Nearly six years since Iraq’s Sinjar region was recaptured from jihadists, a tangled web of geopolitical tensions risks sparking a new conflict that could prolong the dire situation of minority Yazidis.
The Islamic State group overran Sinjar in 2014 and pursued a brutal, months-long campaign of massacres, enslavement and rape against Yazidis in what the UN has said could amount to genocide.
Sinjar is wedged between Turkey to the north and Syria to the west, making it a highly strategic zone long coveted by both the central government in Baghdad and autonomous Kurdish authorities of the north.
The tensions have terrified the few Yazidis who returned to their ruined towns, only to face the spectre of a new displacement.
“We’re living in the middle of so many different threats,” said one of them, 46-year-old Faisal Saleh.
“Sinjar’s people are terrified that clashes will break out,” he told AFP as he drove from his hometown in Sinjar into the adjacent Kurdish region to rent an apartment in case he needed to flee an escalation.
Sinjar was retaken from IS in 2015 by fighters from the autonomous Kurdistan region’s Peshmerga and from Syrian Kurdish units, backed by the US-led coalition.
Iran-backed units from within the Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi network of militias also took surrounding territory.
This fractious patchwork of forces delayed Sinjar’s revival: the federal government had barely any presence there and international aid groups were wary of investing. In an effort to kick-start reconstruction and get displaced Yazidis home, the Sinjar Agreement reached in October stipulated that the only arms in the area should be those of the federal government.
But it has yet to be implemented.
“The reality on the ground is stronger than these agreements. No one in Sinjar wants to let go of the influence they’ve earned there,” said Yassin Tah, an analyst based in the region.
“Sinjar today is a zone that brings together all the conflicting agendas and rival parties of the region.
“It’s in a very complicated and tense situation — and that could lead to an explosion at any time,” he told AFP. On the one hand, the autonomous Kurdish regional government (KRG) claims Sinjar is within its zone of control.
The KRG is irked by the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rival faction operating in north Iraq for decades and whose Syrian branch helped fight IS in Sinjar.
The PKK’s role also infuriates Ankara, which calls it a “terrorist” group for its decades-long insurgency in Turkey and has crossed into Iraq to bomb the PKK.
“Turkey is watching Sinjar — and it’s seeing the PKK grow more powerful there,” said Tah, the analyst. In January, Ankara upped the ante, bombing a mountainous region close to Sinjar and hinting it could invade. “We may come there overnight, all of a sudden,” warned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan’s veiled threat, in turn, gave an excuse to pro-Iran Hashed factions to insist on staying in Sinjar. The Hashed swiftly announced sending new fighters to Sinjar while one of its hardline members, Asaib Ahl al-Haq said it would “block any aggressive behaviour” by Turkey.
Tah said the quick mobilisation was an effort to defend the Hashed’s crucial smuggling route between Iraq and Syria, which crosses through Sinjar.
A top Iraqi military official in Nineveh province, where Sinjar is located, even admitted the rivalries, saying Turkey, armed groups and rival Kurds were all trying to “secure their interests via Sinjar”.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi has rushed to defuse the tensions, with a top official in his office telling AFP there was ongoing contact with Turkey to try to hold off an incursion.
If conflict does erupt in Sinjar, Kadhemi would have a lot to lose, wrote Nussaibah Younis, a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. “It would undermine the political victory that the Sinjar Agreement afforded to Kadhemi (and) burnish the image of the (Hashed) and other militia groups as defenders of Iraq at the central government’s expense,” Younis said.
It would also “hamper the return of vulnerable displaced Yazidis to Sinjar,” she wrote.
Ali Abbas, spokesman for Iraq’s migration ministry, told AFP there are 90,000 families from Sinjar who remain displaced, most of them in the KRG-run region.
Among them is Mahma Khalil, the mayor of Sinjar.
“Sinjar is suffering. We need extraordinary efforts to help stabilise it,” he told AFP by phone from Duhok, an adjacent area where most of Sinjar’s displaced now live.
“You have to find a solution to the stability of Sinjar. You have to learn the lesson of the past.”—AFP