Recapturing Sinjar poses questions for Iraqi government
The recapture of the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar by the Iraqi Army and Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militia from Kurdish peshmerga control is likely to give the central government a strategic advantage over the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) but it could also pose challenges for Baghdad.
In a bid to reassert its federal authority following the KRG referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region, Iraqi forces advanced to reclaim control of Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato, Altun Kopru, Mosul Dam and Sinjar. In most cases, peshmerga forces have withdrawn without a fight.
Sinjar, which is the heartland of Iraqi Yazidis, enjoys a strategic location on the border area between Iraq’s Nineveh province and a Kurdish-controlled region in Syria. It was used as a land corridor by Iraq-based militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
The PKK and its Yazidi affiliate in Sinjar, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) militia, do not enjoy good ties with the KRG, which, until the referendum, had good relations with Turkey. Last March, YBS and peshmerga clashes led to fatalities in Sinjar.
YBS fighters used to receive their salaries from Baghdad. Other Yazidis joined the peshmerga, either out of fear of the KRG or out of a desire to earn a living. Now Yazidi fighters who were in the YBS or in the peshmerga are joining the Yazidi PMF, which answers to the central government.
The warming of ties between Baghdad and Ankara over their opposition to the KRG referendum prompted the PKK to take a hostile stance towards Baghdad. The Iraqi government accused Kurdish authorities of bringing PKK militants to Kirkuk, branding the move as a “declaration of war.” The Iraqi Army has yet to retaliate against the PKK but such an operation would strengthen the alliance between Baghdad and Ankara.
The control of the PKK-affiliated YBS in Sinjar poses a national threat to Turkey. The PKK has been fighting Turkey for three decades. Ankara fears that the Sinjar Mountains will become a new Qandil Mountains, where PKK militants are based. The Iraqi-Syrian border from Sinjar to Turkey is of strategic importance for the PKK.
Control of Sinjar would allow the Iraqi government to work on an alternative border crossing with Turkey without any role for the KRG. Ankara has invested heavily in northern Iraq and Turkey and is reportedly planning a new border crossing with the Iraqi central government as an alternative to the Habur border crossing.
There are still YBS militiamen in Sinjar, some of whom took over the positions abandoned by the peshmerga. There have been no reported problems between the YBS and the PMF, which include Yazidi units.
Although the balance of military power in the Sinjar region has changed, it is not as the Turkish authorities would have wished, as the PKK still has influence.
Blogger Matthew Barber, who specialises in the dynamics of Sinjar and the Yazidi population, said the PKK’s expansion of the territory is temporary. “If Baghdad had done something truly unfavourable for the Yazidis, it might generate support for the PKK but this does not seem to be a probable scenario,” he said.
Many Yazidis appear to have placed their faith in the Iraqi central government instead of relying on the PKK. Baghdad is aware of the demands by the Yazidi population. It has gained a huge leverage over them due to the Yazidi units within the PMF.
For now, the Iraqi central government focused primarily on the peshmerga but it has two options on how to deal with the PKK.
The first is to negotiate a deal with the PKK and accept its presence in Sinjar. This would risk retaliation from Turkey.
Alternatively, the Iraqi government may move to clear Sinjar of PKK presence. Such a move would be welcome by Ankara, which is most likely to offer military and intelligence support. The United States, however, is unlikely to take part in such a campaign, even though Washington, like the European Union, considers the PKK a terrorist group.
The United States has reportedly been delivering aid to the YPG in Syria via Iraq, passing through areas that, until recently, had been under peshmerga control. The supplies were mainly transported via the Iraq-Syria border north of Sinjar towards the Hasakah province in Syria.
It is unclear whether the Iraqi government would dare to stop American supplies to the YPG, despite the incentives it would likely receive from Turkey. The PMF presence in Sinjar would also mean that Iran would have another land corridor into Syria via Iraq. Such an access would not please the United States or Turkey.