Escalation in Sinjar, Iraq: Internal Competition and Geopolitical Consequences

EPC | 23 Feb 2021

February 2021 witnessed further military and verbal escalation regarding the situation in Sinjar near the Iraqi-Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at the possibility that Turkish forces might launch a large-scale attack on the district that is administratively associated with Nineveh Governorate in order to eradicate the operatives of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who Ankara claims are heavily present in that region and move continuously across the Iraqi-Syrian border, in cooperation with their allies from the Kurdish and Yazidi factions in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had visited Baghdad on 18 January 2021, accompanied by the Turkish Army Chief of Staff General Yasar Guler, to pressure the Iraqi government to activate its efforts to expel the PKK fighters from Sinjar, expressing Ankara's readiness to support the governments of Baghdad and Erbil to implement the agreement they had reached on 9 October 2020 to normalise the situation in Sinjar and drive the PKK out of the region.

Sinjar: a hotbed of local and regional rivalries

Amidst a verbal Turkish escalation regarding the situation in Sinjar, the Turkish forces launched a massive offensive in the Dohuk Governorate of the Kurdistan region. Ankara announced that the operation has achieved its goals, but accused the PKK of killing 13 Turkish citizens who had been kidnapped by the organisation a few years ago.

Information leaked that the latest operation was a prelude to a wider incursion into Iraqi territory towards Sinjar, which prompted the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC), led by factions close to Iran, to send reinforcements to Sinjar by deploying nearly ten thousand people, according to some reports, and to warn that it would respond to any Turkish military action targeting Sinjar. This was accompanied by the issuance by the Fatah parliamentary bloc, which brings together the actors allied with Iran, of a statement calling on the Iraqi government to take all measures to respond to any Turkish aggression against Sinjar. This was followed by a similar statement by the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH, Leagues of the Righteous) organisation in which it condemns the "repeated violation of sovereignty and the continued Turkish occupation of Iraqi territories" and demands that the Turkish government remove all its "occupying" forces from Iraq.

These events indicate that the Sinjar region has become a primary focus of tension in which complex internal and regional rivalries overlap, and a testing ground for the following:

1. The capability of the Iraqi government to extend its control over the areas that were previously controlled by Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS), especially those located near the Iraqi-Syrian border.

2. The regional ambitions of Turkey and the extent of their conflict with Iranian influence and the influence of the rest of the international powers interacting with this issue, especially the US.

3. Whether the Iraqi-Syrian border will remain the main attraction for armed and cross-border groups due to the disintegration of the centre’s authority in both Iraq and Syria.

Sinjar and the PKK: the ghostly presence

For nearly two decades, the PKK’s presence in Iraq has been limited to two main areas: the Qandil Mountains on the Iraqi-Iranian border and the Makhmur district where there is a refugee camp for Syrian Kurds. However, the events that followed the rise of Daesh in the summer of 2014 provided a favourable environment for the PKK to expand its activities, first in northeastern Syria, and secondly in northwestern Iraq, specifically the Sinjar region where PKK members played a key role in securing safe passage for thousands of Yazidi residents who fled Daesh attacks across the Iraqi-Syrian border, and then re-entered Iraq to Dohuk, where nearly 300,000 Yazidi refugees have settled ever since. The PKK also participated in the battles to liberate Sinjar from Daesh, which helped it to secure a stable presence in this region, specifically by forming two armed factions from the local Yezidi population, namely: the Sinjar Protection (or Resistance) Units (YBŞ) and the Yazidi Women's Units (YJÊ).

With the crisis of the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region in 2017, the dispute escalated between the PKK and the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP or PKD) in Erbil, which controlled the local administration in Sinjar. The PKK cooperated with the PMC to appoint an interim administration in Sinjar as an alternative to the previous administration that settled in Duhok, after the PMC, the PKK and allied factions imposed their hegemony on the ground in Sinjar. Gradually, the YBŞ became the strongest and closest local militia to the Interim Administration headed by Fahd Hamid, who was appointed by order of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the then Deputy Chairman of the PMC. Nearly 900 members of the YBŞ were appointed in the PMC under the name of the Liwa al-Fateh al-Mubin (Great Conquest Brigade), which gave more legitimacy to the activity of this faction.

While the YBŞ denies that it has any organisational links with the PKK, observers confirm the depth of cooperation between the two sides, as is the case, for example, when faction fighters share their salaries collected from the PMC with the rest of the fighters not associated with the PMC, on the basis of the social participation called for by the PKK. However, at the same time, it would be a mistake to deal with the PKK and the YBŞ as if they were one and the same entity, given that the local character prevails over the formation of the YBŞ operatives. Besides, the PKK seeks to dissolve its overt presence by implanting its influence in other factions and institutions, or by joining broader umbrella entities, such as the Council of the of Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which brings together, in addition to the PKK, many Kurdish factions and parties active in Iraq, Syria and Iran. A Turkish air strike in January 2020 had led to the killing of the YBŞ commander Zardasht Shingali who had previously taken part in battles against Daesh alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD, SDF) which are dominated by Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Turkish escalation and the agreement to normalise conditions in Sinjar

The recent Turkish escalation over Sinjar comes against the backdrop of several events. First, recent information suggested that the Iraqi government has handed over a PKK leading figure, namely Ibrahim Parim, to Turkey, after it had arrested him in Sinjar several months ago. Parim was in charge of organising the logistical activity in the organisation. He is believed to have provided Turkey with a lot of information about the organisation's presence in Sinjar, which made the Turkish side more insistent on dealing with this presence. The second event is the failure to implement the agreement to normalise the situation in Sinjar between Baghdad and Erbil, which is relied upon by the Turkish side as an internationally-supported internal Iraqi framework to deal with the PKK problem. The agreement stipulates that federal institutions, in particular the Federal Police, the National Security Agency and the National Intelligence Service, would undertake the security of the Sinjar region and the border, provided that 2,500 local police officers would be appointed through consultation between Erbil and Baghdad to oversee the internal security of the district, and a new administration for the district would be appointed in consultation between the two parties. The agreement was rejected by both the Interim Administration in Sinjar and the YBŞ, which considered the agreement an attempt to restore the influence of the KDP in Sinjar. The agreement was also considered by the YBŞ a negation of the role of the forces that liberated the district from Daesh and of the will of the local population. A spokesman for the YBŞ pledged that the YBŞ would not give up its presence in Sinjar.

The agreement was also faced with opposition from the pro-Iranian PMC factions which considered it as a targeting of their presence in this region by restricting the security role to specific institutions, as well as facilitating the return of the influence of the KDP, whose Peshmerga clashed with the PMC forces in the Zummar region, north of Sinjar, following the referendum crisis in 2017. Likewise, the PMC factions viewed the agreement, which was sponsored by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and supported by both the US and Turkey, as a tool to expand the influence of the forces opposed to the PMC and Iranian influence in this vital region. Therefore, a few days after the agreement, the PMC Chief of Staff Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi (Abu Fadak) received a delegation of Sinjar Yezidis who announced that they have asked the PMC to come to support the people of Sinjar and prevent the return of the KDP to the district/city. Qais al-Khazali, the AAH leader, also issued a statement denouncing the agreement, considering it a political courtesy at the expense of the blood of those who made sacrifices in the battles to liberate Sinjar.

To deal with the state of broad rejection of the agreement, the Iraqi government moved on two tracks: first, implementing the less problematic terms of the agreement, such as the deployment of the federal police forces in Sinjar and at its borders, which actually took place after the Sixth Division of the Federal Police was dispatched to the region and its members deployed there and on the border section with Syria. The second track related to reaching a negotiated settlement with the parties opposing the implementation of the agreement. It was noticed that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has appointed Qasim al-Araji, the National Security Advisor and a leading figure in the pro-Iran Badr Organisation, to assume supervision of the implementation of the agreement. This may also be aimed at facilitating a negotiated settlement with the PMC factions, which seems to have been the case in recent months, given that the YBŞ was persuaded to leave most of their locations in the district centre and withdraw towards Mount Sinjar, together with leaked information that the PMC is seeking to appoint more members of the YBŞ as a means of separating them organisationally from the PKK.

The results appear to be mixed, and most importantly, the agreement does not seem to have achieved the goal of expelling the PKK, for two reasons: first, the difficulty of determining who exactly are the PKK operatives in Sinjar; and second, avoidance by the federal forces of fighting a battle on behalf of Turkey, especially given the existence of elements in the federal government, as well as the PMC, who do not favour such a confrontation.

In the light of the above, the recent Turkish escalation can be read from the following angles:

1. An attempt to pressure the Iraqi government to take more steps towards removing the PKK from Sinjar.

2. The escalation cannot be viewed in isolation from another important development, which is the advent of a new US administration that is believed to be more committed to cooperation with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which is dominated by Kurdish parties allied with the PKK. Therefore, Turkey wants to pre-empt the crystallisation of the US administration’s policy in this region by achieving gains on the ground and expanding its regional influence, for which the war on the PKK has become a cover. The Turkish military presence in the Kurdistan region and northern Iraq has noticeably expanded in recent years to include several permanent and temporary bases in Dohuk, Bashiqa, and on the Iraqi-Turkish border.

3. Ankara's interest in extending its influence to the Nineveh Governorate, in which it had made progress during Atheel al-Nujaifi’s term as Governor. However, this influence suffered a major setback after the takeover of the Governorate by Daesh and the subsequent rise of the influence of anti-Turkish forces, such as the PKK in west Nineveh, and forces close to Iran, especially the PMC factions.

The Iranian factor

Turkey and Iran had agreed at the summit that took place between them in September 2020 to activate efforts to combat terrorism and coordinate to pursue elements of the operatives of the PKK and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), which has been engaged in an armed struggle against the Iranian government since 2004. While the agreement was followed by a coordinated escalation between the two sides against the Kurdish armed movements, it has not translated into a higher level of strategic cooperation, especially with the Iranian government's weak control over the activities of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the special interests of the PMC and some of its factions, which today focus on their role in defending Iraqi territories as well as restoring Baghdad’s control over the disputed areas with Erbil.

In this context, the positions of those factions could be understood from two angles: first, their own interests and political goals, which enjoy a degree of independence from the priorities of the IRGC. Those factions have consolidated their presence in Nineveh and in the disputed areas and have come to view that presence as a primary source of their influence, and also as a source of material profit, both through their economic committees that spread in Nineveh and seek to benefit from reconstruction projects, and through smuggling networks across the Iraqi-Syrian border. Some economic partnerships seem to have developed between those factions and the PKK through the PMC deployment near the Iraqi-Syrian border and its supervision of smuggling operations there. On the other hand, the PMC has developed its fighting doctrine on the basis of protecting Shiite interests and gains, not only in the face of the Sunni insurgency represented by Daesh, but also in the face of Kurdish attempts to annex the disputed areas to the Kurdistan region. Therefore, many of the PMC brigades are deployed in those areas or near them, as is the case in Kirkuk, Amirli (also Amerli), Tuz Khurmatu, the Nineveh Plains, and of course Sinjar.

The second is the angle of their alliance and collusion with the IRGC. It is known that the IRGC has been active in recent years to build and consolidate its influence through the network of militias associated with it in the Iraqi-Syrian border areas. It was initially seeking to secure a passage through Rabia, north of Sinjar, to the east of Syria. Instead, it established that corridor in west Anbar, specifically the Al-Qaim-Albu Kamal axis, where most of those factions are stationed and there is a possibility to establish a direct link with the Syrian regime forces, which is not possible in Rabia, where the QSD controls the Syrian side of the crossing, known as Al-Yaarubiyah. Nevertheless, the effort to extend the influence of the IRGC to the northern part of the border continues, especially given the pressure it faces in the Al-Qaim and Albu Kamal regions, where militia sites are subjected to regular Israeli and US bombardments, as was finally embodied by the Israeli strike on 13 January 2021, which affected military and security sites of the IRGC and the factions associated with it, and caused the death of nearly 45 members of those factions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

However, the Iranian interest in this region remains limited to its goals, which indicates the importance of taking care of the independent interests of the PMC factions. Besides, coordination between those factions and the PKK is largely of a pragmatic nature, and may not last for long, given that its main source is the need for both sides to limit the influence of the KDP and prevent Turkey from extending its influence to this region.

Potential scenarios for escalation regarding Sinjar

Against this complex situation, two scenarios for the current escalation in Sinjar can be expected:

The first is for Turkey to proceed with a major ground attack in Sinjar, which means the possibility of its military clash with both the PKK and the Yazidi factions allied with it, and with the PMC factions, which would put the Iraqi government in an embarrassing situation. On the one hand, the Iraqi government has pledged to the Turkish side to proceed with the effort to remove the PKK from Sinjar, but on the other hand, it is trying to contain the PMC and coordinate with it to reach an appropriate exit. Such a Turkish offensive might cause a dangerous escalation whose repercussions would be difficult to contain. Turkey might achieve the important goal of cordoning off the border on its Iraqi side to prevent the PKK fighters from moving freely between Iraq and Syria. However, the price of such a military expansion – which would probably not be accepted by the Iraqi government – would be high for Turkey.

The Second, which is the currently likely scenario, is that Turkey would continue to launch sporadic airstrikes in the region, while the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would seek to activate the implementation of the Sinjar Agreement. Coordination would be sought with the PMC to reach a settlement that allows the withdrawal of most of the PKK fighters, most likely to their stronghold in the Qandil Mountains, and confirm the separation between the PKK and the Yazidi factions allied with it, in a way that would reassure Turkey that some of its interests have actually been achieved. This matter would be produced as a suitable settlement for all the main parties. The US administration may push for such a settlement in its endeavour to deal with Ankara's concern about the growing influence of the PKK, and as part of a broader solution related to the situation in northeastern Syria in which the US policy is still based on cooperation with the QSD, and at the same time emphasising the separation of those forces from the influence of the PKK. Iran may support such a settlement in a way that would not undermine the influence of its allied factions, while constituting a demonstration of its capability to act as a constructive "partner" in some regional tension points.

Conclusion

  • Sinjar has become one of the hotbeds of the struggle for influence in Iraq and the Fertile Crescent region. In this conflict, internal rivalries, both between the PMC and the KDP, and between the various forces and factions that inherited control over the land in this region after its liberation from Daesh, intermingle with regional rivalries, in particular Turkey’s endeavour to eradicate the presence of the PKK from the Iraqi-Syrian border areas, which has become the main declared target of Turkish policy in Iraq and Syria, although it is also being used as an umbrella to expand Ankara's influence in its southern flank.
  • The recent Turkish military escalation and Turkish threats to carry out a ground military attack in Sinjar aim primarily at increasing pressure on the Iraqi government to seek to expel the PKK from the region, especially with the failure to implement the agreement to normalise conditions in Sinjar between the federal government and the KRG.
  • The Turkish escalation comes in anticipation of the crystallisation of the new US administration’s policy towards Syria and Iraq, specifically given the impression that the Biden administration would be more committed to coordination with the Kurdish actors. In this context, Turkey seeks to achieve two goals: first, to ensure that ending the presence of PKK operatives in northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq is an agreed goal between all international and local actors; and second, to confirm the separation between the Kurdish and Yazidi actors and the PKK, specifically through coordination with the more pragmatic Kurdish actors, such as the KDP.
  • The position of the PMC factions that have reservations about the agreement to normalise the situation in Sinjar, and which promise a military response to any Turkish move in Sinjar, is related, on the one hand, to the interests that have crystallised for those factions in the disputed areas, and their endeavour to maintain their political, economic and military influence there, and, on the other hand, to the endeavour by the IRGC-led axis to control the important sections of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
  • The current crisis can be expected to lead to two scenarios: Turkey's implementation of its military offensive in Sinjar, which is likely to lead to a widespread escalation and aggravation of internal and regional conflicts; or, which is more likely, the continuation of the air strikes in the region with intensified coordination with internal and international players to find a way out, based mainly on the withdrawal of the PKK from Sinjar towards its traditional stronghold in the Qandil Mountains.

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