Political rivalries and proxy conflict threaten to engulf Sinjar’s vulnerable Yazidi population in renewed violence. How local and regional actors manage this region can offer lessons for other disputed territories post-ISIS.
Over two years since ISIS swept into Sinjar – displacing, enslaving, or murdering nearly all of the area’s 360,000 Yazidi residents – the northern Iraqi district in Ninewa Province has become a focal point for regional rivalry and proxy conflict. While an uneasy coalition of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) forces, Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Yazidi militias, supported by western airpower, pushed the jihadists from Sinjar in November 2015, much of the district’s population has not yet returned. This absence highlights the bitter cleavages and international patronage networks shaping the region, as well as the intensity of destruction under ISIS’s genocidal rule and lack of reconstruction support from Baghdad and the international community.
Today, competition for control of Sinjar’s future steadily simmers – a struggle that Iraq-based scholar Christine Van Den Toorn aptly warned could spark “wars after the war for Sinjar.” On 25 November, Iraqi Kurdish President and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) chief Masoud Barzani declared that “the PKK has no business in [Sinjar]” – even as Peshmerga and PKK units jointly control Sinjar town center, forcing other Yazidi groups to choose sides of a widening divide. Leaders in Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran deepen these fault lines, seeking to exert influence through local actors and (in Turkey’s case) threat of direct intervention.
Geopolitical tensions have thus far prevented efforts to rebuild Sinjar town and have led to ongoing food, water, and fuel shortages. No side has shown a willingness to de-escalate these rivalries, pushing Sinjar and its displaced civilian population into an increasingly desperate and vulnerable position. How political and military actors manage the potential conflict over Sinjar will offer insight into the processes by which disputed territories across post-ISIS Iraq are either stabilized, reconfigured, or plunged into further conflict.
Setting the Scene for Betrayal
The tragic events following Sinjar’s fall to ISIS on 3 August 2014 left the Iraqi Yazidi community with a deep sense of betrayal that will shape its future identity in the region. After the Iraqi Army collapsed across northern Iraq in June 2014, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga occupied Sinjar – ostensibly annexing the disputed territory from Baghdad. Less than two months later, however, ISIS fighters swept the Peshmerga from the district, bolstered by heavy weaponry and a reputation as unstoppable killers. Left unprotected, 5,000 unarmed men were murdered, 7,000 women were taken as sex slaves, and over 40,000 civilians fled up Mount Sinjar – where they were trapped without food or water for two weeks in scorching summer heat. Today, approximately 3,500 Yazidi women are believed to still be in captivity, either in Mosul or ISIS’s de facto capital Raqqa.
Today, competition for control of Sinjar’s future steadily simmers.
Yazidi leaders believed that the government in Iraqi Kurdistan had misled their community about the dangers ISIS posed in Sinjar, and subsequently abandoned them without offering any resistance. Historically, the KDP had paid Sinjari Yazidis who were willing to join their party, and thus extend the Kurdish political presence into Ninewa province. In exchange for Yazidi votes, the KDP guaranteed protection – a valuable offer given past extremist attacks against Yazidi civilians in the region. In 2007, for example, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) conducted a series of bombings in Sinjar that killed over 500 people and prompted officials in Erbil to blame Baghdad for failing to secure the district’s vulnerable population.
Seven years later, as ISIS militants surrounded the district on three sides, KRG leadership assured local residents that the Peshmerga would not repeat the Iraqi government’s negligence. Instead, local Kurdish officials linked to the KDP quietly withdrew on the eve of ISIS’s assault, without issuing any warning to local residents of impending danger. As Iraqi Kurdish forces collapsed, fighters from neighboring Syria – members of the YPG, which is affiliated with the PKK – reportedly put up stiffer resistance, thus earning Sinjaris’ respect and trust. In late 2014 the PKK and its YPG partners even worked to muster a local fighting force called the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS); today, the PKK’s ranks in Sinjar are mainly filled by Yazidi soldiers. These units operate alongside the Sinjar Defense Units (HPS) led by Haydar Shesho, which claim a “Yezidi first” identity.
The PKK/YPG’s perceived role as Sinjar’s primary defenders in 2014, and the emergence of competing Yazidi militias, inflamed inter-Kurdish rivalries between the KRG and foreign-linked organizations. While these groups worked together to liberate Sinjar in 2015, today they each foster competing visions for Sinjar’s future and geopolitical utility. The KDP, which dominates the political arena in nearby Dohuk Province, seeks to reassert and maintain a strong presence in Sinjar, fearing that a Yazidi- or PKK/YPG-led administration would empower local residents to challenge KRG authority.
The Turkish and Syrian Kurds have worked to establish a military and political outpost in an area that borders YPG-controlled territory in Syria. Although the PKK has maintained a presence in Sinjar for decades, the current environment has offered an opportunity for rapid expansion. By leveraging their militia partners, the PKK and YPG at once hope to offset KDP influence in Kurdish-controlled Syria by building links with the Baghdad government, thereby undermining Barzani’s party.
These disputes are further complicated by territorial and political ambitions of external actors. Iranian leaders see Sinjar as a critical link in their envisaged Shia-dominated land route to Syria; Baghdad, which claims legal sovereignty over Sinjar, has attempted to re-assert its legitimacy against both KDP and PKK/YPG challengers by paying some militia salaries.
Geopolitical tensions have thus far prevented efforts to rebuild Sinjar town and have led to ongoing food, water, and fuel shortages.
Turkey, however, remains the greatest spoiler for stability in the area. Ankara has waged an increasingly bloody conflict against PKK rebels inside Turkey and staunchly opposes the group’s expansion anywhere in Iraq. In October 2016 Turkish troops were deployed to Silopi near the tri-border with Iraq and Syria. While ostensibly sent to challenge Shia militia advances toward the town of Tal Afar, Ankara’s forces were also well-positioned to strike against Kurdish units operating across the Iraq-Syria border near Sinjar, further raising the Turkish presence in the area. Until recently, the KDP viewed its alliance with Turkey as its best bet to secure increasing autonomy from federal Iraq, and its leadership has largely supported the Turkish line. While the road to eventual Kurdish independence today seems to be turning away from Ankara toward Baghdad, the friendship between Barzani and Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan remains strong, especially when it comes to PKK/YPG influence in areas the KDP aspires to control.
Yazidi militias and civilians are caught within this milieu of regional rivalries and external interests. As various powerbrokers attempt to assert their primacy, local populations are left without recourse or support to address their needs, grievances, or reconstruct shattered homes and livelihoods. Today, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga control the main road leading into Sinjar from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, while ISIS still holds other routes to the rest of Iraq (Southern Sinjar remains under ISIS control).
In an effort to squeeze PKK units based in the district, the KRG has restricted the movement of people and essential goods through the Suhaila border crossing – establishing what Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as “disproportionate and unnecessary” barriers to recovery. Aid organization have reported difficulty transferring medicine and food into Sinjar, despite having required permits from the KRG – only groups with affiliations to the KDP have been able to operate relatively unencumbered. With approximately 60-80 percent of Sinjar’s infrastructure in ruins, these import restrictions have pressured civilians still inside the district to leave, suffer, or affiliate with KDP officials. Other goods seemingly banned by KRG forces include agricultural equipment or products, livestock, and weapons. In a region where the primary economic activity is farming, these restrictions on agricultural trade will cripple local populations trying to regain their financial footing. As HRW’s Lama Fakih concluded, “families…in Sinjar say they are unable to pursue their traditional livelihoods – they are barely managing day to day.”
Greater Autonomy for Disputed Regions?
Sinjar’s future is being dictated by forces that have little interest in restoring vulnerable populations or decimated infrastructure. Iraq’s ill-defined internal geopolitical landscape – further complicated by the fluid conflict against ISIS – adds to the confusion. The district’s uncertain status in territory disputed between the KRG and Baghdad governments leaves the Yazidi population without adequate security or governmental representation. This situation is pushing many community leaders to advocate for strengthening local forces and government as a means to gain greater autonomy from both Erbil, Baghdad, and their international patrons.
The Iraqi Constitution describes Sinjar – as well as other areas along the frontier with the KRI – as part of the country’s Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIB), where Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policies had targeted historically diverse ethnic and religious regions. While the Constitution’s Article 140 addresses the DIB issue, its implementation has been delayed since 2007 – often leaving Sinjar with simultaneous de facto and de jure administrations. While the district today remains legally under Baghdad’s jurisdiction, the KRG has assumed administrative duties. Yet without a clear political mandate, Erbil is loath to commit significant resources to stabilize or reconstruct an area it does not fully control. While both KRG and Baghdad officials often blame the other for shortages and insecurity along DIBs, the rhetoric rarely translates into meaningful support or policy. Within this environment, consideration of the needs and aspirations among Yazidi communities has become an afterthought.
As various powerbrokers attempt to assert their primacy, local populations are left without recourse or support to address their needs, grievances, or reconstruct shattered homes and livelihoods.
After the tragic events of 2014, Yazidi leaders refused to return to the pre-ISIS governance framework in Sinjar, whereby Kurds and Sunni Arabs dominated at a district level vis-à-vis the provincial administration. As Haj Kandour al-Sheikh, a Yazidi MP in Baghdad, concluded, “I can safely say that most Yazidis have no confidence in any party….Our salvation lies in the formation of our own armed force to defend ourselves.” To overcome growing social, political, and economic marginalization, many other local leaders have stated that “Yazidis must rule Yazidis.” The community remains divided over precisely how to achieve greater autonomy; however, proposals include the creation of a Yazidi-governed province or the establishment of a regional government according to the KRG model – both plans that would meet resistance in Baghdad as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi attempts to prevent fracturing in northern Iraq.
Coupled to demands for greater political self-determinism are plans to bolster Yazidi self-defense militias, including the 7,000-strong HPS Iraqi Yazidi militia. While other local armed groups like the YBS have aligned with external powerbrokers, the HPS has refused funding or equipment from the KDP, PKK/YPG, or Baghdad. This stance, which earned the organization great respect among the Yazidi population, also drew suspicion from the KDP in Erbil, which arrested HPS leader Haydar Shesho in mid-2015. The HPS has demonstrated a willingness to make necessary deals with regional actors, and to partner with YBS forces, but remains steadfast in its commitment to Yazidi autonomy.
Yazidi groups will face daunting challenges as they maneuver through the broader political competition over Sinjar’s fate. How local communities there establish a post-ISIS settlement will illuminate opportunities and dangers facing similar processes playing out across northern Iraq’s disputed territories. As policymakers look to devise governance structures in areas where jihadist invasion, violence, and rule eroded pre-2014 systems, deal-making in flashpoints like Sinjar must take into account minority and communal-level grievance rather than perpetuate inter-regional rivalries and proxy actors.
The stakes are high for leaders in Erbil, Baghdad, and abroad as they hammer out post-ISIS deals across a destabilized region. More critically, however, these negotiations will profoundly impact the Yazidi population, shaping its future place and identity within Iraq’s diverse ethno-religious mosaic. Sinjar’s narrative ultimately reminds observers that in the midst of geopolitical tumult and reorganization lie vulnerable people. Whether political and military leaders from all sides can find ways to protect and restore these communities will determine the parameters and sustainability of future reconciliation and reconstruction in northern Iraq.