After pivotal role saving Yazidis from ISIS, PKK leaves Sinjar

With the PKK gone, it is unclear what comes next. Threats of a Turkish campaign may be reduced, but the presence of Shi’ite militias and the uncertainty looming over the Yazidis does not bode well.

YAZIDI FIGHTERS secure a road on Mount Sinjar on Wednesday that their displaced brethren use to escape to Newrooz camp in Syria’s Hasakah province. (photo credit: REUTERS)
YAZIDI FIGHTERS secure a road on Mount Sinjar on Wednesday that their displaced brethren use to escape to Newrooz camp in Syria’s Hasakah province.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
farewell, the last members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) left the area of Sinjar in northern Iraq this week. They said goodbye to members of the Yazidi minority whom they had lived among and defended over the last several years.
The PKK left after threats and pressure from Turkey on Iraq.
Ankara had said it might enter Iraq “all of a sudden” to strike at the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organization.
In a still opaque deal, the PKK chose to leave Sinjar in order not to risk another round of war in a country scarred by years of conflict with ISIS. It closes a difficult chapter in the history of the region and has implications for the future.
Yazidis will never forget August 3, 2014, when Islamic State attacked Sinjar. For a week ISIS plundered villages and towns where members of the Yazidi minority had lived.
Turkish warplanes strike Kurdish militants in Iraq"s Sinjar (credit: REUTERS)
The extremists rounded up all the Yazidis they could find.
They sold the women and children into slavery and executed the men and elderly women.
More than 100,000 people fled to Mount Sinjar.
The suffering motivated US President Barack Obama to order air strikes and intervention against ISIS to prevent genocide. But on the ground the US could only watch as ISIS rolled forward, pushing back Kurdish Peshmerga who had been in Sinjar when ISIS attacked.
Help came from an unlikely direction. PKK members and members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Syria opened an offensive across the border to Mount Sinjar, carving a corridor a dozen kilometers through ISIS lines.
Through the corridor they saved tens of thousands of people.
The PKK stayed on in Sinjar and formed a local unit called the Sinjar Resistance Units.
The PKK was able to carve out a foothold on the western end of Sinjar Mountain, an enclave that eventually stretched to the Syrian border.
In December 2014 the Kurdish Peshmerga, striking west from their areas in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, reached Mount Sinjar, liberating Yazidi areas north of the mountain. From December 2014 Sinjar was divided between the PKK and the Peshmerga. Many of the Peshmerga were affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Party.
These two Kurdish groups have bitter relations in other parts of the Kurdistan Regional Government, but on Sinjar they worked together against ISIS.
When I went to Sinjar in December 2015 we passed PKK bases on the mountain and saw PKK pickup trucks, machine guns mounted in the back, driving back and forth on the road. There was a graveyard at the base of the mountain commemorating those who died liberating the Yazidis. A giant poster of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is jailed in Turkey, was illuminated at night. In April 2017 Turkish jets bombed Sinjar, including the Ocalan poster.
BETWEEN 2015 and 2017 the bad relations between the PKK and the Peshmerga made it difficult for Yazidis returning to Sinjar. The KRG deployed members of the Rojava Peshmerga, made up of Kurds from Syria who had fled to Iraq and joined the Kurdish forces, to protect the road into Sinjar.
In March 2017 the Rojava Peshmerga clashed with the PKK and several were killed on both sides. There were also competing Yazidi armed units patrolling the mountain such as the Ezidkhan Protection Force made up of locals. Until April 2017, when Shia militias cleared an area south of Sinjar, the front line against ISIS was also nearby.
Any thought that stability would return was shattered in October 2017 when the Peshmerga suddenly left Sinjar and the Iraqi Army and Shi’ite militias swept over the mountain and took over the area.
The KRG abandoned Sinjar, despite claims that it would never withdraw, because of clashes with Baghdad following an independence referendum.
Sinjar’s fate, and that of the Yazidis who wanted to return, was again in doubt.
For a while the PKK and its affiliated units such as the Sinjar Resistance Units were still able to stay in Sinjar as long as they didn’t interfere with the Iraqi Army and the Shi’ite militias.
That changed in March 2018 when Turkey threatened to invade Sinjar. Turkey was fresh from its victories over the YPG in Afrin and felt that it could settle accounts with the PKK in Sinjar as well. Iraq rushed infantry to the mountain, warning Turkey off any invasion. Quietly Baghdad pressured the PKK to leave. In late March the 500 remaining PKK members packed up their weapons, loaded their trucks and drove away.
Now the Yazidis wonder what will come next.
Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by ISIS in 2014, wrote on Twitter in March that “we must not let another tragedy take place in Sinjar, thousands of Yazidis have returned to their homes in Sinjar, now they fear for their lives again.”
She also wrote that Yazidis were encouraged by news that the Iraqi Army would deploy in Sinjar.
But Murad and Yazidi groups are also trying to raise attention to the lack of investment in reconstruction in Sinjar.
A report titled “In the Aftermath of Genocide” released in March by Nadia’s Initiative, an NGO Murad runs, says that only 20% of the 400,000 Yazidis displaced from Sinjar have returned. There is virtually no effort being directed by the international community or Iraq to rebuild Yazidi communities or to return services to them.
The area around Sinjar is festooned with checkpoints. A recent report by Alissa Rubin in The New York Times narrates how the author spent nine hours traversing 26 checkpoints to travel 210 km. to get to Sinjar. Some were run by Shi’ite militias, others by the Iraqi Army. Only the last one was run by Yazidi commander Haider Sheshu’s local militia.
With the PKK gone from Sinjar it is unclear what comes next. The threat of a Turkish campaign may have lessened, but the presence of Shi’ite militias and the uncertainty looming over the Yazidis who want to come home and rebuild does not bode well. It appears little has changed on the ground since I visited in December 2015. Those who returned still live in tents and shacks on the mountain. The only thing that has changed is which armed men guard the checkpoints. The Yazidis have still not been a sked by the central government what they want for the future.