The Islamic State (IS) wants to break down borders across the Middle East and create a new caliphate, which it announced in June 2014. Most of its attention has been on challenging the governments in Damascus and Baghdad. In early August however it turned its attention to northern Iraq and attacked areas under control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Earlier it was able to out duel the Kurdish peshmerga in Jalawla, Diyala. Then in August it seized several towns in northern Ninewa province including Sinjar. This caused a response by not only the KRG, but the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) who sent in their militias to do battle with the IS in cooperation with their Iraqi brethren. Baghdad even got involved promising air support. The Islamic State was probably not expecting that its own anti-state campaign would bring about such a regional response.
Sinjar and the surrounding towns have become a battlefield between the Islamic State and Syrian, Turkish and Iraqi Kurds along with Baghdad (NY Times)
August 4, 2014 the Islamic State launched an offensive upon Kurdish positions in Ninewa. That day insurgents attacked Sinjar, Zumar, and Wana forcing the peshmerga out. According to the Financial Times the Kurdish military was only able to rally after the intervention of the Democratic Union Party’s People’s Protection Units, which came across the Syrian Rabia border crossing, while the Kurdistan Workers’ Party moved into Jabal Sinjar. Later they were able to retake Wana, but stories of Sinjar being liberated were premature. Unfortunately that still left the town and its Yazidi population at the mercy of the Islamists. Immediately there were stories of massacres and the destruction of shrines. One of the earliest reports had 70 Yazidis executed for refusing to convert to Islam, while two shrines were blown up at the bottom of Mount Sinjar with an attempt on a third at the top of the hill. At the same time the U.N. estimated that up to 200,000 people fled in panic to the hills in the wake of the militant attacks. UNICEF believed that 25,000 of them were children, and 40 of them were said to have died from dehydration. On a positive note, Baghdad said that it would aid the Kurds by sending in air strikes, which started on August 4. Yazidis have been targeted by insurgents before, and are especially persecuted by Islamists who believe that they are devil worshippers. This was the first time the IS had challenged the Kurds in such a large fashion however. Before there had been some fighting with the peshmerga in Jalawla where the Kurds were forced to withdraw because they ran out of ammo at the end of July. This was a big offensive causing major displacement and hand wringing in Kurdistan. That sense of shock surprisingly led to the mobilization of the PKK and the PYD who had battled the IS before. That probably wasn’t what the IS thought would happen when it sought to break down the border between Iraq and Syria this summer. At the same time this brought out the political differences between these Kurdish factions. Some Kurdish media sources that seemed aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) claimed that it was the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) peshmerga who fled in the face of the insurgents and abandoned Sinjar only to be saved by the PKK, PYD and PUK forces. The PUK has faced deep internal divisions over the last year while its leader Jalal Talabani was out of the country due to health issues. Now it appears the party is trying to score political points by attacking the KDP over Sinjar.
Yazidi refugees hiding in the mountains outside Sinjar
The Islamic State made an unexpected surge into Kurdish held areas of Ninewa. Today the fight is still on as the Kurds of Iraq, Syria and Turkey have mobilized for a counter attack with the support of Baghdad from the air. The IS is a threat to the entire Middle East with its internationalist agenda. It is very important that it has finally provoked a regional response in this case. At the same time it is sad to see that some Iraqis still have the time to play upon their petty rivalries during this crisis. That undermines the apparent unity that the IS’s move has provoked. How successful this combined force will be given their differences is yet to be seen, but it is a positive move that can hopefully retake the lost territory and return the displaced Yazidis to their homes.
Agence France Presse, “Kurds unite in bid to rescue Iraq’s Yazidi minority,” 8/4/14
Daragahi, Borzou, “Isis advances punctures Kurdistan self-confidence,” Financial times, 8/4/14
Independent Press Agency, “Peshmerga regain control of the Rabia and Sinjar districts, west of Mosul,” 8/5/14
NINA, “the Islamic State blow up two Yazidi Shrines, and kill 70 Yazidis after refusing to convert to Islam,” 8/4/14
- “New clashes erupted between the IS and Peshmerga inside Makhmour north of Mosul and the displacement of tens of families towards Erbil, “8/6/14
- “Peshmerga carry out a surprise attack on Daash elements north of Mosul and force them to withdraw,” 8/6/14
- “Peshmerga regain control of the district of Sinjar and Rabia and Sanoon,” 8/4/14
- “Qassim Atta- the killing and wounding of dozens of the IS elements by airstrikes in Sinjar,” 8/4/14
Prothero, Mitchell, “Kurds from Turkey, Syria enter Iraq to battle Islamic State,” McClatchy Newspapers, 8/6/14
Al Rayy, “Peshmerga control part of Mount Sinjar, west of Mosul,” 8/6/14
- “Peshmerga progressing in Mosul neighborhoods, and news about the control of Qayara by the Iraqi army,” 8/5/14
Rudaw, “Jihadists surrounded in Iraq’s Sinjar in intense Kurdish Peshmerga offensive,” 8/4/14
- “Peshmerga Hit IS in Mosul,” 8/6/14
Shafaq News, “Peshmerga clear Wana city from ISIS,” 8/4/14
Stout, David, “Be Captured and Killed, or Risk Dying of Thirst: The Awful Choice Facing the Refugees of Sinjar,” Time, 8/6/14
Tomkiw, Lydia, “Iraq’s jihadis have vowed to wipe out the Yazidis. Who are they?” Christian Science Monitor, 8/5/14