Remember the Yazidis: Survivors of ISIS genocide now under attack from the Iraqi army
In 2014, the world watched in stunned horror as ISIS rampaged through the Yazidi region of Sinjar in northern Iraq, murdering the men, and capturing the women and children to make them into sex slaves and child soldiers. The Yazidis practice their own religion, and ISIS regard them as infidels, but this was far from the first time Yazidis had faced persecution. In their Iraqi homeland of Sinjar (Şengal in Kurdish), tucked away on the Syrian border, they kept themselves to themselves.
After the ISIS massacre, international media showed tens of thousands of survivors calling out for rescue from mount Sinjar, where they had fled for safety. They were surrounded by ISIS fighters, and children were dying from hunger and thirst. The United States air-dropped some food and water, but politicians rung their hands over what could be done. Meanwhile, a small group of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) and from Rojava’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) broke through and led the Yazidis to safety across the Syrian border – and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. It is estimated that 2-5,000 Yazidis were killed by ISIS, and 4-11,000 were captured, of whom 3,000 are still missing. This has been widely recognised as a genocide, but less than eight years later, survivors of that genocide are again under attack. It seems that the Yazidis have already been forgotten.
The ISIS attack was able to happen, and happen so brutally, because the Iraqi army and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s peşmerga, which were supposed to be guarding the region, fled and left the Yazidi’s unprotected. On the other hand, the PKK and YPG not only rescued the Yazidis from the mountain. They gave them military training and helped them take back their land. And they helped them set up their own autonomous administration, similar to that in Rojava, and their own defence force so that they would not be left unprotected again.
In 2018, the PKK announced that the Yazidis’ Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) were ready to take full charge of the region’s defence, and that they themselves were withdrawing. The Yazidi self-administration is run according to the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, which emphasise radical democracy, women’s rights, and cultural diversity. The administration has good relations with the other organisations that share Öcalan’s philosophy, but it is organised separately.
Iraq is a federal state, and it also gives official recognition to lots of different militias besides the main Iraqi army. Constitutionally, Yazidi autonomy would not pose a problem; and the YBŞ is already recognised as one of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, alongside – largely Shia – militias. But the powers that dominate the region had other ideas. In October 2020, an agreement was announced that shared the control and defence of Sinjar between the Iraqi federal government, with its Iraqi army, and the Kurdistan Regional Government – dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – with their peşmerga. In other words, it would hand the region over to the very forces that had abandoned the Yazidis to ISIS. This agreement was made without consulting the Yazidis, but it received international support – including from the UK – and clearly shows the influence of both the United States and Turkey.
The Yazidis are generally regarded as Kurds, and their autonomous administration has, as noted, adopted Öcalan’s ideas. Both these facts make them enemies in Turkey’s eyes. The Yazidis are focussed on ensuring their own defence, and pose no threat to Turkey, but that hasn’t stopped the Turkish government from claiming that the YBŞ is part of the PKK – as they also claim for the YPG in Syria – and is a terrorist organisation. The Turkish military has carried out several airstrikes against Sinjar, including targeted assassinations of leading figures and the destruction of a small hospital. And Turkey has claimed that if Sinjar’s autonomous administration is not brought to an end by Iraq, then they have the right to destroy it themselves in the name of ‘self-defence’. Turkey’s attacks, here and elsewhere, are not simply aimed at annihilating the Kurds. They also have ambitions to regain some of the lands that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, and to take permanent control of a strip of northern Syria and Iraq.
The United States may have found themselves as allies of the YPG in the fight against ISIS in Syria, but that doesn’t mean they support its politics. America, along with other western nations, has shown almost uncritical support for the clan-run KDP, with its business-friendly policies; but they have shown no more sympathy for the PKK than for any other left-wing freedom movements. The CIA led the international plot to capture Öcalan in 1999, and the US has bounties on the heads of three PKK leaders. They are not only anxious to appease Turkey as a strategic NATO ally – they are also happy to support Turkey in its mission to extinguish the PKK, and to put a stop to all movements that follow Öcalan’s ideas.
Since the ‘agreement’, both the KDP and Iraq have tried to put pressure on the Yazidis and use their military forces to intimidate them into handing over control of Sinjar. The Yazidis have made it clear that they do not intend to be intimidated. They have demanded negotiations and an input into their own future, but, so far, meetings have got nowhere. In recent weeks – egged on by the KDP – Iraq has stepped up its actions. The KDP is keen to assert their power over Sinjar, and they have also allowed themselves to become completely subservient to Turkey, despite the latter’s anti-Kurdish agenda. Iraq’s weak government also wants to realise their promised control in the area, and, although their relations with Turkey have to be balanced with not upsetting powerful Iran-controlled groups, they also want to keep Turkey on side and to make deals for Turkish drones and Turkish knowhow. There have even been claims of a secret deal between Iraq and Turkey.
Earlier this year, Iraq started to isolate the people in Sinjar – with a concrete barrier to separate them from Syria, and with fences to keep them apart from the surrounding Arab villages. And, the day after Turkey launched a new attack on northern Iraq and the PKK’s war tunnels, which I described three weeks ago, while the Yazidis prepared for their ’Red Wednesday’ new year holiday, the Iraqi army made their first attack on a Yazidi checkpoint. Attacks have escalated, with the Iraqi army bringing in armoured vehicles, tanks and military helicopters. They issued an ultimatum to the YBŞ (and the associated women’s YJŞ) to hand over their bases or ‘be dealt with in the strongest possible terms’, but the Yazidi forces, with the backing of stalwart members of the local community, have put up a strong resistance. There have been deaths and injuries on both sides, and the Yazidis have been forced to retreat from some positions, but they are determined to hold out. Currently there is an uneasy ceasefire and talk of discussions, but the Yazidis are fearful of a gradual takeover and are calling for the Iraqi troops to withdraw.
Iraq has also captured two foreign journalists who were researching the Yazidis. Marlene Förster has been accused of ‘supporting terrorism’. She has been held in solitary confinement, and was only allowed to meet a representative from the German Embassy after going on hunger strike. Her Slovenian colleague, Matej Kavčič, has disappeared from contact.
This week, an estimated 500 to 700 Yazidi families left Sinjar in fear of their lives. Even before this latest attack, many had felt it was not yet safe to return to their old home. From the original population of around 400,000, only around 120,000 had moved back. It cannot be easy to return to the scene of a massacre, and it is made practically difficult by the lack of investment in rebuilding. But Turkey’s attacks have also acted as a major deterrent – as was no doubt intended.
Turkish accelerating aggression – in Iraq, in Syria and in Turkey itself – is driven by President Erdoğan’s fear of losing the next election. He needs a victory to offset the impacts of an economy that is leaving a huge part of the population unable to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Iraq continues to be a dangerous caldron of competing powers. But world attention is now focussed on another war in another place. The Yazidis are last decade’s story. They made exotic victims, but almost no one has written about their extraordinary determination to build back their society from the devastating trauma of genocide, and to make that rebuilt society more fare and democratic and able to defend itself against future attacks. Few people were aware of what the Yazidis had achieved, and few will know that all this is under attack. Remember the Yazidis.
(To keep up to date with what is happening check out the Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/ScottishSolidaritywithKurdistan)