Situation in Iraq's Sinjar region remains combustible
• By Paul Iddon • June 10, 2018
On June 1 a convoy of US military armoured vehicles passed through the Sinjar region in northern Iraq. The sight of the vehicles briefly instilled hope in the Yezidis there that the United States was establishing a military presence in the region that would guarantee their security. A Yezidi official in the region even claimed that the US would build a base there.
Tents of Yezidis who fled Islamic State's attacks in 2014 on Sinjar (Shingal) mountain where may thousands took refuge. The IDPs are still living there in 2018. (Seth J. Frantzman)
It was not to be. The Americans were simply passing through to assist the campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) in neighbouring Syria. The war-weary Yezidis*, whose security situation remains precarious, were distraught.
Qasim Shesho, the commander of the Yezidi Peshmerga forces in the region told MECRA that he, and the forces under his command, "wanted from the bottom of our hearts that the news about American forces in Shingal were to be true”, adding that they were disappointed that it ultimately amounted to mere “rumours.”
While the US military has focused largely on fighting ISIS it did deploy armoured vehicles in the Syrian Arab city of Manbij, controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, in March 2017 to prevent any clashes between them and nearby Turkish-backed fighters. Yezidis were likely hoping for a similar deployment in their region.
The Yezidis were infamously subjected to a campaign of genocide at the hands of Islamic State that began in August 2014. Sinjar was occupied by the militants from that period until November 2015 when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)'s Peshmerga forces recaptured the city with the help of the US-led coalition against ISIS.
Four years after ISIS 2014 attacks, Yezidis remain displaced
Just under four years later Sinjar remains in ruins and the vast majority of Yezidis displaced by ISIS remain in displaced persons camps in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region or refugees in Europe. Despite the fact the ISIS threat has largely been neutralized in Iraq the situation in Sinjar has not improved.
The Yezidi region is one of the disputed territories between the Iraqi Government and the KRG. The KRG controlled the region for decades. However, in October Baghdad sent military forces into the disputed territories, seizing the entire oil-rich region of Kirkuk from the KRG along with Sinjar the following day, both of which were hitherto controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Shesho** and his Peshmerga forces were previously paid salaries by the KRG until that Iraqi takeover, when the KRG cut them off. When the Iraqi Shiite-majority Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), known locally as Hashd al-Shaabi, arrived in Sinjar on October 17 Shesho ordered his men to stand down. While a predominantly Shiite force the PMUs also have Yezidi battalions. Shesho therefore did not want his Yezidi-majority Peshmerga engaging the PMU Yezidis in battle after all his people had suffered.
Tense situation, June 2018
The situation has remained tense ever since. The PMUs have looted Yezidi homes and occasionally demanded that Shesho and his men lay down their arms. Qasim Shesho's nephew Haider Shesho unequivocally declared that the Yezidis would do no such thing, telling the Kurdish news agency Rudaw on June 6 that: “We tell everyone that laying down weapons isn't in our dictionary.”
MECRA also learned that on June 5 three vehicles of Haider Shesho's Yezidi fighters were stopped by Hashd forces who demanded they hand over their weapons. After the Yezidi fighters refused an altercation broke out. Yezidis consequently rallied and voiced their readiness to fight prompting the mayor of Sinjar and a commander of an regular Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) army brigade in the region to intervene in order to deescalate the situation and prevent any clashes from ensuing. Helicopters were seen flying over the area monitoring the situation before the situation calmed once again.
"The situations is very bad between the Yazidi Peshmerga and the Hashd al-Shaabi," Qasim Shesho told MECRA.
He explained that although the movements of goods and people are continuing to and from the different Peshmerga-controlled and Hashd-controlled areas, "the Hashd are harassing people, making life harder for the Yezidis."
Shesho did not specify what kind of abuse the Hashd are allegedly committing against Yezidis. However, a witness to one incident described just how tense the situation can quickly become. The source relayed details of that incident under strict condition of anonymity.
“The wife of one of Shesho's Peshmerga had gone to Sinjar city and was arrested by Hashd and accused her of spying,” the source confided to MECRA. “They would not release her.”
“At the same time three young Hashd fighters had been drinking alcohol in the ruins of the city and were arrested by Shesho's men,” the source elaborated. “It turned out that one of the fighters is a close relatives to one of the senior Hashd members. Shesho's men told the Hashd if they did not release the woman they would reveal the behaviour of those young Shiite fighters among Sinjar's ruins. Then both sides released their detainees.”
These incidents all demonstrate the volatility of the situation in Sinjar, so long as the specter of hostilities remains the less likely the Yezidis will ever be able to resettle in their homeland. Another potential war was averted in March when Turkey threatened to attack the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) forces in Sinjar. Baghdad prevented this by making a deal with the PKK, they subsequently withdrew their forces but were allowed leave in place a Yezidi paramilitary, the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS), which they trained to defend the region against ISIS. The ISF then sent in its forces to the region. Turkey subsequently did not fulfill its threats to attack.
The Hashd paramilitaries are under the command of Baghdad and have been formally incorporated into the regular armed forces. They were initially assembled to fight off the ISIS threat after the Iraqi army infamously fled ahead of ISIS's takeover of Mosul in June 2014. Despite Baghdad's ostensible command and control over the Hashd Shesho says that efforts to create a thaw to ease the current tensions and avoid the dire prospect of escalation have been fruitless.
"We talked to their superior, the central government,” Shesho said. “They [Baghdad] say that it will get better. But it never got better, nor will it be better in the future."
*sometimes spelled 'Yazidis'
**sometimes spelled 'Shasho'
Qasim Shesho, Yezidi leader who fought ISIS (Seth J. Frantzman)