Sinjar’s bittersweet victory
Retaking Sinjar from the Islamic State group is a triumph for Iraq, but its seizure by the Kurds could also be a setback for the country, writes Salah Nasrawi
Things couldn’t have gone much better for the embattled president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, who faces an on-going revolt by opposition parties and civil society groups for refusing to step down and hold presidential elections despite the end of his term in office in August.
A joint Kurdish force on Friday took control of the strategic town of Sinjar in northern Iraq with the help of US-led coalition airstrikes after more than 15 months of its seizure by the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Barzani rushed to declare victory for “liberating” Sinjar, alleging that the town, part of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, had been retaken solely by the Kurdistan Region Government’s (KRG) forces.
“Sinjar has been liberated by the Peshmergas,” Barzani boasted, using the Kurdish name for the fighters. He said the town, like dozens of others taken back from IS, would remain forever under the KRG’s red, white, green and yellow banner.
“Other than the Kurdistan flag, we do not accept any other flag rising over Sinjar,” Barzani vowed in a video from atop a hill overlooking the city whose name has been changed by Kurds to Shengal.
But celebrating the annexation of Sinjar, underlined by Barzani’s bragging, may not be as good as it looks. By declaring the liberation of Sinjar, a contested town which is traditionally populated by the Yazidi religious minority, Barzani may have overplayed his hand while he is being challenged by the Shia-led Iraqi government in Baghdad and his Kurdish rivals.
Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi reacted angrily to the announcement and insisted that the Iraqi flag should be raised above the town, while Shia groups demanded that Sinjar be placed back under the central government’s control.
Meanwhile, Barzani has been facing tough opposition to his leadership at home. The main Kurdish parties have challenged his legitimacy as KRG president after he refused to hold elections to choose a new president following the expiration of his second term in office.
Barzani has also refused to step down, triggering a political crisis that has paralysed the government and regional parliament. The dispute culminated in late October when the KRG unilaterally removed four ministers from the Gorran (Change) Party from their posts and replaced them with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) loyalists.
Barzani’s KDP security forces also barred the speaker of the parliament, a senior Gorran member, from entering Erbil, the region’s capital, in a move slammed by opposition parties as illegal.
Barzani’s swift declaration of triumph in Sinjar could be an unrealistic self-assessment by an embattled leader who is trying to reestablish himself as a Kurdish national hero.
Analysts have noted that Barzani has been trapped by his own ambitions and attempts to stay strong, and Sinjar’s capture could do little to overcome his woes by substituting IS or his political adversaries for building a unified and democratic Kurdistan.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sinjar, home to the biggest Yazidi community in Iraq and hosting some of its most scared shrines, has been a flashpoint for ethnic and religious disputes.
The Yazidis are a religious minority that descends from some of the region’s most ancient roots. Though most of the nearly half a million Yazidis in Iraq speak a kind of a Kurdish dialect they remain members of a distinctive religion.
While some Iraqi Yazidis consider themselves to be Kurds, others, like the more than a million Yazidis in Russia, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Iran who do not identify themselves with ethnicities in these countries, refuse to be identified with the Kurds, who are also predominantly Sunni Muslims.
Over the centuries, the Yazidis have been persecuted by their Muslim neighbours who see them as non-believers. In recent years, Yazidis have been slaughtered by fanatics in Iraq, including Kurds, who have used trucks laden with explosives and driven them into their towns.
Sinjar has been a hotbed for inter-Kurdish rivalry since the conflict in Syria started some five years ago. Several Kurdish factions have been seeking dominance of the strategic town which lies on the border with Syria and Turkey.
While Barzani’s Peshmerga forces have long been dominant in towns and villages neighbouring Sinjar, they have been contested by fighters from the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey which is vying for influence across Kurdish areas in Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Following the capture of Sinjar by IS militants in summer 2014, the PKK helped to find a representative political body for displaced Yazidis and established a Yazidi force to fight against IS militants and to police Yazidi areas.
This force, considered as the most organised, is believed to have played a key role in the fight to take back Sinjar from IS militants.
Other Yazidis have independently formed a voluntary military force known as the Sinjar Defence Units. In April, KDP security forces briefly detained a leader of this group on charges of setting up an illegal military force before releasing him for fear of a backlash.
Yazidis from all over the world have joined these groups in the fight against IS.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KDP’s main rival in the autonomous Region, has also been expanding its organisations in Sinjar. Its members are working closely with the PKK, other Kurdish groups and Yazidi forces to challenge Barzani’s control of this vital area.
Sinjar is situated in territories often called “disputed territories” by the KRG. Since the war to push back IS militants began last year, Kurdish Peshmergas have seized several towns and cities, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
KRG officials said the newly acquired territories would remain under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Government and would not be returned to the Baghdad government. The territorial conflict between the Kurds and the Baghdad government is highly contentious and may trigger a war because both sides consider the land a core interest.
The recapture of Sinjar from IS comes amid rising tensions between the Kurdish Peshmergas and Shia paramilitary forces in other parts of the so-called disputed areas.
On Thursday, violence in Tuz Khurmatu, a town about 175 km north of Baghdad, left at least 16 people dead, including five civilians. The fighting turned the mostly Turkomen-populated town into a battlefield and cut a strategic road linking Baghdad to Kirkuk.
The clashes began when fighters from a Turkomen-Shia armed group tried to ram a checkpoint in the town manned by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Most of the Tuz Khurmatu population are Shias, though they are also ethnically Turkomen. They have been resisting Kurdish attempts to impose control over their town for some time.
Though the fighting stopped after mediation by top politicians, Shia militias said they had been sending reinforcements to the town and threatened to “protect” Tuz Khurmatu against what they described as “the barbaric attacks by the Kurdish Peshmergas.”
Barzani’s grip on power remains strong, but this and many other flashpoints should serve as a reminder that he needs to learn the limit of his strength and that he cannot capitalise on the chaos in Iraq to stay forever as the leader of the Kurds and advance his own agenda.
The recapture of Sinjar has dominated headlines and raised expectations that IS will now be driven from other cities in Iraq. But Barzani’s unwavering determination to keep the territories under KRG control has raised red flags in Baghdad and other capitals in the region.
While Al-Abadi has publicly voiced concerns about raising the Kurdish flag in Sinjar, other Shia politicians have warned of the Kurdish use of the standoff to expand control over huge swathes of land taken back from IS.
Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia, warned that the Shias would “liberate” Sinjar from the Kurds. “Sinjar is an Iraqi town which has changed from the Daesh occupation to another occupation,” Al-Khazali said, using the Arabic name for IS.
“We will take back the town,” he vowed.
These and other clashing interests speak volumes about the challenges Iraq now faces, and territorial disputes have a strong possibility of developing into wars.
Last week, Barzani told a delegation from Sulaimaniyah pushing for reconciliation that a Kurdish state could have been declared had the Region’s political parties avoided the current crisis over his presidency.
This overstatement might have been designed to strike a nationalistic chord, but going too far in exploiting Iraq’s chaos to serve a personal agenda will have far-reaching consequences, including the failure to eliminate IS threats to both the Kurds and the Baghdad government.
This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly on November 19, 2015