The Wars after the War for Sinjar: How can Washington avert a new civil war

While the frontline with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) lies only 4.5 kilometers south of Sinjar, a potentially more dangerous threat looms much closer to home. Parts of northern Sinjar — a district separated by the now-infamous 70-kilometer-long mountain — were liberated in December 2014. The district center south of the mountain was cleared of ISIL in November 2015. A mixture of forces — independent Yezidis, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga — took part in both operations, but ISIL still occupies the southern villages of Sinjar.

Originally published in War on the Rocks by IRIS Director Christine van den Toorn on June 20, 2016.

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As I discovered during a number of visits to the town over the last 18 months, Sinjar is rapidly becoming a playground for proxy struggles between regional rivals fighting zero-sum confrontations. Amid these battles, local Yezidis – a religious minority group numbering around 500,000 in Iraq which makes up the large the majority of the population of Sinjar –  are being forced to choose sides. These dynamics are common across many of the territories liberated from ISIL, as competing factions push and pull local populations in their struggle for power. Within Sinjar, these forces risk igniting an internecine conflict among Yezidis that could be just as dangerous as the ISIL invasion of their territory in August 2014.

Sinjar’s only hope is a compromise on all sides, an outcome that will almost certainly require mediation by an external actor not a party to local proxy struggles — in other words, not Baghdad, Ankara, or any of the various Kurdish factions from across the region. The fate of Sinjar will reverberate far beyond the confines of this small part of Iraq. Whether the worsening tensions there are defused could have a major impact on stability in northern Iraq and the broader fight against ISIL.

Proxy Playground
There are very real differences between Yezidi factions about whether Sinjar should be part of Iraq or the Kurdistan Region, if Yezidis are Kurds or a distinct ethnic group, and which parties can best represent Sinjar’s interests. Despite these divisions, a “Yezidi first” attitude prevails due to bitterness over the withdrawal of Kurdish forces before the ISIL assault in August 2014. As such, Yezidi factions are reluctant to clash with each other so far. Yezidis universally and vehemently assert that they can only rely on themselves from now on, and therefore want greater autonomy and control of local government and security services.

But the resilience of Yezidi unity is being increasingly tested as rivalry between external forces for the control of Sinjar escalates. To set the scene: The Turkey-supported Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) enjoys a large majority in the Dohuk Governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan and remains the dominant power in Sinjar despite its noncontiguous geography and status as a disputed territory with the federal government of Iraq. Standing against this Turkish-KDP alliance are the rebel Turkish and Syrian Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and People’s Protection Units (YPG), and their local Sinjari surrogate, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS). The uncompromising faceoff between Turkey and its local adversaries is creating an ever-more volatile situation in Sinjar.

This local battle reflects multiple agendas that are shaping not just Sinjar, but the whole region of northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southeast Turkey where Kurds are concentrated. Renewed violent conflict between Ankara and the PKK in Turkey has led both parties to adopt an uncompromising approach. At the same time, the KDP – the dominant power in the Kurdistan Regional Government occupying offices of president, prime minister as well as all top security and energy posts – has emerged as a strong and willing Kurdish partner for Ankara, which clearly regards the party as a critical counterweight to the PKK. For its part, the KDP sees its alliance with Ankara as a means of bolstering the KRG’s autonomy from Baghdad and realizing the goal of eventual independence. On a local level, it is also a way to restore KDP power over Sinjar, which it had controlled until August 2014. On the other side, the PKK has sought to build up the YBS, providing it will military and logistical support after moving into to defend Sinjar when the KDP’s Peshmerga withdrew.

The PKK presence in Sinjar since 2014 has clearly been a source of tension, both for Turkey and the KDP. On each trip to Sinjar, an ever-growing number of shrines to and portraits of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocelan and the Kurdish militants who have died for Sinjar are visible. Similarly, the PKK’s wider political agenda is viewed with deep concern by its rivals. The PKK hopes to be removed from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, seeks to open a new corridor to Baghdad, and aspires to counter the influence of KDP forces in Kurdish-controlled Syria. Both Turkey and the KDP see the YBS as a vehicle for PKK influence in the Kurdish part of Iraq, thereby furthering the rebel group’s plans for a united Kurdistan in which they are a leading power.

Other powers complicate and deepen the divide. Baghdad, in an attempt to reassert power in the disputed territory of Sinjar, pays the salaries of 1,000 YBS fighters. Iran sees Sinjar as the last part of its land corridor through Iraq to Syria. The PUK, one of the other ruling parties of the KRG, seeks to challenge KDP authority there. And as one senior KRG official (who also happens to be a Yezidi from Sinjar) put it, “the most important point is that none of the three parties in Kurdistan want the Yezidis to have something, to be strong.”

Deadly Impacts
As these rivalries become more confrontational, they are tearing at the fragile social fabric of the Yezidi community. Earlier this month, local leaders told me that for the first time that they expected violence would erupt between their factions. Governor of Dohuk and KDP member Farhad Atrushi told me that the PKK will not be permitted “into our cities and occupy… our government buildings [as they do in Sinjar].” Qassim Shesho, KDP member and commander of the “unofficial” 10,000-strong Yezidi Peshmerga forces in Sinjar, was even more blunt: “If America doesn’t intervene, we will fight [the YBS and its PKK patrons].” The YBS are no less militant — as their commander Haval Serhad in Khanasor asserted, “If they [the KDP] don’t leave, we will make them leave; we will fight them, not here, but other places.”

The determination of rival forces to weaken each other makes the nominal local coalition against ISIL weaker. As both Qassim Shesho and Atrushi told me, the KDP does not give Yezidi Peshmerga the heavy weapons available to Kurdish forces, at least in part because of suspicion that they will join YBS or Hayder Shesho’s independent Ezidkhan Protection Forces (HPE, formerly the Shingal Protection Forces (HPS)), though overall weapons shortages were also cited. Local officials and civilians also claim that that KDP security services in Dohuk threaten and arrest families of HPE and YBS fighters in camps. Over the past few months, different forces have erected checkpoints to antagonize each other, prompting near-daily squabbles. Said one senior KRG official and a Yezidi from Sinjar, “The situation in Sinjar for the Yezidis is more dangerous than the day of the genocide.”  

The rivalry is also inhibiting reconstruction and return efforts. An embargo placed by the Dohuk Governorate on Sinjar, Rabiaa, and Zummar means that goods going into the area are heavily regulated at the Suhaila checkpoint. Civilians, shopkeepers, pharmacists, and local NGOs officials I spoke to report that any significant amount — many say over 10 kilograms — of medicine, baby milk, gas, flour, and sugar are being were blocked, and taxes or tariffs have been put in place were placed on products like cigarettes. “You cannot take a packet of sugar into Sinjar,” has become a common phrase to describe the situation.

The resulting scarcity has driven prices up, leaving locals Sinjaris destitute. Civilians talk of not having enough money to pay for milk for their children. Farmers complain that key parts and machines are embargoed. I spoke to a pharmacist who has been trying fruitlessly for over two months to get permission from the Dohuk governorate to transfer around four tons of medicine from the federal government into Sinjar. There is also a major fuel shortage. In places like Khanasor, one of the only towns where a significant number (around 350) of families have returned, the clinic has run out of medicine. The town is perhaps not coincidentally controlled by the YBS.

Atrushi insists that the blockade is intended to block “illegal” armed groups like the PKK that are fighting against KRG forces. He insisted, “Supplies for civilians the KRG clinics are all allowed to go in.” But to many Yezidi civilians and officials, the targets and impacts of the sanctions are far more widespread. First, the blockade serves to discourage people from return, bolstering the perception that the KDP would rather have people stay in camps in Dohuk where they can be controlled, rather than return to Sinjar and possibly support KDP rivals. Many families said that the humiliating process of unloading everything in their vehicle led them to reconsider returning. This suspicion has been reinforced by the timing of the blockade, which began near the end of the school year, when many families had planned to return. There is also a belief that the KDP is seeking to reassert its own control over Sinjar through control the distribution of resources. Multiple sources told me that only certain people from the KDP are allowed to bring things into Sinjar.

The limiting of resources has created more tensions between forces, as well as more lawless and dangerous activities. Smuggling, in particular, is on the rise, leading to more violence. Just last week, I was told, a confrontation between KDP-affiliated forces and local Yezidi smugglers ended in fratricide. The complexities of the ordeal were just the latest indication of how high tension levels have reached.

In Search of a Solution in Sinjar
Resolving this growing crisis is critical not only to ensuring long-term stability and reconstruction in Sinjar, but also to the success of the broader battle against ISIL. The Islamist extremist group feeds on the discontent and security vacuum created by such disputes, not least because these conditions divert attention from the focus on the campaign to defeat it.

Given the regional dynamics at play, a long-term settlement will require the buy-in of all the major regional players. However, both sides — Turkey and the KDP on one hand and the PKK and YBS on the other — appear increasingly unwilling to compromise. Indeed, their continued pursuit of agendas based on narrow self-interest risks heightens local violence further. Any deal that takes into account their rival and often contradictory goals will need to be mediated by external parties, including major international powers such as the United States.

Even if it can be reached, a deal between these regional actors will take time. The risk is that, by the time negotiations begin, an internecine war will have already broken out between Yezidis, creating an even more difficult security and humanitarian challenge.

Consequently, more immediate and more local solutions are required. One potential alternative in the short term would be a local deal that eases intra-Yezidi tension, thereby providing a basis to sustain longer-term regional solutions. Establishing this bottom-up framework would still face obstacles, not least in the form of the KDP’s determination to bring Sinjar under exclusive control and the PKK’s drive to maintain a foothold there. Nevertheless, there is still a bulwark of Sinjari support for a Yezidi-first political arrangement protected by an independent Yezidi security force that would fall under the umbrella of Erbil or Baghdad. Yezidis are seeking a solution that would allow them to disentangle from the regional struggles increasingly shaping security and political conditions in Sinjar and instead restore stability to begin resettlement and reconstruction. Such a solution is relevant for other post-ISIL areas, where mediation and deals between rival state and non-state security forces will be key to creating stability and harmony between local populations.

The security foundations for a common Yezidi force already exist, in the shape of Hayder Shesho and his independent HPE. According to my interviews, almost 7,000 Yezidis have signed up to fight with the HPE without salary in just over one month, and 2,500 have been trained at their new base in Sinjar. More than one Sinjari told me that every Yezidi would join this force if they weren’t scared of the KDP. Many Yezidis recognize what is at stake. “If Hayder fails, Sinjar fails,” said one university lecturer from Sinjar. This sentiment was echoed in different ways by many.

The group appears to enjoy widespread support among the Yezidi population because it is regarded by many Sinjaris as independent of “foreign” control. The HPE has eschewed money or support from Erbil, Baghdad, or the PKK to avoid the perception of following their orders, relying instead on donations of food, supplies, and money from the local population (though HPE did receive temporary aid from Baghdad and the Kurds in the months after the ISIL attack). However, HPE is not politically naive. Shesho and his allies know that they will need to make deals with other forces locally, and are willing to do so, as are their counterparts. What they are not prepared to do is compromise on autonomy.

Thus, the HPE has indicated that is willing to cooperate with the YBS, but only if the latter pursues a Sinjar-first policy independent of the PKK. This is easier said than done, as 3,000 families on the mountain receive support from the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the YPG. Khider Salih, head of the Autonomous Administrative Council — the political wing of the YBS — and multiple other YBS and Council members assert their quasi-independence from the PKK and stress that they are a “Sinjari” and “Yezidi” force. While they receive support from the PKK and YPG, “Support and command are two different things…we must be honest we get support from them, but we are not under their command,” said Salih. Many civilians and officials refute this and say unequivocally that the YBS and the PKK “are the same, there is no difference between them…they are the same 100 percent.” But an alternative power source might be able to wean the YBS away from the PKK and vice versa.

Even Haval Serhad the YBS commander in Khanasor told me, “The KDP and the PKK, they will have to sacrifice something for the Yezidis.”

Similarly, Shesho has agreed to place his forces under the control of the KRG Minister of Peshmerga, but only if the HPE retains its own flag, name, and command structure while receiving the same weapons as the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. This last demand reflects the HPE’s lack of a crucial resource. While Shesho and his troops say they make up for this in “commitment and passion,” the harsh reality is that the HPE will need a regular supply of arms to achieve its objectives.

The HPE’s willingness to align with the KRG also underscores its acceptance of political reality in Sinjar. The group’s leadership knows that Erbil will never relinquish its efforts to preserve its influence in the town.  What the HPE wants, therefore, is an accommodation with the Kurdish group that acknowledges Sinjar’s right to manage its affairs autonomously and peacefully.

Thus far, however, the KRG has been reluctant to make an official deal. KRG President (and KDP head) Massoud Barzani has agreed in principle to an arrangement but has refused to formalize it. Meanwhile, local KDP officials insist that while any political party is welcome, no group — HPE included — will be allowed to field armed forces in Sinjar. This stance has convinced Shesho that the KRG is seeking to neutralize him, not support him. The KDP says that Shesho is “not committed,” in the words of Atrushi. The result has been a stalemate.

This impasse is unlikely to be broken without external intervention, especially from Washington. The KDP believes that its military alliance with the United States against ISIL allows the KRG to pursue whatever territorial policies it wants locally in northern Iraq without fear of rebuke or resistance. Washington’s single-minded pursuit of its narrow military objectives is not intended to have this outcome, but it is a reality nonetheless, not just in Sinjar, but across Iraq.

However, this importance of military support for local forces also gives the United States and the coalition leverage, if they choose to use it. Active U.S. military and logistical support for autonomous Yezidi forces and concomitant pressure on the KDP to reach local compromises that bolster Yezidi political autonomy would shift the local balance of power enough in favor of Yezidis, potentially creating opportunities to dampen local tensions. It would also be an important signal to local forces in other areas in Iraq that have been liberated from ISIL.