by Zmkan Ali Saleem
4 May 2023: During a public event in Baghdad, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Sudani announced his government’s commitment to the full implementation of the Sinjar agreement, concluded in 2020 between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, and aimed at stabilising the contested district of Sinjar.
Sudani’s announcement is significant and deserves greater attention as it relates to solving Iraq’s vexing predicament in Sinjar, a site of intense and violent contestations between local, national and regional actors since 2015, which could destabilise neighbouring areas.
Despite the district’s ethno-religious diversity, Sinjar’s identity is intertwined with the Yezidi community, a religious minority brought to global attention in 2014 by ISIS’s brutal attack.
Sudani’s attempts to shift the dynamics on the ground in Sinjar in favour of stability depends on the Yezidis’ support, which the government in Baghdad currently lacks. This is mainly due to the government’s prioritisation of pushing back against the influence of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Sinjar, at the expense of building bridges with the Yezidis.
Without reconciling the Yezidis and the rest of Sinjar’s residents, Baghdad will find it difficult to achieve long term stability. This article previews a forthcoming PeaceRep report that will examine the dynamics of localised state society relations in Iraq, with a particular focus on Sinjar.
Viewing Turkey’s Kurdish insurgent group as the main impediment to solving the Sinjar problem, Iraqi government officials have primarily focused their efforts on containing and eventually removing any PKK presence in Sinjar. The PKK maintains this presence through ties with groups of both armed and civic, socio-political organisations, largely made up of Yezidi fighters and activists from the district.
The presence of these PKK-aligned groups looms large in the minds of Iraqi government officials. A Baghdad-based government official involved in handling the Sinjar case at the National Security Agency (NSA) stated, ‘We see the PKK as a national security threat. The PKK controls Sinjar and is entrenched in the district’s security institutions and local economy.’
Although it is not entirely misplaced, this focus on the challenge posed by the PKK-aligned groups distracts the government’s attention from a more crucial element to solving the problem: gaining the backing of the people of the district, particularly the Yezidis.
Currently, the Baghdad government has little support among the Yezidis. This was made clear during the events of 27 April 2023, where a government decision to return Sunni Arab internally displaced person (IDPs) to Sinjar was faced with protests by the district’s Yezidis. A day of unrest rattled the district, as a result of government failure to communicate the decision to return the IDPs to the Yezidi community. However, many Yezidis interpreted the decision as an indication of Iraqi government’s lack of respect for the suffering they endured under the rule of ISIS.
During its 2014 offensive on Sinjar, the Sunni extremist militant group subjected the Yezidis to genocide, including killing, kidnapping and enslaving many members of the community. For many Yezidis, thus, the return of Sunni Arabs to their home town was a bitter reminder of their traumatic experience in 2014.
A lack of systemic and stable ties with the Yezidis might have serious implications for Baghdad’s authority in Sinjar. It may deepen the mistrust many members of the Yezidi community hold for the Iraqi government and its security institutions. A Yezidi journalist stated, ‘the Yezidis do not trust the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. They both failed to protect the Yezidis in 2014 and left them to be slaughtered by ISIS.’
This disconnect with the local community has already fed conspiracies and suspicions about the Iraqi government’s intentions towards the Yezidis. A Yezidi member of Iraqi parliament raised suspicions about the ‘rushed’ returning of the IDPs, claiming that there was ‘a temptation for deliberately targeting the Yezidi religious component’. In the same vein, a Yezidi activist asserted that the Iraqi government ‘had no understanding’ of transitional justice and its relevance to addressing the sufferings of the Yezidis. This could potentially further alienate the Yezidis from the central government.
Stabilising Sinjar requires the Iraqi government to counter these claims and obtain the support of the Yezidis. Difficulties to surmount will include the fact that the Yezidis are themselves divided among competing local, national and transnational actors with influence in Sinjar and diverging political and geostrategic interests in the district.
However, the government needs to not submit to the political complexities around the question of Sinjar, and instead align with the concerns of the Yezidis by effectively implementing laws and policies already passed and ratified to help Yezidis rebuild their lives and return to Sinjar – the largest section of the Yezidi community still live in IDP camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, away from their homes.
While Baghdad has passed laws – the Yezidi Female Survivor’s Law and the Law on Compensation of Victims of War Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Organisations – that promise the Yezidis compensation in the forms of direct funds, lands and jobs, in practice those who try to benefit from these compensation mechanisms have faced major hurdles. Without removing these obstacles and allowing the local community to regain the conditions required for a dignified life, the Iraqi government should not expect the Yezidis to willingly accept its authority and support its policies in Sinjar.
The problem of the PKK’s influence in Sinjar is entangled with the geopolitical calculations of powerful national and regional actors, namely Iran and its allies among the pro-PMF factions in Iraq, who Sudani has little leverage over. A better method for Sudani to dislodge Yezidis from the interests of external actors is to create stakes for the members of the community in the stability of Sinjar.
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