By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In the early hours of August 14th Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched an offensive on the Khazir and Gwer fronts aimed at liberating 11 villages from Islamic State. By noon the offensive was going well. ISIS snipers had been killed by a tank, a VBIED truck had been destroyed, and masses of Peshmerga in vehicles had pushed forward. A cameraman named Mustafa Saaed had been killed and two Peshmerga. Estimates claimed over 100 ISIS had been killed.
Three weeks ago in Wardak there was no talk of a coming offensive on the Khazir front. The Kakei minority village which was the scene of a deadly truck bombing in 2009, was liberated on May 30 after being under ISIS control since August of 2014. Wardak is part of a cluster of Kakei villages on the Khazir river not far from Kalak. In August of 2014 ISIS had swept through here and made it to Kalak where they had been stopped. It is about 25 kilometers West of Erbil. We toured Wardak and several other Kakei villages such as Talebend that were still laced with ISIS mines and tunnels. The frontline had been stable since May. The operation on August 14 seems modeled on the success of the one on May 30.
On August 11 engineers replaced a bridge destroyed in 2014 over the great Zab river and on Saturday President of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani met US Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones, US Presidential Special Envoy on the war on ISIS Brett McGurk, and Iraqi National Security Adviser Falih Fayaz. They discussed the upcoming Mosul offensive according to reports. Barzani said an agreement about Nineveh province was important as well as discussing the rights of minorities such as Assyrian Christians and Yazidis.
With the offensive just hours away and clearly having been planned by then its reasonable to assume that this move to liberate more villages on the Gwer-Khazir line directly impacts the discussions that were had about Nineveh, Mosul and minorities. A map of the area shows that once these 11 villages are liberated the Peshmerga will be within striking distance of Qaraqosh, a mostly Christian town of 50,000 before 2014 which is also known as Bakhida and Hamdaniya. The Peshmerga are also pushing northwest from Gwer into the Kanhash heights which lie along a major access road to Mosul.
So far the villages of Shnaf, Tel Hamid, Al-Hamrah, Abzakh, Qariyatakh (Takh) and Qaraqash (not Qaraqosh) have been re-taken. These all lie along the river but reports note the overall offensive will push around 10 kilometers forward (one source says 14km maximum), creating a new line somewhat closer to Mosul from the river. The Kurds will also be at the gates of the 4th century Mar Benham Monastery which was blown up by ISIS in 2015 as part of its campaign of cultural genocide on Nineveh plains that targeted Nimrud and Hatra.
The full strategic picture here is that the Peshmerga will dominate the roads to Mosul running to the east of the Tigris river and parallel to the river. Meanwhile the Iraqi army, which is still clearing Qayarrah airfield, is supposed to be marching north on the roads west of the Tigris which lead to Mosul. They are backed by a new bridge spanning the Tigris near Qayarrah on the road to Makhmur, and also by an additional 500 US forces that are supposed to be deployed when the airbase is cleared of IEDs.
The Iraqis have much further to go, some 60 kilometers, whereas the Kurds have only 20 kilometers to move to get to Mosul. The object of the Peshmerga offensive this week is to put pressure on both Iraq, the coalition and ISIS. It is also to lay claim to more Nineveh territory west of the river, and mark out the chance to move into the western areas of Mosul when the time comes.
Like previous operations the Kurds poured large resources into this and are tactically modest in their goals. They will achieve them at minimum cost of life. ISIS has been severely degraded in its abilities to even defend its positions. It relies on numerous tunnels and IEDs, and has prepared each area with numerous mines, but it’s number of fighters is limited and its VBIED attacks have not been successful. It’s snipers were neutralized using armored vehicles. Air power from the coalition pounded ISIS near Gwer and Khazir fronts throughout the night of August 13-14 according to reports. By 4pm on August 14 reports said 80% of the operation was complete.
The question now becomes if the Iraqi army can continue its line of advance. Sunni tribes have expressed interest in joining the Kurdish push for Mosul as well as groups such as al-Hashd al-Watani which is based near Bashiqa. The KRG is bracing for a huge influx of refugees, estimated at more than 500,000. At the same time Christian refugees are worried about whether they will be safe returning to towns such as Qaraqash when they are liberated.
With Manbij in Syria finally liberated over the weekend, it means the lines are constricting around Mosul. Supply lines are drying up for ISIS, recruits are finding it harder to join as they are told to stay in their home countries and carry out terror. But with the oose tightening, tough days remain ahead.
By August 15 headlines said 150 sq km had been liberated and 130 ISIS members killed. Some other details have emerged. An ISIS member was filmed trying to get his friend to emerge from a tunnel. President Masoud Barzani went to the front to take personal command. US medic volunteer Jon Hero was at the front treating peshmerga wounded, he said he saw seven killed in action. Estimates online said 5,000 peshmerga participated in the operation.