Saman Daoud and Maysir Al-Adani, Translated by Walaa Rayya
In the surrounding of Sharaf al-Din shrine on Sinjar Mount (125 km west of Mosul), where the flags of the Kurdistan region are flying, defining the identity of the party that controls the Yazidi holy site, fighters carrying light and medium weapons watch carefully the results of the latest wave of clashes in the city between two major forces, which led to the displacement of about ten thousand Yazidi civilians.
Clashes took place in early May 2022 between Iraqi army forces and fighters of the Yazidi “Sinjar Resistance” units, which include about 1,000 fighters affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, despite being ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
It was not the first that clashes took place, but it was the largest during which four people were killed and ten wounded on both sides. It raised the fear of the Yazidis as well as the Muslims of the possibility of repeating what happened to them in August 2014, when ISIS elements attacked, killed, and kidnapped thousands of Yazidis and hundreds of Shiite Turkmen, and pushed about 400,000 people to flee to the Kurdistan region, more than half of them are still living in camps or houses inside Kurdish cities, although five years have passed since the end of the war.
After the liberation of Sinjar district from ISIS in November 2015, the conflict for control of the region has intensified between different Arab and Kurdish forces, given the importance of Sinjar to them as well as to regional countries such as Iran and Turkey. The first one considers Sinjar, an important part of its strategic path towards Syria, or what its loyalists describe as (the way of the captives), while Turkey considers it a gateway to its incursion into the Turkmen areas in the Tal Afar district, adjacent to Sinjar, and a key to the city of Mosul (405 km north of Baghdad), its historically lost state.
The region is bordered by the Syrian frontier in the west, and the Iraqi Badia in the south, where the Sunni armed groups have been strongholds from 2003 to 2017, the Kurdistan region in the north, which is ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party that reaches the Turkish border, and the city of Mosul in the east, the center of Nineveh Governorate and the largest and most important Sunni city that includes an Arab Kurdish Turkmen Sunni and Shiite mixture at the same time.
The city of Sinjar, the center of the district that has its name, with the majority of its villages and population centers, remained mostly under the administration of the Kurdistan Democratic Party from the fall of the former Iraqi regime in April 2003 until its invasion by ISIS in August 2014 when the Kurdistan Democratic Party forces (the Peshmerga) withdrew without a fight as the Iraqi army did.
The area was later under ISIS control, which only ended after a devastating war that destroyed a third of the city and many of its compounds, and gave rise to a geographical division that extended to its regions, its sides were Kurds and Yazidis (with their different political affiliations), the Popular Mobilization and the Iraqi army.
Power distribution map
In the city, where about two-thirds of its residents are still displaced although six years have passed since its recapture, Iraqi army units are deployed and the Iraqi flags widely distributed fly on the roofs of government departments and main buildings, while the flags of the various popular mobilization factions and Yazidi forces of different orientations are raised in other buildings close to each other.
The Popular Mobilization factions close to Iran, which is the actual ruler and decision-maker in the region, extend their control over the southwest of Sinjar, along the border strip with Syria, from the city of Tal Afar in the east to the Ba’aj district in the south.
As for Mount Sinjar in the north, on its stretch to the east, and the surrounding complexes, the Sinjar Yezidi Resistance Units, which are ideologically and intellectually loyal to the anti-Turkey Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are deployed.
Not far, in the north of Sinjar district, the units of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which hope to regain their lost control of the district again are there.
On the main and secondary roads linking these areas together, there are many checkpoints and security barriers, with little or no separation between one point and another, sometimes only a few tens of meters, as a clear indication of the ongoing conflict between the powerful forces for control of important sites.
This is what the map of the distribution of the competing forces concludes, indicating that the influence of the Iraqi army and police is limited to the center of the city of Sinjar and some of its surrounding points, as well as the Syrian border, while the Popular Mobilization Forces, with their multiple loyalties, who officially follow the Iraqi security services, but in reality don’t obey to their orders, control most of the western and southern regions of the district.
The Yazidis, who are present in the army, police, Popular Mobilization Units, and Peshmerga forces of the Democratic Party, also maintain armed forces completely outside the legal structure of the state, which are powerful forces and enjoy a kind of popular support.
Amid that complex geography of control distribution in the area, where the reconstruction projects were very limited, tens of thousands of Yazidis are trying to recover their lives that ISIS messed with.
However, power struggles, which turn from time to time into direct battles in which various types of weapons are used, threaten to destroy the dream of bringing life back to the Yazidis’ main homeland and the largest points of their presence in the world. In the last round of battles in early May 2022, the Governor of Dohuk Ali Tatar announced the arrival of about 10,000 displaced people from Sinjar in Kurdistan region camps to escape clashes and the possibility of their expansion. Meanwhile, the Department of Migration and Displacement in Dohuk Governorate confirmed it by announcing a statistical report on newly displaced persons, showing that 1811 families of an estimated 10,000 and 261 members were distributed in 15 camps in the governorate.
Spheres of influence and States’ interventions
Saad Hamo, a civil activist who travels between the different areas of Sinjar to take pictures and videos documenting the lives of the Yazidis says that Sinjar is “full of security forces and competing armed groups, and most of the displaced persons since 2014 refused to return for fear of their conflicts.”
Hamo was famous for not leaving Mount Sinjar since his birth, and he stayed there during the period when ISIS invaded the district, documenting the battles that the Yazidis fought there and their suffering as a result of what they faced.
He points to a nearby building: “Here in the shrine of Sharaf al-Din, the Yezidi Peshmerga forces are stationed, but along the road to the north and south you will see military checkpoints for the Iraqi army, other checkpoints are for the Popular Mobilization, the Sinjar Resistance Forces, and the Yezidikhan Protection Units, and each party has its security reference.”
Then he extends his arm, pointing to the southern side of Mount Sinjar: “In the city center where the Iraqi flag is raised, the army and the police are the most prominent, but in the villages south and east of the city you find the banners of various popular mobilization forces, including the Yazidi forces, and, the Sinjar resistance forces and their branches are deployed in the Dow Kara and Khana Suri complexes in the north and refuse the army to enter those areas that belong to the Sanoni district.
Hammo, who has witnessed all the transformations that took place in Sinjar since 2003, believes that the city’s situation is linked to “the situation in Iraq in general. There is no solution without restoring State power…it is difficult, but the army is trying to control things.” It is believed that Sinjar is no longer an internal Iraqi problem, but rather, “it has become a constant subject in the speeches of presidents of various countries of the world.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his statements, repeats the name of Sinjar and the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in it, also Pro-Iranian leaders such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali regularly declare his positions on “protecting the city from terrorist organizations and any external interference,” moreover the city is always present in the statements of leaders in Kurdistan region and their repeated calls for the necessity of managing its security file jointly with Baghdad.
In addition, the French President Emmanuel Macron, spoke about the complex situation of the stricken city and reiterate it at the Baghdad conference, which was held on August 28, 2021, during his visit the next day to the Our Lady of the Hour Church in Mosul, in the presence of several leaders of the region’s countries. “The situation in Sinjar is unstable and thousands of Yazidis cannot return to their areas for many reasons, including the Turkish attacks,” he said.
Turkey has already launched repeated drone attacks on the district and says, through its officials’ statements, that these attacks target PKK fighters who are holed up in the Sinjar compounds and pose a threat to Turkish national security.
To address the complex situation in the region, the federal government headed by Mustafa Al-Kazemi announced in October 2020, in agreement with the Kurdistan region, a comprehensive plan known as the “Sinjar Agreement” to restore stability in the city and the district and reconstruct it.
The agreement, which received international support, included the removal of armed groups from the city and handing over the management of its security file to the army and police in coordination with the Kurdistan Regional Government, but the factions close to Iran as well as the Sinjar Resistance Forces refused to implement it.
During his participation in the Al-Rafidain Forum for Dialogue at the end of August 2021, Qassem al-Araji, the Iraqi National Security Adviser, described the Sinjar Agreement as “fair” indicating that it is balanced, although it “will not satisfy everyone one hundred percent.” He also said that the agreement was created “to To be applied, not hindered.”
“The will is there to implement it,” Al-Araji added, but it seems to intersect with the facts on the ground, even with the announcement of the formation of an official local force of the Yazidis to protect the city.
For more than a year, the federal government talked about recruiting 2,500 Yazidis and placing them within the Ministry of Interior, 1,500 of them are living in camps in the Kurdistan Region, and another 1,000 in Sinjar, to form a force that will handle the security file inside Sinjar.
But things remained the same without much progress on the ground. A source in the National Security Advisory said that the process was disrupted because of the Ministry of Finance, which did not provide allocating funds while waiting for the federal budget to be approved.
Said Al-Jayashi, a strategic security advisor in the Iraqi National Security Advisory stated that the agreement implementation started on the first of December 2020, and it contained three main axes: “the administrative axis includes the nomination of a new mayor and new department managers, the security axis includes replacing the units, determining responsibilities and organizing the local police of Sinjar and the army to take responsibility within the district, and the third axis is the reconstruction axis and will be handled by a joint committee.
Khadeda Saeed, a Yazidi in his forties who lives in Sinjar and was accompanied by his Muslim friend Ali Ahmed on a quick visit to the Sinjar market, said: ” It is clear that most of the provisions of the agreement have not been implemented. To date, there is no unified administrative or security decision, and it appears that the provisions are practically inapplicable. Neither the opinion of Sinjar’s Yazidi resistance nor the opinion of powerful Shia militant factions was taken when the agreement was done so it remained on paper only.
His friend Ahmed interrupted him: “I am from a village in the south of Sinjar, I could not go back… my house there is still demolished, Shiite fractions are the rulers there, yes they assure stability but there is a constant fear.”
Al-Jiashi believes that the agreement that was born by the will of the Baghdad and the regional governments will proceed with the same will, and that about 40% of the security side was implemented through switching military sectors, modernizing new sectors, and directly creating more than 2,500 jobs in Sinjar Police, 500 applicant files of these jobs were completed and approved in the federal budget, according to him.
Major General Abdul Khaliq Talat, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, has a different opinion, he confirms that any clause of the agreement has not been implemented and that the armed forces in the region, especially the factions that are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (he means the Sinjar resistance forces known as Yeh Beh Shah) are not ready to implement the agreement.
Talat warns of the consequences of not implementing the agreement, saying: “This will make the future of Sinjar even worse. Eventually, either the armed factions will control the area, or the Iraqi government will re-establish its control using military force.”
Haydar Shashu, commander of the Ezdekhan Protection Forces in Sinjar affiliated with the Ministry of Peshmerga in the Kurdistan region, agrees with him. He, in turn, points out that there are Iraqi forces and parties he didn’t name who do not want the Sinjar Agreement to be implemented, “although that is the only solution to normalize the situation in the region,” as he put it.
Shasho points out that the actual ruler in most areas of Sinjar is the Popular Mobilization, and he said “Everyone knows on which side PMF is”, and by saying that he means Iran.
Reber Ahmed, the Minister of Interior of the Kurdistan Regional Government, had confirmed on more than one occasion that the Sinjar agreement was “implemented merely formal,” noting that “the number of militias increased in Sinjar, contrary to the terms of the agreement.”
Turkey, on its part, supports the implementation of the agreement, because it ensures that the PKK’s influence is terminated or reduced through the Sinjar resistance forces and will reduce the role of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces.
Turkey and Iran
Turkey does not hesitate to threaten to attack the region and impose its will there if the Iraqi government fails, as it says, to end the presence of the PKK in Sinjar district. Ankara prefers that the authority of the Democratic Party return to Sinjar over the current status quo, although it does not hide its aspiration to establish a new border crossing that is not under the authority of Kurdistan and links it directly to Sinjar and from there to the Turkmen city of Tal Afar.
Turkish planes launch frequent attacks, one of which coincided with the day when Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi visited Sinjar in mid-August 2021 and killed a Yazidi leader whose car was targeted in the city’s old market while he was on his way to meet Al-Kazemi.
Just one day later, Turkish planes targeted a hospital belonging to the Sinjar Resistance Units, which are affiliated with the PMF, killing six members of the forces and two members of medical staff including a woman.
Al-Kazemi, who had failed to limit the power of the armed factions in Baghdad, reiterated that day the government’s desire to implement the Sinjar Agreement, and said that “the tragedy of the Yazidis must not be repeated, and that the state will defend their children, and their specificity as Iraqi citizens, and that Iraqi blood shall never be cheap.”
Iran, for its part, is obstructing through the armed factions loyal to it the implementation of the agreement. The leader of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq movement, Qais al-Khazali, called in March 2021 to cancel the agreement, describing it as a “political deal for electoral purposes at the expense of the Yazidi citizens’ interest.”
Khazali thinks that “proceeding with this deal means returning Sinjar to those who neglected it and betrayed its people”, referring to the Kurdistan region, “after our sons from the security forces, especially the PMF that offered precious blood to liberate it and return to the embrace of the motherland”, referring to the Kurdistan region.
The leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq believed that the best solution is to “respond to the demands of the people of Sinjar, support them and enable them to defend their city, especially Yazidi members of the popular mobilization.”
In February 2021, Tehran and Ankara exchanged accusations regarding interference in Iraq, and each country asked its ambassador to the other country to come to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to protest against the mutual statements regarding Turkey’s air attacks and military presence in Iraq including Sinjar.
Erg Masjedi, the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad warned Ankara at the time: “We do not accept Turkey interfering or advancing and having a military presence in Iraq.” Fatih Yildiz, the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad, replied: “The Iranian ambassador is the last person entitled to give Turkey lessons on respecting Iraq’s borders.”
Legitimate or not?
Haji Kandour, a former deputy in the Iraqi parliament who heads the Yazidi Movement for Reform which is a political movement that believes in Yazidi nationalism and shares the same positions with the rest of the Yazidi forces loyal to the Kurdistan region and those close to the Workers’ Party, said that the solution “lies in the removal of illegal forces and the handover of the region to Iraqi forces to maintain and protect its security”.
However, the description of “illegal forces” is problematic, as the Peshmerga (the Sinjar Resistance Forces) are considered illegal and intrusive forces, even though a large part of them “have legal legitimacy gained by joining the Popular Mobilization Forces.”
Rather, Kurdish political forces see the Popular Mobilization forces themselves as illegitimate, while some leaders of the Popular Mobilization classify the Peshmerga forces as illegitimate, as they are not subject to the orders of the federal government and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
The Yazidi forces close to the Workers’ Party, which established administrative and security structures led by Iraqi Yazidis, reject describing them as extraneous and illegitimate, and their leaders emphasize their Iraqism and respect for the law and the authority and sovereignty of the state.
Fars Harbo, a Sinjar Self-Administration Relations Committee official, says they are always keen on Iraqi sovereignty. “We are proud to be part of this ancient state, but we reject its agreements with the forces that handed Sinjar over without resistance to ISIS.”
He continues, “The agreements must take the opinion of the citizens of Sinjar and the families of the victims, and be discussed and approved in Sinjar and not elsewhere. We are the most eager parties for the return of the displaced persons and we are working on that by creating the conditions, and we will support any agreement that takes the opinion of the Yazidis.”
In response to the accusation of rejecting the deployment of the army in the compounds north and west of the city, which led to clashes more than once and the displacement of thousands of civilians, Harbo said, “We do not reject Iraqi sovereignty and consider ourselves part of the Iraqi forces, but this must be done through common understandings, especially since the Sinjar people do not trust the forces that failed them many times.”
Harbo responds to those who accuse the forces of (Yeh Beh Shah) of being illegitimate and part of the Workers’ Party and receiving Iranian support: “These accusations are made to obstruct the action of this Iraqi force towards freedom and democracy. It is a purely Sinjari force supported by its loyal people and takes strength from the resistance of the mothers of the victims of the 74 campaigns of ethnic genocide they were subjected to.”
Coordination between The Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Popular Mobilisation Forces
In March 2018, while the Popular Mobilization Forces were consolidating its control over Sinjar and its security decision, along with the deployment of the army there following the collapse of ISIS, Turkey intensified its air attacks and pressure on Iraq and threatened to intervene in Sinjar, the Workers’ Party announced its withdrawal from the area, in return of keeping a portion of its Yazidi fighters within the Popular Mobilization Units. The party withdrew the majority of its non-Iraqi fighters, but it kept a number of its influential cadre in Sinjar.
Event observers believe that there is coordination “under the table” between the PKK and the PMF, imposed by the convergence of their interests there against the return of the Peshmerga and the strengthening of the army’s influence, even if this contradicts the interests of the people of Sinjar and plans to enable them to return to their areas.
Civil activist Saad Hamo says that the current presence of the PKK under any form or pretext is not in the interest of the Yazidis. “No one can deny the PKK support to the people of Sinjar in their plight during the ISIS invasion of their areas in August 2014, but their presence today is not in the interest of the Yazidis nor the party itself, and it exposes the region to more Turkish attacks and crises.”
Hammo refers to the Iraqi Minister of Defense’s statement in which he says that Iraq cannot respond to Turkish attacks and interventions or others, “according to this, Ankara can enter Iraq and strike Sinjar and even control it” under the pretext of the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, proved by the party itself as It continues by raising its flags and pictures of its leaders during demonstrations or other events.
Hammo calls attention to the problem of the proliferation of Popular Mobilization and its intervention in Sinjar, indicating that the PMF is a divided institution and there are parties in it that receive external support to achieve their interests, which creates security and political problems because it comes at the expense of Iraq’s interest.
But the strategic security adviser, Saeed Al-Jiashi, considers the presence of the PMF completely legitimate, as it is an Iraqi security institution, and denies the existence of a clause in the Sinjar Agreement regarding the PMF, indicating that it can play its security role according to the plans of the joint operations command.
“The responsibilities were determined within Sinjar and the administrative units of the local police, assisted by the National Security and Intelligence Services. In the surrounding of the district, the responsibilities belong to the federal forces. In the Sinjar center, the goal is achieved and work is taking place in other areas.” He added.
“As for the Workers’ Party, its presence is not acceptable on Iraqi land,” Al-Jiashi says, explaining that there is no presence of the “ Workers” in the Sinjar district center, but there are some of their partisans in Sinjar Mountain and some other areas, and work is underway to gradually remove them.”
Political agreement and temporary alliance
Mahma Khalil, a representative of the Democratic Party in the Iraqi parliament and the former governor of Sinjar, accuses the PKK and the pro-Iranian factions of obstructing the implementation of the Sinjar Agreement, which creates security problems that impede the return of the displaced and leads to waves of displacement for those who returned to their areas after the long years of displacement.
He says that these parties oppose the agreement because they fear that it will negatively affect their interests. He added, “The displaced persons want to return to their homes, but the ongoing tensions due to the presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Popular Mobilization Forces prevent the achievement of it, in addition to the lack of basic services, which is another major factor in pushing the displaced not to return.
Mahma added: “We cannot say that the Popular Mobilization prevents the return of the displaced, because it depends on stability and a sense of safety. If these factions were not present in Sinjar, the return of the displaced persons would have been easier, and stability would prevail with the normalization of the situation and the provision of services.”
However, Haider Al-Barzanji, a political researcher close to the PMF, believes that the Sinjar Agreement is a “political agreement rather than a security one, and the facts on the ground have been taken into account.” He stated that the reality of the security situation is determined by the parties that have control on the ground, referring to the Popular Mobilization and the Sinjar Resistance Forces. And he repeats: “what happened “is an announcement of a political agreement.”
He explains: “The practical reality shows that the Popular Mobilization is the one who liberated these areas, and there are two brigades in it from the people of Sinjar, and as a result, its leaders are resentful of the return of the Peshmerga to rule the areas they liberated.”
Al-Barzanji describes the government’s position as embarrassing, “because it wants to unify opposite parties, and this is impossible.”
He refused the accusations against the PMf of imposing its will in Sinjar and he believes that these accusations aim to remove the PMF from the area so the Peshmerga can return to it.
He strongly criticized Turkey, “it is interfering in Iraqi internal affairs, establishing military bases inside Iraq which is a violation of all political and diplomatic norms, and carrying out attacks in Makhmour, Sinjar, and the Kurdistan region.”
And he continues: “The Kurdistan Workers’ Party has existed for 40 years in the border areas, so why is Sinjar, which is a non-border area with Turkey, being dragged into the conflict, if it is not related to Ankara’s economic ambitions?”
Ghanem Al-Abed, a political analyst, comments on the hidden alliance between the Workers Party and factions in the Popular Mobilization: “Despite the intersection of the two parties’ ideologies, the alliance is present in Sinjar and Makhmour regardless of their convictions, especially given the big influence of the factions in the two regions, so the “Workers” has no choice but the alliance, or it will lose its presence there completely.”
Al-Abed sees the alliance as a “temporary interests agreement” that may change with the modification of conditions on the ground. He also rules out that the existing agreement forms a bridge to Iranian support for the PKK, given that Iran has other options and alternatives due to the presence of the factions and the PMF loyal to it in the Sinjar region, which Tehran uses as a transit point for fighters and weapons to and from Syria and as an economic breathing space for its factions.
But at the same time, Al-Abed draws attention to a Turkish-Iranian conflict over Sinjar, in which Tehran uses the PKK against Turkey and its projects in Sinjar and Nineveh, and Turkey in its turn has an army massed on the Iraqi border, and is conducting incursions into Iraq under the pretext of fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party while looking to achieve great economic goals through its plans to be present in Sinjar and parts of Nineveh Governorate, “and this means using military intervention for economic or commercial deals.”
Absent government and Influential Players
While the leaders of the Kurdistan region and officials in the federal government underline the implementation of the Sinjar Agreement as the only solution to normalize the situation in it, establish security, start reconstruction operations and provide services in a way that encourages the displaced persons to return, researchers and observers believe that implementing the agreement as announced is very difficult.
The writer Haider Salman says that the military movements and the use of force by the army to gain control over certain zones will not solve the Sinjar problem, but will complicate it, noting that “there is no dispute over the necessity of ending the presence of the PKK in the region to prevent the use of this file to justify an attack on Iraq, but It is essential to negotiate with the Sinjar Resistance Units which all of their members are local fighters from Sinjar, and reach common understandings to disengage them from the Workers and win them over instead of antagonizing them.”
Falah Hassan, an activist concerned with the situation in Sinjar, says that the agreement cannot be implemented in light of the government’s weakness and the control of armed factions over the state. “It is not only related to Kurdistan Workers’ Party, but it is about the position of multiple forces and regional interests. Moreover, the reconstruction operations here will remain suspended along with the provision of municipal, educational, and health services.”
Hassan believes that Turkey, like Iran, is trying to make Iraq its backyard: “Ankara continues to strengthen groups at the expense of others and support certain parties and personalities to control a region or governorate to serve its interests.”
He asserts that the Sinjar problem is “perhaps a small example of the problem of Iraq, the broken country as a whole. Since 2003, Sinjar has not been managed by its people, but by other parties from outside.”
Regarding the possible solution that would satisfy the majority of the population, Ali Ibrahim, a young man who is active with others in a youth movement that is pressing to break the clash between the forces on the ground and end armed manifestations, says: “The majority may support turning Sinjar into an independent province linked to the center, and appointing a strong non-partisan administrative figure, backed by a security force from the district, that achieves balance and provides the minimum number of services and reconstruction projects. However, this is like a dream under a weak government, strong regional interventions, and the interconnection and intersection of interests of local factions that can set the land on fire.”
*The investigation was produced under the supervision of NIRIJ (Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism)