The status of Western military aid to Kurdish peshmerga forces
By Lazar Berman
The Kurdish peshmerga forces (literally "those who confront death") have proven willing and able to stand up to the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) on the battlefield. By contrast, two whole divisions of the U.S.-trained and financed Iraqi Army, along with tens of thousands of police and other paramilitary forces, fled in the face of the IS onslaught in 2014, leaving behind advanced weaponry paid for by American taxpayers for the jihadis and their Ba'athist allies to add to their arsenal.
Realizing that the Kurdistan Region, the most stable and secure region of Iraq, could fall to IS unless they stepped in, several Western countries increased military aid to the peshmerga after the city of Mosul fell in the summer of 2014, but the Kurdish fighters' performance remains uneven. Kurdish officials claim the aid is insufficient, and that Baghdad is preventing some shipments from reaching their forces. It certainly has not enabled the peshmerga to sweep the Islamic State away from Kurdish areas, but weapons are not the only factor keeping the peshmerga from achieving a far-reaching victory.
Peshmerga Weaponry and Challenges
Though the peshmerga is under the nominal unified control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president, it is effectively two separate party militias with ample distrust between the sides. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga fought a bloody civil war in the 1990s, and are largely loyal to the party, not the regional government. The rivalry can also affect deployment. Both peshmerga organizations sent far too many troops to Kirkuk in an attempt to gain dominance in the oil-rich region in June 2014, leaving other strategic areas dangerously undermanned.
As with many aspects of the Kurdish economy and government society, corruption and nepotism are rampant in the peshmerga. Senior commanders are chosen because of family connections, and some commanders have lied about the number of fighters under their command in order to pocket salaries and benefits. A nephew of KRG President Massoud Barzani is accused of fleeing the battlefield in January during an amphibious IS assault on peshmerga positions. Kurdish refugees in Syria also claim that peshmerga fighters fled their positions in Sinjar while Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) fighters stayed to fight.
The peshmerga are primarily stocked with light arms, many of which were captured from Saddam Hussein's forces during the wars in 1991 and 2003. AK-47s and Soviet machine guns, often mounted on unarmored jeeps, make up the preponderance of their weaponry.
Even before the recent arms shipments, they did have some anti-tank capabilities, including American TOW missiles and RPG-7s. Their artillery was largely limited to Soviet-era howitzers and small mortars.
The peshmerga have their own armor as well, including American MRAP vehicles, old Soviet T-54/55 tanks, and some newer T-72s, captured from the Iraqis in the 2003 Iraq War. Though they do have several hundred tanks in total, they are woefully unequipped to provide the logistical support needed to reliably field sustained offensive armored operations, and have no ground maneuver capabilities.
Peshmerga commanders have long complained of acute ammunition shortages for small arms and for their artillery and armor.
Kurdish officers and leaders point to their inferior arms to explain sometimes embarrassing setbacks against the Islamic State. Weapons certainly play some role in the peshmerga's performance, but do not at all determine the outcome of the fight. The far more lightly armed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, with a deeper commitment to their cause and to their leaders, have proven especially effective against IS.
There are significantly more decisive factors peshmerga commanders would rather not mention. Despite their storied reputation, the peshmerga glory days were in a bygone era. They cut their teeth fighting a guerrilla war against Saddam's conventional forces in Kurdistan's mountainous terrain during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. After the 1991 Gulf War, peshmerga forces saw little action beyond a civil war between 1995-1998. Training since the fight against Saddam has also been entirely inadequate, and the peshmerga became a border guard and counter-terrorism force, untrained to fight mobile IS insurgents on open plains.
The West Steps Up
The Islamic State's early August 2014 offensive against northern Iraq, in which they captured Mount Sinjar and the Mosul Dam and threatened Erbil, spurred a commitment for arms and other aid from Western countries, including the United States, Albania, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and United Kingdom.
The aid came in various forms. Dozens of military advisers from the U.S., UK, France, Italy, and other countries have been training peshmerga fighters in the use of weaponry and intelligence. Kurdish fighters have also flown to Germany to train on weapons systems there.
Countries have provided significant quantities of rifles, pistols, grenades, and ammunition, some of which are outdated. Italy, for instance, sent tens of thousands of AK-47s and other weapons captured during the Balkan conflicts in the early 1990s. Non-lethal equipment has come in the form of night-vision equipment, mine detection systems, helmets, body armor, communications gear, and light vehicles.
Though the Kurds would like to build up an attack and ground support capability from the air, it does not look to be in the offing. However, Italy announced it would send four Chinook helicopters for logistics and troop movement.
Perhaps the most significant weapons system the peshmerga has received is the MILAN anti-tank missile, provided by Germany. The missile has been especially effective against the Islamic State's armored suicide vehicles moving toward peshmerga checkpoints and positions. Germany has provided other military aid in well, totaling over 700 tons.
Turkey has also begun sending non-lethal military equipment and is training fighters.
Iran, which holds significant sway in the Kurdistan region, is also sending arms to the peshmerga. Tehran has established itself as the peshmerga's primary artillery provider, especially BM-14 and BM-21 truck-mounted rocket launchers. The Soviet-made systems go through ammunition rapidly, and Iran sends daily shipments to the Kurds. Ties are especially close with the PUK peshmerga.
"Not a Single Bullet from the West"
Despite the recent influx of military hardware and advisers, significant and persistent issues are hampering the effort.
The Kurdish and American governments make conflicting claims about the weapons supply process. The KRG has protested that because the U.S. insists on shipping through Baghdad, many of the weapons never make it to peshmerga hands, as the Iraqi government takes the choice weaponry for itself. This claim has been backed by Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd.
Americans, for their part, have stated that they make a symbolic, half-hour stop in Baghdad for legal reasons, then continue on to Erbil with all the weapons aboard. And in March, General John Allen, President Obama's special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said that the U.S. has started shipping directly to Erbil after receiving approval from Baghdad.
Though some Kurdish leaders still complain about the shipments going through Iraq, the American depiction of the situation is likely accurate. The transfer may have been slow in the early going in mid-2014, but the process has worked itself out. Moreover, Baghdad appears to have made a decision not to interfere with American shipments, which could have pushed the U.S. to bypass the Iraqi government altogether. "There is an understanding that if Baghdad interferes, the weapons will go right to Kurdistan," explained Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Michael Knights.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi on May 2, 2015 that all American military assistance for the battle against the Islamic State "must be coordinated through the government of Iraq."
Long-standing internal Kurdish rivalries have also resurfaced around the Western aid. PUK party members allege that the ruling KDP party has taken all the weapons for its own peshmerga forces. "Suleimaniyah has not received a single bullet from the West," claimed a senior PUK official3, referring to the party's stronghold city in the region's east. Reports have emerged about the government-controlled Ministry of the Peshmerga blocking supplies at the Suleimaniyah airport.
Much to the Kurds' frustration, there is a clear limit to the sophistication and lethality of the weapons the West will provide. The peshmerga still have no offensive air capabilities, no advanced artillery, and insufficient armored forces, and that will not change anytime in the foreseeable future. In all, peshmerga formations are a little more lightly armed than a typical Iraqi mechanized infantry brigade.
There are several reasons for Western donor countries limiting their military aid, many of which are important factors in U.S.-Kurdish and European-Kurdish relations in general.
Mistrust remains high between the governments in Erbil and Baghdad: Not surprisingly, the Iraqi central government is wary of the Kurds receiving advanced arms that could one day be used against federal forces. The arms the KRG is receiving now do not present a significant threat to Baghdad, and the Iraqi government is letting them go through to the Kurds.
The Iraqis are not the only ones with concerns how the weapons will be used once ISIS is subdued. Many Kurds fear that Western arms could be used in a future civil war between the KDP and PUK peshmerga organizations. Because of KDP control over incoming arms, this is especially disconcerting for the PUK. A top PUK official expressed this concern in February.
The advanced U.S. arms that fell into IS hands after Iraqi forces tucked tail and fled in June 2014 have made the West wary of introducing more advanced weaponry into the theater. Peshmerga forces have fled several major battles, a fact that likely confirms the caution of donor governments.
Moreover, the U.S. is committed to a unified federal Iraq and is wary of any moves that could push the Kurds toward declaring independence. Advanced weaponry in the hands of the peshmerga would remove a major obstacle for the Kurds to break off from Iraq in the foreseeable future.
Finally, Western nations must keep in mind the concerns of regional powers, for better or worse. Iraq, Iran, and Turkey all have concerns over the quality of the weapons the Kurds receive, and some countries, especially the United States in recent years, have been especially receptive to their sensitivities. As long as they are surrounded by bigger and more powerful countries, Kurdish interests will continue to take a backseat to those of its neighbors.
Though leading Western powers have recognized the need to provide the peshmerga with the basic means to carry out a campaign against the Islamic State, the Kurds feel that as the main force "doing the West's work" on the ground, they deserve more sophisticated arms, and in greater quantities. Though the KRG blames its arms deficit for its uneven performance, the peshmerga clearly has bigger structural issues it must address. The YPG, with far fewer fighters and less advanced weapons, has proven far more effective than their brethren to the east.
But leaving the Kurds with the feeling that the U.S. and Europe will not provide the weapons needed to protect themselves from the Islamic State presents a serious problem for the West. At some point, the Kurds will increasingly look toward Iran if the West is not more forthcoming with training and weapons. Iranian intelligence and military forces are operating within Kurdish areas and on their borders – often overtly – and unless the West makes a conscious effort to ensure Kurdish security and address their concerns, Iran will find itself as the major player in yet another region in the Middle East, one that is a natural ally of the U.S. and the West.
Lazar Berman writes extensively on Kurdistan and on military affairs, most recently as breaking news editor for the Times of Israel. From 2012-2013, Lazar taught at Salahuddin University in Iraqi Kurdistan. His work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Commentary, Small Wars Journal, Weekly Standard, Mosaic, and other journals.