At its peak, the Islamic State controlled a territory encompassing over 100,000 square miles and oversaw an economy said to be valued at over $1 billion. Some 12 million people lived under its rule. Its fighters simultaneously pushed for Baghdad in the east, Damascus in the west, and Erbil in the north.
The world looked on in horror as the Iraqi army—equipped with some of the most advanced weaponry—simply melted away, leaving behind all that technology for the extremist attackers. Aspiring jihadists from all around the world were joining ISIS at a faster pace than the weak coalition could eliminate them.
That was precisely when the Islamic State committed a fatal error, after which it sustained a series of decisive losses to the point that it now controls only 10% of its former territory. Its error? Opening a front against the Kurds in northern Iraq. The fierce determination and fighting spirit of the Peshmerga, the military forces of the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan, cannot be understated, especially as most of their weaponry, unless obtained courtesy of street vendors or rogue players on the international black market, are manufactured at home.
Ami Magazine recently spoke to Ary Sewar Ismail, a Jewish Kurdish commander in the Peshmerga who spent two years on the frontlines fighting against ISIS. It was on those battlefields that he encountered a new kind of barbarism that even a lifetime under Saddam’s regime and the Kurdish civil war couldn’t prepare him for. While Ary would come close to losing his life on many occasions, he never lost his pride or his identity. In fact, it was during one his harshest battles that he resolved to live out the rest of his life as a proud Jew if he survived.
Struggles with Identity
“As a child,” Ary recounted, “my mother would always tell me to remember that I am a Jew. But she also warned me not to tell anyone.” For most of his life, Ary made sure to keep his family’s background a secret.
In 1991, as part of the settlement after the Gulf War, Saddam’s troops were forced to withdraw from Iraq’s Kurdish regions. The following year, a semi-autonomous Kurdistan held elections and the vote was split between two parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), each taking control of half the government and half of the Peshmerga. But although they’d survived decades of skirmishes with Saddam’s troops, living together as political opponents wouldn’t prove to be simple. In 1994 a civil war broke out, and both factions sought to recruit fighters.
Ary joined the KDP Peshmerga at the age of 17, just as the Kurdish civil was starting to flare up.
“Officially you weren’t supposed to be allowed to join until the age of 18,” he explained, “but if you were strong enough and could carry a weapon they’d accept you, although they didn’t give it to you until your 18th birthday. In the beginning, I just worked in an office.”
How much fighting was going on in those days?
“Barzani and Talabani [the leaders of the two main factions] were fighting off and on. Iran was supporting Talabani, and Turkey was supporting Barzani.” Most of the other countries in the region picked sides, and even the US got involved. By 1998 a peace treaty was signed and a fragile peace was restored. But much of the Peshmerga remained split between the two factions, a situation that continues until today.
From 1998 until the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, things were mostly quiet on the northern front.
“There were some clashes with the Iraqi forces, but they never attacked us because the Americans had a military base there and there was a line they were afraid to cross. And sometimes there were small battles along the roadside or rocket attacks in areas that weren’t even in dispute. The Iraqis would occasionally fire shots and the Peshmerga would respond. But basically, things were okay. The Peshmerga were split between the two factions, and the PMP [Popular Mobilization Forces] kept the peace.”
But then the US-led coalition launched the attack that toppled Saddam’s regime, and the Kurds became allies of the liberating forces. While the US didn’t need much assistance in getting rid of Saddam, there was plenty of help the Peshmerga could provide in terms of combating the growing terrorism. While Iraqi Kurdistan was mostly spared the violence that followed the vacuum created by the overthrow of Saddam, there was plenty of fighting taking place down south.
“In 2003, after Saddam was toppled, we went to Baghdad to fight various groups of terrorists and brought back a lot of weapons,” he recalled. Still, while most of the fighting was taking place in Baghdad, the Kurdish regions were far from peaceful.
“There was one guy named Sheikh Zana, a very bad man who belonged to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group [which would later change its name from al-Qaeda of Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a/k/a ISIS]. He was a Kurdish Islamist who launched multiple attacks in the Kurdish city of Erbil. He was ultimately arrested and hanged because his followers committed many crimes.”
The fighting in Iraq reached its zenith in 2006, but then saw a gradual decline after the execution of Sheikh Zana and the elimination of al-Zarqawi. The Peshmerga were then assigned the task of policing Iraqi Kurdistan. “The people in Kurdistan trusted us and not the Iraqis, so our job was defending our people.”
It was around then that Ary was sent to Baghdad for advanced military training by NATO. It would not be too long before that training would be put into practice.
In the summer of 2007, several al-Qaeda suicide car bombers detonated in two Yazidi towns between the city of Mosul and the Syrian border. These attacks, considered to have been the fifth-largest coordinated terror attack in modern history, left more than 500 dead and 1,500 wounded, and ushered in a new era of violence against Iraq’s Yazidi minority community.
“In 2008 a group affiliated with al-Qaeda came to the Yazidi region and was responsible for the deaths of many civilians. Every once in a while they’d launch an attack on non-believers, and they’re still going on.”