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  • Writer's pictureMECRA

Can Iraq and Kurdistan rebuild and stabilize Sinjar?

Updated: Mar 15, 2019

Destruction in Sinjar in December 2015, much has remained unchanged since (Seth J. Frantzman)


The Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) plan to jointly rebuild the Yazidis homeland, the Sinjar region, which has remained devastated since the Islamic State (ISIS) group infamously initiated a campaign of genocide against the Yazidis there in August 2014.

According to Kurdistan24, the Kurdistan Region Minister Nechirvan Barzani has also suggested that Sinjar's status be elevated to that of its own province where Yazidis will have more of a role in the “administration of their areas” in light of “their unique situation.”

“In the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad we will take serious steps in this regard,” Barzani said.

The Yazidi genocide killed more than 2,000 of that small community since August 2014. Thousands were kidnapped and are still missing. Millions more are displaced in internally displaced person camps in Kurdistan, more have left the country altogether in pursuit of a better life in Europe.

Kurdistan's Peshmerga, with U.S. air support, liberated Sinjar city in November 2015. The city has remained in rubble ever since and rivalries between the KRG and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the latter of which Turkey has also targeted with air strikes in the region, complicated the situation, making it difficult for ordinary Yazidis to return home.

On October 17, 2017, the Iraq state-sanctioned Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) paramilitaries took over the region from the Peshmerga a day after Baghdad seized the Kirkuk province and other major constitutionally disputed areas between it and Erbil. Sinjar has remained outside of KRG control ever since. Last June Yazidi leader Qasim Shesho spoke to MECRA about the tense situation caused by the PMU presence there, which was another factor in the way of any major resettlement of the beleaguered community on their homeland.

“There are at least three forces trying to pull the Yezidi community into their sphere of influence: the Iraqi government and especially the PMUs interested in controlling the Iraq-Syria border; the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party], which has expended significant political and economic resources into winning over the Yezidi community; and the PKK which won some hearts and minds through its crucial assistance in protecting the Yezidi community from ISIS by opening a safe corridor to Mount Sinjar [in August 2014],” Bilal Wahab, the Nathan and Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute, whose focus is primarily on KRG governance, told MECRA.

“None of these forces seem to sufficiently value the Yezidi voice or aspirations, however,” Wahab said. “Such a voice has become more crucial since the Yezidi identity is gaining more primacy in the aftermath of the atrocities they suffered at the hands of ISIS and the sense of betrayal they feel against the Iraqi and Kurdish forces who failed to protect them.”

“Barzani's statement may reflect a response to this realization,” he suggested. “Coordinating reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts for Sinjar with Baghdad could be a necessity imposed by the reality on the ground as well as contribute to the ongoing honeymoon between Erbil and Baghdad.”

Former Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani said, back in August 2016, that a new Sinjar city should be built and the ruins of the old one preserved to commemorate ISIS's crime against humanity there in a manner similar to how some sites of the Anfal massacres in Kurdistan are preserved.

One of the mass graves where ISIS murdered Yazidis during the 2014 genocide (Seth J. Frantzman)

Today, Iraq and the United Nations are also discussing plans to make a museum documenting ISIS's crimes against the Yazidis.

Rebuilding Sinjar, however, is a lot easier said than done. Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, noted that a lot more has been said than actually done when it comes to the reconstruction of Sinjar.

“At least half of the district has had no reconstruction at all,” he told MECRA. “That's because it has not been cleared of unexploded ordinance and no one can enter that area as a result. The other half of the district that is cleared has little going on either as the farms there, which was the main form of livelihood have been destroyed.”

“Neither the KRG nor Baghdad have done much of anything in these rural areas and most of the rebuilding has been done by locals, the UN and NGOs,” he added.

“That again poses another problem for the KRG's plans as it has talked about reconstruction more than doing actual reconstruction.”

“What you have in Sinjar is a bunch of unruled, loose militias groups dictating and calling the shots,”

Yerevan Saeed, a Research Fellow at the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) also pointed out the numerous obstacles in the way of a successful coordinated reconstruction and resettlement project.

“Given the current security and political situation, it's very unlikely the two governments would be able to work together to rebuild Sinjar,” Saeed told MECRA.

“I think the question is does Erbil or Baghdad have any authority on the ground in Sinjar to start the much-needed reconstruction of not just the building, but the emotional and mental side of the people who suffered the most from Da'esh in 2014,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

“What you have in Sinjar is a bunch of unruled, loose militias groups dictating and calling the shots,” he elaborated. “Neither Baghdad as government nor the KRG has any power.”

Cooperation between the KRG and Baghdad is rendered more “inexpedient” due to the fact that “Sinjar lies in the ethnic and geographical fault lines and borderlines between Kurdistan and Iraq.”

“It's an unfortunate historical fact that such faultline areas tend to be unstable, bloody, and ferocious, especially at the absence of one central authority, unreliable alliances and most importantly, at the absence of trust between Kurdistan and Iraq,” he explained.

“This is not to say that Sinjar is doomed forever, but to shed light on some realities on the ground.”

Saeed does see some light at the tunnel and believes the situation in the Yazidi region can be improved if it's “piecemeal based, where political agreement at the top between Erbil and Baghdad” is “reinforced by reconciliation at the local level.”

“The 2014 events have further fractured the Yezidis, where their loyalty had been further divided over not just Baghdad and Erbil, but within themselves, too,” he noted.

Ultimately, Saeed believes that the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi “might have good intentions” toward resolving the plight of the Yazidis “and other minorities as the current U.S. administration has made minority rights a top foreign policy priority, at least in the Middle East.”

“But the problem is the Iraqi government have not developed enough military and administrative capabilities to penetrate into any part of the country,” he explained. “It's more the security officials and the leaders of the militia groups that can make decisions on the ground and reject or accept to implement decisions made by Baghdad.”

“For this reason, unless Baghdad has the monopoly use of violent force to reinforce laws and decisions, it's unlikely that cooperation between Erbil and Baghdad would get anywhere,” he concluded.

“Getting Sinjar right would also be a litmus test for KRG-Baghdad cooperation elsewhere in the disputed territories such as Kirkuk.”

Wahab sees the coordinated rebuilding of Sinjar “as a win-win for Erbil and Baghdad in the eyes of Iraqis, Kurds and the international community.”

“Practically, neither side can go at it alone,” he said. “Getting Sinjar right would also be a litmus test for KRG-Baghdad cooperation elsewhere in the disputed territories such as Kirkuk.”

In addition to this successful “cooperation and rehabilitation and reconstruction of Sinjar” could potentially serve as “a model for the more challenging task of rebuilding Mosul, where logistical cooperation between both sides would be necessary.”

Nevertheless, Wahab doesn't see a resolution to the eternal issue of the disputed territories between Baghdad and Erbil anytime soon. Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution was supposed to conclusively determine their status through referendums by the end of the 2007 but was never implemented by Baghdad. The October events of 2017 saw Baghdad capture most of the territories previously disputed using military force in the lowest point in relations between the two in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

“I see no credible champions for Article 140,” Wahab said, adding that both sides share the blame in this.

“Baghdad has had the decade between the first elected government and the rise of ISIS to move forward on that constitutional mandate of Article 140, but they just let it simmer,” he explained. “On the other hand, the credibility of KRG's demands for Article 140 were eroded when they announced that Article 140 was moot after Kurdish Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk.”

Furthermore, even if Sinjar does become a province he doubts it will end up becoming much more independent of the influence of both Baghdad and the KRG.

“Promoting Sinjar to the status of a province or a region would certainly translate to more executive authority and greater local (ie Yezidi) say in how the area and its people are governed,” he noted. “In the Iraqi system, governors hold significant administrative and security sway.”

“Such a move would be politically and emotionally grandiose, no doubt,” he added. “However, it is not a panacea to what ails Sinjar, as the case of Halabja, which the KRG elevated to a province, would indicate.”

“Fiscal policy remains a federal prerogative, which blunts decentralization and Baghdad has used to wield influence and pressure at will,” he explained. “In other words, the Yezidi community would remain beholden to either Baghdad or the KRG or both.”

Wahab identified a potential third way for the Yazidis. They could try and generate “competitive patronage wielding between Baghdad and the KRG, whereby each side tries to win favours with local actors.”

“Sinjar officials, once empowered in local governance institutions, could potentially lessen such pressures and boost their autonomy by reaching out to a sympathetic international aid community for the rebuilding of Sinjar,” he concluded.

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