Shafaq News/ Sinjar has yet to recover from the ravages of 2014, when ISIS subjected the population to unrelenting terror. Thousands remain displaced. To persuade them to return, the Iraqi federal and Kurdish regional governments will need help from the current residents in improving governance and security.
Sinjar is a district in northern Iraq 120km west of Mosul, the capital of Ninewa governorate, bordering Syria. A historical crossroads between Iraq and the Levant, it is a largely agricultural area surrounding Mount Sinjar and a small city of the same name. The population is ethnically and religiously diverse, with communities of Sunni Muslim Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Assyrian Christians and a small number of Shiite Arabs. The majority, however, are Yazidis, a distinct ethno-religious group spread across northern Iraq and northern Syria.
The district is part of what the 2005 Iraqi constitution refers to as disputed territories: fourteen administrative districts distributed among four governorates that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claims but nominally come under the authority of the federal government. The status of these territories remains unresolved, but many areas, including Sinjar, fell under the de facto control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Sinjar remained largely uncontested by other forces, including the federal army, until the arrival of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in 2014.
That year, the people of Sinjar fell victim to some of the worst atrocities committed by ISIS, as it expanded its short-lived, self-declared caliphate spanning the border between the two countries. The jihadists singled out the Yazidis, whom they regard as heretics, for particularly vicious assault. ISIS militants killed Yazidi men on the spot. They enslaved women and girls, many of whom ended up in captivity in ISIS-held areas of Iraq and Syria, where they suffered severe sexual abuse. Thousands of Yazidis remain displaced in camps throughout north-western Iraq.
From late 2014, a coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, including Yazidi and other militias raised from the district’s population, began driving ISIS out of Sinjar with air support supplied by the U.S. Since that effort was completed, the district has been governed through formal and informal arrangements that involved the regional Kurdish government (acting from outside the district), Iran-affiliated militias and the political arm of a regional Yazidi armed group. In October 2020, the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil concluded an agreement intended to streamline governance and encourage the displaced to come home by restoring stability to the district. The deal covered three main points: administration, security management and reconstruction.
This report assesses the situation in Sinjar a year and a half after the stabilisation agreement. It highlights weaknesses in the agreement that have thwarted realisation of its vision to date before offering some remedies for the problems. The report is based on extensive fieldwork in the district, as well as in Baghdad, Duhok, Erbil and Suleimaniya. It builds upon Crisis Group’s previous research on Sinjar and other disputed territories, particularly since the ISIS conquests in 2014 but also dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
II.The Struggle over Sinjar
The October 2020 Sinjar agreement took a top-down approach that assumed the two signatories – the governments in Baghdad and Erbil – would be capable of following through with its provisions. Yet, while both governments have the legal authority to make the commitments recorded in the pact, neither has the political power or the local buy-in to put them into action. Consequently, the agreement has led to little change other than expanding the territorial control and authority formally enjoyed by federal forces in the district. Understanding why the deal has sputtered requires a look back at how relations among sub-state actors and regional powers have evolved since 2014.
A.ISIS’s Defeat and the PKK’s Rise
The war on ISIS changed power dynamics in all the areas of Iraq retaken from the jihadist group, especially in the disputed territories. One key dynamic is the rivalry between the KDP and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the war tipped in the latter’s favour.
The KDP, which, like Turkey, views the PKK as a threat, has long worked closely with Ankara to suppress the PKK’s capacities in northern Iraq. But starting in 2014, the ISIS campaign in northern Iraq created pressures that worked at cross-purposes with the Turkey-KDP partnership. The KDP’s precipitous withdrawal from Sinjar as ISIS fighters arrived in 2014 left the population exposed to the jihadists’ genocidal attacks. Meanwhile, the KDP’s main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which had long been friendly with the PKK, called on the PKK to support it in battling ISIS throughout the disputed territories, mainly in Kirkuk.
In August, the PKK stepped in to rescue Yazidis fleeing the ISIS depredations, sending fighters from its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), across the Syrian-Iraqi border to Sinjar. Until that time, the PKK had had no physical presence in the district, only sympathisers who identified with its leader Abdullah Öcalan’s political philosophy, which the PKK disseminated through a local organisation, Tafda.
The YPG’s appearance was a godsend for those who survived the ISIS onslaught. Its fighters helped shepherd the escaping population through a corridor they opened from Mount Sinjar (in the centre of the district) into Syria, and then, via the Faysh Khabour border crossing farther north, back into Iraqi Kurdistan, where the KDP settled most Yazidis in camps. Some families remained as refugees in Syria and many young Yazidis there took up arms against ISIS in Syria with the YPG before joining the fight to liberate Sinjar a year later in 2015, when the PKK set up its affiliate in Iraq, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBȘ)
While these events were unfolding in Iraq, negotiations between Turkey and the PKK collapsed under the strain of the Syrian civil war next door. The July 2015 breakdown of their two-year truce coincided with escalating military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A U.S.-led coalition that included the YPG was at the forefront of the effort. Seeing the YPG as an extension of the PKK, Ankara viewed Western support for the YPG as compounding the PKK threat. By 2015, the PKK had entrenched itself in north-eastern Syria through the YPG. Directly across the border, it was also expanding its reach in north-western Iraq through the newly established YBȘ.
When U.S.- supported military operations to liberate the Sinjar district started in November 2015, the PKK again played a role. KDP fighters approached Sinjar from the north, working side by side, albeit with some friction, with the PKK and YBŞ. They cleared the district’s north of ISIS elements, proceeding toward the main highway that runs from Mosul to the Syrian border, just south of Sinjar town. They did not advance beyond this point, and thus the town remained within the range of ISIS artillery in the district’s southern villages from November 2015 until the end of 2017, when federal forces retook those areas as well. The joint PKK-KDP effort to liberate the town did little to allay tensions between the two groups. They took control of different areas – the former in the north west and on Mount Sinjar, the latter in the north east and Sinjar town – and on several occasions turned on each other in direct clashes. The conflict kept many displaced residents from returning.
The KRG’s independence referendum in 2017 unsettled Sinjar’s governance once more, though the KRG retains formal authority as granted by Baghdad. Angered by the referendum, the federal government sent soldiers and Shiite paramilitaries to push the KDP back in the disputed territories. In October, fearing clashes with these forces, the KDP withdrew from Sinjar again, relocating its administrative personnel northward to Dohuk governorate. At this remove, it continues to administer the district, albeit loosely.
More than seven years after the ISIS attack on Mount Sinjar, many Yazidis – even those still displaced in the Kurdistan region, and thus under the KDP’s control – openly express appreciation of the PKK and its affiliates for the August 2014 rescue effort. They also castigate the KDP for abruptly withdrawing from the district in 2014 and pulling out again in 2017 – characterising the latter as a second act of treachery that confirmed the party’s lack of commitment to Sinjar and its population. A member of the YBŞ’s Women’s Resistance Unit, who took up arms after ISIS killed several of her relatives, explained that, in addition to kicking the jihadists out, “we need accountability from the KDP”. She went on: “We need them to acknowledge the crimes that were committed against us as a result of their withdrawal. Otherwise, we will not allow them back in Sinjar”.
The Yazidis feel affinity for the PKK and YPG for other reasons as well. Unlike the KDP, many Yazidis say, these groups have not tried to impose a Kurdish identity upon them. A former YBŞ commander recalled a 2016 meeting in which a KDP counterpart demanded that the YBŞ submit to peshmerga authority because they are (in the KDP’s view) also Kurds. Many Yazidis do not see themselves this way, though Kurdish is the mother tongue of most. Against this backdrop, a Yazidi activist explained that the PKK/YPG’s secular orientation is a relief given the persecution Yazidis have suffered at the hands of Muslims, referring not just to ISIS but also to local Arabs and Kurds (who are mostly Sunni Muslims).
But, while the PKK and its affiliates enjoy widespread sympathy among Yazidis, they lack the administrative capacity that the KDP took with it when it withdrew from the district in 2017. The YBŞ set up a PKK-modelled system for self-administration after helping free Sinjar in 2015. This structure existed alongside the KDP-controlled administration until the KDP pulled out and persisted afterward, but it never expanded to fill the space the KDP had left behind. For example, it did not try to appoint a mayor (qa’im maqam) for the district, in deference to Baghdad’s authority. Because Baghdad still regards the KDP as the legitimate governing actor, the YBŞ has little actual sway. Few administrative functions are today performed in Sinjar itself, with residents travelling to Dohuk to take care of most of their bureaucratic chores.
B. Arrival of Pro-Iran Paramilitary Groups in Northern Iraq
Another important effect of the counter-ISIS campaign was to bring in Shiite armed groups from elsewhere in Iraq, who helped defeat the jihadists in battle and stayed in the north west after victory was achieved. A 2014 religious decree by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had called on men from across the country to volunteer with the security forces, but the first to answer were Shiite militias that had mostly been dormant since the sectarian war in 2005-2007 (though some had gone to fight for the regime in neighbouring Syria after 2011). In 2016, the government institutionalised the al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) as part of the state, making it part of the formal security sector with its own budget, including salaries for fighters, from the federal government. Some brigades have remained outside the Hashd umbrella while using the institution to advance their own interests, which they define mainly as countering what they call the continued U.S. military occupation of Iraq and, more recently, the Turkish occupation of parts of the north.
The Hashd is run by the Hashd Commission, a decision-making body that encompasses a core of Iranian-backed paramilitary groups, such as the Badr Organisation, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The Hashd also includes a brigade from Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s powerful nationalist Sarayat al-Salam. At first, it also included the so-called Shrine groups aligned with the Shiite religious leadership, the marjaeeya, in Najaf, but they broke away to subordinate themselves directly to the prime minister as commander-in-chief in protest of what they considered the Hashd’s excessive autonomy.
Apart from its Shiite core, the Hashd co-opted many armed groups formed by ethnic or religious minorities to fend off the ISIS onslaught. In Ninewa governorate these included Sunni tribal, Christian, Shabak and Turkmen groups. In Sinjar, the Hashd worked closely with the PKK-affiliated YBŞ and integrated some of its fighters.
The Hashd’s entry into Iraq’s north west has made the conflict over the disputed territories more complex. One of its main aims is to prevent the KDP’s return to these areas to promote its separatist aspirations. But, while the Hashd is challenging Kurdish military dominance in parts of the north, it is also undermining Baghdad’s authority in places from which the state withdrew in the face of ISIS’s 2014 offensive. Today, indeed, the Hashd is far more than a military power. It has advanced politically by fielding parliamentary candidates in the disputed territories drawn from among the minorities allied with it. It has also gained economic influence through its control of illicit commerce inside the country, as well as across its borders, from Iran to Syria, and its practice of levying fees upon business owners through its economic offices in return for protection.
The KDP’s withdrawal in 2017 left large parts of Sinjar under the Hashd’s de facto control. Only one KDP-backed group under the command of Qasim Shasho remained, deploying in the area around the Yazidis’ Sharaf al-Din shrine, north east of Mount Sinjar. To consolidate its hold, the Hashd quickly moved to back the YBŞ and its political component, the Sinjar self-administration. The Hashd national leader at the time, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, sought to tie the YBŞ closer to the Hashd by appointing a mayor and sub-district directors who were loyal to, or members of, the self-administration. But Baghdad did not recognise these appointees and the Hashd did not follow through by calling upon the government to formally replace the KDP administration operating from Dohuk. It then seemingly lost interest in the people it had appointed to govern Sinjar after Muhandis died in the same January 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani. In September 2021, the head of the Sinuni sub-district in Sinjar said he had barely spoken to the Hashd leadership.
Given that the Ninewa governorate (in which Sinjar district is located) does not recognise the Sinjar-based self-administration, most of the federal funds allocated to Sinjar since 2018 have sat unused in Mosul. Meanwhile, Baghdad has paid salaries to displaced Sinjar government employees living in the Kurdistan region. For its part, the Hashd began to focus on security, leaving the self-administration to run some public services, such as schools and health care facilities, in the areas it controls.
C.The Hashd, the PKK and the YBȘ – A Marriage of Convenience?
Security in most of Sinjar is handled by a condominium of the Hashd and local actors, with the Shiite paramilitaries decidedly the senior partner. This arrangement emerged soon after October 2017, after ISIS was defeated and federal forces left. Hashd units moved northward, brushing up against the PKK’s strongholds on Mount Sinjar and in Khanasour. They briefly clashed with PKK and YBŞ elements, which feared the Hashd might seek to drive them out, too, but dialogue via side channels defused the tensions.
Since then, the Hashd has maintained a strategic, mutually beneficial relationship with the PKK, one that spans Iraq and Syria, though it does not always override local tensions. The Hashd negotiated its cohabitation with the PKK and YBŞ from 2017 onward by sharing the spoils, especially of cross-border smuggling. The Hashd benefits from the PKK’s coordination of illicit trade with the YPG in Syria. Meanwhile, Sinjar provides the PKK with an additional safe haven, building a sort of land bridge between its bases elsewhere in northern Iraq and Syria. But the Hashd views the PKK – unlike the affiliated YBŞ – as a foreign guest in Iraq. As such, it has worked to limit the group’s manoeuvrability in Sinjar; following the signing of the Sinjar agreement, it mediated the withdrawal of some PKK cadres from the district.
It is ties to the Hashd that have brought the PKK into the region’s pro-Iran camp. The PUK, which unlike the KDP enjoys good relations with Iran, as well as with some of Hashd groups, was the broker of this new relationship. It helped the PKK forge links with the Hashd as early as 2014, paving the way for their later collaboration in Sinjar.
On the ground, the Hashd has replicated the divide-and-conquer strategy it began employing early in the counter-ISIS campaign to secure its new turf, especially in areas such as the Ninewa plains where it did not yet have a presence. For example, it armed several Ninewa minority groups, some of which are at odds with one another, such as the Shabak and Christians. In the disputed territories, where it was also trying to dislodge the KDP, it formed ties with local armed groups. In Sinjar, it established smaller local militias and made the YBŞ, due to its affiliation with the PKK, the foremost of its junior partners, integrating some of its fighters into the Hashd’s 80th battalion, which meant they received a government salary.
In the Hashd’s eyes, the YBŞ is similar to other Iraqi minority groups that took up arms against ISIS and to which the Hashd extended its support in exchange for their loyalty. It views the YBŞ this way because, although modelled on the PKK and drawing upon the PKK’s philosophy, the YBŞ has a membership of Iraqi Yazidis and sees its future within the Iraqi state.
The YBŞ derives its current strength from the support it receives from the Hashd. It wants to incorporate as many of its fighters under the Hashd umbrella as possible in order to obtain a steady stream of income. Even partial incorporation will be a financial boost to the whole organisation, as it can split up the salaries and distribute the shares to its other fighters who are not part of the 80th battalion. In September 2021, the YBŞ claimed its force had 5,000 members, but only some 250 of these were under the Hashd aegis. The YBŞ had to pay salaries for the rest but has struggled to do so, placing many on a volunteer retainer in the hope that they can eventually join the 80th battalion.
Apart from the 250 YBŞ fighters, the Hashd maintains several other local units on its payroll. The Lalish and Kocho battalions are led by rival Yazidi commanders; the Arajia battalion was formed by Mahmoud al-Araji for the area’s very small (Arab) Shiite minority; and various Sunni Arab tribes in the district’s south-eastern part on the border with Syria established separate militias as well. None commands more than 200 fighters and each competes with the others to enlarge the number of its recruits drawing government salaries.
Many local people, including Yazidis and Sunni Arabs, are disgruntled with both their past experience with the KDP and the present one with the Hashd. The Hashd’s disinterest in improving governance in Sinjar, as well as its divide-and-conquer approach to local armed groups – whereby it establishes small groups that compete with each other in order to control them and make sure they do not unite against it – has hurt its standing. Yazidi civilians explain that the resulting proliferation of armed groups invites conflict, as these groups vie with one another over resources rather than provide security for the public. Few Yazidis express trust in the Hashd today, claiming that it is merely pursuing its own interest in maintaining access to Syria and protecting cross-border smuggling. Most of the local armed groups appear to view the Hashd presence strictly as a temporary necessity: they want it around as a counterbalance to the KDP, which they fear will dominate the area again should it return, a prospect they consider worse. They tend to agree on the need for Sinjar to fall under federal authority.
Having been largely absent from Sinjar since 2003, Baghdad has an opportunity to gain the local populations’ trust, while maintaining a constructive working relationship with both the KDP and the Hashd to ensure that a new administration and security arrangement can emerge.
D.Iran and Turkey: On a Collision Course?
The Sinjar situation highlights how the interests of Iran and Turkey in Iraq both converge and conflict. Turkey has long-term goals that require Iranian acquiescence, such as a direct border crossing with federal Iraq and a rail connection to Mosul (an old plan that has made no progress), which would need to traverse the territory that connects Iran to its partner organisations based in Iraq and Syria.
While the two countries may have competing economic and political interests in Sinjar, they share a common interest in preventing Kurdish statehood. Hence, both countries supported Baghdad’s decision to reimpose control upon the disputed territories after the Kurdistan Regional Government’s September 2017 independence referendum. They were particularly keen to prevent the KRG from declaring statehood in not just the Kurdistan region but in the KRG-controlled disputed territories, as the oil fields there, such as in Kirkuk, could make a Kurdish state economically viable.
Iran and Turkey’s shared opposition to Kurdish separatism in Iraq reflects concerns about similar Kurdish aspirations in their respective countries. Iran, like Turkey, seeks to stifle such sentiments at home and has repeatedly attacked separatist groups such as the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan-Iran in their bases in northern Iraq. While Turkey has partnered with the KDP, this relationship has been limited in part because Ankara does not want the KDP to parlay Turkish support into a successful independence bid. While Turkey needs the KDP to help it fight the PKK in northern Iraq, including the PKK’s YBŞ affiliate in Sinjar, elsewhere in the disputed territories, it seeks to limit the KDP’s power, especially in Kirkuk. Against this backdrop, Turkey assumes that Iran’s affinity for the PKK has its limits, believing that Iran will collaborate with the PKK to secure an Iranian land corridor running through Iraq and Syria, but not to support the development of a self-governing system that could lead to Kurdish independence in any of these places
Both Iranian and Turkish officials also seem certain that prolonged friction over Sinjar will not risk head-on confrontation between the two countries given their long history of balancing interests without going to war, but the risks of expanding conflict in and around the district should not be discounted. Escalation in Sinjar between Turkey and Iran’s partners, such as the PKK and YBŞ, has occurred already, threatening to turn the district into an arena for a larger conflict. In the name of curbing what it calls the PKK’s terrorist activities, Turkey has targeted top YBŞ commanders of the Hashd’s 80th battalion.
Turkey acknowledges that it cannot simply equate the YBŞ with the PKK, as the former group’s rank-and-file may have signed up for different reasons, either to protect themselves or to earn a living, or due to PKK pressure. Neither is the YBŞ a carbon copy of the YPG, which has attacked Turkish troops in the Turkish-controlled enclave in north-eastern Syria, as well as inside Turkey. The YBŞ, by contrast, has not yet directed grievances at Turkey, much less staged attacks on Turkish assets in Iraq. Yet Turkey has increased its targeting of YBŞ commanders, in the process killing Iraqi nationals, many of whom are revered locally for having fought ISIS. Anti-Turkish sentiment in Sinjar is thus on the rise.
At the same time, there is evidence that Turkey is taking care not to provoke Iran in its operations against the PKK and YBŞ. In Sinjar, Ankara has targeted only PKK cadres and 80th battalion commanders, steering clear of other Hashd groups. In this way, Turkey has sought to signal that it is not going after the Hashd institution per se, but only the PKK affiliates within it. Turkey has also refrained from condemning or retaliating for most attacks on Turkish forces in Iraq, including those at its Zilkan base in Bashiqa, north east of Mosul. These attacks are outside the area where the YBŞ tends to operate and appear to be perpetrated mainly by pro-Iranian “resistance” factions tied to the Hashd. Turkey’s restrained response suggests it intends to navigate its relationship with Iran with extreme caution.
Even so, if things continue on their present course, Turkey is likely to face growing blowback for its activities in Iraq. The pro-Iran Hashd groups’ grievances regarding Turkey go well beyond the problems in Sinjar. As with the U.S. military presence in Iraq, they argue that the Turkish military presence is a form of occupation and should be resisted as such. Consequently, Hashd groups are the first to condemn each new air campaign that Turkey conducts against the PKK in Iraq. In February 2021, the Hashd deployed three brigades to Sinjar in response to Turkish threats of a ground incursion
Hashd “resistance” groups have effectively used unrest in Sinjar as cover to conceal their involvement in attacks on Turkish troops in Iraq. For instance, a group called Ahrar Sinjar claimed an attack on the Zilkan base following Turkey’s February 2022 air campaign against the PKK in Sinjar and Makhmour districts. Yazidi armed groups in Sinjar denied any involvement or even the existence of a group by that name. But, while the name was unfamiliar to local observers, the wording of the group’s statement and its logo both recalled occasions on which Shiite pro-Iran “resistance” factions have relied on so-called façade groups to claim attacks on U.S. or Gulf Arab assets in Iraq in order to give themselves plausible deniability.
Thus, even as Turkey has sought to maintain a balancing act with Iran’s non-PKK partners in Iraq, Turkish escalation against PKK targets has triggered a growing number of attacks on its Zilkan base. Hashd groups have moreover hit other Turkish interests, for instance, energy export infrastructure linking the Kurdistan region and the disputed territories to Turkey. The standoff in Sinjar has thus become part of a larger competition between Iran and Turkey in Iraq.
III.The Sinjar Agreement
On 9 October 2020, the office of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced the Sinjar agreement, signed by Baghdad and Erbil a week earlier, branding it a historic achievement. This pact between the national and regional authorities was indeed significant, especially because it indicated that the KDP, which in effect had run the district from 2003 till 2014, would now accept Baghdad’s authority there, at least until the disputed territories question is eventually resolved.
[The Sinjar Agreement] emerged against the backdrop of three years of negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil.
The agreement, which steers clear of addressing the core issue of Sinjar’s status, delineates an administrative and security arrangement with the aim of stabilising the area to facilitate return of the displaced. It emerged against the backdrop of three years of negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil following their joint victory over ISIS and critically after federal forces retook control over the disputed territories in October 2017, from Kirkuk to Mosul and Sinjar, which upended much of the KRG’s pre-ISIS administrative and security arrangements in these areas. It came about only because it allowed the KRG to return to Sinjar as a key political player and offered a way to address Turkey’s demand that the PKK presence in the district be eradicated.
The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and various countries’ diplomatic missions, as well as the U.S.-led coalition forces, have made several attempts after 2017 to bring Baghdad and Erbil together in the service of common interests – for example, to address poor local governance and to improve security coordination between federal forces and the peshmerga in order to forestall an ISIS resurgence in northern Iraq. Compared with Kirkuk, over which UNAMI-facilitated talks have so far been futile, the sides considered Sinjar, as a government official put it, to be “low-hanging fruit”.
The agreement followed months of negotiations. Security officials on both sides were both the main negotiators and the signatories. On the KRG side, the lead negotiator was the region’s interior minister, Rebar Ahmed. On the Baghdad side, the negotiating team included the national security adviser, Qasim al-Araji, the head of the national security service, Hamid al-Shatri, the deputy head of the Joint Operations Command – the central military command for all Iraqi security forces – Abdul-Ameer al-Shimmeri and the head of the Hashd Commission, Faleh al-Fayadh. The former two were lead negotiators operating as liaisons with all government institutions involved. On the margins were civilian advisers to the prime minister and president.
The agreement’s text (see Appendix B) outlines three areas for intervention: administration, security management and reconstruction. A committee composed of federal and Kurdish regional government representatives is to oversee the deal’s rollout.
With regard to administration, the agreement calls first for appointing a mayor. Sinjar has had no such official since October 2017, when the KDP left the area for the second time. A joint committee to be formed in accordance with the agreement, as described below, has authority to appoint an independent mayor based on a shared understanding between Baghdad and Erbil, as well as the Ninewa governorate administration in Mosul. After the mayor is in place, the joint committee is to fill other key administrative positions, such as sub-district heads
The deal outlines several steps with respect to security management. Among the most significant is that it shifts responsibility for public safety to local police in coordination with the national security adviser’s office and the intelligence services; all other forces must withdraw from the district. Another stipulation is that the interior ministry recruit 2,500 members to the local police force, 1,500 from among returning displaced Yazidis and 1,000 from among the current residents, including Yazidis, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The joint committee is responsible for vetting the new recruits to ensure that no PKK elements are among them. The agreement, in fact, calls for expelling the PKK from Sinjar, as well as “ending the role” of its affiliates in the area. It tasks the Joint Operations Command, which answers to the prime minister as commander-in-chief and includes representatives of all security forces, with enforcing this provision.
Finally, the agreement requires that the federal and regional governments form a joint committee in coordination with the Ninewa provincial government to oversee reconstruction of Sinjar.
At first, the deal got a mostly positive reaction. The U.S. and European countries, having been privy to the negotiations, applauded their successful conclusion. Crucially, Turkey gave its blessing after the two sides agreed to its condition that the PKK be kicked out of Sinjar. The local reception was mixed. A broad spectrum of Yazidis, including politically non-aligned activists and advocacy groups, cautiously welcomed it, acknowledging that an understanding between Baghdad and Erbil was a crucial step in restoring stability to the district.
But the reception soon soured as gaps in the deal became obvious. It specified no role for international actors as guarantors; nor did it involve Iran, which could have exerted influence on its local partners to respect the deal’s terms. Western countries as well as UNAMI considered Baghdad and Erbil the two parties that needed to forge an understanding. In their support for the agreement, they overlooked the dynamics on the ground, especially Baghdad’s inability to fully impose its authority on another state institution, the Hashd, which may have consented to the agreement officially but did not intend to support it. Like the YBȘ, some of the main Shiite Hashd groups argue that the agreement is rigged against them. A federal official said Baghdad and Erbil likewise failed to appreciate how entrenched local armed groups had become and how deeply the Hashd had committed to protecting its interests in the area.
The agreement’s glaring neglect of the most sensitive socio-political dynamics quickly eroded its local support. This deficiency resulted partly from the fact that representatives of security institutions had led the way in drafting a deal. But likely a bigger reason was the exclusion of local representatives from the talks. Although federal officials did consult Sinjaris along the way, neither negotiating team included a Yazidi or any other representative of Sinjar’s ethno-sectarian communities. Nor were Sinjaris aware of the final deal’s terms before they were made public. The civilian advisers involved later said they had quietly cautioned about the lack of local buy-in, to no apparent avail.
Building on criticism that some had expressed from the outset, residents evinced scepticism that the agreement would improve conditions in Sinjar, suggesting that it was merely a sop to Baghdad and Erbil. Some Yazidi civilians, including women and displaced persons, argued that only Sinjaris have Sinjari interests at heart. They feared that neither Baghdad nor Erbil would prevent future violence directed at them; that a future central government could try to “Arabise” Sinjar, subsidising Arab migrants from the south to settle in the area, like Saddam Hussein did; or that the KDP might try to “Kurdify” the district should its forces return. They stressed the need for Sinjaris to be in charge of security, preferably in an official local force rather than as multiple militias, although some would still prefer the latter over federal or regional forces coming in from outside the district.
Many among the Yazidis and Arabs of Sinjar, especially those aligned with the YBŞ, thus vehemently rejected the deal, saying the negotiators had not taken Sinjaris’ views into account. The Hashd supports the YBŞ in leading resistance to the deal, which the latter has held up with repeated demonstrations and occasional attacks on federal forces. More than one year on, many displaced Yazidis say they doubt the deal will ever fully come into effect. Some go so far as to say Yazidis should rebuild their lives outside their homeland, because Sinjar has become an arena for regional power competition.
The deal had other weaknesses as well. On the Erbil side, it did not include the PUK, the second largest party in the Kurdistan region, although a very weak junior partner in the KRG. Neither Baghdad nor Erbil considered the PUK’s involvement necessary, as Sinjar borders only the KDP-dominated part of the Kurdistan region. In doing so, however, they ignored the PUK’s potential to be an intermediary with the PKK and YBŞ, due to the friendly relations among the three. The deal also glossed over the ways in which political competition in Baghdad might impede implementation of the deal, as the Iraqi government is itself a patchwork of institutions, each led by factional interests. Prime Minister Kadhimi presides over a weak interim government since the elections in October 2021, which from its early days was set on a collision course with Hashd factions only nominally under his control as commander-in-chief.
Limiting the number of views at the negotiating table certainly helped make it possible to reach a deal, but the exclusion of those who will feel the greatest impact from the agreement, namely the population of Sinjar, has made it very difficult to fulfil.
IV.Making the Agreement Work
Despite the Sinjar agreement’s flaws, it can still be better harnessed to restore stability to Sinjar. The parties will need to move expeditiously, however, to carry out key provisions so that Sinjaris see progress and do not give up on the deal altogether. They will also need to foster more of the dialogue that was missing during the negotiations to secure greater local buy-in for implementation. The following areas should be top priorities.
A.Appoint a Mayor
First, the parties need to appoint a mayor. This issue has become one of the main stumbling blocks to the deal’s implementation. The KDP submitted three names to the Baghdad negotiating team, receiving provisional approval for one. Baghdad’s negotiators then requested 60 days to consult with various government institutions, including the Hashd, to review the candidate. Yet the KDP has yet to receive a final answer. It has repeatedly asked Baghdad to confirm the provisional candidate, or one of the others, and complains that in neglecting to respond, Baghdad is failing to hold up its end of the deal.
Sinjari parties consider the KDP’s proposed candidates to be partisan, however, which is one reason why Baghdad may be hesitant to appoint one of them, fearing that local residents would reject such a mayor outright. In April, Prime Minister Kadhimi tried to find a temporary solution by appointing the Ninewa governor, Najm al-Jubouri, as Sinjar’s acting mayor. The YBŞ, as well as non-aligned Yazidi activists, promptly objected, compelling Baghdad to rescind the appointment only a day later. Jubouri is widely known to be friendly with the KDP and close to the Iraqi army, in which he was a high-ranking commander before taking up his civilian post.
At the same time, Erbil has ignored calls from various Sinjaris to let them elect a non-partisan mayor – and so has Baghdad. They are likely to keep doing so, a federal official noted, following the October 2021 elections. The KDP won all three of Sinjar’s parliamentary seats, because so many of its voters are displaced in the Kurdistan region, and on that basis claims the right to fill the district’s highest office with its own nominee. Loath as it is to anger Sinjaris by agreeing to a KDP nominee, Baghdad does not want to alienate a powerful player in parliament by entertaining the Sinjaris’ requests. The result is that Sinjar remains without a mayor eighteen months after the agreement was signed.
Both Baghdad and Erbil would benefit from a selection process that is more transparent and inclusive and that is predicated on winning Sinjaris’ consent. Without such a process, Sinjaris will continue to resist the agreement’s implementation, while KDP-linked administrators will remain in the Kurdistan region – a status quo that none are especially happy about. In order to identify a viable candidate, Baghdad and Erbil should rely on local intermediaries, such as the Sinjar tribal council, which is close to the YBŞ. The council includes many capable community representatives, some of whom have previously been KDP party members and worked in the local administration. These people could be the necessary bridges between the two main opposing sides, the self-administration and the KDP, that are not talking to each other at present. UNAMI could facilitate these talks in coordination with federal government representatives.
In the immediate term, however, the deadlock over the mayor is likely to continue, as government formation in Baghdad has stalled and Prime Minister Kadhimi’s caretaker government has only limited capacity for delicate political manoeuvres. Given that Sinjar is in dire need of an authorised administration that can provide public services, an interim arrangement may be the best option. Appointing an acting mayor could be a viable temporary solution. For this purpose, the federal government should consult with both Erbil and Sinjar community leaders to identify a suitable candidate. Ideally, that person would be a politically non-aligned Yazidi from Sinjar, but Sinjaris might also accept an Iraqi army commander, provided that he is non-partisan.
B.Secure the District
1.Baghdad’s struggle to assert itself
Another priority is security. The Sinjar agreement’s first requirement in this regard – turning over security to federal agencies and local police – is only partly fulfilled. The national security and intelligence agencies now have offices in Sinjar town, and the 20th army division has taken charge of policing the areas between towns and villages, while the border police patrols the Syrian frontier. Meanwhile, the army has started building a concrete wall along that border. The idea is ostensibly to prevent the entry of ISIS fighters, although the barrier also serves a second purpose, cutting off the YBŞ in Iraq from the YPG and PKK on the other side.
But federal authorities hardly have a monopoly on force. The main YBŞ headquarters in Khanasour remains outside federal control, and the relationship between the army and the YBŞ in the rest of the district is tense. For instance, on 12 January, YBŞ supporters tried to erect a statue of a commander killed in a Turkish airstrike in 2020, but federal forces did not let them. In response, YBŞ members attacked an army checkpoint and the national security office in Sinjar town. Such skirmishes have been a regular occurrence for at least a year, especially around Sinjar town and in Sinuni sub-district, where YBŞ members and sympathisers are most active. Security forces have regularly prevented members of the YBŞ-installed self-administration, and even civilians they perceive as YBŞ sympathisers, from passing through army checkpoints.
In April and May, Baghdad’s struggle to exercise its writ in Sinjar combined with Turkey’s anti-PKK drive to ratchet up tensions, resulting in violence. After Turkey launched its Operation Claw Lock on 18 April, the Iraqi army strengthened its posture in Sinjar by establishing new checkpoints near towns, especially Sinuni. It also deployed more troops to the Syria border zone. The Turkish operation has limited PKK fighters’ movement between their strongholds in northern Kurdistan, while the Iraqi army’s push to consolidate its authority has squeezed YBŞ efforts to maintain control in part of the district. The YBŞ views the two operations as a concerted effort by Ankara and Baghdad to strangle the PKK and YBŞ alike.
Notable clashes took place in early May. On 1 May, the army skirmished with YBŞ fighters at a checkpoint in Bab Shalo, west of Mount Sinjar, where the two sides exchanged fire without incurring casualties. The following day, fighting broke out in Dukuri village, east of Sinuni town, as the YBŞ resisted the establishment of a new army checkpoint, prompting the army to call in reinforcements. YBŞ snipers shot at soldiers from a schoolhouse in which they had taken shelter and the army retaliated by bringing in the 9th armoured division, whose tanks shelled the building, causing at least three YBŞ fatalities.
The escalation in and around Sinuni played out in residential areas, prompting the largest wave of displacement from Sinjar since the ISIS onslaught in 2014. Some 1,000 families left the area for the Kurdistan region and a smaller number fled to Mount Sinjar. Families in Sinjar, as well as Yazidi activists, have since called for the withdrawal of external forces, with security responsibilities to be handed over the local police and national intelligence services. They have also demanded that the army’s duties be limited to patrolling the district’s boundaries, which some residents had done even before the April-May escalation.
While no new clashes have occurred since 2 May, the situation remains tense and residents fear further escalation despite efforts by the parties to calm tempers. The Hashd, which did not intervene on either side during the clashes, has sought to mediate between the army and the YBŞ. So far, the army has not agreed to a YBŞ demand that they jointly run checkpoints. Meanwhile, Sinjar tribal leaders have visited Baghdad to discuss ways to stabilise the area.
In addition to creating a highly combustible situation, the events of late April and early May could derail the Sinjar agreement completely. Should the army continue its forceful campaign against the YBŞ, it risks turning the group into a permanent opponent that deploys insurgency tactics against the army with the PKK’s help. Moreover, the army’s heavy-handedness has caused resentment and fear among the population, particularly in places such as Sinuni, which have been most affected by violence of late. Before further confronting the YBŞ and taking over or establishing new checkpoints, the army should engage with the group in an effort to deconflict activities. Meanwhile, the YBŞ, which has committed to coming under state authority, must refrain from attacking the army.
If Baghdad is to impose its authority on Sinjar, it must gain the trust of the population by – at the very least – preventing fighting in residential areas. To do that, it must attain the monopoly on force it presently lacks. The joint committee needs to stand up the local police force envisaged by the 2020 agreement and move forward with integrating all local armed groups into the state’s security forces. With better outreach to the local armed groups and to ordinary Sinjaris, it should be able to handle these tasks, but as discussed below it could also use some outside help.
2.Standing up the local police
The joint committee has just begun to register and vet officers for the local police force. The October 2020 agreement provides for a force of 2,500 in total, of which 1,500 places are reserved for returning internally displaced Yazidis now residing in the Kurdistan region and 1,000 for current residents. The challenge is to build a police force representative of all who live in Sinjar or – as the agreement foresees – will return there soon when conditions allow. The joint committee, in particular, should work to assure current residents, as well as the displaced, that a future local police force will be drawn from all the communities of Sinjar. To this end, it should invite civilian representatives from the official administration, as well as the self-administration, in addition to civil society organisations and tribal leaders, to join in overseeing the process of standing up a new force
Gender balance requires focused attention. Some Yazidi women and groups championing women’s rights note that the agreement contains no provision for recruitment of women into the police force. The lack of women’s representation in Iraq’s security institutions creates broader problems for the population, partly because many women feel uncomfortable asking male police officers for assistance. Helping women gain access to the security services is of particular importance in Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidi women faced the trauma of enslavement and abuse following their abduction by ISIS, some of whose followers were local Arabs. Introducing a quota for women recruits to a community unit answering to the local police may help in persuading displaced women to return.
The YBŞ presents its own set of thorny challenges that will require careful management. It objects to the larger number of spots set aside for the displaced Yazidis, as it suspects that the KDP, via its influence in the camps where these people now live, would be able to gain the upper hand in Sinjar’s security management. Yet the ratio of displaced to current residents – approximately seven to three – warrants such a division. Not surprisingly, the YBŞ finds the vetting requirement particularly noxious, because it could be applied to automatically exclude anyone who is or has been an actual, or merely suspected, YBŞ member. Meanwhile, the YBŞ has sought to fill the current residents’ share of police positions with loyalists, including people who were not already enrolled under its command, in order to provide job opportunities while retaining an armed force of its own. This practice could well be an obstacle to future demobilisation, as other forces, including those affiliated with the Hashd and the KDP, are likely to keep members outside the local police force for the same reason, absent alternatives, as suggested below.
3.The most controversial provision
The 2020 agreement’s most controversial provision calls for the expulsion of the PKK and “ending the role” of its affiliates. It has proven impossible thus far to fulfil this clause, among other things, because it was not negotiated directly by all the key actors, because it indirectly suggests the YBŞ’s disbandment and because it offers its members no viable alternative. Initially rejecting the use of force against the PKK and the YBŞ, Baghdad resigned itself to an incomplete withdrawal, which took place soon after the agreement was signed. The PKK and YBŞ both pulled their fighters out of the district and sub-district centres and lowered their flags there, but maintained their bases on Mount Sinjar and in Khanasour.
As the April-May clashes fighting have demonstrated, however, that arrangement is unstable. The PKK’s presence has resulted in Turkish intervention, and in turn led Baghdad to take its own initiative against the group (to keep Ankara at bay) and to assert itself with the YBŞ (in order to consolidate its grip on local security). Yet, while Baghdad is right to take ownership of Sinjar’s security, it cannot do so effectively if it keeps acting in a way that turns many residents against it.
Further progress is unlikely unless and until the joint committee disentangles the various sub-state actors from one another, primarily by separating the PKK from the YBŞ. Baghdad should thus endeavour to convince Erbil and Ankara that the YBŞ should be dealt with as – just one more – Iraqi armed group, not as a “terrorist organisation”. To this end, Baghdad would also need, of course, to put pressure on the YBŞ not to accommodate PKK activity in Iraq.
The joint committee should then outline a demobilisation and reintegration track for those YBŞ and other local armed group members under the Hashd umbrella, and also those outside it, such as Qasim Shasho’s force, under the supervision of either the interior or defence ministry. It will be a tall order: there is no precedent for a demobilisation effort of this magnitude anywhere in Iraq. Still, it will be necessary to try, as without such an option, some YBŞ military bases will remain out of reach for federal forces, which can only invite further Turkish airstrikes and dissuade the displaced from returning.
While the agreement only contemplates a 2,500-strong local police force, the various armed groups together have some 7,000 additional fighters. The government should outline a long-term plan for integrating those fighters it cannot enrol in the local police into security forces under the defence and interior ministries. Although the army and federal police normally assign the personnel to serve far away from their places of origin, the government could make an exception for Sinjaris who prefer to stay in their home district.
To settle the security situation to everyone’s satisfaction, Baghdad may need to bring in referees from the outside. Many Sinjaris, whether current residents or displaced, have expressed deep disillusionment with the Iraqi state’s ability to provide security detached from partisan interests. Heads of civil society organisations have called on the UN to provide an international peacekeeping force instead. While their entreaties have found no traction, Western countries, such as the U.S., the UK, Germany and France, concerned for Sinjar’s future could throw their weight behind a scaled-down version of the idea. They could advocate for international civilian monitoring of work to fulfil the agreement’s security provisions. International involvement could start with help in standing up the police force and then continue with support for efforts to reintegrate additional fighters into units under interior or defence ministry supervision.
Indirectly, UNAMI already plays such a part, but its role could be enhanced. Formalising civilian oversight with the support of international observers would give the effort greater transparency and legitimacy. For instance, UNAMI could establish a sub-office in Sinjar city staffed with civilians as observers and police advisers to lend technical expertise to the processes described above.
C.Move Forward with Reconstruction with Community Input
While the agreement tasks the joint committee with reconstruction, it does not specify a timeline for this work or provide the money to carry it out. As with other provisions, Baghdad could take the lead in empowering residents to rebuild their own neighbourhoods. Local and international NGOs could help in assessing reconstruction projects and seeing them through. The national government would first, however, have to allocate a reconstruction budget. This step is likely to be delayed, as Iraqi law prevents a caretaker government from presenting a budget to parliament.
Moreover, even after Baghdad sets aside funds, many Sinjaris will be sceptical that the money will benefit them, because the joint committee includes only officials from Baghdad and Erbil. Absent a local administration that assumes the joint committee’s tasks and takes charge of reconstruction, Baghdad must ensure that local representatives are included in the committee’s deliberations.
Events extraneous to Sinjar turned the district from a backwater into a valuable strategic prize. ISIS arrived in August 2014 to connect Mosul with Raqqa in its attempt to create a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria. Its monstrous treatment of the local Yazidi population brought in outside help for the latter – too late for many Yazidis, who were either killed or enslaved. The PKK was able to exploit the post-2011 power vacuum in northern Syria to extend its influence there, increasingly at ISIS’s expense and also the KDP’s. The latter’s precipitous withdrawal from Sinjar provided oxygen to the PKK in the district and later to Iran-backed Hashd paramilitaries. But the PKK was followed by its enemy, Turkey, which compensated for the KDP’s weakness with repeated airstrikes upon the PKK and its local Yazidi affiliate, the YBŞ. Amid all this chaos, those among the population who did not previously flee are left without basic services or reconstruction. The displaced are reluctant to come back from camps in the Kurdistan region.
The October 2020 Sinjar agreement could have provided a way to lessen tensions in the district, stabilise it and launch a reconstruction effort, thereby stimulating the displaced population’s return and the area’s revival. But, by excluding the key parties on the ground, Baghdad and Erbil turned the agreement into a virtual dead letter, particularly as regards governance and security.
The remedy is for Baghdad and Erbil to honour the deal they agreed to – appointing a mayor, if need be on an acting basis, disentangling local from international actors and providing integration opportunities for the former as part of securing the district, and beginning reconstruction – while at the same time drawing the local actors they excluded into new negotiations over carrying out the agreement in full. It will be a difficult task, but leaving the situation in Sinjar as is – a district where waning state power enables power struggles between Turkey and Iran and their respective proxies and allies – will simply invite more violence and displacement. After everything Sinjar’s population has gone through in the past decade, surely that future is the last one that anyone would wish for them.
Soure: International Crisis Group