A coalition force of approximately 7,500 Peshmerga-led Kurdish soldiers, flanked by 2,000 soldiers belonging to Shingal’s Protection Units (the ethnic minority residents of Sinjar/Shingal), the guerrilla militias of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ), and units from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), launched a coordinated assault in the Sinjar region against ISIS fortified positions at 07:00 (local), 12 November, 2015. The offensive was supported by U.S. and British air strikes.
The breach in ISIS lines was facilitated with the help of no less than 40 U.S. air strikes, which besieged ISIS fortifications in and around the Shingal region throughout the week. Yet the hard fighting up the arid and rocky terrain was executed by the unified factions of Kurdish forces. Fortunately for these forces, the majority of the nearby villages had been essentially uninhabited since ISIS forces claimed the region nearly 18 months ago. The absence of civilians on the battlefield has allowed for easier target discrimination and limited house-to-house urban combat while expelling ISIS forces, ensuring a swift victory for the Kurdish coalition.
The 48-hour assault, which ended on 13 November, 2015, has expelled ISIS forces and cleared embattlements in the Shingal region. This action has done more than just free the Yazidis, it has created a substantial buffer zone preventing freedom of movement to ISIS, deterring indirect fire and other harassing attacks. By taking Shingal, Kurdish forces have also seized a main avenue of approach and supply route for a major IS stronghold—the city of Mosul. This is a significant strategic gain in the region. Taking and now holding Shingal will deny ISIS a high-speed approach to Mosul.
Mosul is a regional hub in Iraq, and a significant military target for tactical control of the many provinces the city touches. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, an international airport, key military installations left from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and an ugly battlespace— the likes of which I faced in 2003 while assigned to the 101st Airborne—are all trapped by tyrants, and in desperate need of liberation. Mosul requires decisive action, which will only succeed by way of regional alliances such as the one formed by Kurdish factions for the action in Shingal.
Shingal is but one of many ISIS supply routes, and ISIS is an organization that rose and cut across the land without the need for conventional forces or the classical warfare understanding of land ownership. As the Syria to Mosul expressway is shut down, ISIS is forced to scramble to open or seize alternate routes. This is a opportunity for Kurdish and allied forces to lock down more of the region and reinforce the gains recently made.
A calculated next move is required, because the days of the direct assault are over. The ISIS battlespace has been hardened and continuously resupplied during decades of advancing warfare. ISIS fighters preach that they are seeking death, and to simply charge against such fanatical fighters—the likes of whom are often high on a number of narcotics—is poor planning.
The Kurds are well aware of these factors, and their soldiers have seen it all in action over the past few days as U.S. and British warplanes rained fire on ISIS positions, followed by Peshmerga self-propelled artillery and tanks supported by infantry that captured the ground. PKK and Peshmerga officials reported that they intercepted radio traffic from ISIS indicating their forces were deserting. This was accompanied by the voice of an ISIS leader who was reprimanding his fighters with threats, saying those who deserted would be beheaded.
A German filmmaker embedded with the PKK who was on the western approach stated that they “faced almost no fight from the Islamic State [in Shingal].” On securing Shingal, he said, “We ran down the hill, like in a raid, and the whole time I saw just one dead Daesh fighter.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, which under certain Arabic interpretations can mean “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” ISIS does not like to be called Daesh.
Limited resistance and a faltering line allowed Kurdish forces to push 20 kilometers south to Baaj, Raqqa, Tal Khassab, and Tal Banat to secure the Shingal region before encountering further resistance. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense Tweeted, “Peshmerga forces bombed a gathering in the vicinity of [Shingal], killing 21 and many injured.” Further local reports cited as many as 30 targets struck during the assault by air support. These air strikes have resulted in the hasty withdrawal of ISIS forces and the tribes who supported them, forces that were last seen retreating to the southwest as the Kurdish coalition advanced.
Ground looted by ISIS and loyalist tribal elements once again belongs to the local Kurdish population and Yazidi religious minority. The Yazidi were forced out of their homes by a brutal ISIS terror campaign that eventually ravaged the Shingal region in August, 2014. ISIS has specifically targeted the Yazidi, accusing them of being heretical, in a vicious offensive that the United Nations and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has cited as a possible genocide. The thousands of Yazidis that were trapped on Mount Sinjar, which overlooks the region, have once again been given freedom of movement. Relieving the Yazidis was but one of America’s principle reasons for initiating an air campaign against ISIS forces in 2014.
The combined joint task force—Operation Inherent Resolve—is calling the operation a success. U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren told Sky News that Kurdish forces have “accomplished all their planned objectives for today.” The Pentagon officially announced, on Aug. 8, 2014, that it had started “kinetic operations” against IS. So far, the operation has cost one American death in combat, nine in support of the operation, and five billion dollars.
This operation has allowed Kurdish forces to liberate a 50-kilometer area from ISIS. The Kurdish alliance has been able to push forward to secure Tal Afar/Shingal highway, 47 secured linking Shingal/Syria highway, and Shingal/Ba’aj highway—blocking off Shingal’s southern entrance and restricting ISIS maneuver capability in the region. The villages of Gre Til Shor, Sulakh, Faziliya, Sino, Gulat, Solax, Gabra, Jedala, and Sinjar/Shingal have now been secured.
The ISIS regional military compound has also been captured by Kurdish forces. During the assault, as many as 15 S/VBIEDs were destroyed by Kurdish forces and coalition air strikes, and approximately 100 ISIS militants were killed or captured according to reports from the Kurdistan Region Security Council.
The task is now to clear the rubble where homes once stood, and to clear the area of improvised explosive devices that ISIS has planted so civilization can return. Meanwhile, multinational forces secure their gains and prepare for their next move against ISIS.