The beginning of August marked the one year anniversary of the Islamic State’s assault upon the Yazidis of the Sinjar district in Iraq’s Ninewa province. Not only did the militants seize the territory, but massacred and enslaving the populace. What made the situation worse was that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which was in charge of the area prevented Yazidis from leaving the area and arming themselves before fleeing without a fight when IS launched its operation. Afterward, Syrian, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish forces liberated part of the district leaving thousands of Yazidis still under the insurgents’ rule. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has tried to cover up this history by creating a new narrative that it suffered a military defeat at the hands of IS, then saved the Yazidis, and will soon free all of Sinjar sometime soon.
In August there were several commemorations marking the fall of Sinjar. Yazidis demonstrated in Sulaymaniya demanding that the entire district be liberated to save the thousands of their brethren still in captivity. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani gave a speech in Dohuk saying that the peshmerga stopped the advance into Sinjar, that the Yazidis would be revenged, that there was a plan to free all of Sinjar, and that afterward it would be made a province of the Kurdistan Region. A peshmerga commander added that an offensive would start soon in the district. This gave a glimpse into the two different versions that have developed over what happened in Ninewa 12 months ago; were the Kurds the saviors or failures?
The tragedy of the Yazidis began after the fall of Mosul in June 2014. Afterward the security forces in most of Ninewa disintegrated allowing the Kurdish peshmerga to move forward from their bases and take control of several areas including Sinjar. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) considered it a disputed territory, which should be annexed, and saw the local Yazidis as ethnic Kurds. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official put in charge of Sinjar Sarbast Bapiri ensured the locals that the peshmerga were there to protect them from the Islamic State and they had nothing to worry about.
To ensure their control of the area, the KDP armed their supports amongst the Yazidis and disarmed others. Many Yazidis had seized weapons from the retreating army, police and border guards. They were disarmed by the peshmerga. A local leader and former lawmaker Haider Sesho formed a 3,500 man militia, but was refused arms by the KDP. Finally, the Religious Council of Yazidis asked President Barzani to set up a Yazidi peshmerga unit under the Peshmerga Ministry to defend Sinjar, but was turned down as well. The KDP did allow a Yazidi armed group to be created under one of its allies known as the Hez Res, the Black Unit. These decisions left Sinjar largely under the protection of the KDP and its units. Without them the Yazidis would not be able to defend themselves against the insurgents who were coming.
In the early morning of August 4, 2014 the Islamic State attacked Sinjar. Yazidi villages used their personal weapons and some they’d kept from the security forces to hold off the first wave of attacks. They desperately pleaded with the peshmerga for help several times and were told that relief was coming. The KDP politburo for example told the fighters to hold fast until the peshmerga arrived. In reality no help was coming. The Kurdish units in the district were unilaterally withdrawing without telling the locals. Not only that, in several instances the Kurds would not allow villagers to flee with them, and told them to go back to their homes. In one case when Yazidi peshmerga saw their unit packing up to leave they told their commanders they were staying to defend their villages and asked for weapons. This led to an argument and three Yazidi peshmerga were killed. The Kurdish decision allowed IS to surround the southern villages and later take the rest of the district as they overwhelmed the lightly armed villagers. Approximately 36,000 Yazidis in the north and east were able to flee to the KRG, but thousands more ended up trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Immediately after the Islamic State took Yazidi areas it began a systematic campaign to destroy the communities. As Amnesty International and the United Nation’s Human Rights Office documented, IS fighters would come into a village, kill the men and boys, while taking away the women and children. Most of the latter were shipped off to Tal Afar by the Syrian border or Mosul. There they were raped, put into forced marriages, and sold off as sex slaves. In Kojo for example, 600 men were massacred, and around 1,000 women were captured. This process was repeated again and again in what some have called genocide.
These abuses not only led the United States to become involved in the conflict, but a regional coalition of Kurdish forces as well. On August 7, President Obama announced that the U.S. would intervene to stop the massacre of Yazidis. The next day the first air strikes began along with humanitarian deliveries. On the ground a joint Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from northern Kurdistan and People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Syria began an offensive to free the people trapped on Mount Sinjar. On August 14 they reached their first village in the district before reaching the mountain itself. In September and October local Yazidi units attempted to take back the town of Sinjar itself but were turned back each time due to a lack of heavy weaponry. In that last month they were joined by the peshmerga who finally ended the siege of Mount Sinjar by December. This prompted President Barzani to travel to the site and declare victory. There were several attempts on Sinjar town itself, but those were halted by the end of the month. In January there was one more small operation there, but the peshmerga had largely dug in and created set battlefront with the insurgents. The Kurds have maintained those positions ever since.
The Kurdistan Regional Government took two approaches to explain its actions in Sinjar, which was first indignation, followed by a cover up. First, President Barzani said he would bring to justice all those responsible for the Sinjar debacle. Several KDP officials from the district were put under house arrest, and dozens of peshmerga commanders were questioned. Nothing happened to any of them, and they were eventually allowed to return to their duties. Then the KRG moved into its second phase, which was to accuse others of the failure to free the entire district, and call the Yazidis ungrateful. Kurdish officials went after the PKK and PYD blaming them for Sinjar town not being recaptured. One peshmerga commander asked why the others Kurdish forces were even there saying that Sinjar was part of Kurdistan and therefore only the peshmerga should be there. The KDP and its media allies would then attack the PKK for either attempting to take over Sinjar or encourage the locals to push for self-rule.
Finally, the Kurdish administration began creating its own story about Sinjar. For instance, a KDP peshmerga commander denied that the Kurdish forces had withdrawn from the district, but were rather defeated by the Islamic State due to its heavier weapons. Kurdish officials also acknowledged that the YPG was very helpful in the fight against IS, it was the peshmerga that ultimately freed the Yazidis. Lastly, the Kurds talk about the final liberation of Sinjar is just around the corner. This is a completely new history of events. The Kurds would have had to fight IS to be defeated by them, but as a peshmerga spokesman told Der Spiegel, “Our soldiers simply ran away [from IS in Sinjar].” Likewise the KRG continues to downplay the role of the Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Finally, the peshmerga have not moved from their lines for the last seven months, which undermines any talk of retaking Sinjar being imminent.
Sinjar was not only a tragedy but also a military and political fiasco. The Kurds came into Sinjar joyous that they were finally able to take the district after many years of claiming it as theirs. They assured the locals that they were safe and secure. When IS finally attacked in August the KDP and its peshmerga not only ran without firing a shot, but prevented several towns from fleeing probably ensuring their destruction by the militants. If that wasn’t enough the KRG then turned on its former allies the PKK and YPG, while covering up its role in the destruction of the Yazidi community. The KRG could partly make up for its mistakes if it were to free the rest of Sinjar, but it seems more interested in consolidating its hold over what it does occupy rather than fighting the Islamic State for the rest of the district. War is politics by other means. The Kurds stance towards the Yazidis is proving that point as the Kurdish government is putting its political goals in front of any tactical victories on the battlefield that might be gained in Sinjar.
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