ISIS: The Kurdish Factor


By Phil Johnson, Ph.D. (with special assistance from Ary Rasool)

March 21, 2015

Today is Kurdish Newroz – a celebration of the Kurdish New Year. This year, the celebration coincides with yesterday’s release of a graphic video produced by ISIS showing the brutal beheadings of three Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers. At least fourteen other soldiers are still being held hostage. Global Next’s sources inside Iraq indicate that the remaining hostages may very well be burned alive.

Last week I was in Iraq tracking the continuing and horrific story of ISIS and their continued assault on, well, just about everyone who is not THEM. I went to northern Iraq, to the Kurdistan region to meet Peshmerga forces near the frontline in Gwer. I wanted to talk with those who are involved first-hand in the battle against ISIS. So let’s break it down: Where is Gwer, who are the Peshmerga fighters and who did I speak to?


The word literally means “one who confronts death.” The Peshmerga are the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan – they are known for their bravery and their direct, committed confrontation with the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).

GWER  Gwer, in Mosul province, is 45 kilometers (about 27 miles) from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is one of the active fronts against ISIS. While there is armed conflict here every day, the most recent heavy attacks occurred on February 9th and left heavy casualties for ISIS. As many as twenty Peshmerga soldiers were also killed, according to Commander Jamal Mutka. As I was told by head Commander Mutka, the Kurds had no intention of letting ISIS gain control over Gwer – which could lead to the fall of Erbil. ISIS was pushed back after about three hours of intense fighting.


Mr. Jamal is a high-ranking lawyer and the second in command of the Peshmerga forces in Gwer. He is also in charge of media relations for the Kurdish forces.

In our conversation, he estimated the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq at 10,000. He is frustrated by the lack of US support and says the Kurdish forces need weapons. So far there has been no direct supplies given to the Kurds, only airstrike support – and that only goes so far.

As Hakim Jamal says, “We are fighting ISIS not as Peshmerga, but as representatives of all humanity.” He also expressed discouragement over the fact that the US appears to be more interested in helping its enemies than in helping its friends. The Kurds consider themselves to be great friends and great supporters of the United States. He cited the example that the U.S. is directly helping the Shiite Muslims of the Iraqi government who, in the past, have done everything they could possibly do against the U.S. He stated that Germany, France, and Italy have helped much more than America, based on his experience in this fight.

He went on to say, “Iran calls Americans devil worshippers,  but the U.S. is more supportive towards Iran than they are towards the Kurdish people.”

When I asked him if he believes that Turkey is supporting ISIS, his response was, “America knows the answer to this questions so maybe you should ask them.” (There have been many reports of Turkey allowing passage of people across their border to join ISIS.)  He continued, “America draws the map for all the world. Kurdistan considers themselves a friend of America. Why doesn’t America stand up for Kurdistan freedom?”

Mr. Jamal believes that without U.S. help, the Kurds will continue fighting, but there will be more deaths, more sacrifices. ISIS, in his opinion, is worse than Saddam Hussein. As for why there are so many foreigners joining ISIS, he attributes it to being brainwashed.


When I met with the senior commander of the Gwer forces, Mr. Jamal Mutka, he had just returned to his office, directly from the front lines.  After updating me about the most recent attacks, I asked him what he believes ISIS’s strategy is. Here’s what he told me:

“ISIS wants full control of all of Iraq and Syria – to control all aspects of these areas, politically, religiously and economically. They want control of the entire world and they don’t accept any beliefs others than their own. ISIS has goals outside of the region, but the first goal is to fully control Iraq and Syria and to have human power and the economics to influence the entire world.”

I asked him to respond to U.S. President Obama’s comments that 99.9% of Muslims are peaceful. He responded that he doesn’t agree with Obama – certainly most Muslims desire peace, but not all.  “Arab extremist don’t accept any other beliefs. Maybe 60-70% are peaceful. But the remaining percentage are radical in some form.”

On the topic of whether or not America is doing enough, he expressed appreciation for what America is currently offering. “But,” he stated,  “It is not enough considering the seriousness of the ISIS threat. We really want and need America’s help. The U.S. is sending help to the Iraqi government but the flow of that help has been restricted due to economic issues. We need direct help and support.”

He ended our conversation stating this: “Here’s what I wish the Americans and the American government knew about the situation with ISIS and the efforts of the Kurds: The Kurds are peaceful, democratic, and have treated others fairly.  We deserve American support in the war against ISIS and for our own recognized independence.”

Everyday there are new stories of the violence and atrocities that ISIS is inflicting on humanity. Leaders of the world will have to decide how to effectively respond as lives hang in the balance. History is far too full of global action that showed up with too little, too late.


*Special, and deep appreciation for the indispensable help of Mr. Ary Rasool in setting up contacts and translating the interviews. I am forever grateful.  

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