Islamic State forces were burning houses to make their escape. It’s a common tactic of the organization to shield itself from coalition air strikes.
In June, when a colleague and I visited the front lines on the Mosul plain, the smoke billowed from a Christian village in Islamic State hands. The enemy used old tires and trenches filled with oil to create thick black smoke. Now the black smoke was billowing again from the villages around Shingal as Islamic State soldiers were in retreat.
On November 12, Vager Saadullah, a freelance journalist with an MA in international relations, was with a long convoy of vehicles waiting for the orders to move forward. He photographed the surroundings. Parched rocky terrain, with not a tree in sight. Northern Iraq this time of year has light, sunny blue skies, but temperatures rise to only around 18º.
The Peshmerga forces, some of whom had not been paid for four months because of a local economic crisis, were itching for the battle.
Armored vehicles and Peshmerga volunteers move toward Sinjar. (Photo credit: Vager Saadullah)
“It was very amazing for me to see thousands of volunteers from all over Kurdistan region, and they joined the Peshmerga for the offensive,” recalls Saadullah. Not just Kurds were assembled, but thousands of Yezidis, a religious minority that had been brutally persecuted, had come to take back their town. “You cannot imagine how motivated they are. It is symbolic to take part in this operation, because of what had happened to the Yezidis.”
There would be no mercy now; the savage enemy would have to be killed. “We want to kill them,” the Peshmerga fighters said to Saadullah. It would be justice and liberation.
But even as Saadullah and his colleagues were wrapping up this victory, Islamic State was striking out in another direction. In Paris eight terrorists killed 129 people and wounded 200 in several attacks in “The City of Light.”
“All the people were surprised about the French bombing. The French did a lot for Kurds in the last year, for our fight against ISIS, and we had French advisers and trainers, and they trained some groups how to defuse TNT and bombs, and also their jets are in the coalition and doing a great role,” recalls Saadullah with affection.
French President Francois Hollande has been especially supportive, by visiting the Kurdish region.
“I was in Shingal when I heard about what happened in Paris, and I was with three French journalists,” Saadullah recalls.
When he posted some photos of the fighting on Twitter not long before the terrorist attacks, he received notes from Paris of “Be careful.” Then all of a sudden Shingal, the place of horror and massacre a year ago, became the safe area.
“There was an emotional outpouring for Paris. I was saying to my friends to be careful there.... It was very bad news.” There is a clear connection, he says. “It is all linked. When ISIS is defeated, they will try to do other things to show the world they exist. They may be weakened here, but the Western countries and international coalition must destroy this radicalism.”
IN JUNE 2014, Islamic State claimed an unprecedented victory when it swept through northern Iraq, taking control of the large cities of Mosul and Tel Afar. The Iraqi army collapsed in these areas. The world was shocked. “How did 800 ISIS fighters rout two Iraqi divisions?” wondered an article in the US Army Times.
In August, moving along Route 47 which leads from the Syrian border to Mosul, the Islamists laid siege to the Yezidi (in Kurdish: Ezidi) city of Shingal (Sinjar). This sleepy, tarred road which cuts a straight line through boring, undulating plains became a highway of death for minorities.
The Yezidis are an ancient religion with deep origins in the region. Centuries of persecution have caused them to dwindle to a small minority of several hundred thousand in Iraq.
Terrorists had targeted them before, especially in 2007 when bombings in Khataniya killed more than 300 people. But August 2014 was different. As the Iraqi Army melted away and local Kurdish forces retreated from the Islamic State attack, the Yezidis were at the mercy of the extremists.
'The Peshmerga have received more effective weapons from the coalition,' says Saadullah (Photo credit: Vager Saadullah)
More than 3,000 Yezidi men were reported slaughtered by Islamic State in their initial capture of Shingal, while thousands of women were put on buses and transported to Syria and towns in Iraq, where they were sold as sex slaves to Islamic State fighters.
The neighboring Kurds felt the trauma of the Yezidis, as Islamic State rolled over their Peshmerga forces. Yet by late August the battlefield had stabilized and the Kurds were able to regain areas north of the Shingal mountains, while Islamic State held on to Route 47 and the ghost town of Shingal.
The Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil set its sights on Shingal in January. “There is still more Kurdish land under ISIS,” Seyid Hejar, the deputy commander of the Zeravani Peshmerga, told reporters.
Two thousand five hundred kilometers of land along the Syrian border had been liberated from Islamic State, but there would be more. In late July of this year, Mustafa Sayed Qadir, the KRG’s minister of Peshmerga, told Rudaw news agency that the plan was to retake Shingal.
BUT BUDGET problems and disputes seemed to hamper the promised offensive. With a factious political system, the Kurds nonetheless became united in 2014 and 2015 because of Islamic State. In October, when long lines of Peshmerga military vehicles and trucks packed with men began to weave their way north toward the Shingal mountains, all factions were on the same page.
At the same time, Kurdish groups associated more with Syria – such as the YPG and the PKK, which has been involved in clashes with Turkish forces – intended to play their part. They had helped carve a corridor through Islamic State lines in 2014 and rescue Yezidis, and they would be on the field again in November 2015.
“For KRG – the policy-makers – they wanted to take back Shingal,” explains Saadullah. “It was very important to take it and liberate it. It is a strategic position that links [Islamic State capital in Syria] Raqqa and the Mosul area.
“And there are more than 300,000 Ezidis in displaced persons camps. This is a big burden – to manage those camps and to take care of their facilities and to give them all kinds of support so they can survive in this coming winter.”
Many Yezidis had joined a Yezidi Peshmerga force commanded by Qassim Shashou. The round-faced Shashou sports a large mustache and bulky uniform.
“He fought against the Saddam [Hussein] regime in the 1970s and 1980s and is well known in Kurdish culture as a hero. They sing songs about him,” recalls Saadullah.
Saadullah argues that the perception that the Yezidis are just victims and not fighters is wrong.
“They are fighting,” he remarks as he recounts the 1,000 Yezidi fighters who had joined the offensive. “It was a very great step in order to get back those refugees before the winter.”
Photos showed them flashing the peace sign, resplendent in red keffiyehs and fatigues. Some of the older men sported flowing beards.
A bombed-out street in the village of Sinjar, after its liberation by Peshmerga (Photo credit: Vager Saadullah)
ON SEPTEMBER 12, Maj.-Gen. Seme Busal surveyed Islamic State-held Shingal. “Peshmerga troops are holding their positions, waiting for reinforcements and more air strikes so they can move into the center of the town.”
Strategically, the Kurds were in a perfect position, sitting in the nooks and hillocks of the Shingal mountains which rise 1,400 meters over the plains below.
The mountains, stretching 100 km. east to west, look like a kind of long anvil from above, tapering to points on both ends. Below them is Shingal, Route 47, and all the villages the Peshmerga wanted to liberate. These Peshmerga troops and their Yezidi allies had been beaten upon this anvil in 2014.
The writer Victor Davis Hanson argues that such traumas are common in liberation forces. “The great military strength of such open and free societies is less well known: the dramatic manner in which we can mobilize people in a tremendous retaliatory crusade for a just cause.”
The Peshmerga coordinated closely with the American military and its coalition allies, some of whom were on Mount Shingal with the Kurds, according to US Army Col. Steve Warren’s statements.
The air war against Islamic State has been criticized over the year for being ineffective, even allowing Islamic State to make gains in Syria and Iraq.
In October CBS’s 60 Minutes took a peek inside the $60 million command center in Qatar. It was a far cry from the Peshmerga units, with their jerry-rigged trucks, armor soldered onto Humvees captured from Islamic State and other primitive equipment.
“It takes us three days, sometimes months,” to locate a target, one commander told the CBS producer. When quizzed on how much closer they were to defeating the Islamists, the commander said: “I can’t say how many steps it will take.” With $10m. spent a day, the commanders said they were doing what they could to “hunt them where they are.”
In Shingal this was on display, as air strikes pounded the town.
“If you compare the Shingal liberation, it was easy because the coalition air strikes were effective, and this is not the same Islamic State as nine months ago. It is more weakened and the Peshmerga have received more effective weapons from the coalition and learned the Islamic State tactics.”
The Islamic State commanders were in a panic. Murad Ismael, who was monitoring their communications, claimed they had threatened to execute their own men for fleeing along the highway toward Mosul. Peshmerga, armed with MILAN anti-armor missiles, with dozens of Humvees and light armored vehicles, rolled into Shingal and the flat dry plains around it.
“We can easily destroy Islamic State trucks with explosives. We’ve cut the road from Syria, and Islamic State can’t bring supplies to their forces,” explained Saadullah, in a conversation soon after he had come back from the front on November 15.
With 10 killed and 50 wounded, the Peshmerga seemed surprised by the ease of their victory. “They cannot stand, they are just fleeing,” Peshmerga fighters complained to Saadullah. “The volunteers who had come to fight were angry they couldn’t kill Islamic State [soldiers] before they ran.”
In a statement on November 13, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani congratulated the fighters for the swift liberation. He paid tribute to the Yezidis and offered condolences to the families of the Peshmerga who had fallen.
“I express my utmost appreciation for the government and the people of the United States for their vital support to the Peshmergas during the Sinjar liberation operation. We, as the people of Kurdistan Region, are also grateful for the contributions of the Counter-ISIS Coalition members as well as our neighboring countries and our friends in the international community for supporting our region in combating the ISIS terrorists and preserving stability and peaceful coexistence in Kurdistan.”
His main message was that great crimes had been committed by IS.
“The liberation of Sinjar is very important to the people of Kurdistan and the civilized world. The ISIS terrorists have committed grave crimes in Syria and Iraq, but the most barbaric and heinous crimes were committed in Sinjar. ISIS committed another Anfal [the Saddam gassing of the Kurds] against Kurds in Sinjar. Hundreds of Yezidi women and girls were kidnapped... The Kurdistan Regional Government will also continue its efforts to gain international recognition for the crimes committed against Yezidi Kurds as acts of genocide.”
He vowed to help in reconstruction of Yezidi holy sites and restore public services.
DOWN ON the streets of Shingal, destruction was everywhere. Islamic State had looted and destroyed homes and burned them. It had marked some as “Shi’a” and “Sunni,” a practice it had also followed in Mosul, to mark Christian homes for looting.
Many Yezidis were understandably fearful of returning to their city on the plain. “I am not saying that it will fall again, but maybe they can easily come and attack Peshmerga because of their border,” noted Saadullah.
These are flatlands stretching out toward Mosul. One of the first things the Kurds did was cut the road with a major earthen berm.
But Islamic State had resorted to suicide bombers in the city and had laid booby traps, TNT, bombs and all manner of explosives throughout the place. It would take weeks to detonate and defuse the area, Kurdish officials said.
Already, mass graves were being uncovered of elderly women – too old to be used as slaves – killed by Islamic State last year. There is a kind of Holocaust and World War II imagery in this landscape, the mass graves on one side and, on the other, the young men abreast the tanks with the “V” for victory signs.
As a massive Kurdish flag was prepared for raising in Shingal, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani declared that no other flag would ever fly over the liberated town. These are bold statements. Earlier in the year the Kurds had disputed with the Iraqi government over administering these areas. But now it has become clear that the KRG intends to run this area stretching to the Syrian border for the foreseeable future.
This leaves Mosul, 60 kilometers east and closer to the Kurdish heartland, as a thorn in the side of the Peshmerga.
“The plan by the KRG ministry says we will take part in Mosul’s liberation. We want to eliminate ISIS in every place. But the Peshmerga and KRG must wait for the Iraqi Army to move through Ramadi and Salahuddin and Balatch and Tel Afar, and then from this part we will enter from the northern part in Mosul to liberate it. We don’t want to go into the Arab areas; the Iraqi Army’s duty is to do that,” explains Saadullah.
The broken landscape of Shingal will take time to revive. This is a melancholy victory, as more struggles loom ahead. Even as the Peshmerga were liberating the Yezidi towns, some Shi’a militias were saying that this part of “Iraq” must be taken from the Kurds.
“Many Peshmerga analyzed this – that after ISIS there will be an inevitable fight with the Shi’a militias. They don’t have one leader or one character. Some of them are against Kurdish rights.”
The fight against Islamic State therefore postpones a whole series of problems. The KRG has its budget troubles, which Saadullah describes as the Iraqi government denying the region its rightful budget. The foreign coalition does not fund or arm the Kurds but, rather, keeps them “just from not dying.”
The PKK and YPG present issues in Syria and Turkey, and the KRG must balance relations with Iran as other Kurdish groups prepare for conflict there. In the south below Kirkuk, where the Kurdish Peshmerga are in the same villages as Shi’ites, there have been recent clashes and burning of Kurdish homes.
“There is ethnic cleansing,” asserts Saadullah.
On the same day as the attacks in France, a 60-meter by 100-meter Kurdish flag was raised over a silo in Shingal. Many in the West see in the Kurdish victories a surprising light.
“Are we willing to help the Kurds help us?” asked French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy several months ago. “Will we help them help us to promote the values of democracy and law? To do so would be the reasonable and honorable choice. It is the only possible choice for a coalition that seeks to vanquish terrorism while also saving civilization.”
At the very least, several hundred thousand Yezidis will now have the chance to return to their homes and shrines, behind an armed wall of battle- hardened Peshmerga.This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine