The Cable

Kurds Assault ISIS in Sinjar, With Eyes on Mosul

The fight for Sinjar is the first step in a larger plan for Iraq and Syria.

A displaced Iraqi man from the Yazidi community, who fled violence between Islamic State (IS) group jihadists and Peshmerga fighters in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul, looks on as smoke billows during an operation by Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led strikes in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on November 12, 2015, to retake the town from the Islamic State group and cut a key supply line to Syria. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
A displaced Iraqi man from the Yazidi community, who fled violence between Islamic State (IS) group jihadists and Peshmerga fighters in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul, looks on as smoke billows during an operation by Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US-led strikes in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on November 12, 2015, to retake the town from the Islamic State group and cut a key supply line to Syria. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of Kurdish forces poured down Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq Thursday for an all-out assault on the Islamic State, the first offensive in the long-awaited push to reclaim the key city of Mosul from the militants.

American and Iraqi officials have said for the past year that Mosul is the ultimate prize in the effort to push the Islamic State out of Iraq, but plans to move against the city have been complicated by the subsequent fall of Fallujah and Ramadi. The effort has been slowed even further by the need to rebuild the Iraqi Army, which saw tens of thousands of its soldiers flee Mosul when the Islamic State advanced on the city in June 2014. The delay has given the militants time to build what U.S. officials have described as vast fields of landmines and deeply entrenched defensive positions scattered throughout the densely populated city of 1.5 million.

In a sign of the importance of the fight, American military officials said that U.S. special operations forces have taken up positions on Sinjar Mountain to help coordinate airstrikes with Kurdish peshmerga forces, with Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook saying Thursday that some of the advisors might be close enough to the fighting “to visibly see” their targets. He insisted, though, that the Americans were remaining behind the front lines.

The offensive, which involves 7,500 peshmerga troops along with local Kurd and Yazidi forces, has already pushed Islamic State forces out of several villages south and west of Sinjar, and Kurdish forces have reported that some of the militants are on the run. The U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State pounded the area around Sinjar with at least 36 airstrikes on Thursday.

The area around Sinjar is an alluring target in the effort to isolate Mosul in preparation for the Iraqi Army’s eventual push to retake the city. Kurdish forces have already set up defensive lines to the north and east of Mosul, but approaches to the south and west remain open, giving the Islamic State ways of shipping weapons, fighters, and food into the city.

But the new offensive has retaken key parts of Highway 47, which is a major enemy supply route between the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul. The Kurdish regional government tweeted Thursday: “Sinjar now isolated from Tal Afar and Syria.”

Hitting the Islamic State in one area, such as Sinjar, in order to pressure it in another, like Mosul, has been a tactic that American military planners have talked about for the past several weeks. Late last month, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Steve Warren, said that rather than looking at Iraq and Syria as separate conflicts, “we’re now looking at ISIL as the fight, whether they’re in Iraq or Syria.”

“Pressure on Raqqa will relieve some of the pressure, will relieve some of the enemy influence, we believe, in Mosul,” he said.

The United States has started supplying and advising Arab forces operating outside the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, and in the coming weeks, 50 American commandos will embed themselves with Syrian fighters in order to coordinate their efforts to push against the city.

Warren said that assault would “be one of the keys that unlocks the entire ISIL enterprise, which will then get us into Mosul.”

Highway 47, then, is a key prize, as it has been a major supply route for Iraqi oil and crops that have been shipped to supply Raqqa. Analysts warn, however, that taking the highway isn’t going to make the eventual assault on Mosul any easier.

The Islamic State “has already built roads that sit south of the highway, so they have other routes” to move in and out of the country, said Christine van den Toorn, a researcher who directs the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya.

For months, Kurdish forces have had the highway “within eyesight,” said Patrick Martin of the Institute for the Study of War, “so shutting down the road won’t totally change how they send supplies and fighters back and forth between Raqqa and Mosul.”

But what is important is the ground that is taken away from the militants in this latest offensive, and the route that it opens up to Mosul. “Taking back southern Sinjar could be the start of a larger operation,” van den Toorn said. “Taking Sinjar and moving east to Tal Afar and then up to Mosul” would be the most obvious plan, she added.

Even if the road from Sinjar eventually leads to Mosul, the effort to hold the ground around the mountain will be no easy task. Local Kurd and Yazidi forces had been pushing toward Highway 47 for some time, and the peshmerga only just arrived to assert their primacy, van den Toorn said. “When ISIS is gone, that’s when things are going to really get tough. You’ve got all of these forces, and they all want power and control out there. You’re going to see this drawn-out political struggle among the Kurdish factions after ISIS is gone.”

Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

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