. The recent release of Turkish hostages by the Islamic State feeds into such speculations. Some outside experts concur. As was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“I think it’s self-evident that there was some sort of quid pro quo,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York, speaking of the release. “I think what’s likely is Turkey gave some sort of guarantee that its actions against ISIS would be limited in nature and it wouldn’t play a primary role in any military coalition.”

Syrian Political Situation MapThe threatened Kurdish enclave in question forms one of three sections of the de facto Kurdish autonomous region of northern and Eastern Syria, known internationally as Syrian Kurdistan, but referred to in Kurdish as Rojava (“West”), or more formally Rojavayê Kurdistanê. This divided region declared its autonomy in 2012, and since then has been under the control of the People’s Protection Units, commonly called the YPG (after the Kurdish term Yekîneyên Parastina Gel). Turkish authorities tend to be highly suspicious of the YPG, which they view as the military branch of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which in turn is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization based in southeastern Turkey that was until last year engaged in an armed struggle against the Turkish state. Although YPG units have proved themselves militarily capable, in the Kobanê area they have not been able to withstand the onslaught of the much more effectively armed ISIS fighters.

Syrian Kurdistan Aspirational MapKurdish partisans claim all of northern Syria for their autonomous region of Rojava, as is indicated in maps that they have produced. Over the past two years, however they have controlled only three widely separated areas. According to most ethnographic maps of the area, the Kurdish-speaking region of Syria covers less territory than the envisaged Kurdish autonomous area, but more territory than the three disjointed areas currently under Kurdish control. These three zones Syrian Kurdistan Maphave each been organized as “cantons” by the Syrian Kurdish authorities. Of these, Cizîrê Canton in the east is the most secure, as it borders the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq. Efrîn and Kobanê cantons, however, are relatively isolated, making them highly vulnerable. (Kobanê, it is important to note, is officially known in Syria under its Arabic name, Ayn al-Arab; both the Wikipedia and Google Earth use this term.)

Kurdish Language and Kurdish Control MapThe military forces of the Kurds in Syria have an interesting gender dynamic. Women warriors are well represented among the Kurdish Peshmerga of northern Iraq, but they are more common yet in the YPG. A recent BBC report claims that female fighters account for roughly a third of the organization, making it the most gender balanced combat force in recoded history. The BBC article goes on to claim that:

“Women are the bravest fighters,” says Diren, taking refuge from the scorching heat in the cool of an underground bunker. .. “We’re not scared of anything,” she says. “We’ll fight to the last. We’d rather blow ourselves up than be captured by IS.”

Like the followers of the Islamic State, most Kurds are Sunni Muslims. But that is where the similarities end. Diren says that, to the fanatics of IS, a female fighter is “haram”, anathema: a disturbing and scary sight.

Religious beliefs may play into fears generated by Kurdish female fighters among the ISIS militants, at least according to Ed Royce, chair of the US House International Relations Committee. As reported in The Telegraph:

“These Isil soldiers apparently believed that if they were killed in battle, they went to paradise as long as they were killed by a man,” he told The New York Post, citing reports of Kurdish female fighters laughing as they repelled attacks by the extremist group.

I find it intriguing and disturbing that the ISIS advance and the Kurdish retreat in northern Syria are receiving little attention from the U.S. media. I suspect that this lack of concern stems from the uncomfortable situation presented by the Kurdish militias in the region. The policy of the United States and its allies is based on the sacrosanct nature of official boundaries and geopolitical units in the region; Iraq and Syria must, according to this doctrine, be reconstituted as coherent nation-states. Kurdish aspirations, however, run counter to this idea. Whether the American policy in question is based on realistic assessments is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the idea that these two countries can remerge as coherent, self-governing, non-autocratic states may be nothing more than a delusion. Will the Kurds be sacrificed to such a geopolitical fantasy? I hope not, but the events of this past week do not leave me feeling very optimistic.

 

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