After ISIS: The Sinjar area remains key to securing Iraq

Disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Sinjar district in Nineveh province is still central to securing Iraq against an ISIS return.

By
August 31, 2019 15:43
After ISIS: The Sinjar area remains key to securing Iraq

Displaced Yazidis fleeing ISIS in Sinjar walk toward the Syrian border in August 2014. (photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)



In December 2015, I drove toward the frontlines where Kurdish Peshmerga were in a desperate struggle with ISIS in northern Iraq.
In a largely deserted landscape, we entered the area around Mount Sinjar where 30 mass graves of victims of ISIS crimes would eventually be found.

Disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Sinjar district in Nineveh province is still central to securing Iraq against an ISIS return.

Despite promises of a return to relative stability following ISIS’s territorial defeat, Duraid Hikmat, Nineveh’s director of agriculture, said in July that more than 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of crops had been destroyed in recent fires – about a third by criminals and terrorists and the rest “for natural reasons.”

In Sinjar, the blazes have severely harmed the livelihoods of Sunnis and Yazidis who had begun to return after ISIS drove them out in 2014.

Sinjar is also a strategic area that forms a border with Syria, where both US forces and Iran, Turkey and other regional powers are vying for influence. Four recent explosions of munitions stored at bases of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have led to rumors of foreign airstrikes in Iraq, with fears that a new conflict with Iran could develop.

What follows is an excerpt from my new book, After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing House, 2019).

From Dohuk in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region there are two roads to Sinjar, where ISIS carried out genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi minority.

Archipelago of Refugee Camps
The first road runs near Mosul Dam and then makes its way in a long arc around the Sinjar Mountains to Sinjar city. In 2015, it was dangerous and exposed to fire from ISIS. The second road begins as a large highway that runs north to the Turkish border at Zakho. Taking an exit, one heads west toward Sinjar along the Syrian border through the town of Rabiah. We chose the second.

The landscape along the way in winter is a mix of wet, muddy, caked earth. North of Dohuk there is a new stately white building that marks the new campus of the American University of Dohuk. The roadside is sprinkled with bits of grass, like a dusting of green snow. The mountainous crags of the Kurd Mountains peer down from the east. The road is heavily trafficked by trucks, because the Duhok Province’s government has so directed the thousands of mostly Turkish trucks that ply this route.

This is Kurdistan’s economic lifeline. After the ISIS invasion in 2014, much of Kurdistan was cut off from the Arab areas around Mosul to the east and also from Baghdad to the south. The roads became unsafe, and a disagreement with Baghdad about oil exports led the trade to shift to Turkey via the KRG’s own pipeline. Hundreds of thousands of barrels a day flowed to Turkey. Baghdad cut the KRG’s budget in retaliation, and the KRG became more economically independent but also more dependent on Ankara. Kurdistan had been tied to Turkey before, during the years of Saddam when many refugees fled to Turkey.

“It used to take eleven hours to drive to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government,” explained Vager Saadullah, who accompanied me to Sinjar. “Now it takes two.”

Saadullah had helped me get to Telskuf earlier in 2015, and became my companion on the lonely road to where ISIS committed its crimes. Originally he was just my fixer, hired to help drive and translate, but eventually we became close friends.

As we meandered northwest, there were sparsely populated little villages. One of them is Christian Assyrian; others are Kurdish, part of the diversity of northern Iraq. This is the mosaic that survived the ISIS assault. Signs directed us toward “Shingal,” the Kurdish name for Sinjar. The name refers both to the mountain and to the eponymous city below. As we drove, the road abruptly curved, and rows of white tarps and caravans came into view. They lined a valley, and between them were people, including women and children, walking and playing.

“This is the largest refugee camp for Yazidi refugees,” said Saadullah.

In 2015, there were 20,000 people at this particular camp, refugees from villages around Sinjar. It was one of many similar camps in the area. Most of the Yazidis who fled didn’t go back, even after liberation, and in 2018 they were still there, living on the margins, forgotten by history and the international community. On the sides of the road some men made a living by selling chickens or other foodstuffs. In 2015, little girls hawked $5 phone cards from Korek Telecom, the national carrier of Kurdistan.

We stopped to buy three chickens to bring to people in Sinjar. They cost 20,000 dinars, roughly $20, for seven kilos, or $3 a kilo. The chickens were kept in the back of a truck with a UNHCR logo on the tarp, but these sellers were not UN workers. The young son of the salesman butchered one of the chickens by the side of the road. These refugees said they were from villages that are still occupied by ISIS, or that are close enough to the front line so that they cannot go back. The hope of the KRG government was that once Sinjar was liberated, the 200,000 or so Yazidi refugees would return. In December 2015, the refugees were still in the camps, afraid to go back.

We drove on and came to a purpose-built bridge over the Tigris River. Those rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, which gave birth to Near Eastern civilizations, conjure up feelings of greatness and beauty. Babylon, Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, the great ancient empires now laid waste. The river itself is muddy, utilitarian, not grand. The bridge is like so much of the construction here: a kind of gray, made from cement blocks. An abandoned building was on the far bank. Overlooking the bridge is a Peshmerga checkpoint. Just up the river is the boat crossing to Syria. The old land border crossing was closed at Rabiah in 2014, and those entering Syria are obliged to take a boat.

On the other side in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) was in charge, having liberated the area from ISIS and created an autonomous region. But the YPG is closely connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and the PKK has very bad relations with the KDP, which is in charge in Erbil. So the KRG and YPG officials didn’t seem to get along on both sides of this border. Even though these two Kurdish entities existed as neighbors, there was no open border.

The road to Sinjar winds its way up a hill, at the top of which is a small kiosk and checkpoint. ”This was the farthest extent of the ISIS advance; they almost got to the Tigris,” said Saadullah. In August 2014, ISIS had swept into this area, surprising Peshmerga defenses and overrunning villages. Entering this borderland, having passed the refugee camp, is like retracing the trauma and genocide of the Yazidis in reverse.

It is to follow the Kurdish liberation of these areas as well. After the initial reverses in early August 2014, a reinvigorated Kurdish force swept ISIS from this high ground overlooking the river and pushed it back to the Sinjar Mountains. The Kurds returned to their villages, such as one whose sign indicated it was called Shebane. It’s still a poor village, but the Kurdish and PDK and PUK flags fly, representatives of the two main political parties of Kurdistan. The houses are a dull gray cement.

It was “Kurdish Flag Day,” the 17th of December, as we drove on. Kids were selling flags throughout Kurdistan – at one store, flags mixed with military uniforms. Many young men wore camouflage, because either they were already in the security forces or they wanted to be. Women dressed in long, flowing gowns, the traditional outfit. Others wore uniforms, a reminder of the numerous women who serve in the Kurdish forces. This is a war of contrasts. A contrast between Kurdistan, where there are churches and Yazidis and women dress as they please and restaurants serve alcohol, and the strict, Manichaean world of Daesh, as ISIS is called locally.

A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp on Mount Sinjar (Credit: KHALID AL MOUSILY / REUTERS)

WHEN ISIS swept into Iraq, it exploited the Sunni Arab resentment of the Baghdad government’s Shi’ite-dominated halls of power. There had been perennial insurgency among Sunnis since the fall of Saddam, through a brutal terror campaign first run by al-Qaeda and then by ISIS. Few understood in 2014 that ISIS was not just an ordinary brutal extremist movement, but that it would mean total ethnic cleansing of minorities and eventually genocide.

There used to be wheat in these fields leading to Sinjar, said locals. But the villages are deserted. One village along the road had been an Arab village, but the locals said it collaborated with ISIS, and when the Peshmerga retook it, the people fled. It is a ghost town now, with many buildings destroyed. It wasn’t clear if they had been destroyed in fighting or afterward to ensure the residents did not come back. Along the road one can see forts that Saddam Hussein built during the 1980s.

This is a landscape of death, I thought. The lonely road to Sinjar is a straight line. The metal pylons to some power lines are broken in half or droop like giraffes eating from the ground. It looks like a post-apocalyptic world. Houses that were once stately farms on both sides of the road are abandoned; some of their roofs are destroyed. The abandoned Iraqi army checkpoints here are decorated with graffiti from wars gone by. Some have Iraqi flags on them, crossed out now. Others have graffiti noting that the Rojava Peshmerga, Kurds from Syria who are connected to the KDP, are manning these checkpoints. They are unable to operate in Syria because the YPG, the most powerful Kurdish group there, does not let them. The political rivalry with the YPG is rooted in the KDP-PKK rivalry. The PKK has branches in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The KDP also has influence in all four countries. These are the two pan-Kurdish parties and political traditions.

Passing through Rabiah, we found the town partly in ruins. Here and there Arab men pasture sheep or a family squats in a courtyard. Some boys play with a fire kindled on the ground.

A large hospital building dominates the skyline, its walls blown in and roof partially collapsed. The monumental building was the site of a large battle during fighting between Peshmerga and ISIS in the fall of 2014. The central hospital in Rabiah was occupied by foreign volunteers for ISIS. Around 60 Kurds died to liberate it.

Most of this city was heavily damaged in fighting in August and September 2014. One road leads from Rabiah to Mosul Dam and passes through several Arab villages mostly inhabited by the Shammer tribe. According to the Yazidi and Kurdish Peshmerga, the Shammer did not collaborate with ISIS, and when the war passed through here and ISIS was defeated, the tribe stayed in its villages. In those places where there are Shammer, one sees signs of some bit of normal civilian life. Kids play soccer next to a burned-out car. Men chat by the roadside. But life here has obviously become wretched. People draw water from wells; there is no business to be done. Shepherds take their flocks out, even in the abandoned city. A fat, white cow eats from an oil drum used as a trash can by Peshmerga who are keeping watch on the border. To the north, where the sun’s rays light the buildings, are factories in Syria. This was once an area of commerce and production. The war fell hard on those large institutional buildings that could be used for defense.

As we pass onward, the terrain seems more scarred by war. Abandoned sandbagged military positions dot the landscape. Twisted and broken metal objects, junk and steel, are in piles, part of what was once a series of shops on the side of the street. The road is guarded by Kurdish checkpoints every few kilometers. Many of the Yazidi residents of this area had not returned in December 2015; most of them would not return over the following years, either.

Along the way I spoke with some of the Rojava Peshmerga. Rojava is the Kurdish name for eastern Syria. Erbil had sent them to guard this lonely landscape, the closest they can get to their homes in Syria.

“There was the Kurdish National Assembly that was for Syrian Kurds from Rojava who wanted to fight the Syrian regime,” one of their officers said over tea. The PYD, the political wing of the YPG, did not let them enter Syria, and they claimed the YPG has a Stalinist mentality. They also argued that the YPG received weapons from the Assad regime. So they ended up in northern Iraq, guarding checkpoints along a long, cold, lonely road that runs to Sinjar, in the shadow of the ISIS genocide.

The Rojava commander said that the Yazidis he has seen fear to come back. There is no electricity in the area except by generator. Many a Yazidi plies the road taking stuff out of Sinjar but not returning to stay. He personally saw a mass grave of 74 bodies when his unit helped to liberate a village. Many of these men resent the Arabs who joined ISIS and who now want to come back.
Along the road we saw several Arabs pasturing sheep, but only some have returned to these villages. The return of the Arab tribes to this area is something the Yazidis in the town of Snune said they feared. The days of some sort of coexistence with Arab neighbors are over. They don’t trust the Arabs, who they say celebrated the arrival of ISIS. Many Yazidi survivors of the genocide, including women who were enslaved, recalled how their neighbors turned on them. Some of the men who purchased and raped them had once lived next door in Arab villages.

The main street in Snune, north of Mount Sinjar, was once intended to be redone as a stately thoroughfare. The town is part of an area disputed between the KRG and Baghdad’s central government. The KRG had invested money before 2014 in pretty, tall, white street lights, decorated with gold emblems at the base. The lights are still there, but most of the town is in varying states of ruin. A thriving market does business selling to Peshmerga soldiers. Most of the people in this Yazidi district that numbered more than 10,000 have not returned.

The owner of one of the shops, Adar, a long black coat wrapped around his shoulders, said he came back the day the village was liberated in December 2014. He vividly recalled that day, August 3, 2014, when the people packed what they could into cars and fled. “We knew what ISIS will do; they had killed people in Mosul,” said Adar.

They had seen their people fleeing Sinjar and knew that these villages would fall as well, as ISIS swept north of the mountain. In August 2014, the Kurdish YPG coming from Syria, with help from Western airpower, was able to rescue Yazidis trapped on the mountain. In December the Kurdish forces were able to retake the area, and on the 17th of December, Adar came back.
“Many people did not; there is no school, no electricity, the water is bad, there are no services,” he said.

At Sharf A-Din, a local shrine and pilgrimage site, photos of martyrs from the war adorned the site. I watched as a man climbed up to the cylindrical steeple that marks the shrine so he could take a selfie. These cylindrical-style temples mark the landscape in this region of northern Iraq. North of Erbil as one enters the Yazidi villages on the way to Dohuk, they are visible from the road. In Sinjar they were once common. This style of construction is integral to the history and culture of Iraq and the Kurdish region. The ancient Nabi Yunus Mosque in Mosul incorporated the same cylinder on its roof, alongside a minaret, a testament to the way different faiths have shared the region. But ISIS systematically tried to erase Yazidi holy sites, just as it sought to commit genocide against the people. It blew up shrines and demolished them. Sharf a-Din survived because of the dogged defense led by a man named Qasim Shesho.

Nearby is the house of the famed commander. When we went there, the Peshmerga guarded the compound, which also seemed to double as Shesho’s command post. The yard was strewn with Humvees and various other vehicles with mounted weapons. It’s a strange sight in a small village with a religious shrine. But it represents what ISIS wrought on this district and the changes it caused. Many thousands of Yazidis joined the Peshmerga and also the PKK or local units called the Ezidkhan Protection Forces (HPE), and trained in war. The whole Yazidi district was festooned with checkpoints and military camps. I saw no civilian life. Those who learned war earlier in life, such as Shesho, proved prescient. As the quote attributed to Trotsky is commonly paraphrased, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Shesho’s life seems to have been something made for a movie. A former prisoner of Saddam, he was a kind of mountain warlord and bandit, assassinating Ba’athist officers before fleeing abroad. After 1991, he settled down and became a local political figure. In 2014, he took up arms again to fight ISIS. When the Kurdish Peshmerga fled, he held on with just 17 men to defend the shrine. He resolved to die fighting, but although ISIS attacked, he survived. Eventually his 17 followers grew to thousands, and he helped to liberate Sinjar. His son Yassir Kasim Khalaf Shesho, who was living in Germany, came back to defend the shrine. When I met him, he proudly showed off the M-16 rifle that his fighters had acquired.

Driving from his compound up the mountain, we passed a cemetery for PKK and YPG fighters who helped to save the Yazidis from ISIS. A concrete-walled base along the road was occupied by the YPG and PKK forces from Syria, a giant poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader in Turkey, affixed on the hillside above. At night these giant posters were illuminated by lights, an oddity in an area where electricity is rare and everything runs by generator. The Turkish air force would bomb this cemetery in April 2017.

A girl from the Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in Sinjar rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, in 2014 ( Credit: YOUSSEF BOUDLAL / REUTERS)

Mount Sinjar
Ascending the mountain, a short drive after leaving Sinjar city, is a long, slow process with unending bends in the road. Along the way are thousands of tents and makeshift houses inhabited by Yazidis. There are only a few signs of international organizations – a Red Crescent tent, a few UNHCR tarps, and a sign reading “Mission East.”

These people have been abandoned by the world. There were also competing interests at play on the mountain: the KDP, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s ruling party, has several Peshmerga posts along the road, as do the YPG and the PKK, the Kurdish organizations that operate in Syria and Turkey. In October 2017, the Peshmerga would abandon the area to the Iraqi army, and in April 2018, the PKK would leave after Turkish threats. When we drove up the mountain, that future didn’t seem possible; the Peshmerga were firmly in control.

The mountain is beautiful. Its rising fins of stone reveal a tortured geological history. The mountain was a crucible in 2014 through which more than 100,000 Yazidi people fled ISIS. It was a place of both refuge and starvation. Here the Yazidis who wished to remain close to their lands and within sight of the plains around Sinjar and Snune stayed to fight and die in the mountains. A year and a half later, the results of that epic struggle could be seen. The cars that passed were full of men in varying uniforms. Like many of the Peshmerga, they buy their military equipment from local stores. Their AK-47s are aging, and they complain they are substandard.
Standing near the summit of Mount Sinjar was a newly built monument: a replica of a pickup truck with a twin-mounted DShK machine gun on the back. It overlooks a snake-like road that stretches down toward Sinjar city. It was at this spot that Qasim Dorbu, a Yazidi fighter, defended the mountain on August 3, 2014, when ISIS swept across the plains below. A plaque said he saved thousands of Yazidi refugees’ lives by his stubborn defense. ISIS could not break through and remained below the summit, to be pushed back by Kurdish forces in December 2014. Nearby was a health clinic run by a Kurdish woman that helps to serve the needs of the 20,000 Yazidi IDPs who sought shelter on the mountain. Their tents and huts dot the landscape on the road north of the summit.

The visible stain of the crimes against the Yazidi could be seen along the roads leading to the summit. Colorful clothes left behind by the fleeing people were everywhere, as were the cars that they abandoned. It was like an open air museum of suffering and genocide.

Sheikh Naser Basha Khalaf provided an example of this transformation from victimized society of a peaceful, poverty-stricken minority to an armed organization, taking their future in their own hands. On one shoulder he slung his $5,000 Russian sniper rifle, and around his belt he wore a silver-handled revolver.

Sheikh Naser comes from a well-known family in Sinjar that has the status of sheikhs in the Yazidi faith and leaders of the Yazidi tribes. A local leader and media officer in a local party branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, he has the role of a community and religious leader as well as a politician.

In December 2015, the Yazidis ran the intelligence office in Sinjar and the municipality, and had thousands of their Peshmerga strung out over the mountain and on the front line against ISIS. There were also members of the YPG and local affiliates, their triangular flags fluttering atop their vehicles. The two groups coexisted uneasily, both fighting ISIS but suspicious of each other. Like the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who returned to Central Europe with the various Allied and Soviet armies, these Yazidi men and some women who joined different fighting units went through a horrid crucible to see the future in this region.

It is hard to describe a landscape so torn and broken. Leaving the mountain behind, one sees the terraces and old stone houses at its base. This area was once disputed between the Baghdad-based federal government and the Kurdistan region. Then it came firmly into the hands of the Kurds, whose checkpoints are in every locality, whose flags fly from the homes. It is a sign of how the rise of ISIS created a firm determination in the KRG and its unified forces that these disputed regions would be finally taken and administered. At the time I jotted down in my notes,  “There is no way for the Baghdad government to get to these areas. ISIS occupies the area between Sinjar and Baghdad.”

The Kurds and Yazidis say they no longer trust the Arabs here, who supported ISIS. The genocide committed against the Yazidis, and the speed with which ISIS conquered this area, hardened the view that most of these Arabs who once lived here should not return. Local people recall how their neighbors turned on them, how they hoisted the black flag, and how Iraqi troops melted away and left behind weapons for ISIS that were used to deadly effect against the Kurds and Yazidis.

There are other forces at work as well. Many Kurds argue that Saddam tried to “Arabize” the land around Sinjar, and brought in many Arabs to live in villages nearby and destroyed Kurdish and Yazidi villages. Many Yazidi tribes were collectivized and placed in planned villages around Sinjar.

The genocide in 2014 represented the continuation of a cycle that had begun under Saddam of removing them from the land and pitting them against Arab neighbors. The reversal of this trend came in 2015, when the Arabs fled and Kurds came to control Sinjar. But Yazidis remained victims, unable to return from IDP camps and still living marginal lives on the mountain. The Kurds did not move into the abandoned villages or rebuild them. The ruined villages were left as a kind of museum of this most brutal of wars and a reminder of how powerful ISIS was.


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