Iraq Pulse

Turkey bombs Yazidi militia in Iraq affiliated with PKK

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Article Summary
A recent Turkish airstrike killed a top Yazidi military figure and others in Sinjar, Iraq, as Ankara continues its efforts to contain Kurds.

Turkey is continuing its push into Kurdish areas of Iraq, now targeting Sinjar, which will be key to controlling the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish border triangle.

The Turkish air force targeted the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi militia, Jan. 15 in Iraq's Ninevah province. Media reports said at least four people were killed, including militia commander Zardasht Shingali, and one person was wounded.

The YBS is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

The bombing came after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Baghdad and met with senior Iraqi officials Jan. 9, leading some observers to suggest Iraqi-Turkish coordination on the strike.

Saeb Khadr, an Iraqi parliament member representing the Yazidis told Al-Monitor that violating Sinjar is tantamount to violating the sovereignty of Iraq, such as when the United States and Iran strike at each other on Iraqi land.

He described the bombing as the deliberate killing of Iraqi citizens on the part of a foreign force, which he said has caused panic and fear among civilians who have returned to their areas since the Islamic State (IS) committed genocide against the Sinjar Yazidis in 2014.

The bombing by Turkey sparked chaos in an area deemed the stronghold of the Yazidi minority. This is especially true as government institutions have been repeatedly calling for the return of those displaced by IS to Dahuk in the Kurdistan Region. Yazidis point out that failure to end such violations impedes this goal.

Also, the incident raised the ire of Yazidis because this is not the first time that Turkey has targeted them in Sinjar, which is quite confusing to them. Yazidis believe the attack should have been officially condemned, given that the victims are Iraqis who belong to an armed Yazidi formation within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). In other words, the government’s silence may be interpreted as consent on Baghdad's part and may also imply some Iraqi-Turkish complicity against the Yazidis.

In this context, Ahmed Shankali, head of the Ezidi 24 website, explained the Turkish strategy by saying that Ankara is trying to exploit the gaps left by the US-Iranian conflict on one hand and the conflict between the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil on the other.

He added that Turkey is seeking to contain the PKK and gain a foothold in Iraqi territory. What further supports this point of view is that Sinjar is adjacent to the area of northeast Syria known as Western Kurdistan, or Rojava, which is controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers the PKK's Syrian extension — something the YPG denies.

From an internal geopolitical aspect, Sinjar is also the only gateway to reach the adjacent Tal Afar district, which is inhabited predominantly by Turkmens, and then on to Mosul. 

Shankali is among many Iraqis who believe Turkey has ambitions to annex Mosul in Iraq, an old dream that has been revived today in light of the current chaos. To achieve this, Turkey would have to eliminate any political or military force close to the PKK ideology.

This is why Ankara opposes the PKK's presence in Sinjar and considers it a threat to Turkey's national security. It also fears the Kurds will form and control a route connecting the Qandil Mountains (the PKK's main fortress) in Iraqi Kurdistan to the Sinjar Mountains, to link with the Syrian Democratic Forces on the other side of the Syrian border. This would create a corridor for transporting fighters, weapons and logistical support against Turkey's interests.

Faris Harbo, head of relations in the autonomous administration in Sinjar, concurred with Shankali. He said Turkey's goal to revive the Ottoman Empire is real and concrete and is targeting Kirkuk and Mosul, but Sinjar will serve as a critical area for controlling the border triangle of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Harbo added that the bombing represents psychological warfare against the Yazidis in the YBS, as it assassinated their leaders. The YBS resisted and defeated the brutal IS terrorist organization, and these are the units that resisted and helped to defeat IS.

Hinting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supports IS, Harbo said, "This bombing is like a revenge for the caliphate's soldiers whom we eliminated in Sinjar." He said stopping the Turkish intervention in Syria and Erdogan's expansionist ambition is the international community's moral and humanitarian duty.

The YBS annoys Turkey, as the group controls most of the Sinjar lands and does not cave in to pressure. Also, it's a dangerous force given its proximity to and sympathy with the PKK ideology. The YBS is registered with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense as part of the PMU, which means it's an officially recognized organization. However, the YBS is distinguished from the security institutions, the army and the PMU factions in Sinjar, as it includes fighters who are experienced in guerrilla warfare and move skillfully between the Qandil and Sinjar mountains with great knowledge of Sinjar topography.

The bombing is another sign that there is a third player exerting influence inside Iraq besides Iran and the United States. Turkey wants to stifle the power of the PKK and its affiliated YBS while destabilizing the Shiite influence in the Middle East.

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Found in: Yazidis

Saad Salloum is an Iraqi academic and journalist specializing in Iraqi minorities and human rights. He heads the research department in the College of Political Sciences of Mustansiriya University and is one of the founding members of the Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue. His publications focus on Iraqi minorities and include the books "Minorities in Iraq" (2013), "Christians in Iraq" (2014) and "Policies and Ethnic Groups in Iraq" (2014).

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