Kurdish forces push into Sinjar, claim progress against Islamic State

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This image is taken from a CENTCOM video showing coalition airstrikes in support of the Peshmerga offensive to retake Sinjar and disrupt the Islamic State’s supply routes.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) announced yesterday that its fighters have pushed their way into Sinjar, which the Islamic State overran in August 2014. The so-called “caliphate” has maintained control of the northern Iraqi town in the 16 months since. But a new offensive launched in recent days has loosened the jihadists’ grip.

“Peshmerga forces today successfully reached Sinjar town from two flanks, East and West, as part of Operation Free Sinjar,” the KRSC said in a statement released online. The operation, which is “supported by International Coalition airstrikes,” has the “strategic objective of cordoning off Sinjar town and disrupting [Islamic State] supply routes.”

Yazidi fighters are also reportedly part of the offensive. And BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio, who has been covering the battle to retake Sinjar from inside the town, reports that the YPG and the PKK shouldered much of the heavy fighting before the Peshmerga offensive began. The YPG, or Kurdish People’s Defense Units, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government.

As of early yesterday evening, the KRSC reported, “Peshmerga forces had taken control of a significant stretch of the main road from Ba’aj to Sinjar.” The town of Ba’aj, which is located in a district with the same name to the south of Sinjar, is a known Islamic State stronghold.

The KRSC describes Ba’aj as a “staging ground for VBIEDS” (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) and says that “[v]ideo footage” from earlier today shows Islamic State fighters “mobilizing VBIEDS from Ba’aj to Sinjar in an effort to prevent Peshmerga advances.”

According to Shafaq News, the coalition has been bombing sites in Ba’aj to suppress the Islamic State’s ability to send reinforcements.

Kurdish ground forces, backed by the US-led coalition’s warplanes, are attempting to end the Islamic State’s control of Highway 47, which runs from Mosul, past Sinjar, and into Syria. The highway is a key supply line connecting Mosul and Raqqa, the “caliphate’s” two capitals. The loss of Highway 47 will force the Islamic State to use secondary supply routes through the desert.

“The targeting of Highway 47 over Sinjar Mountain…and the ground operation by the Peshmerga will degrade the ability of [Islamic State] terrorists to funnel fighters and equipment into Iraq, and help cut off an important means of funding their terrorist activities,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters. “Severing that supply route will impact [the Islamic State’s] ability to move men and materiel between those two hubs,” Cook continued, “and since November 11th, I can tell you, the coalition has conducted 36 airstrikes supporting this operation.”

Separately, US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that coalition military forces conducted twelve strikes near Sinjar on November 12. The airstrikes hit “five separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed 27 ISIL fighting positions, three ISIL heavy machine guns, five ISIL vehicles, an ISIL vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), 11 ISIL staging areas, and denied ISIL access to terrain.” ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is the acronym used by the US government for the Islamic State.

The Islamic State’s victory in Sinjar last year precipitated a major humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, mainly members of the Yazidi religious minority, were trapped on top of Mount Sinjar after fleeing the pillaging jihadists. The US airdropped food, water and other provisions to the Yazidis. Iraqi and Peshmerga forces came to their aid as well.

Thousands of other Yazidis, however, were massacred or taken as slaves. 5,270 Yazidis were abducted in 2014 and approximately 3,144 of them were still held by the Islamic State one year after the “caliphate” took Sinjar, according to The New York Times. The Islamic State has enshrined “a theology of rape,” the Times reported, with Yazidi women and girls being bought and sold as sex slaves. The practice is even used as a recruiting tool to attack new fighters.

Assuming Peshmerga forces can hold Sinjar, it would be the third major loss for the Islamic State inside Iraq this year. Iraqi forces, heavily backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, seized control of the cities of Tikrit and Baiji in central Iraq from the Islamic State over the past six months. Iraqi troops and the militias are also attempting to retake Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Stephanie says:

    I’m in Kurdistan right now and can tell you this is a big deal for the Kurds and a very happy day. Everyone was glued to the TV yesterday listening to Barzani’s press conference. Not only will a lot of refugees finally be able to return once Sinjar gets cleaned up (the town is supposedly a wreck) but it’s also important symbolically and in terms of morale. The cold winter is coming and it will be miserable for the refugees in tents and homes with no walls so the sooner they can go back to their houses the better. Hope the Peshmerga keeps it up!

  • Doug says:

    The Kurds have earned the right to claim any and all land they desire for a homeland as they have shown the resolve to do what it takes to preserve it. These are the most courageous of the many peoples in that region and will prove to be a solid American ally. Screw the Turks and any others that would deny them such.

  • Frank Dunn says:

    From photos of damaged/destroyed buildings in Sinjar, the EU and US need to rush in generators, cement mixers, cement, tools, tarps and space heaters for the returning citizens. This would be in addition warm clothing, bottled water and grains for people and livestock. Plus medicine, weapons and medical personnel. Plus cows, chickens & goats. List of basics for rebuilding and resuming life is incredible. Finally, a wide & effective security zone has to be maintained to avoid an ISIS return.

    Task/expense for providing this aid is enormous if not beyond our capacity what with identical devastation in other Iraqi and Syrian cities and villages. However, would appear easier than having hundreds of thousands of these devastated people join the flood of refugees entering Europe and the US. Question is whether we have leadership that does more than appear on Good Day America to boast about “containing ISIL” just hours before ISIS assaulted Paris.

  • David O'Leary says:

    I agree 100% with Doug, let the Kurds carve out Kurdistan of parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. They deserve their own nation.

  • James says:

    Hello Stephanie,

    Hopefully, every thing goes well with you and the Kurds.

    I’ve always wondered about why those Kurdish groups are on the State Dept.’s terrorists list. Was their being put on the terrorist list a political stunt done at the behest of a closet-case Islamist like Erdogan? And, I’m wondering can they be removed from the terrorist list and what is the process that will need to be followed to bring that about. If this can be done for them, this should free up a significantly large amount of foreign aid for them.

  • Islam.. the religion of war says:

    HAve a look at what is really going on here …

    The Kurds are the only ones gaining ground, the Iraqi’s are pathetic, Turkey is backstabbing, leaching, pushing the refugges out and generally playing the double card, (as you’d expect) even Hesbolla are getting kicked around, all the (fantastic) high tech from all the strong countries of the world is just not moving forward .. Yes they are a great help, don’t get me wrong here ..
    Hopefully this retaliation by the French is going to make a big difference, look at what they did in Mali, the French are very very skilled..
    At the end of the day the only thing really working is motivated boots on the ground, I think the Kurds need much better support, both tech and humanitarian

  • Stephanie says:

    Good question … I don’t know the answer but I know the PKK and others are designated as terrorists by the US (if you are getting a security clearance for example they’re on the list of groups you have to say if you know anyone who is associated with them). I don’t know enough about them specifically to know why if it’s because they’ve been involved in incidents before or if it’s out of deference to Turkey.

  • irebukeu says:

    Great news indeed. It would be great to hear about what Kurdish plans-concerns are in so far as joining with Syrian Kurds and what fears the Iraqi Kurds have for the return of Syrian state control over Syrian lands after the defeat of IS.

    An existence of a real Kurdistan, one of the oldest peoples in the world, would in my opinion clear up 89.5% of the middle east problem (give or take 10%), at least from this American’s point of view.

    If they (Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds) can create a state, now is the time. Despite Turkey’s best efforts (notice them go hardline) to prevent it
    a free Kurdistan with Yazidi and Syrian Christians alongside, may well be in the interest of the peoples of the world to defend.

  • irebukeu says:

    Just carve out parts of Turkey? By what means? How are the Kurds going to defeat the Turkish military which would only GROW in size if any REAL threat came from Kurdish carving knives. The tactics used by Turkish kurds would have to be ambushes IEDs and rocket attacks and many innocent people would perish.

    I would say that the place to start is Iraq-Syria. Those places can be hawed off, indeed are already. If they can come to agreements then lets see what can be done. If Assad’s government falls, then it may seem possible. Their dream has never been closer.

  • Roma_Victor says:

    I agree. The Iraqi Army isn’t even up to JV status; the Kurds are motivated and competent and deserve our support.


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