In August 2014 Islamic State extremists attacked the region of Sinjar in northern Iraq. This area consists of flat plains around a long mountain that is shaped like an oval. The region is desolate and on the border with Syria. ISIS targeted the Yazidis for extermination and slavery. While the genocidal attacks on Yazidis motivated the US to intervene to help stop ISIS, much of the intervention came too late and some 500,000 of the minority group had to flee. Thousands of women and children were sold into slavery and thousands of men and elderly women executed.
Today Turkey is threatening an invasion and operations in Sinjar, claiming it has to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). There is no evidence of threats to Turkey from Sinjar and the warmongering from Ankara appears to be in line with its need to keep attacking Iraq and Syria using “fighting terrorism” as an excuse. Turkish threats of an invasion have now led pro-Iranian militias, called Hashd al-Shaabi or PMU, to increase their role in the area. At the center of this, used as pawns, are Yazidi survivors of genocide. While Turkey accuses them of “terrorism,” the pro-Iranian groups claim they are helping “defend” Iraq by increasing their role. Meanwhile Kurdish forces in the neighboring Kurdistan Region, want to regain their role in Sinjar.
How this poor area of Iraq, where ISIS committed genocide, has become a political crossroads for Turkey, pro-Iranian groups, and Kurds, is complex. A bit of history follows.
I went to Sinjar in December 2015 when part of the area was liberated from ISIS control. Around 30 mass graves were found in 2015, holding the remains of the Yazidis murdered by ISIS. Many of the members of the community were fearful to return. One thing they wanted was security. At the time Sinjar was divided into a series of checkpoints and many armed groups operated there. This was a result of the war against ISIS.
In 2014 when ISIS had grown in Iraq the area of Sinjar was weakly defended by local Iraq forces who seemed to leave their posts and Kurdish Peshmerga from the autonomous Kurdistan region who showed up to hold hundreds of kilometers of frontline. Between June, when Mosul city fell to ISIS and August, when ISIS attacked Sinjar, an uneasy situation prevailed. One might compare this to the so-called “phony war” between the Nazi invasion of Poland and the invasion of France in 1940, when Germans and French faced each other across the frontier. Similarly, the Kurdish Peshmerga faced ISIS, but when ISIS attacked Sinjar the Peshmerga fled. ISIS had thousands of armored vehicles and artillery pieces captured from the Iraqi army and they swept towards the Kurdistan region. Iran rushed limited resources to aid the Kurds, and the US began bombing.
Yazidis, abandoned to genocide, found support in an unlikely place. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units from Syria, known as YPG, helped save hundreds of thousands of them through a corridor from Sinjar mountain via Syria back to Kurdish region of Iraq. Much of this period is today shrouded in controversy with some voices blaming the Peshmerga for fleeing, while later the YPG’s aid would be downplayed and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) accused of entrenching in Sinjar.
Like many things there is no clear story. When I was in Sinjar in December 2015 the area was mostly controlled by Peshmerga linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). These also included the Rojava Peshmerga, Kurds from Syria who had fled fighting there and who did not get along with the YPG. In a war where party affiliation, ethnicity and armed groups were all entwined, the various Kurdish and Yazidi groups operating in Sinjar fighting ISIS, did not get along with one another. What happened is that part of Sinjar was divided between among YPG and various Yazidi groups linked to it, such as the YBS and YJE. Critics, and Turkey, tend to see these groups as all manifestations of the PKK. Turkey has used this as an excuse to bomb Sinjar, killing Yazidis and Peshmerga. In April 2017 Turkish airstrikes supposedly targeting the PKK killed up to 18 Peshmerga. More Turkish airstrikes would follow, killing Yazidi leader Mam Zeki Sinjari in August 2018 as he returned from a memorial to ISIS genocide victims at Kocho.
When I was in Sinjar in December 2015 and in subsequent visits to the area where I met Yazidi refugees living in tent cities in the Kurdistan region, there were several narratives about what was happening in Sinjar. In December 2015 the argument was that Yazidis feared returning. It was not entirely clear if they could return due to the strict checkpoints on the road from Dohuk to Snune, patrolled by Rojava Peshmerga. Those I spoke to said there was fear ISIS could return. The area was in precarious condition. At the time Yazidi fighters such as Qasim Sheshu and Haider Sheshu played a key role in the area. Qasim, an old and legendary fighter, ran a compound near Snune. At that time the YPG forces were visible in various forts and areas near the mountain, and they ran the area of Khanasor. Later, after I left, there were clashes between the Rojava Peshmerga and YBS in Khanasor in March 2017.
It’s important to recall that the clashes took place in 2017 as Mosul was being liberated from ISIS. At the time the concern of Kurdish authorities in Erbil was that pro-Iranian militias, called Popular Mobilization Units or Hashd al-Shaabi, would takeover Sinjar. In fact, that is exactly what happened, the PMU rolled into Kocho, site of the ISIS genocide of Yazidis, and liberated it. They linked up with Peshmerga forces and handed over Kocho to Yazidis in May 2017. But tensions remained. The KRG opposed the extension of PMU control and the Yazidis were further divided between groups that welcomed the PMU, those connected to the YPG and those connected to the Kurdistan region. Instead of a unified command and some investment in Sinjar to help people recover from genocide, the region was left unsettled.
In October 2017 the Kurdish Peshmerga pulled out of Sinjar, clashing with the PMU briefly as the Iraqi federal government sought control of a swath of areas that had been liberated from ISIS. The changeover in October 2017 began a new trend in Sinjar. Between December 2015 and October 2017 the area had been run mostly by the KDP-linked Peshmerga and partly by YPG-linked Yazidis. Of the 500,000 Yazidis forced to flee in August 2014, very few had returned. After October 2017 dozens of checkpoints were set up by PMU-linked units and some Iraqi federal forces. In neighboring Tel Afar, where pro-ISIS groups had once attack Shi’ites and Yazidis, peacebuilding began. Mosul was also receiving investment to rebuild.
In March 2018, sources claimed the PKK had “left Sinjar,” part of a series of such claims that continued through December 2018. In March 2019 Iraq demanded that the various militias linked to the YPG or PKK in Sinjar should hand over their weapons. Turkey carried out airstrikes in Snune and Khanasor in November 2019. In August and November 2020 Turkey carried out more airstrikes. On January 18, 2021 Turkey’s defense minister went to Iraq in what appeared to be a prelude to a Turkish invasion. The plans for an invasion by Turkey led to concerns in Sinjar that Turkey would ethnically cleanse the area as it had Afrin in January 2018 when Yazidis were expelled by pro-Ankara extremist militias. Turkey has long been allied with far-right Syrian extremist groups that are not dissimilar to ISIS in their treatment of minorities.
While the PMU had brought some security to Sinjar since October 2017, its pro-Iranian and religious underpinnings concerned many. Its brand of checkpoints didn’t facilitate return by IDPs, even if some shrines and areas were rebuilt in a limited way. In February 2021 a ceremony was held at Kocho to bury 104 victims of ISIS. However the tragic burial only illustrates how little had been done to collect evidence on thousands of other Yazidis killed by ISIS, including thousands of missing women. At the same time a deal between the Kurdistan region and Iraqi federal government in October 2020 had not been accepted by the PMU or YPG-linked groups in Sinjar. Like previous agreements, the security agreement in October 2020 never seemed to be implemented.
This brings us to the tensions in February 2021. Turkey recently launched an attack on Gare mountain in the Kurdish region of Iraq, seeking to free 13 Turks held by the PKK. Turkey’s botched operation, in which the 13 died, has led Ankara to threaten new invasions of the region. Meanwhile the pro-Iranian militias have fired rockets at Erbil, targeting US forces, and PMU brigades are increasing their role in Sinjar. Allegations in the Kurdistan region now paint the “PKK” as having joined with the PMU.
To understand this narrative it is important to go back to 2015. In those years there were already claims by Erbil that the PKK and YPG were a threat to Sinjar because of Iran. The assertion was that Iran wanted to use Sinjar as part of its “road to the sea” to traffic arms to Syria. This was largely a myth because Sinjar isn’t a conduit to Syria because pro-Iranian PMU are based only on the eastern side of the Euphrates, while US forces back the SDF in Syria on the other side of Sinjar. Only if the US leaves Syria, will Sinjar become a possible conduit. But for those who see the YPG as close to Iran, the argument could be made that Sinjar was part of Iran’s overall game plan. The deployment of more PMU units now appears to fulfill this prophecy. The problem is that the reason for the deployment of PMU is likely Ankara’s threats. While Ankara and Tehran have actually coordinated attacks on PKK in other areas, the PMU from Iraq don’t want Turkey’s hand to increase. The tensions also date back to Iraq’s complaints about a Turkish base in Bashiqa in December 2015. It is one of a dozen Turkish bases in the Kurdistan region. Turkey claims most of those bases are to fight the PKK, but has vastly expanded them in the last several years.
While Turkey and the authorities in Erbil are said to be relatively close, due to economic ties, the hopes the Kurdistan region had for Turkey’s support during a referendum in September 2017 on independence, faded when Turkey opposed the referendum and worked with Iran against it. This means the Kurdistan region’s relations with Turkey are complex. While the KDP doesn’t get along with the PKK, overall Erbil doesn't want Turkey’s war with the PKK to expand and destabilize Erbil. They also don’t want the PMU conflict with the US to threaten Erbil, as it did in a recent rocket attack. Sinjar and Kirkuk, disputed areas, are now firmly in the grasp of the PMU. For Erbil this is all a nightmare as militias and conflict seem to be eating away at security. A related threat to Erbil is the chance that either pro-Iranian groups or Turkish forces would cut them off from Syria completely by striking at the Faysh Khabor crossing area.
The claims of a PKK-PMU emerging "alliance" in Sinjar is a self-fulfilling prophecy of arguments dating back years that paint the YPG and PKK as linked to Iran. In the early days of the war on ISIS in 2014 it should be recalled that the Syrian regime largely withdrew from Kurdish areas in Syria, having made an olive branch to Kurds, so it could conserve regime resources to fight the Syrian rebels. Meanwhile PJAK in Iraq, which many see as linked to the PKK, appeared to stop operations against Tehran. At that time the PKK and Turkey had a ceasefire as well. Kurdish resources were poured into the YPG battle against ISIS. We now know that what transpired as the Syrian regime weakened was that ISIS rose and Turkey co-opted the Syrian rebels. The rise of ISIS cut off the Kurdish region of Iraq from Baghdad and cut off the Kurdish areas of Syria from Damascus. In Erbil this resulted in a push for a referendum. In Eastern Syria this led to the US-backed SDF and eventually led to a breakdown in a Turkey-PKK ceasefire and Turkey’s invasion of Syria beginning in 2016.
Similarly the KDP-linked Peshmerga who were forced to leave Sinjar in August 2014 left a vacuum that resulted in the rise of the YPG-linked groups in Sinjar and Turkey’s allegations that the PKK is in Sinjar. The Kurdistan independence referendum brought the PMU into Sinjar, as Iraq sought to punish the Kurds, and inevitably a cohabitation between them and the Yazidis linked to YPG resulted. This all seems complex but it is the unintended consequences of unlikely bedfellows emerging during the war on ISIS. Iran doesn’t want tensions with Turkey. It wants to work with Turkey and Russia to get the US to leave Iraq and Syria. Turkey also wants the US to leave Syria and wants to push the KDP to fight the PKK in Iraq. For the PMU in Iraq there is no desire to see Turkey expand its presence and they don’t want that to be used as an excuse for the US to expand its role. Iran knows NATO will send thousands of more troops to Iraq. The Syrian regime meanwhile continues to clash with the YPG in Syria in Qamishli but also coexists with the YPG in Tel Rifaat where Afrin IDPs are shelled by Turkey. The regime wants to play both sides, like the PMU, working with the YPG where possible, undermining the American role in Syria, but opposing the YPG and SDF when it feels they are too powerful.
For some commentators on the Middle East there is always a simple answer. One answer is that Turkey, a “NATO ally” should work with the US and views the YPG as linked to the Syrian regime and Iran, and argues that the US should leave Syria. But this viewpoint doesn’t explain what should happen in the autonomous KRG region of Iraq. Will they support the KRG returning to Sinjar and Yazidis returning home and an end to the PKK-Turkey conflict that destabilizes the mountain region of northern Iraq? For others the KDP is the problem. They complain that the KDP is close to Turkey and abandoned Sinjar. But these voices seem only interested in destabilizing Erbil and emboldening Iran. Then there are those who always seem to side with anti-Kurdish and anti-Yazidi voices on both sides, doing everything possible to undermine Kurdish autonomy. This means supporting Iran where possible, supporting Turkish airstrikes, or supporting jihadists. No one seems interested in investing in Sinjar to bringing Yazidi IDPs back home. Instead they fight over Yazidis as pawns, seeking to ally them with the PMU or with the KDP or continue to keep Sinjar bereft of people and a center of conflict. This is alluring because the Yazidis, when disenfranchised, sidelined, poor and humiliated, don’t turn to jihadist terrorism, so there is no argument that can be made that “if we don’t invest they will become extremists.” Instead, Mosul receives some investment, the areas around it where minorities lived are ringed with PMU checkpoints. The latest narrative that presents the PKK and PMU “working together” is part an enduring myth, but one that may end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy since the more Turkey increases its power and threats, the more disparate groups will be driven into each other’s arms.
In the end, the question for the region is often, why does this matter. Yazidis are a small minority without a large country behind them. Unlike Sunni Arabs there is no great sympathy for them by major organizations. There is no Turkey to back them, like the Syrian rebels co-opted by Turkey in Jarabulus or Idlib. Unlike the Shi’ite groups backed by Iran there is no huge crescent of control from Hezbollah to Hadi al-Amiri in Baghdad. The only sympathy the Yazidis get is as victims, like Jews in 1945. But victims are not expected to be actors, so when they join the YBS or are linked to the KDP, or PMU, they are faulted and their political actions are used as excuses to attack them and deny them a right of return to Sinjar. The international community and also the US-led Coalition have not seen Sinjar as a key to Iraq’s stability, and therefore have largely abandoned it. Now that it appears in the crosshairs of Turkey, and pro-Iranian groups are rushing there to prevent another part of Iraq falling into Ankara’s hands, some may care more. Turkey will use this as propaganda to encourage the US to see the “PKK-PMU” as allies. But the end result of that depiction will not result in the extension of security to Sinjar, rather it will be used to justify Turkish airstrikes. It’s entirely possible the Yazidi groups are mixing more with the PMU to dissuade such airstrikes because Turkey is more wary of killing pro-Iranian Shi’ites than it is of killing Kurds or Yazidis.