The Kurds’ Sinjar triumph over ISIS turns bitter

Friday 11/12/2015
Tunnel used by ISIS militants in town of Sinjar

The recapture of the north-western Iraqi town of Sinjar in mid-November was a signal victory for Kurdish forces who had ignominiously abandoned its majority Yazidi population in the face of an onslaught by the Islamic State (ISIS) more than a year earlier.

It was also a vindication of a policy of air strikes by a US-led coalition that has helped push back the jihadists from around a quarter of the Iraqi territory they seized in mid-2014.

However, in a complex situa­tion in which a range of interna­tional and local forces appear more concerned with safeguarding their own interests than in pursuing a united anti-ISIS strategy, the re­covery of Sinjar may raise as many challenges as it resolves.

It has done little to reassure the Sunni Arab population of the region that liberation by Kurdish forces, let alone by hostile Iranian-backed Shia militias operating elsewhere in Iraq, is preferable to suffering the indignities and hardships of surviving under the arbitrary rule of ISIS.

If anything, the Sinjar cam­paign reinforced prejudices about the Kurds, increasing suspicions among Sunni Arabs that the Kurd­istan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq was focused on expanding and consolidating its own borders rather than in liberating its Sunni Arab neighbours.

Amid reports of the expulsion of Arabs from recaptured territory near the Sinjar front and else­where, local Sunni leaders have warned that the Kurds risk driving them into the arms of ISIS. Soon after Sinjar was retaken, reports emerged of returning Yazidi militia­men looting and burning Sunni homes, a phenomenon denounced by Amnesty International earlier in the year after the recapture of vil­lages north of the town.

The reported Yazidi abuses might be judged in the light of the terror and murder inflicted on the community by ISIS but they clearly undermine any attempt to draw Sunni Arabs into an anti-jihadist coalition. Comments by return­ing Yazidis indicated that they regarded all local Arabs as de facto collaborators.

Reclaiming Sinjar had done noth­ing to enhance Sunni Arab support for the anti-ISIS war, according to Denise Natali, senior researcher at the US National Defense University. “In some ways, the Sinjar after­math has done just the opposite by reinforcing the ethno-sectarian conflicts into which ISIL has been superimposed,” she wrote in a commentary in late November, us­ing another acronym for ISIS.

Kurds and Yazidis might regard such viewpoints as amounting to blaming the victims. Within a fractured Iraqi society, it is at least understandable that such commu­nities would put their own per­ceived interests first rather than ac­commodate Arab neighbours who are regarded with suspicion. And it is worth setting this latest mani­festation of historic Kurdish-Arab tensions against an honourable Kurdish record of providing refuge to tens of thousands of displaced Arab Iraqis.

Tensions are not confined to Kurds, Yazidis and Arabs. Among the Kurds, KRG leaders have played down the role of their ideological rivals in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurd­ish People’s Protection Units. The latter are a vital element in the coalition fighting against ISIS in neighbouring Syria.

None of these tensions, in any event, should eclipse the positive aspects of the Sinjar victory.

The operation provided evidence that a coordinated strategy involving effective ground troops backed by coalition air strikes can turn the tide against the jihadists. The operation was run from a joint Kurdish-coalition war room in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. ISIS supply lines are more vulnerable since the recapture of Sinjar and their stronghold of Mosul no longer appears as secure as it looked just a few months ago.

The received wisdom, however, is that no successful assault against the jihadists’ Iraqi “capital” can be mounted without the cooperation of local Sunnis. It is certainly not an operation that the Kurds would be prepared to undertake on their own. They have a sorry history of fighting other people’s wars and the KRG has never expressed a territorial claim to Iraq’s second largest city.

At the very least, Sinjar has contributed to undermining the perception that ISIS is somehow unbeatable in the face of a frac­tured opposition. Its unique selling point as a jihadist movement was that it could seize, hold and admin­ister territory. Since its high point in mid-2014, however, that territory has been shrinking.

ISIS may continue to hold some attraction for those Sunni Arabs who fear the uncertainties of “liberation” by Kurds or Shias but at some point they may conclude that there is no virtue in submitting to the imposed rule of a movement that is in retreat.