Once more, it seems the Yezidi-populated area Sinjar is under imminent threat – as it has been for quite a while. Sinjar has become a thorn in Erdogan’s eye, as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been operating there freely. Yet, this time, the threat seems larger than a sole Turkish invasion of PKK-controlled territory. New alliances are being forged. New enemies are being made. And if events go forward as reported, the Sinjar conflict might even turn into a new phase in Iraqi sectarian violence.
PMF reinforcements for Sinjar and the failure of the Baghdad-Erbil Sinjar agreement
On January 22th, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan uttered his famous phrase: “We may come there overnight, all of a sudden,” threatening the Sinjar region. “Turkey is always ready to carry out joint operations against the PKK with Iraq but we cannot openly announce the date for such operations.” The people in Sinjar – and the militias involved – have been bracing for a Turkish invasion ever since.
Turkish threats to the Sinjar region provoked pro-Iranian Iraqi militias to increase its presence there. Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), announced it is to increase their role in the area, as both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Region Government failed to implement the Baghdad-Erbil Sinjar agreement. The pact initiated in October 2020 was meant to stabilize the region and end the ongoing turf war in the genocide-struck area. Disputes concerning control of Sinjar had led to fractured governance and insecurity, and remains the main reason a large amount of Sinjar’s population has not returned home.
The Sinjar agreement stated that only Iraqi federal forces should operate in Sinjar and all other armed groups (including PKK and PMF) should leave the town. This agreement would settle Baghdad-Erbil disputes over control of the region, and would lead to withdrawal of the militias currently active on the ground. Yet, the Turkish imminent threat prompted pro-Iranian militias to increase – instead of diminishing – their role. Several of these pro-Iranian Iraqi militias openly threatened Turkey for retaliation for attacks on Iraqi soil. Thereby, they reminded Turkish forces of previous actions taken against American forces. The Iraqi Resistance once again made clear it is unwilling to accept any foreign intervention on Iraqi soil.
Pro-Iranian forces taking a harsh stance against an impending Turkish invasion – something both KRG and the Iraqi central government had failed to do – seemed to have averted the threat temporarily. Turkey would not want to displease its frenemy Iran. At least, not until it would find the needed partners-in-crime to do so.
Neither PKK nor PMF will leave Sinjar under the current conditions
Sinjar has been protected by a patchwork of different militias ever since ISIS was expelled from the region. Divisions in local Yezidi society have only increased since 2014. On one hand, there is a number of Yezidis that is aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (Barzani’s KDP). This faction pushes to be administrated by the KRG (Kurdistan Region Government). Both PKK-aligned Yezidis and PMF-aligned Yezidis strongly oppose this. Even though these two factions differ ideologically, they both push for a localised administration and military to be able to protect the vulnerable minority group.
Sinjar is strategically located for both the PKK-aligned factions and the pro-Iranian militias. And, what many do not know, Sinjar is also of religious importance to the pro-Iranian factions. Sinjar city had a mixed population of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Yazidis and Christians, that lived together in relative peace. After the mass-destruction caused by ISIS, the pro-Iranian groups were fast to reconstruct the city’s only Shia shrine. The Sayyida Zainab shrine houses the daughter of Imam al-Sajjad, the fourth Imam revered in Shia Islam. Slowly, pilgrims start to visit the site.
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, is seen in Sinjar
During the ISIS attack on Sinjar on 3 August 2014, the Yezidis were left alone to face genocide by both the Iraqi central government and the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The siege on Sinjar was broken by the PKK and affiliated YPG forces. The Yezidis – under PKK rule – started to govern themselves under the name ‘Shengal Democratic Autonomous Council’ (MXDŞ), and established their own defense units under the name of YBS. Sinjar strategically bordered YPG-held territories of North-East Syria, and has in fact formed a land corridor from Syria to Iraq ever since.
The PMF has engaged in a loose alliance with the YBS because they also struggle for a form of decentralised rule within Iraq away from the KRG. Sinjar – a location that falls within territory disputed between Baghdad and KRG – should not return under KRG rule according to PMF-leaders. One can conclude that their alliance exists on their one common ground; resentment against KDP. Additionally, the YBS are willing to accommodate the PMF, including their own cross-border activity to Syria. Historically, the PKK has been relatively closer to Iran than to fellow Kurdish parties. Both militias are also connected financially, as YBS fighters receive their salary from PMF. It can be argued that the impending Turkish threat has only brought the PKK/YBS and PMF factions closer.
The Turkish threat to invade Sinjar prompted pro-Iranian factions within the PMF to escalate both politically and militarily, after the head of Badr Organization, Hadi Al-Amiri, called on the Iraqi government to, “take all necessary measures to deter any aggression on Iraqi territory, the Iraqi armed forces, and the PMF.” Reportedly, entire PMF factions moved to, and stationed near, Sinjar all through february. It is alleged these reinforcements consist of three fully-equipped PMF brigades, as well as formations from Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Hezbollah.
There are multiple reports that meetings between Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Hezbollah leaders and PKK have taken places, and that the mentioned militias have been transporting loads weapons to Sinjar to be able to resist a feared Turkish invasion in cooperation. Though hard to verify, these reports seem to be consistent.
Why is Turkey focused on Sinjar?
Though the PKK presence in the Sinjar region has been a thorn in the eye of Turkish president Erdogan ever since it set foot there in 2014, multiple other reasons can be pushed forward for him to want to establish control there.
The PKK is a long-rival to the KDP. At the same time, the KDP has a pretty strong alliance with Turkey. For example, KDP and PKK have previously faced each other in the so-called ‘War for Qandil’. In this war, the PKK supported the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) in its struggle for power over Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey supported the KDP. During “Operation Hammer” the KDP fighters and the Turkish army both attacked the PKK at the same time, in an attempt to exile the PKK back to the Lebanese Beka’a valley.
Also, KDP is heavily dependant on Turkey for economic reasons. It imports a large part of its supplies from neighbouring Turkey. It also depends on Turkey for the export of its oil. In May 2012, Turkey and the KRG cut a 50-year lasting deal to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to Turkey without the approval – and under protest – of Baghdad. These pipelines pump gas and oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
As a result of these strategic partnerships, KRG seems reluctant to condemn Turkey’s constant violations on Iraqi soil – and KRG territory – in airstrikes and raids targeting the PKK. Many reports state that KRG’s leading party KDP’s intelligence service Parastin works together closely with the Turkish intelligence agency MIT.
Yet, Turkey’s interest in Sinjar goes much further in its animosity towards PKK, and its strategic alliance with the KDP. Sinjar is positioned right on the way to Mosul and Kirkuk, two territories the Turks have historically claimed as theirs. One can state that the Turks have established a ‘phanton limb syndrome’ when it comes to these territories.
The ‘Mosul Question’ even turned into a territorial dispute in the early 20th century between Turkey and the United Kingdom over the possession of the former Ottoman Mosul Vilayet, which was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the first World War, when it was occupied by Britain. After the partition of the Ottoman Empire, the newfound Turkish Republic considered Mosul one of the crucial issues determined in the National Pact. Yet, British officials in London and Baghdad believed that Mosul was imperative to the survival of Iraq because of its resources, and the security of its natural, mountainous border, which is the main reason they chose not to give in to the Turks’ wishes.
Another reason could be Turkey would want to simply have another foothold in areas bordering SDF-held territories in North-East Syria. In the event of an unexpected US withdrawal, Turkey could then easily target the Syrian Kurds from both sides.
What is Turkey up to, according to PKK?
The time frame set for the Erbil-Baghdad Sinjar deal to be implemented – and thus the withdrawal of PKK-affiliated and PMF-affiliated militias – has expired on April 1st. Turkey had threatened that it would act if militias failed to withdraw. And it seemed Turkey has not sat still in the meanwhile.
A series of interesting reports have emerged in PKK-affiliated media outlets. These reports describe a series of intelligence meetings held between the KDP, Turkish MIT and Israeli Mossad. According the information PKK-affiliated journalists had obtained from a source inside KDP, senior officials of MIT and the KDP held two meetings in the Massif Area and Şoreş districts of Hewler to conduct a plan to rid Sinjar of both PKK/YBS and PMF.
It was said that MİT officials – including a deputy undersecretary – Masrour Barzani, Weysi Barzani, Rêber Ahmed and two members of KDP’s intelligence service Parastin took part in the meeting held on March 14 at 17:00 in the area of Massif. Massif is known as a Parastin-hub – a KDP-compound only hard to penetrate by non-aligned journalists – close to the KRG president’s residence in Sari Blind.
The source that was quoted in reports in PKK-affiliated media also stated that the US might have given the green light for an attack on Sinjar. It was decided that the Baghdad government would support the attack, and speed up the persuasion talks so that Iran would not cause any problems. With these reports in mind, one could connect the dots on Nechirvan Barzani’s unexpected visit to Baghdad last night.
It was stated that another meeting was held simultaneously in the Şoreş district of Erbil, which a MIT delegation, officials of Peshmerga and Parastin, and senior Mossad officials attended. According to the information provided, this meeting was held at the house of a man of Turkmen origin, that held a mediating function. The plans uttered allegedly included measures that should be taken to break what is mentioned as ‘the Iran-oriented ‘Shia Crescent’ plan’, and to interrupt relations between PMF and PKK-affiliated militias.
PKK’s allegations set in context
Now, to many reading these allegations, they might seem a rather funny new conspiracy theory. Yet, looked upon the context of these allegations, a trend of consistency can be found.
Improvement in relations between PKK-affiliated militias and pro-Iranian resistance groups can sound alarming to all parties involved. I am sure everyone can see Turkey has been pushing for a cleansing of the Sinjar region for quite a while. The sole reason that Turkey has not acted upon its intentions until now, was its lack of a willing partner-in-crime, and threats uttered by pro-Iranian forces. Turkey would not be willing to tackle Iran’s interests in Iraq on its own.
The good relations between KDP and Turkey – and their common animosity against the PKK – do not come as a surprise to anyone following events in the region, and have been described summarily in this article – and articles I’ve written earlier.
Also, Mossad is no stranger to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The relationship between Israel and the Iraqi Kurds can be traced for over decades. Even though diplomatic relations are not established officially, relations between the two entities have existed since the early 20th century. Though relations between the two have always remained secretive – hidden from the eye – as they have been met with anti-Israeli and anti-Kurdish assertions from Arab, Iranian and Turkish leaders, and media. As the only non-Arab state in the region, Israel’s Ben Gurion formulated the “Doctrine of Periphery or Peripheral Strategy” which expressed that Israel needed to develop strategic relations with non-Arabs in the region – including the Kurds – who not only were the largest non-Arab population in the region, but also resided over a strategic territory in Iraq which took part in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
In May 1965, Israeli diplomat David Kimche and IDF General Tzvi Tzur visited Kurdistan, and met with the late Kurdish leader Mele Mustafa Barzani in the bordertown Haji Omeran. The Israelis agreed to province large supply of weapons and funds to the Kurds at the time. From the Kurdish perspective, relying on Israel was beneficial to drag the United States in to the war.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushed for the expansion of relations with the Kurds and to establish ‘a significant presence on the ground’ in Kurdistan. This plan was called the “Plan B” by Israel. In June 2004, Seymour Hersh wrote an article for The New Yorker wherein he claimed that Israel was supporting the Kurds militarily to counteract Iranian proxies and that Israeli intelligence operatives were present in the region. While a CIA official acknowledged this claim, Israeli, Kurdish and American officials denied it.
In June 2014, Israel accepted independently-sold Kurdish oil at Ashkelon Port despite criticism from Iraq. During the Kurdish independence referendum’s quarrels in 2017, Netanyahu stated that there was a “deep natural longstanding sympathy” for the Kurds. In 2017, almost half of the oil extracted from Kurdish fields was exported to Israel. The buyers in Israel are mostly private companies who receive about 300,000 barrels of oil on average per day.
Multiple articles can be found quoting intelligence sources that stated there are Mossad officials based permanently in Iraqi Kurdistan, monitoring Kurdish insurgent groups targeting Iran and obtaining intelligence concerning the activities of pro-Iranian resistance groups in Iraq.
More on these ties can be read in this article: Israel’s Kurdish footmen.
Israel would quickly fall for an opportunity to prevent Iran from forming the ‘Shiite crescent’, a landbridge crossing Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – all the way to the Israeli border. Israel is worried Iran might gain the upper hand in Iraq, as negotiations continue with the Biden administration for a withdrawal of US troops. It would support actions that prolong strife in Iraq, and even promote a renewel in sectarian conflict. A divided Iraq is a safe Iraq to Israel.
Though Israel is close to several Kurdish groups, it is often said to not have been able to pursue a strategical relationship with the PKK. Though Israel is not unsupportive of PKK-affiliated militias’ presence in Syria, it remains wary of the PKK itself. The Kurdish group has been previously hosted in Syria, where it had excellent relations with former president Hafez al-Assad. Many expect – or fear – the PKK’s Syrian wing to reestablish ties with the Syrian government again. Also, PKK has trained under the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, when it received support from Syria. Israel has had a hand in the international conspiracy that led to Abdullah Ocalan’s arrest and trial. Also, PKK leaders often include anti-Israeli sentiments in the speeches. The same trend can be seen in Ocalan’s books.
The US is currently in a difficult position in Iraq. Though officially negotiating for a withdrawal of its troops, Biden seems reluctant to really leave. The US faces a large threat of pro-Iranian forces, that view US troops’ presence in Iraq as a blatant violation of the country’s sovereignty – and thus a legitimate target to attack. It is possible Biden would give a green light for an operation on Sinjar, in an attempt to prevent a growing cooperation between the PKK (whose Syrian wing it views as its proxy) and pro-Iranian groups. Yet, it is unlikely the US would openly operate in such a plan.
Turkey has reportedly been increasing its meddling in Iraqi politics – outside of the KRG. Turkey has had a grip on several Turkmen groups active in the region. Though some of them share their religion with pro-Iranian groups, both believers of Shia Islam, they do not approve of Iran’s growing influence in the country. Turanist Turkmens – the majority of them Sunni muslims – would rather see Iran leave the country yesterday. Though neighbours for centuries, factions of Turkmens resent the Kurds.