The agreement that was reached between the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on 9 October 2020 regarding the Sinjar District of the Nineveh Governorate was described as "historic", as it paves the way for the return to normality in the District for the first time since its liberation from the Daesh (IS) organisation, and ends the influence of the Shiite militias and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the District. However, although almost a month has passed since the conclusion of the agreement, it has not yet started to be implemented due to its security provisions that conflict with the interests of the armed factions present in the city.
Sinjar before the agreement
Since its liberation in 2014 from Daesh, which killed and displaced thousands of families from the Yazidi sect, life in Sinjar has not returned to normal. The majority of displaced families are still in refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region (KRI). According to the United Nations (UN), their number is estimated at nearly 350,000 people, of whom nearly 100,000 displaced people have returned to their home areas. The failure of the return of the displaced in full is attributable to the lack of services and infrastructure and the continued control over the District by the armed groups that see their return as the beginning of the end of their influence and areas of presence.
The armed groups affiliated with the Turkish opposition PKK control the District’s centre after the PKK joined forces with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the international coalition in the liberation of Sinjar from Daesh in 2014. However, the PKK did not leave until now, and has formed armed groups affiliated with it from among the people of Sinjar, most notably the Sinjar (Shingal) Protection (Resistance) Units (YBŞ) that receive their salaries from the central government, while the District’s south is controlled by Shiite militias, including Al-Fateh Al-Mubin (Great Conquest) or the YBŞ, in addition to other militias supported by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, PDK), led by Masoud Barzani in northern Sinjar, mainly the Êzîdxane (Ezidkhan) Protection Force (HPÊ).
Despite the Iraqi army’s control over all the disputed northern regions after the KRI’s independence referendum in 2017, according to undeclared agreements, the PKK maintained its influence in the Sinjar District, and only the Peshmerga forces were evicted, given that they tried during the past few months to regain control over parts of the District.
This raging conflict over Sinjar is attributable to its strategic importance; it is located in the northwest of the Nineveh Governorate, and connects the Arab regions with the KRI towards the Syrian border, which is only 50 kilometres away. On the other hand, Sinjar is nearly 70 kilometres away from the Iraqi-Turkish border, and is home to a majority of the Yazidi community and minorities of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.
The Shiite militias consider the Sinjar District an important link on the strategic corridor that extends to the Syrian territories and onward to southern Lebanon which is used by Tehran to smuggle weapons, missiles and drugs, as well as transport militias. It is also a vital and sensitive point of concentration between Kurdistan and the Sunni Arab regions. Those militias have also established economic interests of their own in the District by controlling its resources and achieving large financial gains therein.
As far as Erbil is concerned, Sinjar is considered one of the "disputed" areas with Baghdad. Erbil would like to incorporate Sinjar into the KRI under Article 140 of the Constitution, which provides for the normalisation of conditions in Sinjar before holding a referendum on its integration into the KRI. After 2014, the PKK found in Sinjar an important area of influence for recruiting fighters and making use of its economic resources in the open confrontation with the Turkish forces that continue to target the PKK inside Iraqi territories.
Terms of the Sinjar Agreement
Ever since Mustafa al-Kadhimi assumed the premiership in Iraq in May 2020, he began rounds of dialogue with the KRI, some of which were on oil and financial issues while others focused on the situation in the disputed areas, including Kirkuk and Sinjar. On 9 November 2020, it was announced that a "historic agreement" has been signed on Sinjar with the Kurdish side, the most important provisions of which are the following:
The Iraqi government did not clarify the method of implementing the agreement. In practice, however, exit orders from the District need to be issued to the PMC and the rest of the armed factions, and a security operation needs to be carried out to expel the Turkish PKK if it decides to stay.
Positions on the agreement
The agreement was widely welcomed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the US and Turkey. It was also considered by the KRG a very positive step on the part of Baghdad, so much so that Kifah Hammoud, an advisor to Masoud Barzani, President of the KDP, said that his party would provide great support to the current prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi if the latter is nominated again for the position of prime minister.
However, the agreement did not appeal to several other actors, notably the PKK which found in it a Turkish attempt to extend Ankara's influence to the region in cooperation with the KDP. While some Yazidi elites issued a statement welcoming the agreement and reminding of the danger that the new arrangements would exclude some of the actors in Sinjar, the YBŞ, which is widely believed to be backed by the PKK and maintains the most important security presence in the region, denounced the agreement. While the YBŞ denies the existence of any organisational relationship with the PKK, reports indicate that the YBŞ is divided into two wings: one of them brings together its members who became part of the PMC under the name of Liwa al-Fateh al-Mubin (the Great Conquest Brigade), and the other brings together members whose main loyalty remained to the PKK. One of the YBŞ leaders from the latter wing stated that his organisation would not withdraw from Sinjar because it made many sacrifices to liberate Sinjar from Daesh, and because it comprises the sons and daughters of Sinjar. The YBŞ office rejected the claims of the PKK’s presence in Sinjar, stressing that the PKK forces left the District in 2018 after its liberation from Daesh.
The Yazidis appear to be divided according to their political loyalties. Some of them see the agreement as a good step to restore the "normal situation" and get rid of the burden of the PKK, which they accuse of extorting the population, imposing its control over Mount Sinjar and the surrounding areas, recruiting juvenile boys and girls into its ranks, and causing instability that prevents the return of the displaced. Others see that the agreement would turn into an umbrella for the return of the influence of the KDP to Sinjar and the exclusion of the independent Yazidi parties from the authority of the KDP which is accused by many people in the region of abandoning the Yazidis during the attack of Daesh on them.
Factions close to Iran are among the actors critical of the agreement. Qais Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous), considered that the Sinjar agreement that "stipulates the eviction of the PMC that liberated Sinjar, is a political courtesy and an electoral reward at the expense of the Yazidis". Khazali called on the "national forces" to "express their opinion on the issue and for the need to have a position that is commensurate with the importance and seriousness of this agreement". The Member of Parliament (MP) Hassan al-Kaabi, Head of the Badr Parliamentary Bloc, also commented by saying that "the PMC forces cleansed the city of Sinjar even as the Peshmerga Kurds fled", and that “the rejection of the presence of the PMC forces was pursuant to orders by US and Israeli foreign forces”. A number of personalities who were identified as "Sinjar notables" visited the PMC headquarters in Baghdad, where they met with the PMC Chief of Staff and the leader of the Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi (Abu Fadak). According to a statement issued by the PMC, "the notables demanded that the PMC forces stay in the District".
The objectors were joined by former prime minister Haider al-Abadi who built his political capital on the success in liberating Iraqi territories from the hegemony of the Daesh organisation, on confronting the KRG in its attempt to declare secession, and on his success in restoring control by the federal forces and the PMC over the "disputed areas". Therefore, Abadi viewed the agreement as a surrender of some of the achievements that have materialised and as an unnecessary concession to the KRG. According to a source in the Nasr (Victory) Alliance led by Abadi, his Alliance, which supported the Kadhimi government, has begun to monitor the latter’s "dangerous retreat on several issues, especially its mutually beneficial policy towards the KRI, which was recently reflected in the Sinjar Agreement".
No Iranian official position was issued on the agreement. However, it is noticeable that the agreement came shortly after the Turkish-Iranian summit that took place via video conferencing, in which the two sides pledged to work together to confront the PKK and the Kurdish forces associated with it. While the Iranians do not agree to the agreement, they will most likely push the PMC to resist the withdrawal from Sinjar, and they may work to thwart its implementation. In this context, it is noticeable that many pro-Iran factions have escalated their critical rhetoric towards the KRG, and expressed their resentment at the rapprochement between the Kurds and the Kadhimi government, considering this an attempt by Kadhimi to build political alliances that would help him to remain in office after the upcoming elections.
The Iraqi forces do not seem to be capable of forcing the PMC factions to leave Sinjar, especially that the former have avoided such a confrontation on other serious occasions. They would also find it difficult to get involved in any confrontation with the PKK without the direct involvement of the Peshmerga as well as some of the PMC factions that control the land in the surrounding areas. Therefore, there does not seem to be a clear mechanism that does not lead to violent clashes to expel the PKK. However, arrangements may be made on the ground that would allow for a redeployment of the existing forces and a reformulation of the local administration, provided that the YBŞ and some PMC components get involved. In this connection, the Iranian role would be essential in the success or failure of the agreement.
In fact, the complexity of the scene in the Sinjar District and the PMC refusal to withdraw from the District so far have called on the Iraqi government to "be patient" in implementing the agreement. Besides, negotiations are currently underway with the Shiite militia leaders to persuade them to implement the agreement.
Recently, media reports were released stating that the PMC factions present in Sinjar have set conditions for the implementation of the agreement, including "that the Peshmerga forces be prevented from entering the city, that the [PMC] factions maintain headquarters of their own inside the city excluding a military presence, and that the town’s administrative official belong to a non-Kurdish component". Some Iraqi political sources suggested that the government would likely negotiate those terms, especially since the government does not want to clash with the armed factions in the city.
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