Winning the Post-ISIS Battle for Iraq in Sinjar

What’s new? The Islamic State (ISIS) is defeated in Iraq, and its genocidal campaign against the Yazidis in Sinjar has ended. But Iran-backed Shiite militias – Popular Mobilisation Units – now control the district. Much of Sinjar’s mostly Yazidi population and its administration remains displaced. Trade is at a trickle and reconstruction has stalled.

Why did it happen?  Close to war-torn Syria, Sinjar is vulnerable to external intervention. Since 2003, a succession of outside forces has wrestled to control it – the Iraqi state, ISIS, the two main Kurdish parties of Iraq, Shiite militias, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates active in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Why does it matter? Sinjar needs political and economic reconstruction if the displaced are to return to their homes. Yet Baghdad’s weakness may compel it to channel reconstruction funds through the Shiite militias and Yazidi proxies. In Sinjar, as in other disputed territories, this move would entrench non-state groups, compromise the Iraqi state, and perhaps hinder reconstruction and return.

What should be done? Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government should seek to offset militias’ influence by winning over and empowering other local partners. Iraq’s National Reconciliation Commission should reach out to skilled administrators from Sinjar, regardless of political affiliation, to reconnect the power supply, restore health services, reopen schools and launch reconstruction.

Executive Summary

Crisis Group's MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann meeting with YBŞ representative in Sinjar town, on September 2016. CRISISGROUP

Seized by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in August 2014, Sinjar, a majority-Yazidi district on Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, has been the scene of tragedy: a genocidal campaign of killings, rape, abductions and enslavement, and the surviving community’s exodus to safer-ground camps in the adjacent Kurdish region. Incremental efforts to drive ISIS out of Sinjar, starting in November 2015, have brought peace but no political or economic recovery. The district’s occupation by a succession of Iraqi and non-Iraqi sub-state actors has militarised the population, fragmented the elites and prevented the return of the displaced. Only the effective re-entry of the Iraqi state, mediating between factions and reinstating local governance, can fully stabilise Sinjar, lay the ground-work for reconstruction, allow the displaced to return and end foreign interference.

The problems in Sinjar have their origin in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and removal of the Saddam Hussein regime. Dysfunctional governance and sectarian strife reduced the role of both the federal government and the administration of Ninewa governorate, in which Sinjar is located, to a symbolic one. Real power was exercised by the party that took advantage of the administrative and security vacuum, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP co-opted local elites to perform the routine tasks of rule. Yet it won little popularity. It treated the Yazidis, a distinct ethno-religious minority group, as Kurds, which many resent, and as second-class Kurds at that – which they resent even more. Moreover, it barely disguised its ambition, opposed by many Yazidis, to annex Sinjar to the Kurdish region.

The KDP made itself still more unpopular by withdrawing its forces from Sinjar ahead of the ISIS assault, leaving the population to the jihadists’ mercy. Affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish guerrilla movement in Turkey, stepped into the breach, rescuing ISIS’s surviving Yazidi victims with the help of U.S. airpower and, over time, pushing back ISIS without, however, restoring local government. These groups then ruled parts of Sinjar, with the KDP controlling others, each recruiting local fighters into their rival militias but neglecting to serve the interests of the Sinjar population, most of whom remained displaced. The standoff between the PKK affiliates and the Turkey-backed KDP kept the area contested and unsafe.

The escalating U.S.-supported battle against ISIS in 2017 saw the return of Iraqi state security forces to northern Iraq, accompanied by Iran-backed Shiite militias, the Hashd al-Shaabi, known in English as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). First, they defeated ISIS in Mosul, and then, in mid-October, following an independence referendum organised by the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) that backfired, the PMUs went further. Supported by the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, encouraged by Iran and given a green light by Turkey, they drove the KDP out of Sinjar and marginalised the PKK affiliates – Turkey’s target. (Turkey, along with the U.S. and the European Union, designates the PKK as a terrorist organisation.) The skeletal, KDP-leaning district council and administrative bodies, mainly composed of Yazidis, fled to the Iraqi Kurdish region, joining their Yazidi constituents. Rather than jumpstarting reconstruction and governance, PMU rule since October 2017 has further dispersed the Yazidi community.

As long as the Iraqi government remains weak, Sinjar will be fought over by external forces because of its strategic location close to the borders with Syria and Turkey. ISIS’s military defeat now provides an opportunity for the Abadi government, keen to regain sovereignty over all of Iraq ahead of national elections in May 2018, to set things right. Abadi should incorporate fighters of competing militias into a unified police force and restore governance via administrative institutions that open their doors to skilled local personnel regardless of which outside actor they aligned themselves with in the recent past.

Whether Abadi is capable of such an approach is an open question. The problems in Sinjar reflect the broader challenge of demobilising militias and integrating their fighters into state security forces, lest they undermine central authority and prevent the emergence of functioning state institutions. What happens in Sinjar may thus point to the prime minister’s political fate and the country’s general direction. One potent enemy may have been defeated, but the battle for Iraq’s political soul is far from over.

Beirut/Brussels, 20 February 2018

I.Introduction: Sinjar’s Disputed Status

Located some 50km from Iraq’s border with Syria, directly south of the Kurdish governorate of Dohuk and 120km west of the city of Mosul, the town of Sinjar, which Kurds call Shengal, sits on both a geographic crossroads and a political fault line. The town and the surrounding district of the same name belong to Ninewa governorate, of which Mosul is the capital, and are part of what the 2005 Iraqi constitution refers to as disputed territories: fourteen administrative districts spread over four governorates nominally under central state control but claimed by the Kurdish region. The status of these territories remains unresolved, but from 2003 until mid-2014 the peshmerga and security forces of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties exercised de facto control, including in disputed districts of Ninewa governorate, after the U.S. dismantled the Iraqi army and faced growing insurgency.

Sinjar’s disputed status and strategic proximity to the borders with Syria and Turkey turned it into an arena for competing interests, vulnerable to outside meddling and attacks. In August 2014, as fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) advanced into the area, peshmerga forces of the locally dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) withdrew pre-emptively, abandoning the local population. Most people in Sinjar are Yazidis, an ethno-religious community deemed heretics by ISIS followers. The jihadists, many of whom were local Sunni Arabs who had long lived peacefully with their Yazidi neighbours, launched a campaign of killings, kidnappings and forced conversions of the Yazidis, taking women and girls as sex slaves.

Survivors fled inside Sinjar mountain, the massive rock formation that rises from the desert floor and both defines and divides the district geographically. From there they escaped westward into Syria through a corridor opened and protected by fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as U.S. airpower. They subsequently re-entered Iraq through the KDP-controlled Samalka/Faysh Khabour border crossing, settling in camps for the internally displaced in Dohuk governorate.

In late 2015, the KDP and, separately, fighters affiliated with the PKK wrested the area north of Sinjar mountain as well as the town itself from ISIS’s control. But they then turned on each other in a tense standoff that ensured that no Yazidis could return home. Two years later, a combination of Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias, known as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs, the Hashd al-Shaabi), defeated ISIS remnants and subsequently drove KDP fighters out of the district. Afterward the PMUs used the area to advance their own (and Iran’s) interests, further dividing those Yazidis who remained by co-opting some and shunning others; this situation has served as yet another deterrent to the return of the displaced. A Yazidi civil society activist bemoaned his community’s fate:

Alien forces are waging their wars on Yazidi lands. Sinjar mountain no longer belongs to us; it has become a square on a chessboard over which these forces compete. The Yazidis will not be able to return home for another ten years; we can no longer trust anyone to protect us. Losing Sinjar to us is like travelling with a compass that has no north.

This report sheds light on this small corner of Iraq, whose population is neglected while its territory is contested with unremitting ardour. It is based on several visits to the area, as well as conversations with representatives of the various parties concerned over the past two years. It forms part of a larger Crisis Group project that seeks to propose pathways toward a negotiated settlement of the vexed question of Iraq’s disputed areas. Sinjar is one of the smallest of these areas but certainly not the simplest of the country’s unresolved problems, nor the least important given its strategic location.

II.A Community Thrice Divided

A.The KDP Ascendant

When U.S. forces ousted the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, old disputes resurfaced to shape the post-regime order/disorder. A major one was the status of Iraq’s Kurds. In 1970, their leaders had negotiated an autonomy arrangement with Saddam. But autonomy was not fully realised until 1991, when the defeat of Iraqi forces in Kuwait provided Kurdish rebel parties, protected by the U.S., with the opportunity to carve out a zone in the north free of Iraqi control. From the parties’ perspective, the Iraqi army’s withdrawal was only partial, as the army held on to territories they considered part of the Kurdish region, a belt of administrative districts stretching from the Syrian to the Iranian border that was home to Kurds as well as Iraqis from other ethnic and religious communities. The town of Kirkuk lay at the centre of these districts; its oil riches were the main stumbling block to the peaceful resolution of the disputed territories’ status. Sinjar was the western-most of the districts and strategic for other reasons.

These areas had long been the target of regime Arabisation policies, which focused on the Kurds but also the Yazidis.

In the 1977 national census, Yazidis were forced to register as Arabs; in the 1980s, the regime destroyed Yazidi villages in Ninewa governorate and killed Yazidi men who had joined the Kurdish insurgency. In recognition of the Yazidis’ plight, the Kurdistan regional government, elected in 1992 after the U.S. established a safe zone in northern Iraq, created a directorate for Yazidi affairs.

In 2003, the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), sent their fighters into the disputed territories to establish de facto control, and supported a constitutional process in Baghdad with the clear intent to resolve these territories’ legal status in the Kurdish region’s favour. While the PUK was dominant in the areas from Kirkuk southward toward Iran, the KDP reigned supreme northward to the Syrian border.

Failure to resolve the disputed territories’ status politically resulted in the entrenchment in those areas of Kurdish forces, as Baghdad was weakened by insurgencies, sectarian conflict and government dysfunction. Yet Kurdish control did little to end the dispute. In 2008, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) took it upon itself to lay the groundwork for political negotiations by preparing a (yet unpublished) comprehensive study on the demographics, economics and politics of these areas, but its efforts floundered amid the politic