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The coming Sinjar war
Here is how to prevent another ‘firman’
Once more the city of Sinjar finds itself at a crossroads. For Yazidis, this is just another bead on a string of uncertainties, unwelcome constants for hundreds of years. They call the ISIS onslaught in Sinjar the 74th ‘firman’ or catastrophe; a clear sign that for them, this attack was the continuation of centuries of oppression and massacres. If the Cycle of History was a thing then Yazidis’ history is the best manifestation of it.
To understand the repetitive nature of violence against Yazidis, it’s worth looking at the history of the tribe of Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, the Mandikan. In the 1850s, Ottoman troops attacked Sinjar and gave Mandikans two options: convert to Islam or face death. They chose the former before returning to Yazidism once the threat was gone. In 2014, the same option was offered to the same tribe, in Kocho. However this time the members refused to convert, resulting in the murder of hundreds of men, while the women were enslaved.
The current situation in Sinjar is grim at best, given that Yazidis are more divided than ever. There are four main factions: those aligned with the PKK, those aligned with the KDP, Yazidi nationalists and those aligned with the PMF and federal Iraq. The divisions run so deep that Yazidis have rival princes: Mir Tahseen, based in Sheikhan and backed by the KDP, and Mir Naif, based in Sinjar, who has the support of the other three factions, who are closely allied for now. The bulk of the Yazidi PMF fighters were originally trained by the PKK from 2014 onward and went on to form the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) fighters. There are ideological overlaps between Yazidi nationalists and those aligned with the PMF and PKK. The three factions oppose Sinjar being administered by the KRG; they push for Yazidi’s self-administration within Iraq and believe their distinct identity requires a localised administration and military. However, the pro-PKK camp has a more ambiguous view on Yazidis’ Kurdishness as they see themselves as part of the ‘Kurdish nation’ in the context of the broader Middle East while recognising their distinct identity. For the first time, the Yazidis’ division is also geographical. Those currently reside in Sinjar, estimated at about 100 thousand and those who have migrated abroad, estimated to be another 100 to 110 thousand, are mostly supporters of the three allied groups; while those who still live in the IDP camps in Duhok province, estimated to be over 200 thousand people, mostly support the KDP (however it is unclear how many of the IDPs will continue supporting KDP once they relocate to Sinjar or abroad). There is a smaller number of PUK supporting Yazidis who are also close to the other allied factions.
The PMF also supports the YBS because they advocate for localised and decentralised rule within Iraq away from the KRG, as Sinjar’s strategic location falls within territory disputed between Baghdad and KRG. Additionally, the YBS are flexible and willing to accommodate some of the PMF and Iran’s demands - including cross-border activity to Syria.
Who has what in Sinjar?
Yazidi armed groups are also divided along these ideological lines. There are four PMF regiments, each consisting of 150 fighters - the Lalish regiment led by Khal Ali: the Kocho Martyrs regiment led by Talib Jaso (son of the chief of Madikan tribe Naif Jaso): the 4th regiment led by Dijwar Faqir: and the 79th regiment led by Sheikh Marwan. Most of the 600 Yazidi PMF were formerly in the YBŞ. The YBŞ has around 1600 fighters including YBŞ special forces and some 400 female fighters forming the YJS. There are between 700 and 1000 members of the Asayisha Ezidxan, whose primary job is manning checkpoints within and between cities, as well as having responsibility for general incident response, including preventing and responding to ISIS attacks. The YBŞ, YJS and Asayisha Ezidxan are collectively known as the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Assembly (MXŞD). The YBS are stationed outside Sinjar while Asayisha Ezidxan is stationed within Sinjar and have been promised to be integrated into the tribal PMF.
The KDP-backed Yazidis are between 2300 to 2500 fighters: 2000 are part of Sinjar Command led by Qasim Shesho whose forces are directly linked to Barzani Headquarters and 300 to 500 fighters known as the Protection Force of Êzîdxan led by Hayder Shesho. However, there are only about 200 peshmarga under Qasim Shesho that are stationed in the tomb of Sharafadin while the rest are inactive.
In addition to the Yazidi groups, as of today, there are 2000 Iraqi soldiers in Sinjar (the 15th and 20th brigades of the federal army) and 400 federal police. There are also over 10,000 Shia PMF from the Badr militia, Nujaba, Asaib Ahl al-Hak, Said al-Shuhada brigades and Hizbollah brigades.
PKK’s ideology, Yazidism and PMF
In addition to the fact that the PKK played a major role in rescuing Yazidis during the ISIS onslaught on Sinjar in 2014 when the KDP’s peshmerga retreated, the PKK’s administrative vision is attractive to many Yazidis because it is similar to the self-administration they envision: a form of self-rule or a canton, protected by their own armed militia with enough administrative authority to run their own affairs. The PKK’s commune system isn’t too dissimilar to the social structure in Sinjar. The PKK’s leftist, pro-minorities and - ironically - irreligious ideology appeals to many young Yazidis, unlike the KDP’s conservative, Kurdish nationalist, Sunni character. This is extremely apposite as Yazidis, despite sharing the same history and language with Sunni Kurds, have been violently targeted by Sunni Kurdish dynasties for centuries. The forces of Mir Muhammed Kor of Rawanduz killed tens of thousands of Yazidis in Sheikhan in 1837-38. The scale of the massacre completely changed the Yazidis centre of gravity from Sheikhan, the location of their holiest site, to Sinjar. A second bloody massacre was led by Mir Badirxan Beg who expelled thousands of Yazidis from the Botan region in what is now southeast Turkey. Many surviving Yazidis fled to Sinjar because of its isolation and relative safety thanks to Sinjar Mountain.
The loose alliance between Yazidi nationalists, PKK supporters and the PMF is partially due to the shared animosity that they have for the KDP. The PMF and YBS factions in particular aren’t only close, but in many cases they are intertwined. The YBŞ fighters still receive a salary paid through the PMF - albeit each salary is shared between two.
Role of the tribes in Sinjar
Sinjar is a largely tribal society and tribes have played a major role in Yazidi affairs for centuries although their role have partially diminished in the last two centuries. Just as in wider Yazidi society, tribes are divided in their political leanings given that each tribe has several sheikhs. The largest tribe in Sinjar is Hababat which mostly supports the pro-PKK groups and its members constitute a large proportion of the fighters of the YBŞ and Asayisha Ezidxan. The current acting mayor of Sinjar, Fahid Hamid, (part of PKK-aligned self-administration and closely allied with PMF) is from the Hababat tribe; this tribe resides mostly inside Sinjar city and surrounding areas. The other four largest tribes in Sinjar are the Qiran, Fuqara, Khalta and Simokyan. The Qiran tribe, located for the most part in the al-Jazeera complexes of southwest Sinjar, also largely supports the YBS. The leading Qirani sheikh, Khidhir Haji Mirza, was among a delegation that visited Baghdad to stand against the Baghdad-Erbil agreement and urge Iraqi officials to formalise the YBS’s integration into the Iraqi security forces. The Khalta tribe is also mainly allied with the YBS, PMF and Yazidi nationalists. The Fuqara tribe, which played a major role in defending Sinjar against Ottoman incursions in the 1800s, are starkly divided. One of the most influential sheikhs, Khalid Dakhil Sedo, is aligned with the KDP, but other Fuqara sheikhs such as Naif Shamo Khudida (great-grandson of renowned nineteenth century Yazidi leader Hamo Sharo), and Shamo Khudida Abdo who leads another branch, support the YBS and PMF. The last of the five main tribes, Simokyan, is mostly allied with the KDP with its most senior sheikh Ahmed Ismael Tamo, although a small portion stand with the PUK.
Other notable Yazidi tribes are also divided. The Rishkan tribe, mostly from Tal Banat in southeast Sinjar, support the YBS and Rishkan’s chief Omar Ajaj Barakat visited Baghdad to voice his opposition to the Baghdad-Erbil agreement. The Shirkan tribe is close to the PUK and their sheikh Omar Kab’u is a PUK member. The Mihirkan and Hiskan tribes broadly support the KDP. The Zindidan tribe, whose chief sheikh Khudida Hussein Bashar is mayor of the town of Wardiya in southwest Sinjar mountain, is also close to the YBS and PMF.
What needs to be done?
The Sinjar agreement between the Iraqi government and the KRG - recognised only by the KDP - is unlikely to hold for several reasons. First, the PKK-aligned and Yazidi PMF fighters that the agreement stipulates must be expelled from Sinjar are local to the region, and in many cases fought back against ISIS in 2014 when the KDP peshmerga fled. Second, a large majority of the current residents of Sinjar are against the agreement; those Yazidis who support the agreement mostly live in the camps in Duhok province, and so have less influence over dynamics on the ground. Finally, the agreement is largely designed to please non-Yazidi actors instead of an inclusive agreement to embrace all segments of the Yazidi society. The only other support for the agreement comes from a coalition of Sunni Arab tribes based in territory disputed by Baghdad and Erbil.
However, one crucial point that often misses between the lines is that the overall agreement is a victory for Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi given that the KRG effectively accepted the supremacy of Iraqi federal authority over Sinjar. It seems after the chaotic retreat from Sinjar in 2014, KDP has realised the chances of things going back to pre-2014 is dim, this can partially explain their easy retreat again in October 2017 without firing a single bullet which led to the current reality. Additionally, while the KDP still want to have a role in Sinjar, the agreement with the federal government appear to be more of an agreement between Turkey and the US than between Baghdad and Erbil as The Telegraph reported that Erdogan has been working on an agreement with Baghdad that ensured the expulsion of pro-PKK elements and the other bit about the expulsion of the PMF appear to be the work of the US as PMF presence in Sinjar has a regional dimension to it: Sinjar has been used both by Iran and its proxy PMF clients to access Syria.
For any deal on Sinjar to succeed it should distinguish between the YBS and PKK. While the YBŞ have ideologically embraced PKK’s Democratic Confederalism and has been trained by veteran PKK fighters, a huge majority of YBS fighters have never fought outside Sinjar and have no appetite to fight against Turkey on the PKK’s behalf. The claim that the PKK uses Sinjar as a connection between Qandil and Rojava doesn’t hold water; while access from Rojava to Sinjar is easy, there is no easy way to reach Qandil as every route is controlled by the KDP. Perhaps the closest land bridge between Sinjar and PKK territory is through Zakho but again they are over 100 km apart, the terrain is flat and the area is controlled by the KDP. For the PKK, the fact that their local Yazidi allies aspire to implement the democratic confederalist ideology is far more important than military support, but Turkey on the other hand sees anyone who is a supporter of Ocalan’s ideology as PKK, regardless of whether that group has actually fought against them.
Similarly, the Yazidi PMF are locals and mostly survivors of the genocide and many were trained by the PKK and formerly part of the YBŞ; now they are integrated into the Iraqi security forces. There is little that can be done to dismantle the entrenched connection between PMF-YBŞ-PKK; on the contrary, the Baghdad-Erbil agreement has solidified relations and further blurred the lines between them. However, while there should be an agreement to integrate these Yazidi groups into governing Sinjar, they shouldn’t be allowed to monopolise power as current statements from PKK-aligned groups suggest. Yazidi society is extremely divided and the different Yazidi armed groups belong to irreconcilable agendas, so there must be more delicate and careful crafting from the Iraqi government if it really wants to tackle the Sinjar Question. The only way to break the impasse is through an inclusive arrangement where the different Yazidi militias are gradually integrated into Iraqi forces in a way that prevents them from operating on their own. Before such an inclusive arrangement is reached, Baghdad and Erbil must ensure that Sinjar is not brought into proxy conflict between Iran, the PKK and Turkey. Otherwise, Sinjar and the Yazidis will continue to live under the shadow of another firman.