Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Baghdad-Erbil competition complicates battle against ISIS in Sinjar

A Peshmerga carries a Kurdish flag (Getty Images/John Moore)

The once-feared Islamic State (ISIS) was driven out of the city of Sinjar by US-backed Kurdish forces during a two day operation. But tensions between Kurdish forces continue. Baghdad supports one of Turkey’s archenemies: the PKK-affiliated militias in Iraq. Meanwhile Turkey is backing the Kurdish Peshmerga forces of Barzani’s KDP party against Baghdad. This complicates the US administration’s efforts to defeat ISIS.


The policies of Baghdad and Ankara are influenced by their sectarian policies in Iraq, and the political tensions between the Kurdish administration led by Barzani and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Baghdad, as well as Iran, oppose Barzani’s plan to gain greater independence from Baghdad by exporting Kurdish oil to Turkey.


Turkey’s priority is fighting the PKK and its branches in Iraq and Syria. Since last summer, there have been heavy clashes between Turkish police and PKK youth militias in Turkey’s restive southeast.


Furthermore, Turkey backed the Sunni-dominated Iraqi National Movement (Iraqiyya) list in the 2010 elections against the Iranian-backed Shiite-dominated bloc of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since then the Shiite-dominated parties have regarded Ankara with suspicion. Especially since Ankara supports both Sunni Arabs and Kurds against the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and their wishes to gain greater independence from the Shiite-ruled Baghdad.


Currently, Baghdad and Turkey are at odds over Ankara’s train-and-equip program for Sunni Arab police forces affiliated with Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Mosul. Baghdad and Iranian-backed militias called on Turkey to completely withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory last Tuesday. US President Barack Obama also called on Turkey to respect the demands of Baghdad.


Moreover, Baghdad believes Turkey is indirectly supporting ISIS. “We have been telling the US and its allies that the oxygen that feeds Daesh [ISIS] is the selling of Iraqi oil in the black market of Turkey,” said Iraqi MP Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the former National Security Advisor during a panel discussion in Washington. “Erdogan’s priority is not ISIS,” he stated.

Therefore, Baghdad could attempt to create more problems for Barzani and Turkey by increasing support for the PKK rebels in the highly tense area of Sinjar, which Barzani sees as an inseparable part of Kurdistan. Baghdad’s position toward the PKK has grown more favorable towards the PKK since the Syrian civil war erupted. Moreover, there were unconfirmed reports in the Iraqi media that PKK officials visited Baghdad in late December.


“Baghdad's support is probably based on the fact that they consider PKK a staunch ally against ISIS, and also a Kurdish force that is more independent from Turkey than KDP,” said Reidar Visser, a historian of Iraq.


Before August 2014, Sinjar used to be controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani. The KDP enjoys strong economic links with Turkey and allowed Turkish troops to enter Kurdish territory to train the local Arab police for future operations in Mosul to the chagrin of Baghdad.


However, after the KDP’s Peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar in August, a new actor appeared in the area: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Its fighters entered from Syria and opened a corridor between Iraq and Syria allowing the minority Yazidi sect to flee from ISIS, after militants began slaughtering their men and enslaving their women for being non-Muslims.

After entering Sinjar, the PKK set up an independent Yazidi militia called Sinjar’s Resistance Units (YBS) and decided that the local Yazidis should have their own administration separate from both Baghdad and the Kurdish government.


Furthermore, they have managed to receive salaries from the Iraqi government after the KDP arrested the leader of the Yazidi militia, known as the Protection Forces of Sinjar (HPS), Haydar Shesho in April and forced them to join the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish government.


“Before the Iraqi government gave salary to HPS, but the Kurdistan government rejected this and told Baghdad to stop giving the salary to us,” said a spokesperson of the HPS in Sinjar. “Now YBS is accepted by the Iraqi state and Baghdad gives money every month to the YBS.”


The PKK now says the KDP can no longer rule over the Yazidis. “We try to bring the Yazidi people to the reality to rule and protect themselves,” said Rodi, a doctor with the PKK in Sinjar. “I don’t get a salary, but they [Yazidi fighters] have families,” he added. “We are a revolutionary force, we don’t need salaries.

“We want to rule ourselves, we don’t want the Peshmerga to rule us because we lost trust,” said Heval Rekan, a fighter with the PKK’s Yazidi militia.


However, following the capture of Sinjar by the Peshmerga forces, the KDP wanted the PKK to leave the city after it was cleared from ISIS militants on November 14. Although the PKK-affiliated Yazidi fighters have taken over some buildings, in general, the Peshmerga’s Kurdish flags dominate the town of Sinjar.


The PKK is much weaker in Sinjar than the Peshmergas, although it is stronger in the area close to the Syrian border. There are over 1,000 Yazidi fighters with the PKK-affiliated militia, while the KDP has recruited over 5,000 Yazidi Peshmerga troops, who are backed by coalition air power.

Mahama Khalil, the major of Sinjar and a member of Barzani’s KDP says Baghdad wants to create conflicts between the Yazidis by supporting Yazidi militias of rival groups.


“They don’t want this area to be stable and connect these forces financially to Russia, Syria, and Iran,” he said. “Me and Qassim Shesho [a Peshmerga general] went to Baghdad to talk about this subject with the Defence Minister, but he said he has no information about this.”


Agid Kalari, one of the most prominent PKK commanders in the area says its true that his forces have become part of the official army. “They [YBS] will receive support from Baghdad and the coalition, but we haven’t received anything yet.”


“We have over 1,000 fighters,” said a PKK fighter with the name of Zerdest. “The Iraqi government paid for 500 of them since the 5th of August as part of the Iraqi army,” he told NOW.


The fact that Yazidi fighters receive their salary from Bagdad is not illogical since many of them were part of the Iraqi army under former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s control, prior to the fall of Mosul.


“There were 10,000 Yazidis with the Iraqi army, but when Mosul fell they all came home,” said Sherwan Ciye Shingale. “I was myself a member of the Iraqi border police, but I didn’t join the YBS for money,” he said.


Furthermore, many of the Yazidis view the Shiite-Muslims in a more positive light than the Sunni Muslims who are accused of killing their Yazidi neighbors in Sinjar. “Most [Sunni] Muslim people betrayed us and picked up their rifles and killed their neighbors,” said Agid, a PKK Yazidi fighter.


This is not the first time that Baghdad works with the PKK. Before ISIS took Mosul in June 2014, the Iraqi border of Rabia was used by the Syrian Kurdish PKK-affiliated PYD party to smuggle in journalists and for fighters to bypass the Turkish and KDP embargo on their areas. In October 2013, the PYD-leader Salih Muslim traveled from Syria through the Iraqi border to travel from Baghdad to Geneva. But now Barzani controls this border.


This makes the PYD dependent on the border of Turkey and the KDP that have embargoed the PYD in the past by closing their borders. Therefore, this makes Sinjar important for the PKK to use it for smuggling in fighters from Iraq into Syria, and in the future, to have a bordering territory with the Iraqi government. In October 2015, the KDP blocked the road from Syria into Sinjar to prevent PYD-affiliated Kurdish fighters from Syria from reinforcing the PKK in Sinjar.

“It is located between Iraq and Syria, and that’s why Shingal [Sinjar] is so important,” Qashim Shesho, the main Peshmerga commander said.


Now both Baghdad and the PKK have a common interest: to decrease Turkey and Barzani’s influence in northern Iraq. “They want the KDP to be weak in the future,” KDP Peshmerga commander Shesho said.


A Peshmerga carries a Kurdish flag (Getty Images/John Moore)

Since last summer, there have been heavy clashes between Turkish police and PKK youth militias in Turkey’s restive southeast."