Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Kurds divided over Sinjar

PKK commander Agid Kalari, one of the leading PKK commanders for Sinjar. (Photos by Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
PKK fighter Heval Brusk walks in Sinjar. (Photos by Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
Peshmerga and PKK fighters try to repair a heavy machine gun while under fire from the Islamic State in Sinjar. (Photos by Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

SINJAR, IRAQ — Kurdish forces are gearing up to take the city of Sinjar (aka Shingal), where thousands of Yazidis were massacred, the women enslaved by ISIS. But political rivalry between Kurdish forces could hamper advances and lead to tensions.

In August last year US President Barack Obama justified launching airstrikes against the ISIS to save thousands of the besieged non-Muslim Yazidi minority on Mount Sinjar. The Yazidis had fled Sinjar after Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew that same month.

Following the withdrawal, it was fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that opened a corridor from Syria and saved the besieged Yazidis in August last year.
Now, PKK fighters are operating alongside Peshmerga forces in Sinjar’s old quarter while ISIS controls 80% of the city. The Peshmerga forces are now planning a major offensive to finally control the entire city.

However, the Peshmerga forces under the command of Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani are not happy that PKK forces are in the city, and the PKK is afraid the Peshmerga forces could use coalition airstrikes against them.

Only the Peshmerga forces in Iraq coordinate with the US-led coalition on airstrikes against ISIS as the PKK is still designated a terrorist organization by both the US and the EU.

“We don’t want them in the operations in Shingal, we don’t want them to interfere,” said Ali Awni, a high-ranking official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is led by Masoud Barzani. “They just want to show that they freed Shingal. This while Shingal is still occupied by Daesh terrorists [ISIS].”

The KDP is especially angered by the fact that PKK-allied groups in Syria do not allow Syrian Kurdish fighters trained by the Peshmerga to enter Syria, while the PKK has also been operating in Iraq since August 2014 and is bringing in forces from Syria.

“The HPG [PKK] must stay in Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan]. No need for them here,” Hemin Hawrami, the head of KDP foreign relations, said on Twitter.

Agid Kalari, a PKK-commander in his base 10 minutes from the frontline in Sinjar, seems to be more worried about his problems with the KDP rather than the battle against ISIS.

“The main problem is the KDP — they say that they are going to liberate Shingal alone, and we don’t need you,” he said in an interview. “We have been here for one year and three months. We don’t leave Shingal just like that.”

Kalari, who was previously based in Kirkuk, says the political problems between the Kurds need be solved.

“If we don’t solve this, the operation will be delayed,” he said. “It takes two to three days to take Shingal, but the problem is politics.”

Indeed, on 26 October KDP Peshmerga temporarily blocked the corridor road on from Syria into Sinjar from where the PKK brought hundreds of fighters from Syria. In response, the PKK blocked the road leading towards Mount Sinjar, where the KDP is bringing in Peshmerga reinforcements for future operations.
“We lost 50 to 60 martyrs for this corridor, and we gave control of the corridor to the KDP,” said Kalari. “It’s the main access point to Rojava, but it was cut by the KDP.”

Eventually the problem was solved after both decided to end the blockade of each other’s logistical lines.
“The KDP blocked the way from Rojava to Shingal for hours, then PKK and YBŞ [PKK’s Sinjar’s Resistance Units] blocked the way to Shilo and the KDP unblocked the way,” said Hayri Demir, editor of the Yazidi news website Ezidipress.

In response to Peshmerga plans for the Sinjar operation, the PKK formed a joint command with Yazidi groups for the liberation of the city.

Demir says there are now two main Kurdish groups competing for control: a KDP alliance with over 8,000 Peshmerga fighters, including 6,000 Yazidis, and a newly-formed command of the PKK with approximately around 6,000 fighters which include other Yazidi forces.

But KDP official Ali Awni says these numbers are highly exaggerated. “As active forces on the ground, the PKK only has 200 people. This is just part of their propaganda.”

“We have to cooperate to prevent dangers to not attack each other,” he said. “If they really want to liberate Shingal, they should have to obey Peshmerga orders.”

But the PKK says it will blame the KDP Peshmerga forces if coalition airstrikes hit their positions if the PKK move to take the city.


“Yesterday someone from the coalition contacted me to see if there was a possibility that the KDP could give them wrong information to attack us,” said Kalari. “I told them it’s true, and if the airstrikes hit us we will hold the KDP responsible since they coordinate with airstrikes.”

The biggest question is who would administer the city once it’s retaken. The KDP wants Sinjar to be administered from Erbil, while the PKK wants the Yazidis to administer themselves.

“It [the tensions] will absolutely affect the Kurdish offensive,” said Yazidi journalist Hayri Demir. “Many fear what will happen after the liberation of Shingal.”

The PKK says the KDP cannot rule the Yazidis anymore and wants a system similar to the one they have created for Kurds in Syria.

“They have to have self-administration, and the KDP can’t rule them,” said Kalari. “They have to rule by themselves. This is not a negotiable goal.”

On the ground, Yazidi Peshmerga fighters hope that nothing will happen between the Kurdish forces.

“There will be no problems between the Peshmerga and PKK,” said Ado Yousef, a Yazidi Peshmerga fighter with the KDP. “Hopefully Shingal will be liberated soon. The Kurds are lions.”


Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst and freelance journalist specializing in Kurdish politics, based in Erbil. He tweets @vvanwilgenburg

PKK commander Agid Kalari, one of the leading PKK commanders for Sinjar. (Photos by Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

We lost 50 to 60 martyrs for this corridor, and we gave control of the corridor to the KDP. It’s the main access point to Rojava, but it was cut by the KDP.”

  • dutchnational

    It was the KDP that ran away in august 2014 and it was the YPG/HPG that saved them. It is the YBS, HPS that have some 7.000 fighters and are all jezidi. It is the KDP attacking civilians, Gorran, Jezidis. It is Barzani wanting his party militia in Rojava. It is Barzani wiping his feet on the KRG law. So, who do you wanna choose?

    November 2, 2015