Sinjar: The eternal flashpoint?

Sinjar: The eternal flashpoint?
6 min read
28 March, 2018
Analysis: Sinjar remains disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region, writes Paul Iddon.
Sinjar has been a flashpoint between several armed groups since August 2014 [Getty]
Turkey's latest threats to attack the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) group in Iraq's Sinjar region, along with the PKK's subsequent withdrawal and Baghdad's deployment of troops, aptly demonstrate the continued volatility of the homeland of the Yazidi people.

The region has been a flashpoint between several armed groups since August 2014, when the Islamic State group launched its infamous genocidal onslaught against the Yazidi. Persecuted locals have been prevented from recovering and rebuilding their homes and lives.

Sinjar's status is disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The Kurds controlled and governed the area for many years. In August 2014, however, Iraqi Kurdistan's Peshmerga forces withdrew, leaving the Yazidi minority defenceless against IS - which viewed all Yazidi as heretics and believed that massacring them and enslaving their women was therefore fair game.

It was then that the PKK - which has fought a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for nearly 35 years - sent their militia forces down from their Qandil Mountain stronghold in Iraqi Kurdistan to Sinjar to defend the Yazidi.

The PKK were unable to repel the militants on their own, and, in November 2015, the Peshmerga returned in force with US air support and swiftly drove the militants out. The city of Sinjar has remained in ruins ever since and is still largely uninhabitable, with the majority of Yazidi former residents either in camps for the displaced across Kurdistan or refugees in Europe.

Even on the occasion of successfully driving out the common enemy embodied by IS from the city, early tensions emerged between the Peshmerga and the PKK. Journalist Mohammed Salih observed one particularly telling case of the two sides laying claim to a captured IS tank, which was already damaged and probably inoperable.

The PKK had tried to tow it away, only to be stopped by heavily armed Peshmerga units who told them that "Sinjar was Iraqi Kurdistan's territory and that they should take the tank".

A tense standoff ensued, until a senior PKK leader agreed the Peshmerga should take the tank. "In no time," Salih added, "the fighters from both sides smiled as they jointly posed for pictures with their cellphones, a testament to the unpredictable nature of the relationship between the two sides."

The PKK retained forces in Sinjar after that operation. They had also trained a local force of Yazidi fighters named the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS), insisting that Yazidis require their own defence force in light of the genocide. The PKK's presence was a great cause of consternation for the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, which viewed it as an affront to its control and sovereignty over the region.

By late 2016, more than a year after Sinjar city was cleared of IS, pressure began to mount against the PKK presence

Kurdistan's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani suggested that just as the Peshmerga had assisted the Syrian Kurds to fend off IS' brutal siege on the city of Kobane in late 2014 and then returned home, the PKK in Sinjar should do likewise. He also claimed that the PKK's presence was a major obstacle preventing Yazidis from returning to Sinjar and rebuilding.

By August 2016, you could see, within a stone's throw from each other, colourful Iraqi Kurdish flags, YBS flags and PKK flags with the portrait of the group's founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan, flown by the various different forces - even including Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) fighters from neighbouring Syria - deployed in the area.

By late 2016, more than a year after Sinjar city was cleared of IS, pressure began to mount against the PKK presence. Turkey began agitating further for their removal, vowing not to allow the group to establish "a new Qandil" there. While the KRG was reluctant to use force to push the group out, given the region's history of a self-destructive civil war in the 1990s and its people's general aversion to Kurds killing each other, it nevertheless reserved that option.

On March 3, 2017, brief clashes ensued when the KRG deployed the Rojava Peshmerga - a paramilitary force comprising Syrian Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan trained and commanded by the KRG - near the border with Syria in the Sinjar region. These Peshmerga clashed with the PKK-trained YBS, killing seven. While brief, that incident did show the extent of the simmering tensions and the lack of trust between the two sides.


On April 25, Turkey demonstrated its displeasure at the PKK's continued presence by sending its air force to bomb Sinjar, with a simultaneous strike targeting a headquarters belonging to the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The Sinjar bombing failed to hit any PKK fighters and instead killed five members of the Peshmerga, which Turkey does not regard as an adversary.

The KRG said the attack was "unacceptable", but went on to insist that the PKK had provoked it by retaining its forces there and reiterated its call for the group to leave. Shortly thereafter Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared: "We may come overnight [to attack PKK/YPG], all of a sudden without warning."

In May 2017, the Iraqi Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary group began operations against IS remnants in Sinjar, declaring they would "control the remaining areas still held by IS", adding yet another factor to the already convoluted geopolitical situation here.

In October, Baghdad captured almost all of the territories disputed between the central government and Kurdistan in one fell scoop. The oil-rich province of Kirkuk was claimed by Iraqi forces on October 16, when Peshmerga loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party withdrew. The following day, the Peshmerga in Sinjar, loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), withdrew ahead of a PMF advance.

If you can't solve that problem, one night we can arrive in Sinjar suddenly without telling anyone

Qasim Shesho, the commander of a force of Yazidi Peshmerga fighters, decided not to mount any armed resistance, since the PMF entering Sinjar included Yazidi fighters - namely the paramilitary group's Lalish Brigade. After all, the last thing the beleaguered community needed after being subject to genocide was rival armed groups of Yazidis killing each other and destabilising the region further. 

On March 21 Erdogan once again repeated his threat to attack the PKK in Sinjar, warning Iraq: "If you can't solve that problem, one night we can arrive in Sinjar suddenly without telling anyone."

The PKK subsequently announced its withdrawal two days later and by March 25 the Iraqi army were arriving in the area. The PKK-created YBS has reportedly remained in Sinjar and will likely be incorporated into the PMF or Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Baghdad already sent the group salaries when it was fighting IS.

However, even if this does come to fruition in the foreseeable future, analysts anticipate that the YBS will retain close links with the PKK, allowing the group to retain a foothold in the region via proxy despite withdrawing. This may not prove enough to placate Turkey which, fresh from its takeover of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish Afrin enclave on March 18, is repeatedly threatening to expand military operations against Kurdish groups in both Iraq and Syria.

Erdogan declared on March 26, that if Iraq failed to remove the PKK "then let's have a bilateral meeting".

"We will do what is required in Sinjar because we do not have much patience."

Whatever happens in Sinjar following these latest developments remains unclear. However, if the past four years are anything to go by, the Yazidi will be lucky to get even brief respite from the continual wrangling over the future status of their homeland - something over which they have little to no say.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon