A Kurdish Comeback

Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have been outgunned and in retreat from the Islamic State. But not for long, they say.

MAKHMOUR, Iraq — Ali Sulaiman Abdullah rests on a concrete bench outside a small, run-down building in the foothills of Mount Qarachukh in northeastern Iraq. His khaki uniform, the baggy suit that Kurdish warriors traditionally wear, is stained with sweat and dirt. After a long day trying to defend Kurdistan from the Islamic State's onslaught, Abdullah needs a break.

The 700 troops under Abdullah's command have been battling the Islamic State for three days as the jihadists have advanced closer and closer to Erbil, the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. This battalion is just one small part of the thousands of Kurdish forces currently fighting the Islamic State on nearly a dozen fronts in five provinces.

He is impressed with the Islamic State's skills on the battlefield. "They are good at guerrilla warfare," says Abdullah. "They are here to kill and to die." He would know. He has 53 years of experience himself, much of it in guerrilla warfare against different governments in Baghdad.

Abdullah and his troops are fighting to hold the ground near Qarachukh Mountain. Finally, on Sunday, Aug. 10, a combined force of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga with assistance from Turkish Kurdish fighters expelled Islamic State militants from Makhmour and the nearby district of Gwer, securing the southwestern flank of Erbil.

The week before, the Islamic State had expanded its territory to include Kurdish-controlled areas in western Nineveh and several areas close to the west and southwest of Erbil. The jihadists even took control of the strategic Mosul dam, Iraq's largest.

Abdullah and other Kurdish commanders say that despite recent defeats, they can stop the Islamic State. The successful campaign to take back Makhmour and Gwer may signal that Kurds are able to push the militants back. The Peshmerga are especially counting on U.S. assistance these days. Their morale got a boost after U.S. F/A-18 aircraft bombed Islamic State positions on Friday, Aug. 8. Repeated U.S. airstrikes since have targeted Islamic State positions and convoys around Erbil and in western Nineveh. In parallel, Kurds have been strengthening their positions, and Kurdish reinforcements are coming in from across the region to help.

Peshmerga commanders say they have been outgunned in recent weeks. The Peshmerga have not been in a true battle since helping fight Saddam Hussein's army during the U.S. invasion in 2003. Even then, most of the fight was carried out from the air by U.S. warplanes and missiles. The Islamic State's crack fighting force, on the other hand, has been honing its skills over the past two years in Syria and Iraq. Around 150 Peshmerga troops have been killed and 500 others wounded in the latest fighting, according to Kurdish government statistics.

Another problem for the Kurds has been a lack of supplies. The Islamic State now has a variety of advanced U.S.-made weapons that they seized from Iraqi Army bases when they captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June. These weapons include long-range artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles -- as well as tons of ammunition.

"Their Hummer vehicles are armored and have a high defense and attack capability. They have powerful bazooka weapons and are quite precise in their mortar attacks," says Brig. Gen. Halgurd Khidir Zahir, a Peshmerga division commander who led forces on the border with Syria before he was forced into retreat.

Zahir says that the jihadists often wait until the other side is running short on ammunition before launching a more intense offensive. And the Peshmerga say they suffer from major shortages of ammunition, especially artillery shells and rockets.

Some Peshmerga troops, who did not want to be named, said they have purchased their own bullets and even weapons. But most rely mainly on Soviet-era weapons raided from the Iraqi Army during the 2003 invasion. The Kurds have been pleading with Western powers for some time to provide them with advanced weaponry that they can use against jihadists.

"What we are asking our friends to do is to provide support and to cooperate with us in providing the necessary weapons that would enable us to defeat these terrorist groups," Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said in a press conference on Sunday.

Barzani may be getting his wish. On Aug. 11, the Associated Press, citing unnamed senior U.S. officials, reported that the United States would soon begin providing Kurdish troops with arms *. Specifically what the Peshmerga will get from the U.S. hasn't been specified, but it's exactly what the Kurds have been waiting for -- and what they will need in order to beat back the Islamic State.

Despite early expectations that the Peshmerga would be able to hold their ground against the Islamic State's fighters, Kurdish forces have suffered losses and have been forced to engage in some withdrawals in recent weeks.

On the night of Aug. 10, Peshmerga forces pulled out of Jalawla, a town in northern Diyala province, after a suicide attack killed 10 Kurdish fighters. On Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, jihadists pushed Kurdish troops from the towns of Zumar and Sinjar, near the border with Syria. Thousands of people fled the towns, most of them Kurds who follow the ancient Yazidi faith.

The Yazidis have since been trapped on a small mountain, running out of food and water and surrounded by Islamic State fighters. The United Nations' figures put the number of stranded Kurds at anywhere from 35,000 to 200,000. In recent days, Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, have rescued thousands of the trapped Yazidis by securing a narrow corridor for escape. U.S. airstrikes have also helped, keeping Islamic State fighters away from the mountain. But thousands remain trapped.

Since Aug. 6, Peshmerga troops have pulled out of a range of areas, from the Christian-dominated towns of Qaraqosh and Telkaif near Mosul, to parts of Makhmour and areas surrounding Mosul dam. Kurdish officials say the retreats were tactical, meant to make room for airstrikes from Iraqi and U.S. warplanes. Recent gains by Kurdish forces in Makhmour and Gwer suggest that Kurds have shifted to a counteroffensive.

"Today the balance of war has tilted in our favor both militarily and politically," Fuad Hussein, Barzani's chief of staff, said during an Aug. 8 press conference, just hours after the U.S. military bombed Islamic State targets near Erbil.

The Peshmerga are relying on U.S. airstrikes to weaken the Islamic State's defensive and offensive capabilities and give them support for a ground attack. As the retaking of Makhmour and Gwer suggest, it seems to be working.

American planes and weapons aren't the only support Kurds are getting. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have asked for help from Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian armed Kurdish groups. Hundreds of these fighters have flocked to the front lines around Erbil and Sinjar close to the border with Syria.

Fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party could be seen around Makhmour protecting a nearby camp for Kurdish refugees from Turkey. YPG fighters have also advanced into areas around Rabia and Sinjar to fight the Islamic State. Video posted online shows female and male YPG fighters rescuing stranded Yazidis in Sinjar.

Local volunteers have also taken up arms to defend their towns and villages. For Kurds, the Islamic State's advance is nothing short of an existential threat to the closest thing Kurds have ever known to their long-standing dream of independence. Erbil's fall to the Islamic State would mean the end of Kurdish self-rule in this area for over two decades, and it could trigger a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe.

Kurds are confident that they won't allow their forces to fall to the Islamic State. They may be outgunned for now, but help is on the way. And Halgurd Hikmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, says that following U.S. airstrikes, "there is an agreement that the second phase will be for Peshmerga forces to be armed in a coordinated effort with the U.S. and Iraqi militaries."

Most Kurds have little doubt that it is going to be a long fight against the Islamic State, which seems intent on incorporating Kurdish territory into its caliphate. The emerging unity on the front lines among the frequently divided Kurdish forces coming from different parts of the Middle East is testimony that they consider this fight a struggle for survival.


*The article originally said that the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon will provide Peshmerga with weapons. In fact, the report says that the government agency that will provide assistance to the Kurds is unknown. Return to reading.



Erdogan for the Win!

After 11 increasingly authoritarian years as prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is running for president on Aug. 10. What happens next won’t surprise you.

ISTANBUL — A defining moment in Turkey's presidential race came on July 26, when front-runner and current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked onto a soccer field and, in the course of 15 minutes, knocked three goals past a professional keeper.

The 25-year-old Volkan Babacan, a goalkeeper in one of Turkey's top leagues, appeared rooted to the ground as the 60-year-old prime minister struck the ball past him to ecstatic commentary from television newscasters.

"[Erdogan's] goals were amazing," the manager of Turkey's national soccer team said admiringly in the wake of the exhibition match to mark the opening of a new soccer ground in Istanbul.

The spectacle served to remind Turkish voters, who will go to the polls on Aug. 10 to directly elect their president for the first time in Turkey's history, that their premier was a semi-professional soccer player before entering politics. Echoing similarly improbable athletic feats by other strongman leaders, such as Russia's Vladimir Putin, it also illustrated the growing fear that Turkey is becoming a country in thrall to one man, where politicians, public servants, businessmen, media -- and even soccer teams -- partake in a chorus of sycophantic adulation aimed at reinforcing his authority.

Recent surveys suggest Erdogan will continue to be as dominant in the political arena as he was on the soccer field, easily winning the coming election. A poll published on Aug. 7 by Konda Research suggested he would receive 57 percent of the vote, a landslide that would eliminate the need for a runoff.

Turkey's presidency is mainly a ceremonial position. Erdogan has insisted on the campaign trail that he will not overstep the role's constitutional powers, but members of his Justice and Development Party have fallen over themselves to make clear that he will remain, in effect, the leader. Addressing the European Turkish Democratic Union in Mannheim, Germany last month, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci contended -- in defiance of most legal experts -- that the presidency already has "executive" powers and would take over the most important duties currently associated with the prime minister's office, including chairing cabinet meetings.

"I'm saying this sentence publicly for the first time; from now on in Turkey the president, not the prime minister, will be the head of the cabinet," said Zeybekci. "Do you understand? Let there not be the tiniest hint of dissent."

A loyal placeholder will occupy the role of prime minister, allowing Erdogan to remain in effective control, in a manner similar to Dmitry Medvedev's one-term puppet presidency for Vladimir Putin in Russia, according to Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. "For all practical purposes, he will be trying to be both president and prime minister," says Ulgen.

Subordinating the premiership to the presidency, Ulgen adds, "will do away with one of the residual checks and balances in the system."

Hitting the campaign trail last month, however, Erdogan set out an agenda that appeared radically at odds with the authoritarian image painted by his detractors. He released a lengthy "vision statement" on July 11, filled with pledges of democratization and reform. He renewed a vow to push for a new civilian constitution to replace the current charter, which was imposed by a military junta in 1982. Erdogan also wrote in the vision statement of expanding minority rights as part of a negotiated solution to end to Turkey's 30-year Kurdish insurgency.

"We should adopt democracy, not as a political model, but as a culture dominating every field of our lives," the statement says.

* * *

Such sentiments may have seemed credible when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won power in 2002. Although Erdogan's roots were in Islamist politics, his party won after embracing secularism and espousing a platform promoting European Union membership, economic liberalization, and human rights reforms. But today, many former allies won over by these pledges doubt that the AKP still intends to take Turkey in this direction.

Until recently, Suat Kiniklioglu, the director of the Center for Strategic Communication, an Ankara-based think tank, was among the AKP's liberal allies. He was member of Parliament from the party between 2007 and 2011, and served on its executive committee until 2012. He broke with AKP the same year over concerns about their commitment to democracy. Now, he says, Erdogan is moving Turkey toward "an authoritarian state colored by Islamist values."

In Erdogan's early years in power, Kiniklioglu says, the prime minister governed differently. Policy matters were more open to debate, and the prime minister was willing to compromise. He was much more constructive and very careful about forming an alliance with democrats, liberals and former center rightists," Kiniklioglu says. "He had his own values but he was always aware of the need to compromise and work within the system."

The change, Kiniklioglu believes, came after a 2010 constitutional referendum that allowed for the reordering of the top levels of the judiciary. Erdogan's proposals passed with a resounding 58 percent of the vote. In reforming the trenchantly secularist top courts, Turks elected to remove the last firewall of the Kemalist state established in 1923. At the same time, the vote gave Erdogan's political project an overwhelming show of public support. An even more dramatic shift occurred in May 2013, when Erdogan strongly supported the police as they crushed massive anti-government protests across the country, causing eight deaths.

When a corruption scandal rocked his government in the months after the protests, Erdogan adopted further authoritarian measures to quell dissent. He likened the corruption probes to a "coup attempt" by Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic preacher and former ally, and pushed through laws trimming judicial independence, broadening the powers of the domestic intelligence agency, and increasing Internet censorship.

Erdogan's party has also tried to control the press, embarking on a long-term mission to syphon influential media and telecommunication companies toward AKP allies. Last year, Turkey's Saving Deposit Insurance Fund seized broadcasters SkyTurk and Show TV, daily newspaper Aksam, and Digiturk, the country's top cable TV provider. The stated reason was that their owner, Cukurova Holding -- a conglomerate under whose ownership the media companies had often needled the government -- owed the state over $450 million.  

Digiturk remains in state hands. SkyTurk and Aksam were sold to Ethem Sancak, a businessman close to the AKP. Under Sancak's ownership the channels have taken on staunchly pro-government lines. Show TV was sold to Ciner Group, whose media holdings, though less-actively supportive of the AKP, also tend to avoid criticism of the government.

However such details are unlikely to trouble Erdogan's conservative, mainly working-class voter base, which remains grateful for more than a decade of strong economic growth and a relentless program of infrastructure and healthcare development.

"We are now a nation who is admired and not a nation that looks at European cities and admires those places," Erdogan said at the opening ceremony of the country's first high-speed train line last month, citing the "double-highways, high-speed rail lines, schools, universities, hospitals and dams" built under his government.

It's probably a winning strategy for Erdogan and his party. "Voting behavior in Turkey is not determined by how democratic a leader is," says Dogan Akin, founder and editor-in-chief of T24, an independent news site. "Voting behavior is more affected by development and economic issues, and at the moment, [Turks] feel the government is fulfilling their daily needs."

* * * 

Erdogan's all-but-certain victory in the presidential race, however, may present a fresh set of complications. Ulgen points out that as president -- a position that is formally apolitical -- he will no longer be able to openly campaign for the AKP in the parliamentary elections scheduled for next June. "He may try to stretch those limits, but we will see," says Ulgen.

Equally, economists predict that Turkey's era of stellar economic growth, during which GDP expanded by an average of more than 5 percent a year for roughly a decade, is likely at an end. A recent study predicted that growth from 2015 to 2019 is likely to average 3.9 percent. Few believe that Turkey will achieve the government's 2014 growth forecast of 4 percent, and last month the OECD issued a prediction of 3.3 percent. The most recent poor economic news came this week, when monthly figures showed inflation at 9.3 percent, higher than market expectations, and which helped stoke a drop in the value of the Turkish lira.

Perhaps more seriously, the internationally respected economic team that has overseen Turkey's decade of growth is now fraying. Ali Babacan, deputy prime minister and economy czar, is due to resign next year. Rising lights include Yigit Bulut, Erdogan's chief advisor, who inspires deep unease in international investors and economists, and is best known for his eccentric conspiracy theories, including one that the German airline Lufthansa provoked last summer's mass protests.

The question going forward is whether the powerful apparatus of control Erdogan has fostered over the past decade will be able to weather any future storms of public disapproval, or rivals who may emerge from his own party.

"[Turkey] had never had such an authoritarian and powerful personality such as Erdogan, so this is all new to us," says Kiniklioglu. "He will certainly do everything to make sure that his authority will not erode."