The fall of Shingal: what really happened?
In August 2014, two months after the fall of Mosul and Tal Afar, the Islamic State group or ISIS was closing in from Shingal, a predominately Yazidi town in northwestern Iraq. The town has been under KDP control since 2003 but administratively, it still is part of Iraq.
As of 1st of Auguest, two days before the fall of the city, there were Yazidi local fighters as well as 11,000 Peshmarga in Shingal to protect the town. According to a local Iraqi Kurdish journalist that I trust, 48 hours before the fall of the city, the commander (Kurdish Muslim from Duhok) responsible to protect of Shingal region had left the town to Duhok city. However, after people notice his absence, he went back to the town. When he arrived back to the town, some people try to kill him but others prevented them, saying it is not his fault. At the time, many Yazidis were already fleeing the town to Shingal Mountain. Many young Yazidis, meanwhile, were gathering in front of KDP office asking for weapons to protect the town. But officials refused to give them weapons, stating they already lack weapons. As ISIS was approaching the town, the commander there were waiting for command from officials in Erbil. It is important to state here at the time, there was growing tension between KDP and certain Yazidi tribes, who preferred PUK and Iraqi central government. KDP local officials have told highest KDP officials about such tensions. Among these who disliked KDP were Yazidi tribal leaders from Kucho and Tal Banan villages and other neighboring villages.
Hours before ISIS taking over the city, this tension has sharpened. That led many of these tribal leaders to not obey KDP commanders and stayed in the city. These tribal leaders have told KDP officials: “ISIS are former Ba’athis, we would rather be with them than with you, we have lived with them, we won’t leave the city.”
Through Sunni tribal leaders in Shingal and Zummar, these tribal leaders had promised to stay but 110 men from these Yazidi tribal people flee and that eventually led to ISIS kill and arrest the many others who stayed in Kucho and Tal Bannan villages.
As such tensions were revealing between KDP and some Yazidi tribal leader, KDP commander were ordered to leave the city, it still remains unclear who exactly ordered them to withdraw from the town, but many believe that order has been directly given from Barzani family. Then eventually KDP commanders and officials leave the town, many Yazidis were left behind, killed and kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS.
Rise of pro-PKK forces
As the chaos was spreading in Shingal with the withdrawal of Peshmarga forces, YPG (Syrian Kurdish PKK affiliate) crossed the border to rescue many of the local Yazidis that were trapped in Shingal mountain and near the border.
Some of those rescued by YPG, joined PKK and formed their own force trained by PKK commanders, this force was named Sinjar Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê or YBŞ). (Before, giving more background of PKK affiliated Yazidi militias, it’s important to mention that Protection Force of Êzîdxan led by Heyder Shesho had a leading role in rescuing Yazidis). Then as the militia expanded, PKK formed a new all-female militia, consisted of Yazidi female fighters, this new group named Êzîdxan Women’s Units (Yekinêyen Jinên Êzidxan). Moreover, as PKK’s influence and popularity increased, they have recently established a political party called the Freedom and Democratic Party of Yazidis and this recently established party has formed their military wing called Yazidi anti-terror group. This new party is intending to enter the next Iraqi election. However, that all being said KDP still keep a considerable support among Yazidis, but the popularity of each group is not known as for now.
The many forces in Shingal: who is who?
As much as Kurds in general are divided, Yazidis are that much divided. They are so divided that some of them ethnically identify themselves as Kurds, others say they are a different ethnicity. Although they speak Kurdish (Kurmanji dialect) but Yazidi has their own religious rituals, all written in Kurdish. Even some Yazidi, such as Vian Dakhil who is a Yazidi member of Iraqi parliament from KDP list, has called on a referendum for Yazidis to decide whether they are Kurds or not.
Such division has also reflected their political preferences. Militias are flourishing in Shingal as the region is completely militarized. There are three main militias, each close from a Kurdish major party. The breakdown of Yazidi militias and forces are as following:
- Sinjar Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê; YBŞ)
- Êzîdxan Women’s Units (Yekinêyen Jinên Êzidxan)
- Hêza Parastina Asayişa Êzîdxanê
- People’s Defense Forces (Hêzên Parastina Gel; HPG)
- a newly found anti-terror group, military wing of the Freedom and Democratic Party of Yazidis (PKK-affiliate party planning to run for next Iraqi election)
- Rojava Peshmaga (part of Zeravani, consist of Syrian Kurds)
- Peshmarga forces, affiliated to KDP
- Yazidi Peshmaga brigades under the command of Qasim Shesho
- Shingal Asayish forces (Yazidi KDP security)
- Protection Force of Êzîdxan (Hêza Parastina Êzîdxanê) led by Haydar Shesho
- Mosul brigade of PUK Peshmarga
The largest among these Yazidi militias is Protection Force of Êzîdxan led by Heyder Shesho, who believed to have over 3000 fighters – this force is now under the command of Peshmarga ministry. The Yazidi Peshmarga forces that belong to KDP and led by Qasim Shesho has currently over 5,000 fighters under his command. In addition, there are 5000-5500 more Rojava Peshmarga fighters as well as many thousand other Peshmarga forces are in the region. Meanwhile Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) is believed to have around 1,500 fighters. With another 500 HPG (PKK’s armed wing) have presence in the region. YBŞ might be mostly made of the Yazidis who believe Yazidis are not Kurds and want closer ties with Baghdad (as those tribes mentioned earlier) as they get their salaries from Baghdad and interviews with them show refusal of being identified as Kurds.
The clashes of Khanesor
Khanesor is a small Yazidi town close to Iraqi borders with Syria, both sides controlled by YPG and YBS (two PKK affiliate groups). This town is the main gate where goods are smuggled to from Iraqi Kurdistan, since other borders are controlled by KDP and KDP has put an embargo on Rojava, in retaliation of blocking Syrian Kurdish parties and militias close from KDP to have a presence in Rojava.
Rojava Peshmarga, a 5,000 Syrian Kurdish force, mostly made of those who fled Rojava to Iraqi Kurdistan. They have been trained and equipped by KDP since 2012, hoping to eventually make it to Rojava as Syrian regime was withdrawing troops from Kurdish towns to fight rebels elsewhere in the country, YPG (a PKK affiliate militia) eventually filled the gaps left by Syrian regime forces and consolidated power.
On March 2, 2017 just a week after Masoud Barzani’s visit to Turkey, more Rojava forces were moved to checkpoints near Khanesor – there were already smaller numbers of Rojava Peshmarga in the area. Deployed of Rojava Peshmarga could be either to block the movement of PKK affiliates across the border to push the PKK to do compromises in Rojava or the Rojava Peshmarga has intended to cross to Rojava as Roj Pesh commanders have been stating their intention to move to Rojava for months.
The PYD (PKK affiliate) who is ruling Rojava has refused to allow Rojava Peshmarga to Rojava, saying the only way they will be allowed is accepting to be absorbed within the YPG ranks. Now, KDP is saying same thing about YBS, saying they should be absorbed within KRG’s security apparatus and PKK fighters should leave Shingal, as it is part of Iraqi Kurdish territory.
As the fight against ISIS is getting over, intra-Kurdish fight both KDP versus PKK but also KDP versus PUK are unfolding. KDP being Turkey’s ally and PUK and PKK being closer from Iran-Assad bloc. As seen in KDP’s visits to Turkey and PKK and PUK’s ability to deal and make agreements with Assad and Baghdad’s government: most notably, PKK’s recent deal to leave parts of western Manbij to Assad, it’s proxy YBŞ getting their salaries from Baghdad as well as PUK’s recent move in Kirkuk to seize the oil facilities. However, the three are close from the US and closing working with the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
That being said, US alone does not have sufficient leverage over any of the three groups. The coming days will tell us how much regional powers and UK have over each of these rival Kurdish groups and whether these parties prefer to escalate or deescalate the situation.