The men could even listen to ISIS communications. It was also a static battlefield, another commonality with the Great War. After its initial advance in August 2014, ISIS had been largely checked and stopped. For three years, the front line remained mostly the same over hundreds of kilometers. It would take ISIS years to lose what it had conquered in mere months in 2014. Mosul, which fell in a day, would take the better part of a year to be recaptured. In the waning days of 2015, ISIS was still a menace to Iraq and could carry out limited offensives.
“Last time they came at us, they brought ladders,” said one of the fighters, beaming with pride. He showed a photo on his phone of two dead men in black. He had shot them as they came. Then his men went out and burned the bodies. These men were serving twenty days at home and ten days on the line. They were all volunteers with families and regular jobs. They had a mix of rifles, mostly AK-47s and some Soviet-era Dragunov sniper rifles. These they held in particular pride. Each position had a DShk, a heavy machine gun that first saw action in 1938 with the Red Army.
For the fighters, the war on ISIS was just the latest in a long string of wars. “In the 1970s we fought Saddam with the help of the US and Israel and Iran,” some of the older men remembered. “But the USA and Kissinger betrayed us in 1975.” Another man, wearing a cowboy hat, chimed in, “Remember, we have no friends but the mountains.” And a third man, large and fat, reminded his comrades how in 1946 the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iran had been betrayed by the Soviets, “Now we are independent in all but name.” This was the real story here at the end of this front line, in the middle of nowhere, in the quiet afternoon.
As ISIS slept and fires burned from oil-soaked tires that it had lit to avoid being seen by coalition drones and aircraft, the Kurdish men were enjoying independence. There were no Iraqi flags here. In fact, from Erbil to Dohuk there were no Iraqi flags. This wasn’t Iraq, in their view. I looked through the sights of the Dragunov at the ISIS position. “You see there, that is a monastery,” one of the men said. We were looking out at Christian villages in the distance. This was once a peaceful farming area, now riven and scarred by war.
But what kind of war? I’d expected to be fearful and in a bunker worried about ISIS. But the famous war machine was nowhere to be seen. A few mortar shells a day was all that hit the position, the men said. ISIS attacked at night, or sometimes under cover of fog. But the men ISIS was sending were not veteran fighters; they were zealous new recruits, foreigners. Some looked Chinese, the Kurds said. These were the Uighurs who had joined up.
The Kurds had defended their land and built a front line. Now they would defend it. They had one request. “Give us more MILAN anti-tank weapons.” This was because their position had nothing that could penetrate the “Mad Max” armored vehicles that ISIS built in its factories near Mosul. These vehicles are often called vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) by the US military. “The problem we face here is that their [ISIS] fighters want to die, and we want to live,” said one of the Kurdish men as we left, pointing out the stark contrast between the forces arrayed against each other.
A short drive back to the HQ brought us to Deputy Division Commander Sardar Karim. “Our morale will improve now that you are here,” he said. But it didn’t appear his men needed prodding from us.
“Most of our commanders fought Saddam, so that makes us different.” He recalled how his men had liberated Kurdistan in the 1990s. Now his Peshmerga had normal full units, four brigades of a thousand men each and divisions strung out from here to Erbil along a thousand kilometers of front. “In those days in the mountains, we stood against a very powerful regime which had help from the Arab and Western countries. We were alone, but we did not give up. They used poison gas. But we never gave up our rights.”
The men reminisced about the old days, when they had no weapons or armored vehicles. Now the unit had a captured Humvee that they had taken off ISIS at the battle of Mosul Dam. ISIS had captured it from the Iraqi army in June 2014. “In August we were fighting and [KRG] President [Masoud] Barzani came here to lead from the front as a commander. We reorganized and fought. We knew the ISIS tactics, and we held for three days until the Americans came,” recalled the commander. Now the Kurds were confident and felt they had more experience. The thousands of vehicles ISIS had captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies had been destroyed by US-led airpower. The Kurds had also just begun to receive some foreign weapons. The commander said he had some that had come from Bulgaria. “Everyone knows we are not just fighting for ourselves but [for] the whole world, and we need their support.” But the men were worried about Western support. “Why the US government’s interest is more with the Arabs than the Kurds?” the commander asked. I had no answer. Although the men were confident in their position, they were concerned that ISIS had captured equipment from the Iraqi army in Ramadi. One officer alleged ISIS now had drones.
Next door to the Peshmerga was another house, now occupied by a Christian unit called the Nineveh Plains Forces. With a flag representing the “two rivers” of Iraq that is common among Assyrians, the men said they were Christian IDPs who had fled Mosul and Nineveh. Some had been living in Erbil and volunteered. For eight months they had been in Telskuf helping provide security in the Christian town.
The Christian volunteers were younger men, in contrast to the Peshmerga, who were almost all family men in their thirties and forties. They hoped that the “Americans” would change their “strategic plan” and seek to liberate the Christian towns of Nineveh Plains. For the Christian fighters, times were difficult. They complained of having to buy their own rifles and that their families were living as IDPs. “Before ISIS it was also bad in this area. We had no running water, and we suffered from Islamist attacks. There was terrorism against the US forces, and seventeen Christians were killed.”
One of the most iconic and historic Christian villages in Nineveh is Al-Qosh, which sits at the foot of a ridge of mountains overlooking the plains around Mosul. Driving into it, we encountered the first Iraqi flags of the trip. The Nineveh Plains are technically outside the KRG, and this was “Iraq,” but there were no federal forces in sight. The village is ancient, and there is a thousand-year-old synagogue that commemorates the tomb of the prophet Nahum. We went looking for it but ended up at one of the houses of the locals. It was adorned with statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, as well as a mural of the Twelve Disciples. Basima Safar, a middle-aged woman, said the house belonged to her and invited us in for a coffee. “I am a painter,” she said. “I am still here,” she stated, gesturing toward the plains below and the front line a few kilometers away. She said that before ISIS, many tourists and journalists came to the town. No matter what happened, she said, she would remain.
Even the prophet Nahum probably couldn’t find his own tomb in Al-Qosh, despite the stories about its fame. We searched and thought it was all in vain, until we found a nondescript, ruined building with a metal roof. The metal roof was actually some sort of scaffolding erected to protect the ruin from the elements. We made our way over a wall and into a courtyard of the old synagogue. It was mostly falling apart and full of rubble. Just barely visible inside was a masonry-encased green, shrouded block the size of a table. This was the “tomb” that people pray to. On one wall was a Hebrew inscription. Here in Iraq, where only a handful of Jews remained, we were seeing this ancient history of one of the diverse peoples that once made up the mosaic of Nineveh Plains. Jews once lived in places such as Erbil and Mosul, as well as in Baghdad and Fallujah. These were centers of Jewish learning and power in ancient times, home to the Babylonian Talmud. No more. Now, like the Christians cleansed by ISIS and the Yazidis slaughtered and raped, they were gone from this area. The ruined tomb was one of the only testimonies that Jews ever lived here.
Seth Frantzman has a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in historical geography with a concentration on the history of minorities in the Middle East, and has lectured at other academic institutions on American policy in the Middle East and American history. A fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, he has worked at the JDC and the Shalem Center. A long-time columnist and features writer for The Jerusalem Post, he has been the op-ed editor there since 2012. He can be followed on Twitter @sfrantzman and at his website sethfrantzman.com.