The KRG’s Relationship with the Yazidi Minority and the Future of the Yazidis in Shingal

Following the closure of Yazda, a Yazidi humanitarian and human rights organization, by the KDP asa’ish (security police affiliated with Kurdistan’s largest political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party) on January 2, 2017 in Dohuk, people have been asking many questions about why this took place. Fortunately, the government has now reversed its position on the closure and Yazda has reopened. Nevertheless, this episode points to some serious political issues that impact the status of the Yazidi minority in Kurdistan. I will explore these issues in this article.

Having left the country last August after a year of leading Yazda’s Iraq and Kurdistan-based operations, I will not speak for Yazda now. But I will present my opinions on the Yazidi situation and discuss the feelings of the Yazidi people, which may shed light on why Yazda was persecuted by the authorities.

A Broken Relationship

Understanding the tension between the KDP government and the Yazidis requires investigating why the KDP generally has an adverse relationship with the majority of the Yazidis. In fact, those Yazidis who become close to the KDP political establishment usually lose favor and respect among much of their community. This is because the agendas of the KDP often conflict with the welfare of the Yazidi people, and a number of crucial issues jeopardizing the future of the Yazidis have come to a head this past year.

What do I mean by a clash of interests between the Yazidis and the KDP? Ever since the fall of Saddam, Kurdistan has worked hard to expand the boundaries of what is hoped will be a future independent Kurdistan. These aspirations and efforts are noble considering the many ways that Kurds have been victimized by the various regimes in Iraq through history. But many Kurds today do not realize that despite this history of victimization, their newfound power also creates the possibility and risk of victimizing others—especially the minorities who often inhabit the disputed territories that Kurdistan would like to appropriate.

The Sheikhan district in the Nineveh Plain used to be a Yazidi-majority area, but just since the fall of Saddam, it has been targeted with a program of demographic change that has involved settling Sunni Kurds in the area in order to strengthen the claim that it should be included within the Kurdistan Region. This program is similar to the Arabization schemes to which Saddam subjected the Kurds, and Yazidis call it “Kurdification.” Sheikhan, a historic Yazidi homeland, is now a Muslim-majority area, a change that occurred entirely post-Saddam. Even the Mir, the highest Yazidi religious authority, spoke to US officials about this problem.

In Shingal (“Sinjar” in Arabic) after 2003, the KDP quickly became a powerful presence. Many Yazidis were open to pursuing a future for Shingal as part of Kurdistan, hoping that life under Kurdish government would offer greater rights for minorities than had been the case under Ba’thist rule. But from those early days, the KDP asa’ish began systematically arresting and intimidating Yazidi civilians who joined competing political parties, especially those who favored keeping Shingal’s administration under the authority of the central government. Though services in Shingal are almost entirely paid for by Baghdad, the KDP bullied non-KDP Nineveh officials out of Shingal so that it could maintain administrative control. Shingal’s “mayors” (qaymaqam), including the current one, are never elected by the local people, but are appointed by the party and are, of course, always party loyalists. Despite the fact that the KDP completely dominated Shingal, it remained one of Iraq’s least developed and most marginalized districts.

Because of this legacy, by 2014 the majority of the Yazidis of Shingal already resented KDP control; the Peshmerga withdrawal the morning of the genocide was simply the final straw, severing trust with the KDP forever. But because of KDP policy, the Yazidi situation has become even worse following the genocide, which is the main issue that this article will explore.

Today there is a bitter political standoff in Shingal that is exacerbating the already poor relations between the Shingali Yazidis and the KDP. In order to understand the development of this conflict, we must first clarify some key aspects of how the genocide unfolded, and also debunk several myths propagated by government officials regarding the day of the genocide.

Setting the Record Straight on Shingal

Though everyone is familiar with the Peshmerga withdrawal on August 3, 2014, the day the Yazidi Genocide began, many citizens of Kurdistan and Iraq have been led to accept three key excuses advanced by KDP officials trying to justify the withdrawal: 1) that the IS (Islamic State) invasion of Shingal was a surprise attack; 2) that the Peshmerga lacked adequate weaponry to defend local Yazidis from IS; and 3) that the Peshmerga defended but IS was just too powerful and the front line collapsed.

The first claim is obviously false since everyone knows that Mosul was conquered in early June, almost two months prior to the attack on Shingal. During the period between the conquest of Mosul and the Yazidi Genocide, IS gradually solidified control over the Arab areas south and east of Shingal. Tel Afar was conquered during that period, and IS forces grew increasingly close to Shingal. In fact, several small attacks occurred on outlying Yazidi villages southeast—and even north—of Shingal, prior to August 3. Tel Banat was attacked several times. In other words: The IS threat was well-known and there was plenty of time to prepare for any potential conflict, and to put an evacuation plan in place for civilians.

The second claim is an attempt to side-step responsibility for the failure to defend the Yazidis. It ignores the fact that after the Iraqi military dissolved in the areas near Mosul, Kurdish forces seized control of Iraqi weapons depots and snatched up all of the weaponry and ammunition. This included Kesek, which housed the “regional ammunitions center” that provided weapons and ammunitions to the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi army divisions and to military academies in Zakho and Sulaimani. Moreover, when Iraqi army forces were retreating from Tel Afar and leaving the Shingal area, they were unable to retreat to Baghdad without passing through Kurdish-controlled territory. KDP-affiliated forces, therefore, forced these sections of the Iraqi army to hand over all of their weapons, ammunition, equipment, and military vehicles—at the KDP headquarters in Shingal, no less. This included the 10th brigade of the 3rd division and the 11th brigade of the 3rd division of the Iraqi army. Despite holding out and defending Tel Afar for some time, once these troops were pushed out by IS, they were effectively looted by KDP forces and sent back to Baghdad wearing civilian clothing. But beyond this evidence contravening the claim that the Peshmerga lacked adequate weaponry, the question should be asked as to how the Syrian YPG forces, who have smaller weapons, inferior vehicles, and are generally less equipped than the Peshmerga, were able to enter an unfamiliar area that they had never controlled, without the high-ground advantage, and fight through IS lines after IS had already established itself in the area and surrounded the mountain. The point is that the alleged superiority of IS weaponry had nothing to do with the withdrawal. Keep in mind that there are numerous locations in the foothills of Shingal Mountain where just a handful of Yazidi farmers with old rifles were able to prevent the jihadists from ascending into these enclaves—such is the advantage of the higher ground. The idea that the Peshmerga had to flee to Dohuk, rather than move to the protection of the mountain while providing cover to the evacuating civilians, is patently absurd.

But most important is the third claim, that the Peshmerga’s lines were overwhelmed by the might of the IS jihadists. This claim is demonstrably false in light of the way that the withdrawal was conducted. The withdrawal was not a chaotic, haphazard fleeing after engaging the enemy; Shingal Mountain is 72 kilometers long, and with the security presence in many of the towns all around, it would be nearly impossible that every single “front line” would collapse simultaneously. If troops had been overwhelmed in one location, many other troops would have been able to hold their ground in other locations. But the withdrawal was collective (involving almost all security and militia personnel in the entire district), and was conducted in an organized fashion, with all weapons and military vehicles being transported out of Shingal and back to Kurdistan. When local Yazidi civilians saw that the Peshmerga were abandoning them, they begged them to at least leave behind the weapons so that they could defend their own families. But the Peshmerga refused. According to hundreds of survivor accounts, this planned withdrawal occurred before the jihadists reached Shingal. These countless testimonies of civilian eyewitnesses were corroborated by a Peshmerga leader named Sime Mulla Muhammad, responsible for troops in Shingal, who disclosed to the Xendan newspaper in an interview published August 3, 2016 that he withdrew his men without engaging the enemy, prior to the arrival of the jihadists, after it was known that IS was moving on the area. Beyond all of this, not only did Qasim Shesho (the current leader of the KDP Peshmerga in Shingal) state for the record that the Peshmerga fled before the civilians could evacuate, but President Barzani’s reaction to the withdrawal also dispelled any notion of the front line breaking, as in early August 2014 he referred to the “negligence” of those in command and formed a committee to investigate possible desertions.

The facts presented above become even more painful when considering that the day before the genocide, August 2, 2014, local people in Shingal knew that IS was mobilizing. They could sense that an attack might be imminent. Yazidis asked those responsible for security if the people should evacuate. Peshmerga leaders gave assurances to the people that they would be protected, and told them to stay in their villages. In some cases, asa’ish even prevented families from evacuating; some families had loaded up their cars and were attempting to drive to Kurdistan but were turned back at the checkpoints guarding village entrances.

I have presented this background to make it perfectly clear why the trust of the Shingali Yazidis in the KDP was irreparably shattered on August 3. This should also explain why the YPG and PKK forces that entered Shingal to defend the Yazidis won so many hearts and minds. Not only did those forces save the lives of tens of thousands of Yazidis that had been left to die, but they enabled the local Yazidis to hold the front line against IS for the next 15 months, killing more jihadists than any other militia.

Preventing Yazidis from Returning and Rebuilding: The Economic Blockade

This brings us to the present political conflict that is victimizing the Yazidis. As is common knowledge, after the PKK-affiliated forces rescued the Yazidis in the absence of the Peshmerga, they helped the Yazidis form a local militia known as the YBŞ. This force is affiliated with the PKK but is primarily comprised of local Shingali Yazidis who came together to defend their own families and homes.

The KDP wants the YBŞ to disappear. They want all non-KDP militias to dissolve so that the KDP Peshmerga can again enjoy full control of Shingal and return to business as usual. But the KDP knows that if the displaced Yazidis now living in the camps in Dohuk return to Shingal, they will be more likely to support a rival militia, like the YBŞ, because they have no loyalty for the KDP.

And that brings us to the most discouraging of facts, the economic blockade of Shingal, which is the KDP’s disgraceful strategy to keep Yazidi families, who survived a genocide, trapped in camps that they ha