Yazidis fear fresh war as Turkey hits Kurdish militants in Sinjar
ERBIL, Iraq – After surviving a brutal Islamic State assault, surviving Yazidis on Mount Sinjar must contend with Turkey's latest aerial campaign – which now adds Iraq to the list.
Earlier this week, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish militants in Iraq's Sinjar region for the first time, following a deadly assault against US-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
The attack on Sinjar appeared to target the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), an affiliate of the outlawed PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party – which has been fighting in Turkey for Kurdish autonomy for decades.
Yazidis fear further strikes could hit Sinjar, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan telling Reuters on Tuesday that the strikes in Syria and Iraq will continue "until the last terrorist is eliminated".
Hundreds of Yazidis were slaughtered in a massacre by IS on Sinjar in August 2014 and until today, around 2,000 Yazidi women are still being held by the militant group as sex slaves – some have been freed in twin assaults against IS in Raqqa and Mosul.
Thousands have not yet returned home, since the south of Sinjar is still under IS control, and far from stable.
Now they have an added worry that Turkish air strikes against PKK-linked targets will create even more instability, and risk civilian lives.
The strikes on Sinjar on Tuesday killed five Peshmerga – members of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq's armed forces – and injured nine. The attack on the People's Protection Units (YPG) airbase in Syria killed dozens of fighters.
On Wednesday, Turkey tried to limit the damage, offering condolences for the Peshmerga that they say were accidently killed on Sinjar.
Kurdish officials quickly called on the PKK to leave the area.
Qasim Shesho, the commander of Peshmerga forces on Mount Sinjar, told MEE that the PKK are a destructive force on Mount Sinjar.
"The situation in Shingal [Kurdish for Sinjar] will not calm down, as long as the PKK is in Shingal. There will be war, destruction, and killing," he said.
The KDP should not back a Turkish intervention to solve the Sinjar issue. Turkey is the enemy of the Kurds, this is clear
- Serhat Varto, PKK spokesperson
"The PKK are the cause of everything happening in Shingal… the people in Shingal are afraid of more air strikes," he said.
However, Serhat Varto, a PKK spokesperson, told MEE that the Kurdish Democratic Party, of which the KRG's president Massoud Barzani is leader, should end its alliance with Turkey.
"Turkey has nothing to do with Sinjar. It's a Kurdish issue, a Yazidi issue, an Iraqi issue, and an international issue," he said.
"The KDP wants to rule again in Sinjar like before, but the Yazidis will not accept this," he said.
"For this reason, the KDP should not back a Turkish intervention to solve the Sinjar issue. Turkey is the enemy of the Kurds, this is clear," Varto added.
"The Kurdish parties should solve their problems by themselves, not by Iran, Turkey or the Baath regime [the party of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad]. All Kurdish parties should stand against this [Turkish attacks]," he added.
Yazidis' symbolic status
Oytun Orhan, a researcher with Ankara-based think tank Orsam, told MEE that the almost symbolic status of the Yazidi people in the eyes of the international community could limit any further Turkish response to PKK-affiliates on Sinjar.
"The international community is sensitive about the Yazidis, and any attack in Sinjar would be seen as Turkey attacking Yazidis, not the PKK," he said.
"This could limit Turkish attacks. Turkey should be bit careful and selective in determining attacks in the Sinjar area, in case of civilian casualties," he said.
But for Sherzard Shingali, a Yazidi student in Erbil, Turkey is unconcerned with such a prospect.
"They are trying to finish the genocide, of what still remains of the Yazidi people," he claimed.
"I don't think it was because of the YBS," Shingali added.
"IS also has a good relationship with Turkey," he claimed - a position rejected by Ankara.
"People joined the YBS to take their revenge against IS. Now they will be killed by Turkey."
The Yazidis in Sinjar are increasingly tired of being caught up in geostrategic power struggles between Kurdish parties, and regional countries, and have called for an international force to protect the Yazidis.
KDP officials have also accused the PKK of working with Iran to open a corridor through Sinjar to Syria. The PKK has denied this.
Additionally, for the PKK, Sinjar is important as it connects the Kurdish areas in Syria to Iraq, which could become an alternative to the current Turkish and KDP-controlled borders after Iraqi forces finish the Mosul operation and clear out IS from all border territory.
"They [the KDP] are also worried about the growing PKK presence and popularity in an area that was once exclusively theirs," Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish journalist, told MEE.
"Not to mention because of Sinjar's location between the KRG, Rojava (autonomous Kurdish region of Syria) and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Shia paramilitary groups in Iraq, or Hashd al-Shaabi) and Iraqi-controlled areas south of Mosul, this has given the PKK unprecedented leverage," he added.
"Also for the PKK, Sinjar is a window to enter the political life in Iraqi Kurdistan," he added.
In early March, seven PKK fighters were killed in a clashes with forces belonging to the KDP.
After the Peshmerga initially withdrew in August 2014 it has become increasingly difficult for them to control Sinjar, despite returning under a US-led operation in December of that year, leaving the PKK with a significant presence in the region.
Anticipation of Turkish strikes
Maxime Barrat is a French foreign volunteer with the YBS in Sinjar.
Speaking to MEE, Barrat said the Turkish air strikes were not unexpected and that the group had been preparing for the attack for several weeks.
"We were thinking Erdogan was waiting for after the referendum to directly attack and help the KDP to take the area," he said, referring to the 16 April Turkish vote on increasing presidential powers.
"I went today to the [PKK] cemetery hit in the strikes, as you enter the mountain. It's really sad. I spoke with people and they are really afraid of new strikes," he said.
"We are on alert. If Turkish planes are seen during the day we disperse in the village and sleep in the trenches," he added.
"The Yazidis are now afraid to go near the PKK, they try to get away from them. People are afraid of more air strikes," Xelil Zerdeste, a Yazidi from Sinjar told MEE by phone.
The Yazidis are now afraid to go near the PKK, they try to get away from them
- Xelil Zerdeste, a Yazidi from Sinjar
The Turkish government for months threatened to attack the PKK in Sinjar and said it would not accept "new Qandils" being created in the region, a reference to the mountain range in Iraqi Kurdistan which has provided sanctuary for the PKK.
The US consulate in Erbil has been trying, since last year, to limit PKK influence in Sinjar, according to US officials, and negotiate between the different groups and also managed to pressure Baghdad to cut the salaries they provided to local PKK Yazidi fighters.
Washington has feared that the PKK presence could complicate reconstruction, the return of Yazidis, and invite an armed Turkish response, either by air or land, a situation which has now transpired.
A spokesperson for the US-led coalition against IS said that it was important that efforts were not diverted from combatting the radical group.
"We encourage all forces to remain focused on the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security and concentrate their efforts on ISIS, and not toward objectives that may cause the coalition to divert energy and resources away from the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria," he told MEE.
"The coalition is aware of the Turkish air strikes in Northern Iraq and Syria. As we've said in the past, all of Iraq's neighbours need to respect Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity," he added.
After the short-lived clashes between the Peshmerga and the PKK on 3 March, the KDP tried to encourage YBS fighters to join the Peshmerga ministry, which was backed by the US and officially opposed to a PKK presence in Sinjar.
But this was not enough for Turkey. "Turkey was always saying that they would never let Sinjar be a second Qandil," Turkish researcher Orhan said.
"Turkey wants to eliminate it [PKK], and also supports KDP efforts to retake the Sinjar area," he said.
Message to Trump?
Furthermore, he said it might be related to an upcoming meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and US President Trump, scheduled for mid-May.
"This strengthens Turkey's hand against Trump. Turkey wants to show that by ignoring our concerns, we could act unilaterally," Orhan added.
Therefore, it is unlikely that Sinjar's Yazidis will have any rest in the near future.
"There are other places to fight them, but why Sinjar? Why is everyone always fighting in Sinjar," asked a 23-year-old Yazidi woman, using the pseudonym Leyla Khanasori.