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Proxy War?
Complicated Allegiances In Sinjar Will Threaten Iraqi Kurdish Unity In Long Run

Histyar Qader
The recent confrontation between different Kurdish forces in the Sinjar area may only be the beginning of a conflict that could split Iraqi Kurdistan, local analysts warn.
14.03.2017  |  Erbil
A member of the YBS, or Sinjar Resistance Units, carries his flag. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة)
A member of the YBS, or Sinjar Resistance Units, carries his flag. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة)

The risk of different Kurdish forces, with a variety of alliances, fighting among one another was always going to be high, especially after the removal of a common enemy, the extremist group known as the Islamic State. But locals didn’t think it would start so soon – especially given that the common enemy is still nearby.

Early in March tensions between two different forces, with Kurdish roots, erupted into violence in the Sinjar area. The fighting resulted in several deaths and tensions are ongoing.

At the moment, there is a truce between the two groups involved – the Sinjar Resistance Units, often known as the YBS, and the Rojava Peshmerga, a Kurdish military group from Syria under the command of Iraqi Kurdish authorities from Erbil. A complicated mesh of allegiances and acronyms, involving independent Kurds in Syria, Iraqi Kurdish political parties and Turkish and Iranian links, has seen tensions between the two groups rise. Despite the truce, the two forces remain only hundreds of meters away from one another in parts of Sinjar, and many still have a finger on the trigger.

Despite all comments to the contrary, the conflict that arose early in March revolves around who is in charge of Sinjar.

The commander of the Rojava Peshmerga, Qadir Sheikh Mami, told NIQASH that he believes fighting will begin again if this situation isn’t satisfactorily resolved. “We are against fighting our [Kurdish] brothers but if your own son makes trouble, sometimes you have to beat him,” he argued.

The PKK has taken advantage of the presence of the IS group to control some parts of Sinjar. It considers itself influential there and we will not accept this. 

Mami accused the YBS fighters of taking their orders from the Turkish Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK.

The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish independence and rights in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish people die. In fact, the PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations.

The YBS, who are closely linked to the PKK, are widely acknowledged as having helped save the Yazidi people in Sinjar when the Islamic State group attacked them in 2014. And forces allied with the KDP are widely seen as having left the Yazidis to their fate.

Since then the YBS have strengthened their presence in the Sinjar area, even though it is in Iraq and even though one of nearby Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, has been trying to control the area fully for years.

“[The YBS] are residents of Turkish Kurdistan so let them go and liberate the mountains there,” Mami said, in an indication of his disdain.

His troops, the Rojava Peshmerga, said they were supposed to be bringing troops to the Iraqi-Syrian border in this area and that they wanted to go through the Sinjar area controlled by the YBS.

Meanwhile the YBS say this was just an excuse for trying to take control of the area.

“They were justifying the attack by saying that there are PKK members in the areas under our control,” Sarhad Shingali, a spokesperson for the YBS and a local Yazidi, told NIQASH. “But there are not more than a hundred of them here and they are working as military consultants or helping train our forces.”

“Sinjar is a part of Iraqi Kurdistan,” Jamal Eminki, chief of staff of the Peshmerga forces, told NIQASH; this is even though legally Sinjar is still part of the neighbouring Ninawa province, not part of the Kurds’ autonomous region. This is part of the reason why the KDP has tried so hard to win over the area’s Yazidis for years – if a referendum is ever held, they want the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group with strong Kurdish links, to vote to join Iraqi Kurdistan. “But the PKK has taken advantage of the presence of the IS group to control some parts of Sinjar. It considers itself influential there and we will not accept this. The PKK is not one of the parties belonging to Iraqi Kurdistan and it doesn’t have any rights in these areas.”

“No real agreements have been signed and if the PKK continues to act like this, there is a chance that fighting will begin again,” Eminki said.

In fact, this is not the first time that violence has erupted between allies of the KDP and the PKK. There were also clashes in 1992 and 1994.

In fact, these clashes can be traced one step further back, to long time international enmities.

“The forces that attacked the YBS were trained by the KDP and by Turkey,” Sarhad Warto, a spokesperson for the PKK, says. His implication is that the KDP, which has close links to Turkey, is acting on Turkish orders: The PKK have been fighting the Turkish for decades in Turkey and the Turkish government has repeatedly said it will not tolerate a “new Qandil”. By this, they mean the mountainous Qandil area, near the Iraq-Iran-Turkish border where PKK fighters hide out.  

The PKK is also generally considered to be closer to the other major Iraqi Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, thanks to both parties having stronger links to Iran, than Turkey.

This is just going to cause more problems for Iraqi Kurdistan, Watheq al-Hashimi, the director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies based in Baghdad, told NIQASH. “There are basically two administrations in Iraqi Kurdistan – one in Erbil [the KDP] and one in Sulaymaniyah [the PUK]. The relationship Massoud al-Barzani [the head of the KDP] has with Turkey and the fighting between the KDP-sponsored forces and the PKK is just going to make that relationship worse.”  

It’s not like the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is settled at the moment either. There is an economic crisis that has seen wages go unpaid and locals protesting, as well as the ongoing security crisis caused by the IS group, and an ongoing political problem, that has meant the Iraqi Kurdish parliament has been more or less shuttered for months.

And there are going to be more problems with a similar root cause once the IS group has been driven out, al-Hashimi warns. Control of Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and means of delivery will be another reason for disputes and it is quite likely external influencers – like Iran, Turkey and the US – will have a lot to do with how these are handled.

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