Sinjar 'part of Kurdistan', regardless of what Yazidis want

Sinjar 'part of Kurdistan', regardless of what Yazidis want
5 min read
18 Nov, 2015
Comment: Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has claimed the newly liberated Sinjar for an expanded Kurdistan, without regard for the fear and distrust felt by many Yazidi residents, writes Yvo Fitzherbert.
Kurdish forces took back Sinjar from IS with US air support [Getty]

After 15 months of living under the Islamic State group, the Iraqi city of Sinjar was taken back by Kurdish forces in the early hours of Friday morning.

The sheer speed of the Kurdish offensive was a surprise to many, with IS failing to put up much resistance after the bombardment of US airstrikes took its toll on its few fighters remaining there.

In the immediate aftermath of the operation, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, made a speech from the top of the mountain overlooking the city of Sinjar.

"Sinjar is part of the Kurdistan region," he said. "Aside from the Kurdistan flag, no other flag will rise in Sinjar."

Not only did he assert that Sinjar was to be part of an enlarged Kurdistan, having previously been under the administration of the central Baghdad government, but he also claimed that the liberation was due to advances of his Peshmerga forces alone.

But while a large part of the operation was conducted by the Peshmerga, who were co-ordinating with the US airstrikes, Yazidi militias and the PKK simultaneously stormed Sinjar.

Such a joint operation contradicts Barzani's assertions that the Peshmerga single-handedly took control of Sinjar town, leading to widespread criticism that the role of other militas has been intentionally ignored by Barzani in an attempt to assert his own authority.

     The Peshmerga had insisted that the PKK vacate the area, no doubt because they wanted to take full credit for the operation

Regaining a damaged reputation

For weeks, the advance on Sinjar was complicated and postponed by infighting between the Peshmerga and the PKK. Originally, the Peshmerga had insisted that the PKK vacate the area, no doubt because they wanted to take full credit for the operation.

The PKK refused, insisting that the resistance it has carried out over the past year justifies its presence in the area.

The main reason the Peshmerga were eager to conduct the operation without the help of the PKK was to regain a reputation shattered by their failure last August. As IS advanced on Sinjar, the Peshmerga fled, abandoning the Yazidis to the jihadists.

Thousands of Yazidi girls were abducted and sold by IS on their slave market as a result, traumatising an entire community. There are thought to be more than 3,000 Yazidi girls still under IS captivity.

To add further insult to the Peshmerga, it was the PKK and their Syrian offshoot, the YPG, who rescued the thousands of Yazidis who managed to flee Sinjar to the mountain rising above the town.

Trapped under the unrelenting August sun without food or water, the PKK and YPG came to the rescue of the desperate Yazidis by opening a corridor and guiding them to safety in Kurdish-controlled Syria.

The Peshmerga were roundly condemned by Yazidi community leaders for failing to protect them, and the fact that it was the PKK - which has had a long, bitter rivalry with Barzani's Peshmerga - who came to their rescue was a major embarrassment to Barzani, something he will have been desperate to amend.

Whilst the Yazidis predominately speak Kurdish, many Yazidis insist they are a distinct ethnic group entirely. The Yazidi religion is thought to be the religion of Kurds before Islam was adopted, but the question of whether Yazidis are in fact Kurdish remains a hugely politicised and divisive question.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch condemned the Kurdish Regional Government for its repression of Yazidi communities in an attempt "to push Yazidi communities to identify as ethnic Kurds".

Due to this pressure, and the fact that Yazidis are one of the most persecuted ethnicities in Iraq, Yazidis are wary of any form of assimilation from outside forces. The failure of the Peshmerga last year was another example of being let down by the very forces that were meant to ensure their safety.

Ever since the YPG came to the rescue of the refugees trapped atop Sinjar mountain, the PKK has maintained a continuous presence in the Sinjar area, with more than 100 PKK fighters martyred over the past year.

The PKK's relationship with Yazidis stretches further back than that, however, since they had a presence in Sinjar at the start of the millennium. In that time, many Yazidis joined the PKK, and the PKK only left when the Iraq war started in 2003.

Over the past year, a PKK-affiliated, all-Yazidi militia has been set up under the name, YBŞ (Sinjar Resistance Units), which also took part in the operation to regain control of Sinjar. Under the guidance of the PKK's philosophy, the YBŞ attempts to give the Yazidis some form of autonomy from outside forces.

     If Barzani truly wants to regain the trust of the Yazidi community, a little humility regarding who helped defeat IS in Sinjar is needed

The failure of Kurdish unity

The PKK reportedly arrived in the city centre first, where they unfurled their banner on the multi-storey grain silo in the centre of the city. According to one report, the Peshmerga later arrived with their own banner.

A tense standoff ensued, until the PKK commander eventually succumbed to the Peshmerga's demands for the sake of peace. Despite their shared enemy in IS, it appears that the fierce rivalry between the two groups continues to undermine Kurdish unity.

Furthermore, Barzani's refusal to acknowledge the help of PKK fighters - who have continuously been present since the Peshmerga's flight from Sinjar last year - shows that the old rivalry shows no signs of abating. Instead of the Sinjar liberation becoming a symbol for long sought-after Kurdish unity, Barzani has demanded submission to him alone, at the expense of the PKK and other militias who helped liberate Sinjar.

If Barzani truly wants to regain the trust of the Yazidi community, a little humility regarding who helped defeat IS in Sinjar is needed.

The sheer trauma that the Yazidis have suffered over the past year shows that what they need most of all is some form of autonomy in running their own affairs. By trying to assert himself as the sole saviour of the Yazidi community, he is failing to take into account the grave concerns many Yazidis have towards the KRG administration.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.