Matthew Petti, Columbia:
A seemingly minor conflict in a remote area on the Iraq-Syria border is threatening the stability of the entire Middle East. Although the threat of ISIS has passed, the scars of genocide continue to haunt Mount Sinjar, and pre-existing grudges have come back with a vengeance. A dispute between the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) and a group of Syrian exiles is drawing both groups’ foreign backers into a dangerous showdown, harming both the recovery of a war-torn community and the possibility of a political solution to wider regional problems.
As mentioned in my previous article on Sinjar, the brutal treatment of the Êzîdî religious community did not end with the defeat of ISIS. The terrorist group, also known as “Islamic State” or Daesh, attempted to wipe out the Êzîdî people by means of murder, sexual slavery and forced assimilation. However, many survivors also blame the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for both failing to protect the Êzîdî homeland of Mount Sinjar, and for continued harassment against the community.
The YBŞ was founded in response to alleged KRG inaction. After the left-wing People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey crossed the border to liberate Sinjar, many Êzîdî guerrillas organized themselves into a militia modeled after their liberators. This posed a threat to the interests of the KRG, whose main backers Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Additionally, Turkey has sporadically fought the YPG during Operation Euphrates Shield, its intervention into the Syrian Civil War.
Therefore, KRG-affiliated police imposed a harsh blockade on the mountain, slowing economic recovery and hindering Êzîdî refugees who wish to return home.
The standoff escalated into firefights soon after KRG leader Mesûd Barzanî visited Turkey to discuss deploying a group of armed Syrian refugees called the Roj Pesh as part of Euphrates Shield. Under the protection of the YPG, the Rojava region of northern Syria is currently administered by left-wing parties hostile to Barzanî and the Turkish government; officials of the right-wing Syrian Kurdish National Council (ENKS) hinted that deploying the Roj Pesh nearby would provoke the YPG and its allies.
However, the standoff turned into a shooting war before the Roj Pesh even entered Syria. Matthew Barber, a former official at the Êzîdî charity Yazda, claims that the Rojava Peshmerga attempted to cross the border through YBŞ-held territory on March 3. After the YBŞ denied them passage, shooting broke out, and the Roj Pesh and other KRG-aligned forces began firing heavy weapons at Êzîdi towns around Mount Sinjar.
While it is not clear who fired first, Barber emphasizes that the YBŞ was only acting defensively. Ali Dağlı, a journalist with al-Monitor, claims that the fighting began when a group of Êzîdî women attempted to stop Roj Pesh bulldozers from digging trenches. Both he and Barber also mention a widespread local perception that the Roj Pesh is directed by Turkish intelligence.
Several recent events could be the impetus for these clashes. As the Iraqi military clears ISIS from the Nineveh Plains, they will soon share a front-line with the YBŞ, which would render the KRG’s blockade of Sinjar ineffective. Additionally, there has been talk of declaring an “autonomous canton” and integrating Sinjar with Rojava across the border. Barzanî and his allies could be testing the resolve of the YPG to back this declaration with force.
The firefight stopped after a few hours, but the conflict is far from over. Various armed forces are still deployed in the area, disrupting civilian life in an area already traumatized by war. Many have fled to the peak of Mount Sinjar, still unsure of the safety of their own homes. Barber reports that a pro-PKK demonstration on March 14 ended with several deaths after the Roj Pesh fired on civilians.
If the conflict escalates further, it could worsen intra-Kurdish tensions in the long term. Supporters of the YPG and PKK allegedly carried out reprisals against the ENKS in Syria on March 6, after a journalist was jailed by the KRG in Iraq. Ezidkhan Protection Force, another militia active on Sinjar, pledged its allegiance to the KRG and denounced the PKK on March 9, ending months of good relations with YBŞ.
The conflict also has ramifications for an upcoming Kurdish independence referendum. Mount Sinjar is officially part of Iraq proper, not Iraqi Kurdistan, but a KRG presence there would give Barzanî leverage in negotiations for the borders of an independent Kurdistan. In order to push back against this presence, the Iraqi central government sponsors YBŞ as part of its Popular Mobilization Units. Indeed, the PMU’s national leadership threatened to intervene against the KRG when clashes broke out.
Fortunately, the international community has showed concern for de-escalating the conflict. After it was revealed that German-supplied weapons were used on Sinjar, Germany’s Ministry of Defense demanded that the KRG move those weapons to the frontlines with ISIS. Meanwhile, the ENKS claims that US officials are preventing the Roj Pesh from participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, concerned with possible infighting.
While these are steps in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether local actors will act as cautiously. The standoff on Mount Sinjar could escalate again at any time, and any escalation would have a terrible human toll on a community that has already suffered so much trauma.
As suicide victim Farhan Kamal Eizdeen reportedly asked during the clashes: “How can Yezidis in [Sinjar] endure what is happening?”