Turkey launched waves of airstrikes against what it claimed were Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) elements in northern Iraq on Sunday. The airstrikes shook Mount Sinjar, an area that is home to the Yazidi minority and where ISIS carried out genocide against Yazidis in 2014.
The area has been unable to recover because of the constant threat of Turkish airstrikes and the presence of armed groups, militias and checkpoints. The PKK and its affiliates fought ISIS near Sinjar in 2014. Although Turkey labels the PKK a “terrorist organization,” PKK affiliates in Sinjar never carried out any attacks on Turkey.
Why Turkey carried out the massive airstrikes on Sunday evening was not clear. There have been no recent attacks on Turkey, and Ankara has never presented any evidence that groups in Sinjar, consisting primarily of the poorest Iraqis and minorities living in a landscape of villages destroyed by ISIS, constitute a threat.
Turkey also carried out airstrikes near a Kurdish refugee camp at Makhmour. Turkey calls its operation “Claw Eagle” and says it hit 81 targets. It appears to be the largest attack on Sinjar since ISIS attacked the area in August 2014.
Video posted online by Turkey’s Defense Ministry and highlighted by Iranian media showed F-16s and Turkish Bayraktar drones involved in the strikes. Black-and-white video showed strikes hitting what looked like the sides of Mount Sinjar. Ankara claims these are dangerous terrorist hideouts consisting of caves. Iraq condemned the airstrikes.
Reports indicate that Turkey may have coordinated the strikes, including sending intelligence officers on a secret mission to Baghdad days before or informing the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Several dozen Yazidi families who were living in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp near Dohuk had been seeking to return to Sinjar this past week and were waiting at a checkpoint in northern Iraq to do so. It is not clear if the checkpoint that was closed last week was closed due to knowledge of Turkey’s upcoming operation.
Yazidis, some 300,000 of whom are still refugees from the 2014 genocide in Sinjar by ISIS, complain that Iraq does nothing to rebuild their homes and areas. Dozens of mass graves of the thousands of Yazidis raped and executed by ISIS were found in Sinjar, but the international community has done almost nothing to document the genocide. The International Criminal Court and other courts have not prosecuted ISIS members for war crimes.
Yazidi activist Nadia Murad won a Nobel Prize, but her warnings about the need to help Sinjar, instead of bombing it more, have gone unheeded. Instead, the only thing Sinjar has received since liberation from ISIS in 2015 is more bombings.
Turkey, a NATO member, never bombed Sinjar when it was under siege by ISIS. It waited until Yazidis returned before claiming it needed to bomb “terrorist” targets. Turkey does not carry out airstrikes on ISIS targets in northern Iraq, leading to questions why it only targets Kurdish and Yazidi areas but never ISIS.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was found living near the Turkish border, and his family had transited Turkey. Many ISIS members fled Raqqa for Turkey, trafficking some Yazidis they had kidnapped to Idlib in Syria.
Turkey carried out airstrikes on Sinjar in April 2017, killing Kurdish Peshmerga and bombing a graveyard where PKK affiliates had buried “martyrs” who fought ISIS. More Turkish airstrikes followed in mid-January 2020 and November 2019.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned the November airstrikes. In August 2018, Turkey assassinated a Yazidi leader who was driving back from a memorial service for genocide victims, alleging he was a PKK leader. Turkey opposed a similar US airstrike on IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, claiming it would cause instability.
Turkey also carried out airstrikes near Makhmour refugee camp in November 2019, killing a fox, according to local activists. In April 2020, Iraq condemned Turkey for airstrikes near the Makhmour refugee camp that killed three civilians.
Turkey has dozens of small bases and posts in northern Iraq, part of an operation aimed at striking at PKK bases in Qandil. But Turkey also carries out airstrikes that harm civilians throughout northern Iraq.
On January 26, three Kurdish beekeepers were killed in a Turkish airstrike in the mountains near Amedi. More civilians were killed on May 20 near Dohuk when a father and son died in an airstrike. In January 2019, protesters near Deraluk stormed a Turkish army base in northern Iraq over the constant airstrikes.
Turkey has a long history of involvement in northern Iraq. It sent thousands of troops into the area in 2008, claiming to be fighting the PKK. The presence of the PKK is controversial among many local Kurds, who feel their bases have brought on Turkish strikes and wish the war would go elsewhere.
Whole areas in the mountains have been left depopulated due to the conflict. But the larger problem is the absence of any international law or monitoring to examine the airstrikes and their aftermath.
The increase of airstrikes in sensitive areas, where Yazidis live and where IDPs and refugees live, makes life impossible for those trying to rebuild after ISIS. Turkey has never invested in supporting refugees or Yazidis in Sinjar, only in bombing. This leaves the area unstable.
Yazidis say there are still up to 3,000 missing people kidnapped by ISIS, mostly women and children. The community, which suffered genocide, now faces a new threat of airstrikes, uncertainty and unwillingness of any major power to help rebuild Sinjar and remove armed groups that cause tensions.
It is not clear if the airstrikes on the night of June 14 are the beginning of a larger operation targeting Sinjar. Thousands of Turkish troops stand ready to execute more operations, and there have been rumors for years that Turkey might extend operations to Sinjar.
Iraq is largely at the mercy of these operations because it has a weakened central government and an international coalition that is fighting ISIS but does not control Iraqi airspace.