(Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of a three-part examination of the consequences of the Obama Administration’s Iraq policy through the eyes of those who were on the ground in Iraq.)
Over the course of our series, we have seen the situation in Iraq disintegrate from a relatively stable, US-led operation to the breeding ground for ISIS. In our last installment, we spoke with Jon Harris, a former contractor for the Department of Defense and explosives detection dog handler in Iraq. Through his perspective, we learned how ineffective the Iraqi government and military had become at dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State.
With ISIS taking control of large swaths of the country, and a central government almost powerless to stop them, the significant opposition of ISIS fell to Kurdish and other militias. I had a chance to sit down with a Marine Corps combat veteran who volunteered to fight alongside these militias. He has faced ISIS and witnessed a political and cultural climate that few Westerners have seen or understand. Per his request, we refer to him by his first name only.
LN: Louis, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little about yourself: your background, military experience, things like that?
Louis: Hey, I’m Louis, I am a Marine Infantry Veteran, served for four years, and had a combat pump (tour) to Afghanistan in 2012. I was in 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines and, upon getting out, I volunteered with the Peshmerga (military forces of the Iraqi Kurdistan) and Assyrians north of Mosul twice during 2015 and 2016, as well as worked as a contractor in between in Afghanistan at Bagram. As I was processing out, just before my EAS (End of Active Service), I read an article about volunteers going to Syria. I had been following the rise of ISIL (ISIS) and felt like I could get involved.
LN: I would like to talk to you specifically about the work you did with the Peshmerga and Assyrians. Tell us more about that.
Louis: I did my research and dug until I found a social media site that volunteers communicated with to arrange a pickup. I was initially headed for YPG (People’s Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia). I came home early on terminal leave and, shortly after my actual EAS, headed out to Germany, and then Iraq. While in Germany, I made contact with an Assyrian militia by chance, who were working with the Peshmerga on the front
LN: From what I understand there are some issues with westerners joining with the YPG. Can you go into that?
Louis: Well, the conditions in Syria were harder, for sure, and the politics of the YPG are very left wing. They are communists. Back then, it wasn’t hard to get across the border with them into Syria. Many westerners who went to Syria ended up turning back or not being good fits
LN: I understand there issue with YPG’s connection to the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), which some countries consider a terrorist organization?
It should be noted that the PKK has mounted an armed resistance against the Turkish government for self-determination for Kurds in Turkey. Both Turkey and NATO have declared the PKK to be a terrorist organization. Many Western volunteers with the YPG have faced legal issues upon returning to their home countries because of this affiliation.
Louis: Yes, it’s more of an affiliation, but it was an issue with many western governments. It also later became an issue with the PDK (Kurdistan Democratic Party) Kurdish forces in Iraq who by late 2015, early 2016, were involved in territorial disputes in the Sinjar region, and were near political enemies
LN: I guess it is a good thing you linked up with the Assyrians. How did that work?
Louis: It was by chance. A person I contacted on the page linked me up with them.
LN: So you are in Iraq, and you have switched over to the Assyrian militia. Tell us a little about them. Who are they? What are their goals?
Louis: The group was Dwehk Nawsha (Assyrian Christian Militia, roughly translated as “Those who sacrifice”). They were an independent Assyrian group who were on the front line where their villages were. They wanted to stay independent from any government and worked to get recognition of Assyrian land in Nineveh as a nation, like other Assyrian groups. Their occupation of the front turned out to be a more political statement
LN: Interesting. Were there other westerners there? How well did western volunteers integrate into the group?
Louis: There were a number [of westerners] who came and went. Our main issue was getting permission from the PDK government to be allowed on the front. That took two months. The first trip I took out there, we integrated decently
LN: The PDK is the Kurdish government.
Louis: Yes, in Iraq you have the PDK, who govern Erbil and North. That is the Masoud Barzani government. The PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), governs south of Erbil, led by Jalal Talabani (no relation to the Taliban in Afghanistan)
LN: A different political climate to be sure. What was Dwehk Nawsha’s relationship with other Kurdish forces? What initiated their creation of a militia?
Louis: Their villages had been taken by ISIL forces in that particular area. They also thought being able to stand on their own would help their political goals. The local Peshmerga commanders didn’t mind them, and they seemed to get along fine, but politics often caused problems
LN: Would it be fair to say that with the relative collapse of the Iraqi government, many of these smaller bodies popped up, causing various disputes between those they considered allies?
Louis: For sure, the Kurds were empowered by it, and the Assyrians as well saw an opportunity
LN: So for those two months before you went to the front, what did you do?
Louis: I met with many PDK officials and commanders in the Peshmerga. We even went out to part of the front near Sinjar for a few weeks we had to get approval and prove we were better assets than liabilities.
LN: And clearly, you did. So once you got to the front, what were your duties?
Louis: It was clear to us they wanted to stay behind the front. We met a volunteer in the Peshmerga unit at our front who was Kurd by birth but from Europe. With him, we set up an arrangement to be posted on the front line instead. There was mistrust between the Assyrians and Kurds, but not for us. Wahid Kovle, the Peshmerga commander in our area of the front, grew to like us and was happy to have us help on the front
LN: So what was your daily routine?
Louis: DN had their routine, but it proved to be quite mundane. We held the post at night and tried to stay out of the heat at daytime. We helped in whatever ways we could at the front.
LN: Clearly, for the operational security of those still fighting in the region, you will not go too much into the specifics, but how active were the westerners in DN’s military actions? Were you conducting training of some of their troops? Did you go on patrols?
Louis: it was a static position, under regular mortar and indirect fire. We did our best to help the group, but they weren’t taking to it very well. As we helped on the front more, the DN people grew not to like us as much.
LN: Why the animosity?
Louis: Assyrians don’t like the Kurds so much. The history of the region is complex, but anyone who looks into it will know. By my second trip out, volunteers and DN (Dwehk Nawsha) had basically become two separate elements, and we were much better friends with the Kurds. We had a few engagements on the front and Louis: had not had any back up from the DN guys. They didn’t like the training and disciplines we tried to help them with, and they didn’t like coming out to the front.
LN: Interesting. Between political tensions and the stresses of the overall situation, there was some level of animosity between the Assyrians, the Kurds, and the Western Volunteers that affecting operating in that region.
Louis: By the end of it, yes.
LN: That is unfortunate. How much time, in total, would you say you spent with these groups? What kind of insight or greater appreciation do you think it has given you about that region that you did not have before?
Louis: a little under a year. I found the region to be strongly divided by sectarian issues, even when facing a mutual threat. We faced much opposition from different angles. The political tensions, even between different elements of the PDK and us are far too complex to cover just here. The different Kurdish groups are divided, how can we expect Arabs and Kurds and Assyrians to all get along?
LN: I would like to step away from the micro, your particular experiences, and look for the perspective you have gained through those experiences on a macro level. Specifically, the political and strategic implications of the region. You have seen ISIS and what they can do first hand; you have stood with those who oppose them. Why do you think they were able to gain so much power? What went wrong?
Louis: The region of Iraq was open to it. The Sunni areas were easily influenced. ISIS didn’t roll into the area; they grew members out of it and claimed each village for the Islamic state. Then they brought in all the radicalized foreigners.
LN: Do you think that they would have had that influence or ability if the US had not withdrawn as hastily as it did?
Louis: We left the region unstable with a Shia power hanging over them (Iraq’s Sunni population), and bad memories of the US not finishing the job, all the while ISIL was growing out of the Syrian civil war. I don’t believe they would have had the power to claim the land as rapidly as they did or operate in the area.
LN: So what do you think is the solution? How do we move forward?
Louis: I don’t think a full-scale invasion is a solution. I feel our current policy could be stepped up but is enough to defeat them
LN: Specifically, what should we be doing? Should we empower local forces like the Assyrians and the Kurds?
Louis: Continued supervision of local forces and support will help. It is too risky to arm any one group too much, due to the delicate sectarian situation.
LN: Much like the debacle we have seen in Syria.
Louis: indeed. Continued but temporary support is best. Until the Islamic State has been cut too many times that it cannot stop the bleeding, the local forces need to be the ones who take back their own areas and supervised as they do. We should continue to collect and utilize all the intelligence we can, with a vengeance, to effectively cripple ISIL. Committing to a new war, effectively, would simply leave the region in the same situation we left it.
LN: It seems like a more nuanced approach than has been suggested by many in the current political climate. How hopeful are you about the direction the current administration will take with the ISIL situation?
Louis: I hope they will continue on the path I mentioned, with maybe a bit more dedication. I feel there are great advisors in the current administration who will do just that.
LN: As a Marine veteran, how excited are you to see General Mattis as the Secretary of Defense?
Louis: It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Mattis is a cultural hero and icon to us.
LN: And, from what I understand, one of the most philosophical and thoughtful military leader’s we have had in some time.
LN: Louis, thank you for taking the time to speak with us and thank you for your service. You have provided some insightful perspective.
Louis: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Louis’ story is a stark example of a country in ruin. The power vacuum left by Former President Obama’s near abandonment of Iraq quickly became filled by the infection of ISIS and its affiliates, leaving Kurdish and other forces were left to do the brunt of the fighting against this scourge. These militias, and volunteers like Louis, valiantly stand in the gap between a nation trying to rebuild itself and the hordes of ISIS yearning for the return of a by-gone era of savagery and barbarism.
This situation is what President Trump has inherited from his predecessor. While the Iraqi government, Kurdish forces, and American advisors are making progress in Iraq (to include the recent advance on Mosul), the increase in American involvement is a day late and a dollar short. President Trump will have to navigate not only the intricacies of regional and sectarian politics, but he will have to do so in an environment of waning American influence and a global arena soured by Former President Obama’s policies and practices.
The way forward requires a steady hand and a nuanced approach. After nearly two decades of war, is our Nation up to the task?