Operation aimed at cutting Isis supply line tests US plans to defeat militants using Kurds as proxies
Kurdish forces have launched an extensive push to retake Sinjar city in northern Iraq, 15 months after it was seized by Islamic State forces who purged the local Yazidi community and ousted minorities from the Nineveh Plains.
The operation aimed to cut a major supply line between the jihadis’ stronghold in eastern Syria and Mosul, its seat of power in Iraq. Backed by 7,500 ground troops and US air cover, it is the largest coordinated effort so far to seize ground from Isis and a litmus test of US plans to defeat the group using the Kurds as proxies.
The Kurdish Regional Security Council in Erbil said the campaign’s objectives were to open “three fronts to cordon off Sinjar City, take control of [Isis’s] strategic supply routes, and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery”.
“Coalition warplanes will provide close air support to Peshmerga forces throughout the operation,” the council said.
Kurdish officials said the drive was not part of long-mooted plans to retake either Mosul, or Raqqa, across the Euphrates river in Syria. However, they acknowledged that if the operation was successful, it would put additional pressure on Isis in both cities.
As Peshmerga forces advanced on Sinjar, offices reported that they had heard Isis leaders in the city warning militants that they would be killed if they tried to flee. The operation, which was launched by airstrikes on Wednesday evening followed by a early morning ground assault, appeared to be progressing without significant disruption. By mid-morning, Peshmerga units had retaken a village west of Sinjar and cut the highway to Syria. They estimated up to 700 Isis fighters may be in the area.
Although heavily targeted throughout the campaign, Isis has kept a supply line between Raqqa and Mosul largely open. The highway, in particular, has been a major conduit for trade and the flow of fighters inside the area declared as a caliphate by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in mid-2014.
An Isis push to advance towards Erbil had been repelled by the Peshmerga later last year, but not before the jihadis almost succeeded in breaking the city’s defences, exposing chronic command and control issues in Peshmerga forces , which until then had acted as self contained and disparate forces.
Since then, and with extensive support from the US air force and its allies, the Peshmerga has retaken much of the area north-east of Sinjar that was controlled by Isis, including the strategically vital Mosul Dam.
Across the border, Kurdish irregular forces from the YPG have also been successful in taking part of north-east Syria back from Isis. In doing so, they have raised the ire of Turkey. Turkey views the YPG as a close ally of the PKK, which has been fighting a separatist insurgency inside Turkish borders for close to 40 years.