A raid to rescue Iraqi Security Forces held hostage by ISIS forces in the Kurdish areas of Iraq on Thursday liberated 70 hostages and resulted in the death of one Delta Force operator. The U.S. airlifted Peshmerga and American special operations forces to the compound where they freed the hostages, captured five ISIS fighters, and killed many more. The Peshmerga suffered four wounded. By now, most people in the West have heard of the Peshmerga and their bravery and exploits against the fundamentalist Sunni Islamist terror group, but the Peshmerga have a long history and a history of productive cooperation with the United States.
Who are the Peshmerga?
In Kurdish, Peshmerga means “one who confronts death.” Their fighters are among the region’s most able forces because of their warrior culture and dedication to their ethnic and national identity as Kurds. The Kurds have been fighting for independence and recognition for centuries. They fought for the Ottoman Empire in World War I but rebelled shortly after in an attempt to create an official homeland.
Late in the 20th century, Iraqi Kurds fought the forces of Saddam Hussein on a number of occasions, suffering a genocidal campaign from Hussein’s Iraq, through al-Anfal, where the dictator dropped Mustard Gas, nerve agents, and Hydrogen Cyanide on Kurds in 1998. Kurds would rise up against him again after Desert Storm in 1991.
Peshmerga vs. ISIS
American and international media have had much to say about the Kurds in recent years, especially as they emerged as the only force capable of stemming the ISIS advance into Iraq in 2014. But the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Kurds have a long history of cooperation and good relations with the United States and its armed forces.
The Peshmerga are the paramilitary force of Northern Iraq’s Kurdish areas. Since the Iraqi Army is forbidden from entering Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga are responsible for the security and protection of Iraqi Kurds. But the Kurdish military didn’t stop there.
As ISIS advanced into Iraq, they executed those who disagreed with their brand of strict Sunni Islam. A minority population of Yazidis, whose religion is more closely linked to Shia Islam, were forced to flee to the top of Mount Sinjar, where ISIS forces surrounded them as they faced annihilation. The Peshmerga caught the world’s attention when they intervened on behalf of the Yazidis, saving them from slaughter. Since then American airpower and Peshmerga ground forces have been the main thrust to push ISIS back into Syria, where Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters are engaged with them.
The Kurdish Homeland
Kurds are a tribal society but unlike many Muslims in the region, recognize their ethnic identity as Kurds instead of first identifying as Sunni or Shia Muslims. A great reason for this is the spread of ethnic Kurds throughout the region. The Kurds recognize their traditional lands extending from parts of Iran in the East, through Northern Iraq, and into Syria in the West. The traditional Kurds also see parts of Turkey as traditional Kurdish lands, which has put some Kurds in direct conflict with Turkey, a NATO ally.
The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a Communist terrorist organization in Turkey, has been fighting the Turks for decades. The Syrian counterpart to the PKK is the Kurdish YPG, who are aligned against ISIS forces in Syria. The PKK is recognized worldwide as a terror group, the YPG is not and the links between them are disputed. The YPG does not enjoy the official status of the Iraqi Peshmerga. All three groups are sworn enemies of ISIS everywhere.
Kurds and the United States
In the days after the 2003 invasion, Kurds worked with U.S. forces to capture Saddam Hussein. They lent their Peshmerga as intelligence agents to assist Delta Force operators in dismantling terrorist and insurgent networks in Iraq. They were instrumental in the capture of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Hassan Ghul, who would reveal the name of Osama bin Laden’s messenger, which would lead to the raid which killed bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan.
The cooperation of American forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga is one of the most important and productive relationships in the Global War on Terror. Without this alliance, much of the success against international terrorism would never have been realized.