Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 12th June 2015

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The Road to Mosul: Reporting from the frontline with ISIS

First part of film concentrates on desolate Sinjar mountain, showing pershmerga fighters, watching ISIS supply convoys move through Sinjar.

Abu Rish

Legendary peshmerga commander Abu Rish

LONDON - “The Kurds have grown up in war…. We are here to defend our people… We will smack the Islamic state's religion out of their heads. Not a day goes by without constant fighting.”

These comments by a Kurdish peshmerga fighter on the front line with the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Iraq, provide penetrating insight into the stalemate in the war. The comments are excerpts from a 45-minute, action-packed war documentary The Road to Mosul by Vice TV News reporter Aris Roussinos, who was with the peshmerga as they held ISIS at bay in Sinjar and Keske junction, the Islamist group's main supply line between Iraq's Mosul and their capital of Raqqa in Syria.

The documentary, which intersperses powerful background music and frequent gunfire, begins with comments by Roussinos, “Last August, the peshmerga forces garrisoning in Iraq's Sinjar range crumbled under an ISIS offensive leaving only a small force of fighters from Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Yazidi militias to defend the mountain.”

But now the peshmerga are back and have set their eye on recapturing Sinjar.

The first part of the film concentrates on the desolate Sinjar mountain, showing pershmerga fighters in hilltop positions, watching ISIS supply convoys move through Sinjar.

“Everyone knows the final battle for Sinjar will be difficult and costly and until the Iraqi central government in Baghdad begins to pursue the war effectively the under-equipped peshmerga volunteers will be stuck defending these positions for many months to come,” Roussinos says in the film.

A drive along the Syrian border road follows. “It is a long stretch of territory that the peshmerga recently captured from the Islamic State and for the whole the road was punctuated with dozens of burned out vehicles. The [US-led] air strikes have had a significant effect on the ISIS strength. Everywhere they tried to make a stand, they have been destroyed and the peshmerga have moved forward and taken more ground,” Roussinos explains.

In the village of Hadran, recently captured from ISIS, a 70-year-old man, pain etched on his proud face, shows Roussinos the ruins of his house destroyed by explosives. Thirty-eight members of his family are missing. Yazidi men from the village were executed and the women taken as sex slaves.

The documentary includes a gruesome visit to a grave site, one of many in Sinjar, discovered by peshmerga in January. “With the border with the Islamic State less than a mile away, international forensic teams are unlikely to excavate the site for a long time yet,” Roussinos comments. Asked if it will be difficult to live with Sunni Muslims in the future, the old Yazidi man retorted: “Our people were killed because they are Yazidis. They slaughtered us. How can we live with them?”

The final scenes of the documentary are from Keske junction. By capturing the strategic spot and fortifying the surrounding hilltops, the peshmerga have weakened ISIS ability to defend Mosul.

Roussinos talked to Abu Rish, the peshmerga commander in the Zerbani division, who called for arming the pershmerga. “The only issue we face is not having enough ammunition. Fighting is no problem,” Abu Rish said.

Introducing a discussion at London's Frontline Club, which hosted a recent screening of the documentary, Kevin Sutcliffe, the head of news programming for Vice EU, said he hoped the film would be a springboard for exchanging views about Syria and Iraq.

“It provides amazing insights and on-the-ground experience of two of the countries which now appear to be just a strange war zone,” he said. “We tried to understand what was about to happen in Mosul and Sinjar.”

Veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, author of The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, applauded the documentary saying, “It is a very perceptive portraying of what is happening.

“What comes across is how tough ISIS is. They are not just a bunch of crazy, depraved gunmen.

People are leaving the Islamic State because their children are being conscripted into the ISIS forces. Last year it was pretty obvious that ISIS could freely operate in an area from Aleppo to the Iranian frontier.”

Anthony Loyd, roving foreign correspondent for the Times, warned that there is an acceptance in the West that the war is going to go on for a very long time. “Somehow it is seen as an Iraqi and Syrian problem and it does not matter as long as we can protect Britain from terrorist attacks,” he said.

“But time is not neutral when it comes to ISIS. The longer they are there, the more kids they take and train and the better they prepare for attacks against the West.”

Professor Toby Dodge of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics described ISIS as a military terrorist organisation that has grown as a result of the failure of the Iraqi and Syrian states.

“This has created deep pools of insecurity and resentment which has then driven ISIS recruitment. It has now dawned on the US that their policy of air power and proxies is not going to work but the US can work with the status quo,” Dodge said.

The Road to Mosul can be seen on Vice News website: https://news.vice.com/