To Fight Islamic State, Kurdish Paramilitaries Open Their Ranks to Arabs
But relations between neighbors remain difficult
by KEVIN KNODELL
Arabs in the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Rabia are enlisting in the peshmerga — the armed paramilitaries of Iraq’s Kurdish region — in a move which could bolster America’s allies holding territory recaptured from the Islamic State.
The new recruits are members of the Shamar Unit, part of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Brigade Eight. Rabia is an Arab majority town and previously the scene of fierce fighting between Islamic State and Syrian-Kurdish YPG fighters.
The Islamic State held the town from August-October 2014. War Is Boring photographer Matt Cetti-Roberts documented the fighting there shortly before the peshmerga, backed by coalition air support, drove the militants out.
Many Arabs in Rabia have long resisted the Islamic State. Just before the town’s liberation, Daesh militants accused — and executed — several Arab locals for acting as scouts and informants for the YPG.
In Iraq, recruiting Sunni Arab fighters into units with the peshmerga is necessary to hold territory for any meaningful length of time. The war has sharply sectarian dimensions, and locals rarely trust outsiders to rule them. This is a pattern that exists throughout the country.
“Political grievances are the beating heart of the Islamic State,” journalist Hassan Hassan wrote at Foreign Policy. “More people, not fewer, might start to see the group as their champion if it is defeated by the wrong forces.”
Arabs living in and around Rabia have frequently been caught between warring factions. Not long after the liberation of the Mount Sinjar in the winter of 2014, a band of Yazidi fighters searching for kidnapped women wandered into the Sunni Arab village of Bu Hanaya near Rabia. They opened fire on the villagers but found no missing women.
Reeling from the diplomatic fallout, the peshmerga announced an investigation into the circumstances of the incident. Yazidi militia leaders disavowed the mission and stressed that it was a rogue operation.
Kurdish authorities must also manage the influx of Arab populations. When the Islamic State seized Mosul — Iraq’s most diverse city — in the summer of 2014, thousands of refugees, most of them Arabs, fled to Kurdish territory.
Many Kurds welcomed them with open arms, in part motivated by their own experiences as refugees. Others were more suspicious that terrorists came along with them, and indeed some Daesh sympathizers were among the exodus. Life for Arabs in Kurdistan has been far from easy since the war began.
Nevertheless, Arabs from Rabia have regularly shown an eagerness to fight the Islamic State alongside the Kurds. They made up a particularly large portion of the militia formed by exiled Nineveh Province governor Atheel Al Nujaifi.
Nujaifi’s militia was multi-ethnic and represented fighters from all sects, in hopes that it would reflect the demographics of the Ninevah plains. But the group was at odds with the Iraqi government, which relies heavily on sectarian Shia militias backed by Iran.
Politicians in Baghdad argued Nujaifi had no authority to raise such a militia and demanded it be shut down. However, he did receive support from the KRG and the Turkish government. Nujaifi remains in exile in Kurdistan and has struggled to get support from Baghdad.
Abdulla Musla Boor, a Kurdish general known as the “Dark Lion,” told War Is Boring that anti-Daesh Sunni groups need more support from the international community to stand a chance on the battlefield.
Several Kurdish officials echoed similar sentiments during the battle for the town of Jalawla, an ethnically mixed city in Northern Iraq. And many Arab residents of the town now living in nearby refugee camps have said they would rather live under Kurdish rule than Baghdad’s.
But the situation is … complicated. While many peshmerga groups stress the importance of working with local Arabs — on pragmatic grounds if nothing else — many Kurds regard Arabs with hostility.
“We are Kurdish, we want to separate from the camels and from the pigs — from the Arabs,” one Kurdish man told War Is Boring at a teahouse in 2014. “The Arabs, they do not have any culture.”
Human rights monitors have alleged that peshmerga units have destroyed and looted Arab homes in an effort to “cleanse” ethnically-mixed areas, thus making space for more Kurdish settlement. Partially in response to these allegations, Dindar Zebari, the deputy head of Kurdistan’s Department of Foreign Relations told the Rudaw news agency that the peshmerga are helping both Kurdish and Arab families move back to the town of Zummar.
However, he stressed that not everyone is welcome back.
“According to the information we received, some families have helped Daesh and left the city from the very beginning to voluntarily join them, so their return is not guaranteed,” Zebari explained. “For the rest of the people, including about 2,000 families in Zumar who had no security problems, peshmerga are helping them to return home.”
In Syria, the largely Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have insisted they’ve made an effort to bring more Arabs into the fight. In recent weeks the group has been on the offensive against Daesh, though human rights monitors have accused the group of abuses similar to the peshmerga.
The conflict in Iraq continues to be complicated and murky. But the efforts by the Kurds to include Arabs in the defense of their own communities offers a glimmer of hope that at least part of Iraq could recover.