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Iraq: Stabilising the Contested District of Sinjar, Middle East Report N°235 | 31 May 2022 [EN/AR]

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What’s new? In October 2020, Baghdad and Erbil signed an agreement intended to build stability in Iraq’s Sinjar district through a new administration and security structure that would let displaced people return. The deal is only partly fulfilled, however. Turkey is intensifying bombardment of the PKK and its affiliates in the area.

Why does it matter? As time passes without a workable arrangement for governing and securing Sinjar, the incentives for displaced Sinjaris living in squalid camps to come home are diminishing. Meanwhile, escalating violence risks drawing the district further into the power struggle between Turkey and Iran.

What should be done? Baghdad and Erbil should carry out the Sinjar agreement’s governance, security and reconstruction provisions as soon as possible. They should remedy their failure when striking the deal to secure buy-in from Iraqi armed groups on the ground by consulting them and Sinjari civil society representatives on how to make it work.

Executive Summary

Nearly seven years after an ad hoc and uneasy coalition of armed groups and Kurdish regional forces backed by U.S. airpower drove ISIS from Sinjar, the situation there remains fraught. Sinjar, a once quiet district in the remote north-western corner of Iraq, is struggling, with its local government lacking legitimacy, its public services failing expectations and its reconstruction stalling. A plethora of competing armed groups keep the area unsafe, leaving 70 per cent of its population displaced. The district’s Yazidi ethno-religious majority targeted by ISIS’s genocidal onslaught in 2014 is scattered throughout the north west (and in exile) and politically divided. In 2020, the Iraqi federal and Kurdish regional governments came to an agreement to stabilise Sinjar, but follow-through has lagged and clashes in May between the army and a local militia threatened to derail it altogether. The parties to the agreement will need to work with Sinjar residents to strengthen support for the deal and oversee its implementation, allowing the displaced to return.

Even before ISIS arrived in 2014, Sinjar was hostage to a standoff between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, due to its status as a disputed territory (ie, an area over which both governments claim authority). Iraq’s 2005 constitution lays out a process for resolving the dual claims to the disputed territories. But the Kurdish government, and in particular its most powerful constituent element, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has long sought to control the disputed areas, including Sinjar, as a prelude to annexing them to the Kurdish region. The KDP and its peshmerga fighters moved into Sinjar in 2003, coopting local elites to perform the routine tasks of governance. It won little popularity, however. In particular, it treated the Yazidis as Kurds, in effect denying their distinct communal identity and sowing resentment.

The ISIS assault on the Yazidis in August 2014 transformed Sinjar into a focal point for an array of armed actors. One was the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – an insurgent Kurdish group that Turkey (along with the U.S. and European Union) classifies as a terrorist organisation. The PKK had long sought refuge in northern Iraq, though prior to 2014, it had largely been confined to the Qandil mountains and an area of Makhmour district where a camp for Kurdish refugees from Turkey is located. But when the KDP withdrew its peshmerga as ISIS fighters stormed the area, affiliates of the PKK stepped in – assisted by U.S. airpower – rescuing survivors and gradually pushing ISIS back. Then, in late 2015, the U.S. again sent warplanes to help a combination of PKK-linked groups (the Syrian People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and the newly established Sinjar Resistance Units, or YBȘ) and KDP peshmerga expel ISIS altogether. For the next two years, Sinjar remained largely under the control of the KDP, which dominated the north east as well as Sinjar town, and the PKK, which was concentrated in Mount Sinjar and the north west.

In 2017, the situation in northern Iraq shifted again. The escalating U.S.-supported counter-ISIS campaign brought Iraqi federal forces back to the north, joined by Popular Mobilisation (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) paramilitary groups mostly comprising Iraqis from other parts of the country. They retook Mosul, the last city under ISIS control. Then the Hashd went farther still. After an independence referendum organised by the Kurdish regional government backfired, they pushed the KDP out of Sinjar and settled into an uneasy collaboration with the PKK components, offshoots and affiliates already ensconced there.

The resulting governance arrangements are haphazard and ineffective. The KDP enjoys formal dispensation to govern Sinjar, but it exercises its writ from outside the district, and even outside the Ninewa governorate in which Sinjar lies, in neighbouring Dohuk governorate. Within Sinjar, the Hashd has appointed a substitute mayor and sub-district directors without the federal government’s blessing, while the YBŞ, which consists mostly of Iraqi Yazidis as well as a small number of Arabs who took up arms against ISIS, has set up a governance arm – the “Sinjar self-administration” – that seeks to perform some bureaucratic functions, but lacks the authority and capability to do them well.

Meanwhile, because of the armed groups it is hosting, Sinjar finds itself increasingly at the centre of competition between Turkey and Iran. Iran backs the Hashd, while Turkey seeks to eliminate the PKK, seeing it as a threat to national security.
When KDP fighters withdrew in 2017, Turkey – which collaborates with the KDP in fighting the PKK – lost its main partner on the ground in Sinjar. It thus escalated the airstrikes it was already conducting on suspected PKK hideouts in northern Iraq, hitting YBȘ bases hosting PKK cadres in Sinjar as well. In Turkey’s view, high-level YBȘ commanders are themselves PKK members. These attacks have become a regular feature of an already precarious security environment. The Hashd and the PKK (with its affiliates) have found common ground in countering Turkey and the KDP – the Hashd, because it seeks a firmer foothold in the north, deems any Turkish military presence there to be an occupation and rejects the KDP’s claim to Sinjar; and the PKK, because it seeks a safe haven in northern Iraq.

Seeking to put the district on a better path, the UN brokered an October 2020 agreement between Baghdad and Erbil that was intended to fill the post-ISIS security and administrative vacuum by bringing the federal and Kurdish regional governments together in jointly managing Sinjar, under Baghdad’s overall authority. But thus far, only parts of the agreement are in effect, since it failed to take into account the perspectives of the actors in control on the ground – the YBȘ and the various Hashd groups. The YBȘ, including the “Sinjar self-administration”, rejects the agreement, which not only contains no mention of its role in the district but proscribes it altogether. While the Hashd, which nominally comes under the Iraqi prime minister’s authority, is an implementing party, many of the Shiite groups that make up its core view the agreement as rigged against them in seeking to transfer security responsibilities to regular forces under the defence and interior ministries.
The urgency of accelerating the agreement’s full implementation became clear in May, when clashes broke out between the army and the YBȘ in one of Sinjar’s sub-districts. While such confrontations seem to come and go, they lay bare an unaddressed challenge, which is the fate of the YBȘ, which, though it is affiliated with an external group, the PKK, consists itself of Sinjaris, ie, Iraqi citizens who have legitimate local concerns. This file thus deserves sensitive treatment, not the army’s resort to a hammer whenever it spots a crooked nail.

To address the dangerous delay in putting the Sinjar agreement into practice, Baghdad and Erbil should work toward greater acceptance of the deal from the broad range of local armed actors and community representatives concerned. On the civilian side, the government should appoint an acting mayor for now, consulting closely with both the Erbil authorities and Sinjar community leaders to identify a suitable, politically non-aligned, Yazidi from Sinjar. On the security front, the federal government should shift away from its combative approach, engaging directly with the YBȘ about challenges like standing up a local police force and seeking to integrate its fighters (and other armed group members) into state forces. The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq could help these measures succeed by sending international civilian observers and technical advisers to oversee the process.

Baghdad/Brussels, 31 May 2022