Clashes erupted in Sinjar on March 2 between the Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga forces, known as the Rojava Peshmerga, and the Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS). The YBS is affiliated with the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has previously been in conflict with the Iraqi Peshmerga. Casualties were reported on both sides.
According to a piece in Al Monitor written by Turkish Journalist Fehim Tastevin, tensions broke out when members of the Rojava Peshmerga began digging trenches between the neighboring villages of Hanesor and Sinune. The YBS maintains checkpoints in these villages. No clear reason was given by the Rojava Peshmerga for its actions. YBS members, in turn, interpreted them as acts of aggression and responded in kind.
A ceasefire was brokered the following day, but the Rojava Peshmerga soon began increasing their military personnel in Hanesor. The Yazidi residents of Sinjar saw this as preparation for a hostile takeover.
As the paramilitary wing of the Kurdish National Council in Syria, the Rojava Peshmerga is allied with the Iraqi Peshmerga, the military force for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
The KRG has long maintained that the territory of Sinjar is integral to Iraqi Kurdistan, although the Iraqi government has contested this claim. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, has not relented in his efforts to annex Sinjar. Yazidi concerns that the Rojava Peshmerga have designs on Sinjar are not, therefore, improbable.
The desire to claim Sinjar has become even more pressing for President Barzani, as the influence of the PKK in the area has grown over the last few years.
The PKK, a Marxist-Leninist separatist group based in neighboring Turkey, has challenged the KRG’s regional power. The KRG has, in turn, accused the PKK of destabilizing Sinjar by dividing the Yazidi community and the Peshmerga.
The PKK also threatens the sovereignty of Turkey, one of the KRG’s allies, by calling for secession of the country’s Kurdish region. In fact, just days before the clashes occurred, President Barzani met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on February 27, leading analysts to believe Erdoğan had tasked Barzani with ousting the PKK from Sinjar.
For many Yazidis, the PKK saved Sinjar, after it was overrun by ISIS in 2014. At that time, Iraqi Peshmerga forces stationed in Sinjar, fled their defensive posts and abandoned the Yazidis. Trying to escape from incoming ISIS forces, tens of thousands of Yazidis sought refuge atop nearby Mount Sinjar, but ended up trapped and encircled by ISIS fighters. Many others did not flee Sinjar in time and were subject to the most the horrendous treatment: ISIS executed thousands of men and kidnapped and abused thousands of women and girls, who remained in the city.
During this period of horror, the PKK was the only group to try and help the Yazidis, eventually establishing a land route for Yazidis to escape from Mount Sinjar. “Since then, the PKK has put down roots [in Sinjar], opening schools and training [YBS] fighters,” as journalist Loveday Morris noted in the Washington Post.
After the Yazidis had been terrorized by ISIS for fifteen months, the Iraqi Peshmerga reclaimed Sinjar in November 2015. Many in the Yazidi community were hesitant to rejoice, feeling the Iraqi Peshmerga had betrayed them.
Others, however, recently joined the ranks of the Iraqi Peshmerga and called for the PKK to leave Sinjar. Although seemingly counterintuitive, this decision highlights the war-weariness of the Yazidi community, after the devastation wrought by ISIS. More than a year of fighting has destroyed about 70 percent of Sinjar. The destruction has been so vast that, according to Emma Graham-Harris of the Guardian, “officials…consider[ed] leaving the ruins as a monument to their people’s suffering.”
As one of the most marginalized communities in Iraq, the Yazidis have already suffered a great deal under ISIS and are unwilling to risk another massacre. Unwittingly, however, they are now caught in the middle of a growing proxy battle between rival Kurdish factions for regional hegemony.