Matthew Petti, Columbia University:
On December 4, Human Rights Watch published a disturbing report on the treatment of Êzîdî genocide survivors by the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. The police forces of the KRG are enforcing a blockade on Mount Sinjar, an Êzîdî-majority region that was devastated by ISIS, for political reasons, preventing the return of refugees to their homeland and the reconstruction of their communities. Although the portrayal of Kurdish nationalist groups has been almost entirely positive in the English-language media, the KRG’s actions in Sinjar demonstrate serious problems that must be resolved before Kurdish independence is granted.
Since the American invasion in 2003, the Kurdish speaking provinces of Iraq have had control of their own affairs. While it is officially part of the Republic of Iraq, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has its own parliament, flag and army. Especially given the rise of ISIS and the collapse of Iraqi government authority in much of the country, it has seemed that Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan have been headed for a “velvet divorce” under President Mesûd Barzanî of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Although the KRG has a very positive image in the United States, in no small part due to its role in fighting ISIS and its support for American policies in the Middle East, this image conceals tensions within Iraqi Kurdistan.
Êzîdî people, a Kurdish-speaking group who sometimes consider themselves a separate ethnicity, have a unique religion with elements dating back to pre-Islamic times. Their uniqueness has often proven a curse rather than a blessing, as the Êzidi community has come under attack several times – during the intercommunal violence in 2007, the murder of an Êzîdî woman by her family for eloping with a Muslim boy sparked revenge killings and the massacre of hundreds of innocent Êzîdi civilians. In addition to tensions with surrounding communities, a popular misinterpretation of the Êzîdî figure “Tawûsê Melek” (Peacock Angel) as the Devil has caused much of the community’s grief. Indeed, the worst threat to the survival of the Êzîdî people came in 2014, when the newly declared “Islamic State” (ISIS) declared them “devil worshippers.”
In accordance with its apocalyptic theology, ISIS decided to totally annihilate the Êzîdî religion. It found the Êzîdî homeland of Sinjar totally unguarded; although is officially outside the borders of the KRG, there were no Iraqi central government soldiers stationed there, and the KRG forces fled, leaving the locals unprotected. Êzîdî men were executed en masse, while women and children were kidnapped. ISIS subjected captive Êzîdi women to sexual slavery, while subjecting their male children to indoctrination aimed at erasing their identity. The survivors retreated to the peak of Mount Sinjar, where thousands were trapped without food or water. It was, in fact, the humanitarian crisis at Sinjar that caused the initial US intervention against ISIS.
Another, lesser-known foreign intervention set the stage for the current conflict between the KRG and its Êzîdî citizens. Across the border, a leftist militia called the People’s Protection Units (YPG) had taken control of much of the Kurdish-speaking territory in Syria. (Today, the YPG is part of a larger alliance of secular opposition groups called the Syrian Democratic Forces.) When the Êzîdî genocide began, the YPG and its allies in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) crossed the border to break the siege on Mount Sinjar and establish evacuation corridors for Êzîdi refugees.
The failure of the KRG to protect Sinjar, and the YPG/PKK success at doing so, generated widespread support for leftist parties among the Êzîdî community. Many believe that withdrawal of KRG forces was intentional, ensuring the destruction of a marginalized minority. This perception is furthered by accusations that Kurdish Sunni Muslim officials who collaborated with ISIS continue to hold positions in the KRG. An affiliate of the PKK called the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) now recruits heavily from Êzîdî survivors. Additionally, many of the Êzîdî residents of Sinjar have been distancing themselves from Kurdish identity altogether.
Since the YPG/PKK intervention in Sinjar, the KRG has instituted restrictions that it claims are motivated by security concerns; however, these restrictions amount to an economic blockade aimed at punishing dissent among the Êzîdî people. Officials cite the growth of the PKK, as well as reported looting in the aftermath of the ISIS withdrawal, as reasons for seizing the roads into and out of Sinjar. However, the Human Rights Watch report claims that “blanket KRG restrictions disproportionate to any possible security considerations are causing unnecessary harm to people’s access to food, water, livelihoods, and other fundamental rights.” Supplies necessary for reconstruction, such as cement and car parts, are often taken by police. Êzîdî farmers are often denied permission to move their produce to market in Iraqi Kurdistan or other parts of Iraq. As a result, over half of the Êzîdî population remains in refugee camps, unable or unwilling to return to an economically devastated homeland.
The fight for Êzîdî loyalty is taking place in the context of a “Cold War” within greater Kurdistan. President Barzanî of the KRG has chosen a conservative path to independence, allying with Turkey and seeking a conventional nation-state within the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Kurdish parties in other parts of the Middle East have allied themselves with the PKK and its leftist ideology, seeking a federation of autonomous region rather than state power. In neighboring Syria, the struggle has resulted in fighting between pro-YPG and pro-Barzanî factions. Sinjar is one theater in a broader struggle.
Sinjar is also important for any Iraqi Kurdish independence bid. Many areas officially outside the borders of the KRG are occupied by Kurdish forces, and Barzanî wants as many bargaining chips as possible for potential independence negotiations in the future. An independent Êzîdî militia and ethnic identity undermine Kurdish claims to Sinjar. Additionally, the presence of a PKK ally so close to the border worries Turkey, as the former has fought a decades along insurgency against the Turkish state. “Sinjar is on the way to becoming a new Qendîl, we cannot allow that,” claimed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, comparing it to the mountainous border region where the PKK is based. Turkey supports Barzanî as a counterbalance against the PKK; if he fails to decrease their influence, Turkey may not support him as leader of an independent state. Indeed, the US government is also wary of the PKK presence in Sinjar.
As reasonable as its concerns are, the KRG cannot force Êzîdî cooperation. A people that has been so thoroughly and traumatically victimized in recent history will not willingly trust its security to another government, especially one that has failed it in the past. Êzîdî support for the PKK is ultimately a matter of common interest; as journalists reported, Êzîdî survivors often insistently thanked “God and the PKK” for their survival. The only viable strategy for the KRG in Sinjar is to show a good-faith interest in protecting the Êzîdi people. Ultimately, reconstruction and reconciliation for the Êzîdî communities in Sinjar – hindered by the economic blockade – is more important than the benefit of any particular political faction.
Kurdish insurgencies and political parties are gaining power throughout the Middle East, and the possibility of one or more independent states in Kurdistan grows daily. The power vacuum left by ISIS, and the role of Kurdish soldiers in fighting back against the apocalyptic cult, has already given some of these polities de facto independence. However, the process of nation-building often involves bloodshed and tyranny. To avert this dangerous course of affairs, the KRG must settle accounts with its ethnic and religious minorities, and above all those that have been victimized by ISIS.