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What Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga Believe

And How It Will Affect the Country's Post-ISIS Future

An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter, next to a Kurdish flag, holds a position in Sheikh Ali village near the town of Bashiqa, some 25 kilometres north east of Mosul, on November 6, 2016 during an operation against ISISI Jihadists to retake the main hub city. / AFP / SAFIN HAMED

by Matthew Franklin Cancian, Kristin E. Fabbe

With the liberation of Mosul in July, Iraq again finds itself at a crossroads. ISIS has lost its crown jewel, the seat from which it declared its so-called caliphate in 2014. For that, the credit goes to Iraqi government forces, the militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and the Kurdish peshmerga. A side effect of the peshmerga victories in the war against ISIS, however, has been an increase in the territory held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) by around 40 percent since 2014. And, in turn, the Kurds have been further empowered to challenge the territorial integrity of Iraq.

Legally, the KRG continues to operate as a federal unit of the Iraqi national government, but a September 25 referendum for independence could set the Kurds on a trajectory toward sovereignty, something Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly wanted in an unofficial referendum held in 2005. Both the upcoming referendum and issues of territorial control are already being hotly contested. Peshmergaviews of the post-ISIS regional order—and the extent to which these views are unified—are therefore key to Iraq’s political future.

Experts often question the degree to which the Kurds of Iraq and their various peshmerga groups are united politically. The Kurdistan Region is split between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). These parties fought a civil war against one another in the mid-1990s and have since maintained separate military and security forces. Despite recent moves toward integration, separate KDP- and PUK-aligned forces continue to predominate the peshmerga. These political armies add another layer of complexity to the already Byzantine mix of territorial struggles, hydrocarbon disputes, and militia politics playing out in the Kurdistan region. Complicating things further, the KDP and PUK have since fractionalized, most dramatically with the emergence of the Gorran (change) movement in 2009, which claims to disavow the entrenched and corrupt politics of the two traditional parties.

In an effort to better understand the attitudes of peshmerga serving in both integrated and political units, we surveyed 2,339 of them earlier this summer with a research team that we built together with Dr. Muslih Irwani from the Center for Peace and Human Security. Besides working in the four de juregovernorates of the Kurdistan Region (Duhok, Erbil, Halabja, and Sulaimaniya), our teams also surveyed peshmerga in the Kirkuk and Ninewa governorates, which are part of the disputed territories between the KRG and the Iraqi government. Because our aim was to better understand post-conflict Kurdish politics, we drew our respondents from a selection of bases directly supporting either defense against ISIS or guarding the border with the Iraqi government. Security and privacy considerations understandably prevented us from obtaining a complete list of peshmerga personnel serving at such bases. Nonetheless, we were able to reach a reasonably representative group by surveying integrated and political peshmerga units at51military camps of varying sizes. The camps stretched across the geography of the KRG borders, from Sinjar in the west to Halabja in the east. Seventy-four percent of peshmerga we spoke with reported having served in territories recently liberated from ISIS. The respondents predictably identified overwhelmingly as Kurdish (98 percent), male (98 percent), and Muslim (97 percent), but varied in their age, socioeconomic status, political affiliations, and hometowns.

Our survey covered a range of topics, focusing on three specific issue areas. First, we asked questions to better understand recruitment patterns and individual-level motivations for joining peshmerga units, as well as peshmerga combat experience. Second, we inquired about peshmergaviews of military integration and the processes used to achieve it. Third, and finally, we included a number of questions designed to gauge peshmerga attitudes about post-conflict reconciliation and civil-military relations in territories liberated from ISIS.

TIES THAT BIND

At times, respondents’ answers were unexpected. Most surprising, given the well-publicized history of political divisions among Iraqi Kurdish forces, over 98 percent of peshmerga we surveyed wanted their units to be integrated into one apolitical force. Support for unification in the abstract does not, however, perfectly translate into support for one of the most critical steps toward achieving such unification, namely abolishing the political offices at military camps, institutions that have traditionally kept peshmerga units closely linked to either the KDP or the PUK. Here, only 81 percent of respondents responded favorably. So although the idea of integration might be almost universally backed, the practical steps necessary to make it a reality still give a majority of peshmerga pause.

Beyond party affiliation, analysts often put great emphasis on tribal affiliation as a threat to nascent Kurdish democracy and unity. We found that tribal identities are indeed salient at the individual level. Ninety-two percent of sampled peshmerga identified with a particular tribe, with higher percentages among KDP-affiliated forces than among PUK-affiliated ones. The role of tribes in structuring intra-Kurdish military allegiances and dynamics, however, can be overstated. Only 26 percent of peshmerga we surveyed had a platoon commander belonging to their own tribe, and only 13 percent said that their brigade commander was a member of their tribal leader’s family. We did visit one brigade where the previous commander was the father of the current commander, and most of the peshmerga in that group were members of the same tribe: this, however, was the exception, not the rule. Tribal ties do not dominate the peshmerga. This is a hopeful sign for the future of integration, as tribally distinct military formations could conceivably be much more resistant to unification and professionalization.

If tribalism doesn’t bind the peshmerga together, nationalism does. When we asked peshmergafighters an open-ended question about what kept them going in combat, 73 percent mentioned “fighting for Kurdistan” as an important motivation. These reports stand in stark contrast to Western militaries, in which studies have shown nationalism to be an unimportant motivating factor, especially in comparison to small-group solidarity. Eighty-eight percent of peshmerga also believed that a desire to defend the Kurdish homeland was one of the main reasons people joined the peshmerga, as opposed to 44 percent who believed that economic factors were important for recruitment. The current fiscal crunch in the KRG has further tested the peshmerga’s resolve. On average, the fighters we spoke to had gone more than three months without pay and 75 percent said that “thoughts of Kurdistan” motivated them to not leave during these hard times. Given that there is no conscription and salaries can be inconsistent, the strength of nationalistic motivations should not be surprising.

Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they tried to escape from Islamic State (IS) forces, are rescued by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) in Mosul, Iraq on August 09, 2014. (Photo by Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

ISIS AND TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE

Kurdish nationalism is fueled in part by past crimes against the Kurds, from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign in the late 1980s, which systematically massacred Kurds at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, to the more recent depredations of ISIS. Forty-five percent of peshmerga reported that either they or an immediate family member was victimized by the former Baathist regime; 24 percent said the same of ISIS. Past victimization, however, does not equate to a universal desire for revenge: only ten percent of peshmerga reported a desire for vengeance as motivating them in combat, and 19 percent listed it as important for recruitment.

Although peshmerga were only moderately likely to report a desire for vengeance as one of their own motives, they were much more likely to ascribe this motivation to others. For example, when asked to list the most common reasons why Sunni Arabs joined ISIS, a majority of peshmerga (51 percent) stated that a desire to take revenge on Baghdad for the repression of Sunni Arabs was an important motivator. Twenty-four percent of respondents mentioned desire to defend the Sunni Arab identity from Shiite encroachment, while 27 percent believed that agreement with ISIS’ ideology motivated its members. A relatively small 17 percent of peshmerga reported a belief that ISIS members are inherently evil. Least common among peshmerga we surveyed was the belief that economic motivations were important drivers of ISIS membership, with only two percent mentioning a better lifestyle for ISIS members, four percent mentioning monetary incentives, and three percent mentioning the prospects of gaining the spoils of war.

Peshmerga beliefs about the Sunni Arabs who made up the bulk of ISIS members and supporters will be central to the prospects for reconciliation. Despite reporting that ISIS membership is driven more by revenge than economic grievances, peshmerga are willing to believe that civilian support for ISIS was conditional. Sixty-five percent of peshmerga sampled believe that over 75 percent of Sunni Arabs in Iraq supported ISIS in 2014, but only nine percent of peshmerga believe that ISIS enjoys support from over 75 percent of Sunni Arabs today.  

To understand the prospects for reconciliation in a different way, we asked peshmerga whether they would give life-saving medical treatment to various outgroups. Over 99 percent reported that they would give medical aid to a peshmerga from another unit, indicating a fundamental lack of animosity between different political parties and tribes, despite 36 percent having lost an immediate family member in the Iraqi-Kurdish civil war of the 1990s. Only four percent of respondents said they would be not at all likely to give live-saving medical aid to a Sunni Arab civilian, compared to 80 percent who said they would be very likely to provide such aid, further suggesting a low level of purely ethnic animus against Arabs. Affiliation with ISIS, however, proved to harden attitudes. Nineteen percent of peshmerga would not treat a civilian collaborator with ISIS, while 24 percent would not treat a foreign ISIS fighter. Not surprisingly, local ISIS fighters were the most distasteful to peshmerga, with 36 percent of peshmerga saying they would be not at all likely to treat them.

These results suggest that although intrinsic ethnic hostility against Sunni Arabs is relatively low, ISIS supporters will not be easily forgiven. Indeed, few peshmerga advocated drawing a distinction between ISIS leaders and ISIS supporters—a mere ten percent said that only ISIS leaders, and not ISIS supporters, should be punished. How, then, do peshmerga believe that ISIS supporters should be held accountable? Whereas ten percent of peshmerga believed that ISIS supporters deserve to be executed, much more common was the belief that they should be tried in courts (72 percent) and/or educated and rehabilitated (31 percent).

Taken together, our research finds that Kurdish military forces are more united than has been previously suggested, which could bring a modicum of stability to post-ISIS Iraq and the Kurdistan region in particular. Nonetheless, a united and well-integrated Kurdish military is no panacea for the disputed territories. Lasting peace will hinge on the implementation of a systematic and transparent process of transitional justice for ISIS supporters, lest the cycle of violence be fueled further. Harsh punishments such as beating, execution, forced detention, and torture without due process should be avoided. Instead, fair trials, education, rehabilitation, and even potentially a truth-and-reconciliation process should be initiated. The hardest part about getting transitional justice right this time around will likely concern the relationship between the peshmerga and the PMF militias operating in the region. Nearly 50 percent of peshmerga we surveyed refused to believe allegations that peshmergamembers beat Sunni Arab civilians that collaborated with ISIS, whereas only 5 percent refused to believe the same allegations made about the PMF. Getting the peshmerga and the PMF on the same page about how to treat ISIS supporters will be a critical first step to stabilizing the regional order.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

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