Kurdish troops retake cities in Syria from ISIS
Motivated by revolutionary fervour, Kurds succeed where Iraqi army fails
In contrast to the Iraqi army's failures, Kurdish fighters in Syria are on the march against ISIS, capturing towns and villages in an oil-rich swath of the country's northeast under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes.
As the Kurds close in on Tel Abyad, a major commercial centre on the Turkish border, their advance highlights the decisive importance of combining air power with the presence of a cohesive and motivated ally on the ground — so clearly absent in Iraq.
In Syria, a country now split mostly between al-Qaeda-style militants and forces loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad, the United States has found a reliable partner in the country's main Kurdish fighting force, known as the YPG. They are moderate, mostly secular fighters driven by revolutionary fervour and deep conviction in their cause.
Since the beginning of May, they have wrested back more than 200 Kurdish and Christian towns in northeastern Syria, as well as strategic mountains seized earlier by ISIS militants. Along the way, they have picked up ammunition, weapons and vehicles left behind by jihadists.
The push has got them closer to Tel Abyad, a major avenue for commerce for the extremist group through which it smuggles foreign fighters and sells black-market oil to help fund its conquests. The city is also a key link between Turkey and the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State group's de-facto capital in its self-declared caliphate.
"The YPG doesn't lack a will to fight, like soldiers in the Syrian army or soldiers in the Iraqi army who mostly fight for a salary," said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. "The YPG is much more motivated than other forces in the region, and doesn't lack cohesion and doesn't have co-ordination problems.
The Iraqi military has struggled to make gains after its humiliating defeats last year, when it virtually crumbled in the face of the militant onslaught in northern Iraq. Poor training, corruption and sectarian politics have all been cited as reasons for the military's shortcomings.
The U.S. spent billions of dollars training Iraqi forces from 2003 to 2011, but much of that training did not reach the foot soldiers battling the Islamic State group today.
Last week, U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter criticized the Iraqi army following the fall of Ramadi, the strategic capital of the country's largest Sunni province of Anbar, saying the Iraqi military lacked the "will to fight."
The YPG doesn't lack a will to fight, like soldiers in the Syrian army or soldiers in the Iraqi army who mostly fight for a salary.- Wladimir van Wilgenburg, Middle East analyst
Within days, ISIS fighters had also dealt a major blow to Assad's forces in Syria, seizing the historic city of Palmyra, a major crossroads linking the capital, Damascus, with territory to the east and west. In images reminiscent of the Iraqi defeat in Ramadi, Syrian soldiers fled the city, leaving behind tanks and ammunition.
By contrast, Syria's Kurds have shown remarkable cohesiveness. Spurred by ideology and nationalistic fervour, they fought ferociously to claw back territory after ISIS fighters captured the Kurdish town of Kobani and dozens of surrounding villages last fall. The ISIS descent on Kobani led the U.S. to widen its air campaign from Iraq into Syria to assist the Kurds.
Despite the fact that ISIS had heavy weapons and far more fighters, the Kurds resisted the offensive on Kobani, conducting fierce street battles until the U.S. air-dropped weapons and intensified the airstrikes.
In January, the YPG liberated Kobani from the Islamic State militants and began a wide offensive in which they regained much of the territory they had lost.
On May 6, the Kurdish fighters and their allies launched an offensive from the northeastern province of Hassakeh and in less than three weeks captured the strategic Mount Abdul-Aziz along with 221 Kurdish and Christian villages that were held by ISIS.
The Kurds are now closing in on Tel Abyad with fighters moving east from Kobani and west from Hassakeh — an offensive that, if successful, would open a direct line between Kurdish-controlled territory along the border with Turkey. Such a move is likely to anger Turkey, which sees the YPG as part of the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an anti-government insurgency in southeastern Turkey for years.