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I received this report from a correspondent who asked for anonymity. “Given Ricochet’s educated readership,” he wrote, “perhaps they might enjoy this more detailed perspective” on Kurdistan and the KRG’s lobbyists in the West. I thought it was fascinating. If you have questions about it, I’ll be happy to post his replies.
There are few things that unite the Left and Right in America, least of all when it comes to foreign policy. But in the wake of the Islamic State’s rampage in the summer of 2014, a strange and virtually unquestioned consensus was accepted across the political spectrum. The narrative went something like this: The Iraqi Army, after over a decade of US training and investment, ran at the first sight of ISIS and abandoned billions of dollars of military hardware to the terror group. The Kurdish Peshmerga (“those who face death”) meanwhile held their ground bravely and shielded their vulnerable religious minorities from the Islamic State’s onslaught. Unlike the sectarian Iraqis, the religiously pluralistic Kurds defend Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis alike and deserve our full-throated backing. At last, the long-sought “local boots on the ground!”
Speaking glowingly of Peshmerga performance against ISIS, National Review’s David French wrote:
Arming the Kurds isn’t sufficient to defeat ISIS, but it is necessary. The Kurds have proven time and again that they’ll fight, while other “allies” cut and run — leaving their equipment behind. (emphasis added)
And the Huffington Post agreed:
The only armed forces [Peshmerga] that, so far, have stood up to the beheaders, the only ones capable of holding a front a thousand kilometers long, the only ones that have not yielded an inch of ground (and have even retaken essential strategic positions near Sinjar and above the Mosul dam)” (emphasis added)
Anyone who has spent a modicum of time speaking with the displaced Yezidis in Iraqi Kurdistan knows these assessments are not only spectacularly false, but indeed a slap in the face to the victims of the horrendous genocide carried out by the Islamic State since 2014. What’s most frustrating is that the truth of the situation is readily available to journalists and policy makers. However, a combination of herd mentality in the press, wishful thinking, and a brilliant PR effort by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) all contribute to obfuscating the reality of the situation.
Iraq’s Disaster and Kurdistan’s Opportunity
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to a combined jihadist offensive on June 10, 2014. The total collapse of the Iraqi garrison was owed in large part to a combination of staggering incompetence and likely infiltration by jihadists. With then Prime Minister Maliki’s government in total disarray, the KRG sensed an opportunity and seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk virtually unopposed. In a single stroke, the Kurds preempted any possible move against the city by ISIS and all but put an end to the notion of Kirkuk being a “disputed territory” with the central government forever. Far from worried about the threat posed by the jihadists, KRG officials were ecstatic at Baghdad’s misfortunes: “ISIL gave us in two weeks what Maliki couldn’t give us in eight years”
The Islamic State’s routing of Iraqi forces in June proved advantageous in other ways for the Kurds. (It should be remembered that there were not yet open hostilities between the KRG and ISIS at this time) With Mosul firmly in jihadist hands, the remnants of the Iraqi security forces conducted a chaotic fighting retreat west towards Tel Afar and Sinjar, where Peshmerga units confiscated Iraqi heavy weapons as a condition of their retreating into KRG-controlled territory. The Kurds thus garnered a windfall of heavy weaponry and vehicles from the defeated Iraqis. Allegedly, several Iraqi officers were forced to don their traditional Arab dress and publicly admonished and humiliated by KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) officials for their cowardice and flight. If this apocryphal story is true, it is rich with irony considering the events that would soon follow.
The Looming Catastrophe
Tel Afar fell a week later and by July, ISIS all but surrounded the Sinjar district on three sides. Sinjar’s residents, many of them Yezidis, received this unwelcome news with a sense of foreboding. Nevertheless, the KRG refused to allow them to leave. As the Daily Beast reported:
Despite the danger and fear of attack, locals consistently were discouraged from leaving Sinjar by local KDP and Kurdish government officials who reassured civilians that the Peshmerga would keep them safe.
A local KDP official…says that higher-ups in the party told representatives to keep people calm, and that if people in their areas of coverage left their salaries would be cut.
Sarbast Baiperi, head of the KDP’s Branch 17 in Sinjar, could be seen in KDP media and on Facebook posing with various weapons and claiming that “until the last drop of blood we will defend Sinjar.”
In spite of the dire situation and the uncertainty about the Islamic State’s next move, Baiperi’s braggadocio might not have seemed all that unfounded. The district after all was a defensive planner’s dream, being the location of Mt. Sinjar, an over 70km mountain range protruding from desert. Additionally, the KRG forces in the district were bolstered by the addition of many heavy weapons and vehicles looted from the Iraqi Army. Even in the event of an ISIS assault, the Kurdish troop presence and favorable geography at the very least meant a fighting retreat could be conducted while the civilians were evacuated.
Inexplicably (or explicably depending on one’s perspective), KDP authorities spent the month of July busily disarming Yezidis in Sinjar and Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh Plains, ostensibly to consolidate weapons for the collective defense. From Assyrian activist Max Joseph:
Notices were distributed to the Assyrians of the Nineveh Plains by the KRG demanding full disarmament and relinquishing of weapons in July 2014, threatening severe punishment to anyone who did not cooperate.
Assyrian Christians in Qaraqosh would be forced to flee in mid-August as the Peshmerga abandoned their fighting positions in the city. See Joseph’s above article and The New York Times for more details on the Christians’ plight.
Yezidis Abandoned: The Fall of Sinjar
On August 3, Yezidis in the villages south of Mt. Sinjar, residents awoke to the sounds of mortars and machine guns. The dreaded ISIS invasion had begun. Even more devastating though was the fact that the Peshmerga had withdrawn in the hours before the attack without informing the residents. From Daily Beast again:
In the early morning of August 3, Yezidi men, not Peshmerga, stood and fought thinking that the Kurdish forces would soon join the battle. When they realized that wasn’t going to happen, many tried to escape over the mountain.
Word quickly spread that Sinjar was defenseless and ISIS was already in the southern villages. What followed was a chaotic flight of residents up the foothills of Mt. Sinjar, many with nothing more than the clothes on their back in the scorching August heat.
And of their fearless leader who had pledged protection?
Baiperi was one of the first to flee Sinjar…He rolled out of town the night before the attack had even started because he heard IS was on its way to the outlying villages…And not only did he flee, but he fled in a single vehicle, telling no one but his guards.
From Max Joseph again:
Peshmerga, eager to flee first ahead of Yezidi civilians, refused requests to stay and protect Yezidis or at least leave them their weapons. They even reassured them that they should return to their homes where they will be defended. Some Peshmerga even started firing on Yezidis when their protestations grew forceful, killing some, in order to clear the way for their convoy of vehicles to pass unhindered.
By the time many bewildered residents were even aware of the Peshmerga’s withdrawal, ISIS had already occupied their villages. In the ensuing two weeks after the Islamic State’s envelopment of Mt. Sinjar, the UN estimated upwards of 5,500 Yezidis were massacred with approximately 6,836 enslaved, of which the majority were women. Hundreds more perished from dehydration, starvation, and exhaustion while trying to flee up the mountain for sanctuary.
With the massacres on the plains ongoing, another humanitarian crisis was unfolding on the mountain itself, where an estimated 50,000 Yezidis were now encircled by the Islamic State. The Peshmerga were nowhere to be seen, but this did not mean there was no fighting. Occurring simultaneously with the KRG’s withdrawal was the arrival of soldiers from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) from across the Syrian border. The PKK (a designated terror group by the US) linked up with small bands of Yezidi fighters in a desperate attempt to prevent ISIS from ascending the mountain. The addition of these battle-hardened and fanatical fighters was enough to tip the scales in the defenders’ favor.
At about the same time as the first airstrikes by the US on August 8th, the PKK and its affiliates succeeded in opening a narrow corridor from Mt. Sinjar to the Syrian border through which over 35,000 Yezidis escaped on foot. “If it wasn’t for the Kurdish fighters [PKK], we would have died up there” said a rescued Yezidi. The withdrawal of the Peshmerga is all the more tragic considering that the badly outmanned and outgunned Yazdis and PKK were able to stave off the complete conquest of the mountain.
In December of 2014, the Peshmerga returned and succeeded in liberating the northern side of the mountain and lifting the four-month siege.
The eviction of ISIS from the north side of the mountain and the subsequent liberation of Sinjar city to the south in November 2015 has had little effect on repairing the damage done by the Peshmerga’s initial withdrawal. Whatever trust existed between the Yezidis and KRG before 2014 is irrevocably broken, and indeed the distrust is only exacerbated by the continuing actions of the government.
Well before the genocide, Yezidis and other Iraqi minorities complained of an increasingly aggressive “Kurdification” program not dissimilar from Saddam’s “Arabization” schemes. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2009,
In a move that disturbingly echoes the “nationality correction” policy of the former Baathist government, minority groups have reported that their members were forced to not identify themselves as a member of a minority community (the two registration options given are Kurd or Arab), in order to get access to education or healthcare
The report concluded “The goal of these tactics is to push Shabak and Yezidi communities to identify as ethnic Kurds.”
To this day, the KRG insists on always referring to Yezidis as “Yezidi-Kurds” and still shamelessly calls the Islamic State killings the “Shingal Genocide,” as if the massacres and mass rapes were motivated by geography and the Yezidi religion merely incidental. (The district is called Shingal in Kurdish and Sinjar in Arabic)
In talking to hundreds of Yezidis, I have met very few who self-identified as Kurdish. (And contrary to what is often reported, not all Yezidis are native Kurdish speakers. The Yezidis in Bashiqa and Bahzani northeast of Mosul speak Arabic as their mother tongue.) Many Yezidis who retain a Kurdish identity are strident PKK supporters and favor the group’s more pan-Kurdish ideology over the nationalism of the KRG. One man I spoke to gave what has become a common refrain: “Before the genocide, a lot of us identified as Kurds. We waved the Kurdish flag and the KDP flag. But after they abandoned us, never again. Now we’re just Yezidis. They can go to hell.”
The true motives of the KRG’s withdrawal from Sinjar will probably never be known. The government pledged a full investigation following the attack, but to this day nothing has materialized; no release of findings, no courts martials. Unsurprisingly, the betrayal has given rise to endless conspiracy theories. The preemptive disarming of the population, the orderly nature of the withdrawal right before the attack, and the lack of warning given to residents suggest to many a secret arrangement made between the KRG and ISIS. Might the Kurds have abandoned their unwanted minority in the hopes of returning to a much more demographically favorable environment after ISIS massacred the population? Or perhaps, as others suggest, the Yezidis were sacrificed in order to engender sympathy in the West and shame the US into backing the KRG in its long battle for independence? Or is staggering incompetence and cowardice enough to explain it? The lack of transparency in the government has only fueled speculation.
Whatever the truth, there is no explanation that makes the Kurdish government look anything short of criminally negligent. In fact, it’s impossible to say the KRG has not benefitted from the disaster. World opinion is virtually unanimous in its appreciation for the vaunted Peshmerga soldiers. Iraqi Kurdistan now counts on the backing of US Special Forces and air power (all beginning in the wake of the genocide) to liberate ISIS territory once belonging to Baghdad. And you shouldn’t expect them to ever give up these newly acquired territories. Indeed, ISIS has given the KRG more than Maliki ever could.
The Double Victims
The Yezidis claim the latest genocide as the 74th committed against the community in thousands of years, most of which occurred under the Ottomans. The UN report linked above estimates over 3,200 Yezidis remain under Islamic State captivity. Tens of thousands or more have fled from Iraq while hundreds of thousands remain in ramshackle camps scattered around Iraqi Kurdistan.
Although the north side of Sinjar has been liberated for nearly two years, the return of IDPs has come at a glacial pace, albeit not for the reasons one might expect. The KDP is paranoid about Yezidis returning to Sinjar for [rightfully] fearing the party will lose political influence. After abandoning them to genocide, President Barzani and his party know the restless Yezidis will no longer be a reliable constituency in Sinjar. So the government has repeatedly dragged its feet in allowing a mass return of IDPs. Much easier to control desperate residents in the camps than in the wilds of Mt. Sinjar.
A significant number of Yezidis are sympathetic to the PKK since its dramatic rescue of tens of thousands on Mt. Sinjar. In the ensuing two years, this has caused a further split in what is generally a conservative community. Knowing its radical ideology would be off-putting to Yezidis, the PKK has adroitly outsourced its role in the district to its all-Yezidi affiliate known as the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS). While many Yezidis embrace the PKK/YBS enthusiastically, others are suspicious of what is perceived as another Kurdish project to dominate Sinjar. Complicating matters further, a number of independent and vaguely nationalist factions have sprung up, creating what many Yezidis fear is a tinderbox waiting to be lit after ISIS is gone.
President Barzani, in his typical boorish manner, has shown no interest in compromising on the KRG’s claim to the district. On the marking of Sinjar city’s liberation, he proclaimed, “We do not accept any other flag flying over Sinjar.” And he dismissed the notion that the PKK in any way had participated in the liberation. (A Peshmerga fighter in Sinjar informed me this was nonsense and that the PKK had more or less liberated the city themselves while the KDP just took the credit afterwards. To be sure, these sorts of claims are difficult to parse especially when coming from a rival political party as in this case)
Not to be outdone by himself, President Barzani met with several hundred Yezidi Peshmerga fighters in May 2016 where he demanded that the Yezidis take up arms and drive the PKK out of Sinjar. The soldiers present vocally objected to what would in effect be a Yezidi civil war, stating that they could never fight against the group responsible for saving thousands of their co-religionists. Whatever his intent, Barzani’s speech caused panic among the Yezidi IDPs who feared internecine bloodshed.
You would be mistaken in thinking that the neglect and harassment of Yezidis is simply confined to Sinjar. Yezidis live all throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, and the abuse is endemic. Almost every one of them can tell you a story of being accused of “devil-worship” by the police and accosted about why they won’t convert to Islam. For all the government pretensions of claiming Yezidis as fellow Kurds, there is a tremendous difference in the way they are treated by authorities. Similar stories can be heard from other minorities like Kakai and Shabaks.
These incidents are all very much at odds with the usual song and dance of KRG officials in the West. To see the PR spin in action, watch Dave Rubin’s recent interview with Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman. Listen to what she says with some of the above stories in mind.
The longer one peers into the abyss of Kurdish politics, the less clear cut and simple the answers become and the more obviously fraudulent the current Western narrative is about the KRG. For their part, the Yezidis do not agree on much, but they almost unanimously desire Sinjar to be under direct American protection of one form or another. Yezidis welcomed American soldiers and signed up by the thousands to serve with the coalition during the Iraq War. To this day, they view the US as the only fair player that can save them from the depredations of the Arabs and domination by the Kurds. You could scarcely find a more uniformly pro-American ethnic group in Iraq. It strikes me as foolish that we would dismiss such a steadfastly loyal minority like the Yezidis, however small, situated strategically on the border of Iraq and Syria.
Instead, US policymakers and journalists have all decided to hitch their cart to the KRG horse; allowing themselves to be smitten by images of female warriors, foreign volunteers, and the superficial religious pluralism and equality peddled by the KRG. That the political class has fallen head over heels for Iraqi Kurdistan is in some ways more forgivable since, to borrow from Donald Rumsfield, we go to war with the allies we have and not the allies we want. But for journalists, it is nothing more than laziness and an unwillingness to do basic research and confront uncomfortable realities.
We owe it to ourselves not to be blinded by our allies’ propaganda and our own fantasies. But most of all, we owe it to the thousands of souls buried in Sinjar.