Alkis Konstantinidis / REUTERS Kurdish Peshmerga fighters line up at a defensive point near Sinjar, Iraq, June 2017.

The Struggle Over Sinjar

Who Wants the Territory, and Why It Matters

The Iraqi town of Sinjar first became widely known in August 2014 thanks to an Islamic State (ISIS)-led genocide of much of its Yazidi population. But now, this remote area in northern Iraq is prominent for another reason. Although the territory is not rich in natural resources or population, geopolitically, it is invaluable. In fact, it is probably the most contested thousand square miles in the Middle East.

Kurdistan and the Iraqi federal government both claim the territory. But on the ground, Shiite militias (or Popular Mobilization Units), ISIS militants fleeing Mosul, and different Kurdish groups are fighting over it. Meanwhile, from the air, Turkey is shelling the area.

Control over this mountainous territory could mean that PKK affiliates would, for the first time, get seats in the Iraqi parliament.

Although Kurds have been in de facto control of Sinjar since 2003, it is not clear which particular Kurdish group the territory belongs to. For its part, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) wants affiliated Yazidi organizations, such as the Shangal Resistance Units (YBS), to eventually govern the territory. The PKK, which arose among Kurds in Turkey, sees the Yazidis as Kurds (one of the PKK’s top leaders is a Yazidi from the area), and many Yazidis are loyal to the PKK, believing it to be the only force that defended them from ISIS in 2014. 

Control over this mountainous territory could mean that PKK affiliates would, for the first time, get seats in the Iraqi parliament. In preparation, the PKK has struck up ties to a one-month-old political party, the Yazidis’ Democracy and Freedom Party (PADY), which plans to participate in elections in late 2017. “Sinjar is our land,” YBS spokesman Zardasht Shangali said. “Our political party is supported by 80 percent of the population of the region, and in any election in Sinjar, PADY will get at least 80 percent of the Yazidi population’s votes.”

But the PKK and YBS aren’t the only Kurdish forces in the region. The Iraq-based Kurdistan Democrats’ Party (KDP), which has a history of armed conflict with rival PKK, does not want to lose the territory, which it has controlled since 2003. If the PKK in Iraq manages to gain seats in parliament and eventually links with PKK-related organizations in Kurdish territories in northern Syria, it would make it the strongest Kurdish force in the world. In turn, the KDP’s political power would be diminished, even at home. According to Halgurd Hikmat, spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga, “all non-state armed groups in Sinjar as PKK are not tolerable because the Iraqi constitution and KRG’s laws only allow Peshmerga forces to operate in Kurdistan. In addition, Sinjar is not a right place for PKK’s struggle, so there is no reason for them to be there.” 

Recently, Iraqi Shiite PMUs also entered Sinjar, liberating several villages from ISIS. According to the Peshmerga’s commander of Sinjar, Sarbast Lazgeen, that was against an agreement between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi Federal Government, in which Kurdish areas of Sinjar were supposed to be liberated only by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. In addition, in a public announcement on May 30, the general commander of KRG military forces stated that “there is no force that could enter Kurdistan. If they want, they could try, but they will be immediately defeated.” Similar Shiite interventions could happen in the future. For now, the Iraqi federal government and Kurdistan have put on hold arguments over disputed territories because of the war with ISIS. But such disagreements could resume after ISIS is defeated.

Shiite fighters during clashes with Islamic State militants south of Kirkuk, Iraq, March 2015.

Shiite fighters during clashes with Islamic State militants south of Kirkuk, Iraq, March 2015.

Turkey, for its part, is loath to see the PKK, its main enemy, increase its territory so close to the Turkish border, especially in an area that lends itself well to insurgent activity. It was from those high, wild mountains that Saddam Hussein’s forces shelled Israel in 1991.They have also protected Yazidis throughout history, even during the 2014 genocide. To keep the PKK from taking root, Turkey has now turned to airstrikes, a shelling campaign similar to the one it raised on PKK headquarters in another territory in Kurdistan: the Qandil Mountains. The PKK has turned to digging a tunnel system to protect itself from airstrikes.

Because of Sinjar’s location and because of the influx of ISIS militants escaping Mosul, other countries are watching it closely as well. There is even discussion among an anti-ISIS coalition of deploying an international force to stabilize the area. Several countries, particularly Germany, are concerned that weapons supplied to KDP Peshmerga fighters to combat ISIS are instead being used to overrun Sinjar.

That rankles Turkey, which prefers to handle the region itself. In turn, disagreements between Turkey and the international community could have a negative effect on the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria. Also not helping: to fight against each other in Sinjar, Yazidi Kurds were moved from the front line of the battle with ISIS in the province, and a KDP force was moved from front lines in the province of Northern Nineveh. Given the security situation, moving those troops to Sinjar means depriving the KRG of the manpower to ensure its security elsewhere.

This conflict could destabilize the whole region. Because so many local and international interests are connected on this relatively small territory, without a stable Sinjar, it will be very hard to stabilize Iraq, much less Syria and the region.

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