The Islamic State’s recent attack upon the Sinjar area of Ninewa province has brought world attention to the plight of Iraq’s Yazidis. Insurgents have targeted the small religious group for years, but after Sinjar was taken there were mass executions and kidnappings of more than 1,000 women by the Islamists. The situation was made worse by unfulfilled promises by local Kurdish officials to protect the community. To help explain the situation is Christine van den Toorn who runs The Primary Source a Sulaymaniya based research group, and who is also reporting for Iraq Oil Report and the Daily Beast from northern Iraq. She can be followed on Twitter .
1. Northern Ninewa province is home to many of Iraq’s minorities including the Yazidis. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has made a concerted effort to reach out and co-opt these groups. What kinds of policies did the Kurdish political parties carry out in the Sinjar area?
An insurgent inside a KDP office in Sinjar. The KDP dominated the politics of the area
KRG – really KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] – policies in Sinjar and other minority, especially Yazidi, communities in Ninewa are a perfect example of patronage politics. I say the KDP because it is the ruling party in Dohuk province and in Ninewa among Kurdish and minority populations.
The relationship began with the provision of security during and after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Peshmerga forces secured minority Yazidi and Christian areas in Ninewa, including Sinjar. This became increasingly important over the years as Al Qaeda’s presence grew in and around Mosul threatening minority communities. The most deadly attack during the U.S. occupation was in Qahtaniya in southern Sinjar. Over 700 Yazidis were killed. So the KRG and the KDP peshmerga became the guarantors of security for Yazidis in Sinjar.
Under this umbrella of security, the KDP showered those loyal to the Party with handouts, salaries and jobs. This came at the expense of quality. For example thousands of people hired as teachers by the Party for the KRG did not have degrees or any background in their subjects. In addition to teachers, many Sinjaris are employed by the KDP as party officials, police and peshmerga. There is a general feeling – though this true for all of Kurdistan region – that someone cannot get a job or access power if they are not in the Party.
In addition to jobs there are handouts – stipend of monthly salary for turning a building into a KDP office, especially before elections, for example. There were dozens in even small towns in Sinjar.
The KDP really infiltrated every aspect of life. Last spring for example there was a group wedding sponsored by the KDP where Party flags were hung and Party songs were played. Before elections – for example national elections last April – the town was covered in yellow and red KDP flags and there were rallies every week to which girls and women wear yellow and red dresses.
There are also attempts to change the education system from Arabic and the Baghdad system to Kurdish and the KRG system. Many KRG affiliated schools have opened and teach in Kurdish. While Sinjaris' first language is Kermanji Kurdish, they also speak Arabic and many still want to study in the language they see as useful.
In return for the jobs and security people in Sinjar have voted overwhelmingly disproportionate for the KDP, and to a lesser extent the PUK, in elections. Many have said to me over the years that KDP, Kurdish power in Ninewa is all on the back of Sinjar. They have consistently sent KDP candidates to the parliament in Baghdad and to the Ninewa provincial council.
The issue here is that while the majority of voters and population of Sinjar is Yazidi, somehow many of the candidates who win seats are Muslim Kurds. (This reflects greater Ninewa - a disproportionate number of Muslim Kurds win seats in a province where there are not that many Muslims Kurds. There have though been huge demographic shifts since 2005 as minority populations, Yazidis and Christian have fled Ninewa and in some cases Kurds have repopulated the areas, like Shaikhan.) Number-wise, this just doesn’t make sense. There aren’t enough Muslim Kurds to put 4 on the Mosul council, for example. Last time in the Ninewa provincial council, Yazidis won 7 of the 11 Kurdish List seats, and “only 7” in their minds. To explain this, Yazidis say the KDP manipulates voting districts and suppresses Yazidi votes. The Party pushes Muslim Kurdish candidates in highly populated areas and marginalizes Yazidi candidates during the campaign. Locals say they also suppress the number of Yazidi votes by committing fraud during vote counting. For example Saido Jito was a Yazidi candidate from Sinjar many expected to be president of the council, but he did not even win a seat. (He later got on the council when another KDP winner took a leadership post.) He was one of many Yazidis expected to win. Moreover, Yazidis from Sinjar were not happy, to say the least, when despite winning those 7 seats they did not even receive a leadership position on the council. Rather 2 Muslim Kurds were selected for president and first deputy.
A recent local example of this is that Yazidis in Sinjar who were Party, government and peshmerga officials said that there had been meetings to which they were not invited in recent months. In addition, after peshmerga regrouped in Dohuk after the withdrawal from Sinjar, Yezidi peshmerga were told not to come back.
This reflects that even though the KRG and KDP say publicly that Yazidis are Kurds, the "original Kurds," most Kurds and the KRG don’t really consider Yazidis Kurdish Kurds or real Kurds. They are not fully trusted by the KRG. They are also second class citizens socially and religiously. Derogatory stereotypes are common in Kurdish and Iraqi Arab society that Yazidis – and their food water and tea – are dirty, don’t shower, and worship the devil.
KDP and KRG also uses the claim that Sinjar, or “Shingal” in Kurdish, is a historic part of Kurdistan to justify their takeover of the area.
Despite the second class treatment, Yazidis have no one else to turn to and need the jobs and security the KDP and KRG provide. However now that the provision of security is gone, that might change.
And it is a two way street. As the KRG and Kurdish Kurds, Yazidis consider themselves Kurds in varying degrees. They consider their religious identity first and second and sometimes third. Some Yazidis say they are Kurds, some say maybe they are Kurds or used to be Kurds, and others will say they are not Kurdish. Some Yazidis' Kurdish identity has more to do with politics, allegiance to the KRG, others say it is due to cultural and historic claims.
Identity aside, the main reason the KRG and the KDP are present in Sinjar is politics and oil. They want to fortify and extend Kurdish rule in Ninewa where there are unexplored, like in Shaikhan, Bashiqa and Al Qosh.
The most important point here is that over the past ten years the KRG, and really the KDP, became not just the main but the only guarantors of security in Sinjar and then withdrew that security when ISIS attacked, leaving Yazidis in the hands of the militant Islamic group.
2. Before the summer insurgent offensive there had been some earlier attacks upon the people of Sinjar in the spring of 2014. What happened then?
Since 2012 Yazidis and other minorities, Shabak and Christians, were increasingly targeted in and around Mosul. Students from Sinjar and Bashiqa going to university in Mosul were threatened and one day two of their drivers were killed in a cafeteria. In May Yazidis from Sinjar were killed in Rabiaa while going on the annual tomato harvest. (See article below.) These are just two of many incidents.
Over the past two months since ISIS entered Mosul, the militant group took control of every district around Sinjar except the road from Sinjar through Rabiaa to Dohuk. They had Sinjar surrounded, and carried out many attacks that should have led Kurdish security officials to be more concerned about a potential larger incursion like the one that happened on August 3.
ISIS was in control of Baaj to the south of Sinjar, Tel Afar to the east, and had positions all over the farms of Raabia to the north. Peshmerga still controlled the road from Sinjar to Dohuk that goes through Raabia, but there were attacks along it, mostly on Shia Turkmen who had fled Tel Afar to Sinjar and were then going to Dohuk. Several times in July mortars were fired from Baaj on villages in south Sinjar like Tel Banat and Belej. Officials and locals said ISIS and local Arabs allied with them fired the mortars.
Yazidis from the villages south of the mountains like Sebaya and Tel Banat told me that weekly and sometimes daily there were mortars fired into their towns and occasionally shots fired on their cars over the past two months, and even before. They requested help and weapons from the KDP office in Sinjar but were denied, and told it was not their job to give out guns.
3. After Mosul fell in June it seemed like the Kurdish authorities were not too concerned with the insurgent offensive, while the Yazidis wanted to leave the Sinjar area. Why were there these differing views of the militants’ victories?
With good reason, over the past two months citizens of Sinjar have been extremely worried, upset, anxious, to say the least, that ISIS would come to their town next. Families now recall daily debate and conversations about leaving.
One factor that kept them in Sinjar was the constant reassurances from the KDP and Kurdish security forces that they were there to protect them and encouraged them to stay in Sinjar. KDP officials were told to keep people calm and tell them to stay in Sinjar. Lower ranking party members were told by their higher ups if people left their neighborhoods and districts their salaries would be cut.
Many Yazidis in Sinjar asked for weapons (especially after peshmerga took much of the Iraqi Army and Iraq Border Police equipment after they withdrew) to defend their areas but were constantly denied, told that it was not the peshmerga or Party’s job to give out weapons, but to protect locals.
Many have said that the KRG focused all of their energy on Kirkuk, and the KDP moved all of its weapons there from Sinjar. Kirkuk is the prize, and KDP probably wanted to challenge PUK authority there. Despite all of the signs of an ISIS attack on Sinjar, they put little effort into defending the district.
Any way you cut the cake this was a massive strategic and security failure. It is difficult to imagine that the KRG did not even consider an attack possible on Sinjar considering Daash perception of Yazidis and that they had the district surrounded. Moreover geographically it is the only district remaining that interrupted the “caliphate.”
While the failure is partially because Kurds were overstretched and overextended and just incapable of defending all this land against ISIS, I’d argue some of it has roots in Kurdish, KDP paper tiger patronage politics, and a feeling among the KRG that Yazidis aren’t really Kurds and when push comes to shove won't be defended, especially if there is a chance they will lose.
4. What happened when the Islamic State finally attacked the Sinjar area?
The ISIS attack on Sinjar came around 2:00am on the morning of Sunday, August 3. They first attacked southern villages like Tel Banat and Sebaya with mortars and then with ground forces and pick up trucks from Baaj district south of Sinjar. Local Yazidi men fought for hours, until 7:00 to 8:00 am when they ran out of ammunition. Many men from these villages said they fought because they expected the peshmerga to come support them but Kurdish forces never arrived. Some had even more troubling stories of calling KDP and peshmerga friends and officials who told them that back up was coming, but it never did, and in reality the peshmerga and KDP had already withdrawn. In each village that fought, hundreds of men died, though they also reported killing Dassh elements. A man from Sebaya suspected ISIS killed around 400 local men in the fighting, not including the massacres that followed.
Sometime in the early morning hours, 8 to 10 thousand peshmerga troops, and upper level KDP officials withdrew. One of the first was the head of branch 17 in Sinjar Sarbast Baiperi. He left actually the night before, sneaking out in a car with only a couple guards. It is important to note that some peshmerga – handfuls here and there – stayed to fight.
When Yazidis arrived to safety in Syria and in Tirbka checkpoint north of the mountain, it was strange for them to see KDP and peshmerga from Sinjar already there.
It is important to note that some officials and peshmerga did stay to help fight ISIS and evacuate civilians. However they were few and far between.
And not only did peshmerga not fight, they did not evacuate civilians which meant that thousands of other men were massacred (lined up and shot) and hundreds of women, girls and even whole families were captured by Daash. They are now being held in villages around Tel Afar, Badush prison, Kayara airport hangers and many are being sold in the Mosul souq.
Not only did troops and officials leave, but they did not tell anyone they were leaving. They gave no warning to people on the northside of the mountain, for example, which could have prevented hundreds, thousands of deaths. All people I talked to recounted hearing about the ISIS attack from friends and family members on the southside of the mountain.
Even when some people heard ISIS attacked they stayed because they thought peshmerga would fight back and protect them.
This withdrawal, lack of warning and no evacuation led people to stay in their homes for hours longer than they should have, and hence led to thousands of deaths and kidnappings.
5. To what extent did local Sunni Arabs or Muslims participate in the attack?
Besides the withdrawal of officials and security forces, Yazidis say the main reason things went so wrong on August 3 was because of participation of their Arab, Muslim neighbors.
However they will also admit it is a mixed bag. While they say "most" Muslims sided with Daash, they talk about many individuals who helped Yazidis escape.
Yazidis from Sinjar say that their Muslim neighbors participated widely in attacks in three ways. One, they provided intelligence to ISIS about the Yazidi communities in Sinjar, like a mukhabarat. The Muslims of Sinjar also allowed ISIS to stay in their homes over past months to study towns, and even the night before the attacks. Last some Muslim either acted as passive bystanders to ISIS attacks or actively participated in the attacks.
Many have stories of recognizing their attackers on August 3 or in videos of massacres since then. One Yazidi man from Khanasor's kreef (a word that signifies a brother like relationship between Yazidis and Muslims) from Zako village is now known to be participating with Daash, for example. On the other hand, many Yazidis have stories of the kreef giving them cars and "Arab clothes" to help them escape, and warning them of the ISIS attack. Most Yazidis say the Shammar tribe in Rabiaa, with whom Yazidis from Sinjar have historic socioeconomic relations did not widely participate. Most of their shaykh had left early on after the ISIS attack as they were officials in the Mosul government.
Yazidis and Muslim Arabs and Kurds have lived side by side in Sinjar for centuries. They are friends, neighbors and kreef. They attend each other's weddings and funerals. So many were surprised, though not too surprised that many of their former friends collaborated. Some said they have never fully trusted Muslims, but that could be just in retrospect.
They explain the collaboration in several ways. Many say it is religion, their Muslim neighbors wanted to be part of the Islamic Caliphate which would give them more power. Many say it was politics. They say that the Sunni Arabs (Muslims) in Sinjar joined due to their loss of power in Sinjar, Ninewa and Iraq. Since 2003 the KDP has taken over Sinjar, giving Yazidi population who they consider Kurds new power. Yazidis say that the Muslims, or Sunni Arabs saw this as their chance to retake power. Many say Muslims stayed "because they could" and wanted to protect their property.
Whether or not collaboration was widespread, even those Yazidis who don't blame Muslims or Sunni Arabs say that there will always be "something" there now, meaning that they will never be able to trust or live comfortably with them as neighbors again.
YPG fighters from Syria helped secure routes for Yazidis to flee IS (Rojava Report)
6. The Kurds finally rallied their forces, but it appeared that this was largely due to the arrival of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from Turkey and Syria. As I understand it there was a PKK camp in the area, but fighters also came in across from the Syrian border. Can you give some details of what transpired?
When the KDP and peshmerga were pulling out of Sinjar the morning of August 3, the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, were pulling in. They fought ISIS and protected the route for Yazidis to leave the area. They then helped Yazidis on the mountain for the next week. Most famously, along with U.S. airstrikes, the YPG fighters cleared a path for the 40,000 Yazidis to exit the mountain. Today, they are still fighting on the mountain, and have trained thousands of Yazidi youth, boys and girls, from Sinjar to also fight ISIS in Sinjar as part of the new YBS, which translates to the Resistance Brigade of Shingal.
The YBS, YPG and Qassim Shesho's brigades have ambushed ISIS positions over the past week in villages north of the mountain and are reported to have taken back Dugre, Borek and Dohala towns. They however have only AKs and little ammo and will not be able to defeat Daash alone in Sinjar. (Qassim Shesho has become the hero of Sinjar, a local man who has pledged to never leave the mountain and is fighting with a rag tag groups of locals.)
The peshmerga reportedly are still nowhere to be seen. It is only the YBS, YPG and Qassim Shesho's brigade fighting ISIS from the mountain.
It will be difficult to retake Sinjar because it would require taking at least one of the surrounding districts, if not all, to totally eliminate the threat. Sinjar is surrounded by Daash on all sides (Baaj, Tel Afar, Rabiaa). From time to time YPG have had a semi-safe route from Syria to reach villages in the north.
7. The U.S. has said that the Sinjar Mountain refugee crisis is largely over, but are there still people there and what is their situation?
It is hard to know exactly who is still on the mountain and why. I have heard from Sinjar friends that there are still civilians from Sinjar on the mountain, possibly around five thousand. Some of these people did not want to leave and have lived on the mountain for their whole lives in small villages and nomadic outposts. Others might not have been able to reach the safe passage provided by YPG and US airstrikes earlier this month.
There are also probably two to four thousand fighters on the mountains - Qassim Shesho and Kheri Shingaly and their brigades, the YPG, the new YBS (young men and women from Sinjar who the YPG has trained) and scattered other groups.
8. Finally, what’s in the future for the displaced Yazidis. Do they want to return to their homes if they’re retaken, do they want to stay in Kurdistan, do they want to be resettled somewhere else or some other alternative?
Yazidis from Sinjar want either to immigrate to the west or international protection for Sinjar.
Many Yazidis from Sinjar want to immigrate anywhere in the west - Europe, Canada, America or Australia. In their words "anywhere that Islam is not the majority." There are many in this group that say they will not return to Sinjar under any circumstance, that they "have forgotten Sinjar." This is a bold statement considering the historic and present attachment to Sinjar.
There are some who say they would agree to go back if there was "international protection," forces from the U.S. or UN. Yazidis also want a region formed in Ninewa for only minorities - Christians and Yazidis. They also discuss the need for an all Yazidi force to protect the Region alongside, for example, U.N. peacekeepers. They want only Yazidis from Sinjar to run the local government. (Yazidis from Bashiqa mostly say they will go back but only if there is international protection forces. They have a different attitude because there was no violence there and Muslim neighbors did not turn against them.)
There is a large divide between what Yazidis from Sinjar want and what their leaders are advocating for. Most of their leaders are in the KDP and are therefore toeing the Party and KRG line that Yazidis should stay in Kurdistan Region and Iraq and then go back to Sinjar. They do not want Yazidis moving abroad. That said is also potentially unrealistic that over 500,000 Yazidis will be accepted by one or two foreign states.
There are two main reasons they do not want to go home. One, they do not trust, and say they can never trust again, the KRG, Kurdish security forces and the Iraqi army to protect them. Two, they cannot trust their Arab, Muslim neighbors. They argue this is not the first time an army has attacked them under the banner of Islam and it will happen again.
Van den Toorn, Christine and Ashur, Nawaf, “attacks on harvest workers in northern iraq signal new security crisis,” Niqash, 5/29/14
- “How the U.S.-favored Kurds Abandoned the Yazidis when ISIS Attacked,” Daily Beast, 8/17/14