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I’ve spent the morning reading conflicting reports from Mount Sinjar (also known as Shingal) and Highway 47. A lot of the reporting about this, it seems to me, would be impossible to understand without some background knowledge — or a glossary, at least — so I thought I’d be helpful and try to make what’s happening there easier to follow. Forgive me if I’ve only made it more confusing, but at least that’s in a sense more accurate, because the situation is anything but clear.
First, some maps. Sinjar, the city, is shown by the red arrow:
The Sinjar Mountains are a 100-kilometer long range in northwestern Iraq. The highest segment is in Nineveh Governorate, and partly administered by Iraqi Kurdistan; the western and lower segment is in Syria, and controlled by the de facto autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, Rojava. The city of Sinjar — marked with the red arrow — is just south of the range.
In 2014, some 40,000-50,000 Yazidis fled to the mountain when the Islamic State raided the city of Sinjar, which fell to ISIS on August 3. The Yazidi refugees on the mountain were stranded without water, food, shade, or medical supplies; they relied on small supplies of water and food airdropped by American, British, Australian, and Iraqi forces. By August 10, the PKK, the YPG, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces had smuggled about 30,000 Yezidis off the mountain by opening a corridor into nearby Rojava, and from there to Iraqi Kurdistan. Thousands more remained stranded on the mountain. Reportedly, 300 Yazidi women were taken as slaves and more than 500 men, women, and children were killed, some beheaded or buried alive.
All those acronyms will either be familiar to you already or you’ll be lost by now, so let me see if I can help. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a left-wing Kurdish nationalist militant organization. It’s based in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Since 1984, it’s been waging a particularly brutal armed struggle against the Turkish state. Turkey, the US, and the EU consider it a terrorist organization. It is a non-arbitrary designation.
The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are the main armed service of the Kurdish Supreme Committee — the government of Syrian Kurdistan, aka Rojava. They’re close enough to the PKK as to be a great embarrassment to the US and Europe, given that we support them, but consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization. (Furthermore, the KDP insists that the PKK and YPG are “foreign forces” that need to leave Iraqi Kurdistan, but doesn’t do much to make this so, given that they receive quite a bit of popular support from Iraqi Kurds.)
The Peshmerga are the military forces of the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. The formal head of the peshmerga is the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, but the peshmerga itself is divided and controlled separately by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (usually abbreviated as KDP or PDK, but basically, they’re the Barzani clan) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the PUK and basically, the Talabani clan). Both pledge allegiance to the Kurdistan Regional Government (the KRG). Turkey likes and works with the KDP, but not the PUK: It believes the PUK is unwilling to reign in the PKK, because the PUK is too dependent upon Iran. This is basically true, although it’s not because the PUK has any special ideological affinity for Iran; it’s just that the PUK is too weak and isolated to be anything but dependent on Iran.
The Yazidis lost faith in the KDP in August, 2014, when spooked peshmerga abandoned them to their fate on Sinjar. They were saved only by last-minute intervention by the PKK and the YPG. The PKK established a permanent base on Sinjar. In December, Peshmerga from northern Iraq launched an offensive to take over the mountain, freeing hundreds.
This morning, The New York Times’ Michael J. Gordon reports that:
A ground offensive backed by American air power to retake the western Iraqi town of Sinjar from Islamic State fighters began early Thursday, according to a Kurdish official. The objective was to cut a major jihadist supply line between Syria and the Iraqi city of Mosul.
A statement from the security council of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq said that up to 7,500 Kurdish pesh merga fighters were moving on “three fronts to cordon off Sinjar City, take control of ISIL’s strategic supply routes, and establish a significant buffer zone to protect the city and its inhabitants from incoming artillery.” ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State.
“Coalition warplanes will provide close air support to pesh merga forces throughout the operation,” the statement said.
Kurdish officials said there could be as many as 700 ISIS fighters in and round Sinjar, including foreign fighters.
As the campaign got underway, long columns of pesh merga vehicles, including pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and a small number of armored vehicles snaked their way across Mount Sinjar as the airstrikes boomed in the distance.
Some of the fighters walked alongside the vehicles, headed for the front.
The pesh merga, to be joined by Yazidi forces, were prepared to sweep down from Mount Sinjar and attack fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, on multiple fronts.
“We have made our plans, but not everything goes according to plan,” Maj. Gen. Aziz Waisi, the commander of the Zeravani Force, which is leading one of the prongs of the Kurdish offensive, said earlier. “It is war, we have a determined enemy, and there are always surprises from ISIS.”
The operation, which comes as the American-led coalition is trying to regain the initiative in the struggle with the Islamic State, holds out the possibility of progress along a new front in northern Iraq against the militants.
The aim is to add pressure on Islamic State fighters who are being pressed militarily in northeast Syria; are partly encircled in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in Iraq; and were recently evicted from Baiji in northern Iraq.
Here’s the Times’ graphic depiction of the operation, via the IHS Conflict Monitor:
So the goal, basically, is to take out Highway 47, and cut off one of ISIS’s most active supply lines. It passes by Sinjar and indirectly links ISIS’s two biggest strongholds, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq. ISIS uses it as a route for goods, weapons and fighters. Mosul is ISIS’ prized possession, so cutting off the artery linking Iraq with the cities ISIS holds in Syria, and reclaiming Sinjar, would obviously be a huge step toward dividing the so-called caliphate — and thus this is a battle of huge psychological importance. Coalition-backed Kurdish fighters on both sides of the border are now, apparently, fighting to retake parts of that corridor.
According to AP sources,
“If you take out this major road, that is going to slow down the movement of (IS’s quick reaction force) elements,” Capt. Chance McCraw, a military intelligence officer with the U.S. coalition, told journalists Wednesday. “If they’re trying to move from Raqqa over to Mosul, they’re going to have to take these back roads and go through the desert, and it’s going take hours, maybe days longer to get across.”
Warplanes in the U.S.-led coalition have been striking around Sinjar ahead of the offensive and strikes grew more intense at dawn Thursday as bombs pounded targets outside the town. But Sinjar, located at the foot of Sinjar Mountain about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Syrian border, is not an easy target. One attempt by the Kurds to retake it stalled in December. The militants have been reinforcing their ranks in Sinjar recently in expectation of an assault, since “this operation has been building for a while,” Maj. Michael Filanowski, operations officer for the U.S.-led coalition, said Wednesday, though he could not give specifics on the size of the IS forces there.
Kurdish forces and the U.S. military said the number of Islamic State fighters in the town had increased to nearly 600 after reinforcements arrived in the run-up to the offensive, which has been expected for weeks but delayed by weather and friction between various Kurdish and Yazidi forces in Sinjar.
The offensive is being personally overseen by Kurdistan regional president Massoud Barzani, who is also head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which other groups in the area accuse of seeking to monopolise power.
So: These “Kurdish factions” include the PKK, which is mostly based in Turkey; the Syria-based People’s Protection Units (YPG); and Yazidi-led forces who call themselves the Sinjar Resistance. Iraqi Kurdish fighters have held positions further outside the town. The Barzani-dominated KDP controls all of Iraq’s borders with Turkey. (In a sense, since 1992, the Turkey-Iraq border has really been a Turkey-KDP border.) The KDP’s main political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), controls a large chunk of the Kurdish-controlled region’s frontier with Iran.
“The offensive had been expected for weeks,” according to Reuters,
but was delayed by weather and conflict among the Kurdish and Yazidi forces in Sinjar. In principle, the offensive is being overseen personally by KRG regional president Massoud Barzani, who is also head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Other groups in the area accuse him (credibly) of seeking to monopolise power.
Rudaw is a Kurdish media network based in Erbil and run by Nechirvan Barzani — the prime minister of the KRG, the president’s nephew and son-in-law, and one of Ankara’s biggest cheerleaders, although Rudaw is often banned in Turkey. Here’s what they’re reporting today:
12:51pm – Kurdish Yezidis at a displacement camp in Zakho had praise for the Peshmerga’s Thursday assault on Shingal.
“It has been one year since we became refugees and fled our homes. ISIS abducted our women and children. We want them to be rescued and Shingal to be liberated,” a Yezidi from Shingal told Rudaw.
Another refugee said: “Today is our Eid. We thank God, the Peshmerga fighters and the president.”
12:33pm – Sheikh Alo, commander of Peshmerga forces in Dohuk, tells Rudaw that the Shingal offensive has been aided by the most effective use of coalition airstrikes in support and cooperate with Kurdish forces.
12:14pm – Arina Moradi, Rudaw correspondent, reports that ISIS propaganda has increased on its radio station broadcasting from inside the city of Mosul. One ISIS radio message said: “Thank God our families are back in Tal Afar and the situation is secure.”
Earlier news from Rudaw contradict the ISIS message, reporting the advance of Peshmerga and the capture of at least three villages on the outskirts of Shingal.
11:45 – Ahmed Shawqi, a Kurdish military expert, tells Rudaw that Shingal is extremely strategic and the Peshmerga will achieve victory with their precise tactics. He explained that Shingal is the critical link between the ISIS stronghold cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul.
11:40am – Rudaw’s Arina Moradi reports seeing hundreds of Peshmerga fighters lining roads to the Shingal battlefield armed with AK47s waiting to join the Kurdish forces already in the fight.
11:30am – Iraqi media war office releases statement on Shingal operation, reporting that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have managed to control five villages and they are on the advance.
11:27 – Nichirvan Hussein, Rudaw correspondent near Shingal, says said at least four ISIS car bombs have been destroyed, one by US coalition airstrikes and three by Peshmerga forces.
11:20am – Intense fighting in the western parts of Shingal town where Rudaw correspondent Obed Rashavayi reports that Peshmerga engineer and de-mining squads are working ahead of the Peshmerga advance in order to save lives from ISIS explosives.
Throughout the conflict, according to The Times,
the Islamic State has used improvised explosive devices to create dense minefields. The aim is to slow down attacking forces and channel them into “kill zones” so they can be targeted with sniper fire, mortars or machine-gun fire. Many of the houses in Sinjar are believed to be rigged with explosives.
Using suicide car bombs, the militants are also poised to mount counterattacks from Tal Afar to the east, from the towns of Blij and Baaj to the south and from Syria to the west.
“They try to identify a weak point in the defense and then send everything possible to that single point,” General Waisi said. “It starts with suicide bombers and then heavy machine guns. We know their tactics, but there will be surprises.” …
The pesh merga have received 40 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, from the United States, 15 of which have special rollers attached to clear mines, although Kurdish officials say the vehicles are not nearly enough given the 600-mile front the Kurds share with the Islamic State. Nor have armored Humvees or armored bulldozers been provided by the Americans.
American officials say that more MRAPs and armored Humvees will be provided if the pesh merga follow through with plans to establish two new brigades that will integrate fighters from the Kurds’ two dominant political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But action to establish those brigades has yet to be taken, and the process of equipping and training them would take several months.
I note this because it’s often said that we don’t arm the Kurds (see: Carly Fiorina, Republican debate.) In fact, we do. But it seems we’re trying to make the provision of the weapons conditional on the KDP and PUK working together, and ensuring that they’re sufficiently trained and committed to working within these brigade structures that the weapons don’t end up in ISIS’ hands. This may not be stupid.
The pesh merga have received hundreds of Milan antitank missiles from Germany and 1,000 AT4 antitank weapons from the United States, officials say. Kurds say the Milan missiles have proved to be the most useful in defending against suicide vehicle attacks, but pesh merga commanders say they need more of them.
The American-led coalition has also provided the pesh merga with a large number of small arms, including machine guns, rifles, mortar tubes and mortar rounds. As the Sinjar offensive has approached, Kurdish officials say, the coalition has been rushing in new supplies of ammunition, as well.
An Italian colonel has been leading a multinational effort to train the Kurdish forces at three bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. American, Canadian and other foreign Special Operations forces have also been advising the pesh merga at their defensive positions in the Kurdish region, although officials said they would not be accompanying the Kurdish forces to Sinjar.
According to the basically pro-Barzani Bas news, which belongs to President Barzani’s son, the PKK is annoying and impeding the Kurdish Peshmerga. His saying this would not be surprising, because the groups have always been highly wary of each other:
A source … said that the ministry will not allow the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) to take part in the operation as they have links to the PKK and are “disorganised armed groups”.
Yazidi Peshmerga Commander Qasim Shasho told BasNews, “The Peshmerga would have liberated Sinjar long ago if the PKK hadn’t intervened in the process.”
BasNews has previously quoted Peshmerga commanders who claim PKK military movements in the area have caused the delay in the launch of a Sinjar operation because Islamic State (IS) militants rigged a vast area with mines and explosive devices after PKK incursions.
Shasho also accused PKK media of overstating their role in Sinjar “while they are not able to liberate an inch without Peshmerga forces.”
The PKK’s battlefield is not in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and they must return and focus on their own area, mayor of Sinjar Mahma Khali said.
Bas news is now reporting on Twitter that the Peshmerga have regained Highway 47:
Other sources of unknown trustworthiness are confirming:
This story is — obviously — ongoing. And very significant. So I hope those tweets are accurate. (Who knows: It’s a war).
I hope this guide helps you a bit to make sense of it.
Upper-right photo credit: Smoke has been rising from the town of Sinjar from US-led coalition air strikes and Kurdish shelling against IS positions, Reuters