Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
Summary: IS scores major victory today, breaks Peshmerga forces, conquers strategic Kurdish area and displaces hundreds of thousands of Yazidi Kurds. The expulsion of Mosul’s Christians was devastating, but today’s expulsion of Yazidis is much bigger. This raises the question of whether the Kurds can hold out against IS in Iraq, as well as in Syria. It appears that IS’ next major front, in both countries, could be against the Kurds.
IS Routs Peshmerga, Takes Control of Sinjar Mountains, Jeopardizes Yazidi Homeland
by Matthew Barber
(thanks to Christine Allison for input)
Beginning in the early hours of the morning, IS forces attacked the Sinjar Mountains. The Kurdish Peshmerga defended the area for two hours before being overcome and retreating.
The Kurdish loss of this strategic territory resulted in the flight of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees.
Sinjar lies west of Mosul and Tel ‘Afar, both under IS control. Though a disputed territory not officially part of Kurdistan Province, and somewhat disconnected from Dohuk, the nearest Kurdish governorate, it has nonetheless been an island of Peshmerga control on the Syrian border. The Kurdish role in administering and protecting the area, as well as the claim that this disputed territory should belong to a future Kurdistan, stem from the Kurdish-speaking population of Sinjar. Located near the Kurdish part of Syria, Sinjar is also surrounded by areas inhabited by Arab tribes that have often been in competition with Kurds. Some of these tribes worked with al-Qaida during the War in Iraq, and yesterday they aided IS in preparing for today’s takeover of Sinjar.
Sinjar (“Shingal” in Kurdish) is one of a few key areas that constitute the homeland of the Yazidi religious minority. One of the few remaining non-Abrahamic religions of the Middle-East, the Yazidis are a particularly vulnerable group lacking advocacy in the region. Not belonging to the small set of religions carrying the Islamic label “People of the Book,” Yazidis are branded mushrikiin (polytheists) by Salafis/jihadists and became targets of high levels of terrorist attacks and mass killing orchestrated by al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists, following the instability brought about by the War in Iraq.
Today’s IS assault is already bringing about devastating consequences for Yazidis, who make up about 340,000 of Sinjar’s 400,000 inhabitants (this is a high estimate). Many have fled on foot through the desert, without food or water.
Others fleeing in cars for Dohuk have been unable to make a clean escape, due to the inability of the roads to accommodate such a large flux of people. Thousands of cars are currently stranded west of the Tigris River.
As I write this, the fight has moved to the Wana District south of the Mosul Dam Lake, where ISIS is trying to gain control of the Mosul Dam. The fight in that area is about 7km from where today’s Sinjar refugees are trying to cross the Tigris to reach Dohuk.
The mountain stronghold of Sinjar is a special center of Yazidi tradition that has long offered its people refuge from waves of religious persecution, including Ottoman attempts to wipe out all Yazidis who refused to convert to Islam. Modern warfare has made the community’s position more precarious, and today’s IS offensive has the potential to do irreparable damage to the stability of this Middle Eastern minority.
Yazidi religious practice is connected to a network of sacred places within the essential areas of the homeland; if contact with Sinjar’s holy places is severed and its population dispersed, the religious tradition will be further endangered as Yezidism moves a step closer to extinction.
Just over two weeks ago, another ancient religious community was eliminated, en masse, from its homeland, when Christians were expelled from Mosul. Prior to this, IS engaged in high levels of violence against the Shabak minority that inhabits villages just outside of Mosul. Many Shabak, as well as Shiite Turkomen, fled IS violence for the relative safety of Sinjar, and today are being made to flee again, joined this time by the indigenous Yazidi population.
No sooner did IS takeover Sinjar when they immediately began destroying religious sites. A Shiite holy place is shown below, before destruction:
And the same site after being blown up today:
The burden of the refugee crisis on Kurdistan Province is difficult to calculate. Many Iraqi Arabs have taken refuge here since the beginning of the War in Iraq. Afterwards, Kurdistan became inundated with thousands of Syrian refugees during the last several years of conflict in Syria. Then it received Arabs from Mosul when ISIS took over the city. When Mosul’s Christians were expelled two weeks ago, they all fled to Kurdistan, as some Shabak that didn’t flee to Sinjar had done. Now everyone in Sinjar is coming as well (those who fled Mosul plus Sinjar’s Yazidis), except for those in Sinjar’s western areas that have headed for Syria. (Syria a destination for refugees… who would have thought?)
Though a number of outstanding issues regarding territory, sovereignty, and borders (involving Baghdad, Kurdistan, Assyrians, Yazidis, etc.) remain unresolved, if the Peshmerga fails to stand, there won’t be much left to resolve. Commitment to a united Iraq notwithstanding, the US must seriously consider the possible outcome of what is transpiring now. A few days ago, everyone in Kurdistan was confident that all areas under Peshmerga control would remain impervious to jihadi incursions. The collapse of the Peshmerga—who had the advantage of the mountain’s higher ground—in the face of the IS onslaught, came as a surprise. Many are voicing concerns about just how resilient Kurdish forces can remain in the long-term, and whether they will maintain a weapons advantage.
Widespread pleas for support of various kinds—humanitarian and weapons—have intensified in Kurdistan, coming from the recently expelled Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, as well as from majority Kurds concerned about defensive capabilities. Amidst these cries, Yazidi religious figures met with US embassy officials today and requested help in the aftermath of the Sinjar disaster.
The question now is: what kind of action can make a difference?
A number of sites have reported on today’s events:
+++01:30 am+++ Terrorists of the Islamic State (IS) attack the Yezidi village Siba Sheikh Khidir and the surrounding villages. Armed Yezidi civilians and Peshmerga fighters stationed on site resist for several hours
+++05:30 am+++ The IS terrorists are gaining the upper hand. The much-needed help by Peshmerga backup remains off
+++07:30 am+++ Peshmerga units withdraw from the disputed areas. Only armed Yezidi civilians continue to resist. Panic spreads over the affected villages, it is certain that the Yezidis will not be able to put up further resistance by their own
+++09:00 am+++ IS terrorists take over the villages Til Benat, Siba Sheikh Khidir, Til Keseb and Til Aziz. Thousands Yezidis flee from their villages to the north of Shingal and try to seek shelter in the mountains. Yezidi civilians provide the refugee flows fire cover
+++10:00 am+++ The IS marches towards the city of Shingal, Yezidi civilians skirmish with them. Desperately, women, children and old men are trying to escape. Yezidi men bring their families to safety and return to the fightings. In the north, YPG and Peshmerga units mobilize in order to go to the rescue
+++10:30 am+++ First major units of YPG and Peshmerga arrive at the disputed territories in the south of Shingal. More fighters are on the way. Battles now take place on several fronts
+++11:10 am+++ IS terrorists begin to destroy holy pilgrimage sites of Shiites and Yezidis
+++11:25 am+++ There is already a shortage of drinking water and food for toddlers. Because they were forced to leave their homes on the spur of the moment, the Yezidi refugees from Shingal had no way to carry food
+++11:55 am+++ Heavy fightings take place in the border town of Rabia, where YPG and Peshmerga forces fight together against IS terrorists. Shingal is now attacked from both the north and south. As a result Rabia´s residents flee to areas of Shingal which are not occupied yet
Jihadists raised their black flag in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Sunday in a second straight day of advances against Kurdish forces, forcing thousands of displaced people back on the road.
The Islamic State’s capture of Sinjar raised fears for minority groups that had found refuge there and further blurs the border between the Syrian and Iraqi parts of the “caliphate” which the IS declared in June.
“The (Kurdish) peshmerga have withdrawn from Sinjar, Daash has entered the city,” Kurdish official Kheiri Sinjari told AFP, using the former Arabic acronym for the IS. …
… Sinjar had sheltered thousands of people who were displaced by the huge offensive IS launched in the region nearly two months ago.
Among them are many of Iraq’s minorities, such as Turkmen Shiites who fled the city of Tal Afar, about half-way between Sinjar and Mosul, when jihadist fighters swept in.
Sinjar is also a historical home for the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority which follows a pre-Islamic faith derived in part from Zoroastrianism.
IS militants refer to them as devil worshippers and they have been repeatedly targeted.
“Thousands of people have already fled, some to nearby mountains still under Kurdish control and also towards Dohuk,” in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, another PUK official said.
He also said that IS fighters had destroyed the small Shiite shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab shortly after taking control of Sinjar.
“The number of displaced people is not known. However, initial reports range from the thousands of families to a figure of 200,000 people,” said Brendan McDonald, a senior officer of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Based on reports we are receiving, there is an immediate need for water, food, shelter and health services,” he told AFP. …
… The peshmerga are widely perceived as Iraq’s best organised and most efficient military force but the autonomous Kurdish region has been cash-strapped and its troops stretched.
Its regional government has not been receiving the 17 percent share of national oil revenues it is owed by Baghdad and is struggling to sell its own, smaller production independently.
According to a senior official, a Kurdish delegation is currently in the United States to demand military equipment. …
Baghdad, 3 August 2014 – The United Nations in Iraq has confirmed reports that ISIL and associated armed groups have seized control of nearly all of Sinjar and Tal Afar districts in Ninewa Province, including the oil fields of Ain Zala and Batma, bordering the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
According to reports, as many as 200,000 civilians, most of them from the Yezidi community, have fled to Jabal Sinjar. The humanitarian situation of these civilians is reported as dire, and they are in urgent need of basic items including food, water and medicine. An unknown number of civilians are also reported to have moved towards Dahuk and Zako in the Kurdistan Region.
The United Nations has grave concerns for the physical safety of these civilians – particularly those now trapped in Jabal Sinjar area, as it is now surrounded by ISIL militants.
The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) for Iraq, Mr. Nickolay Mladenov, stated “A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar. The Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government should urgently restore their security cooperation in dealing with the crisis. I call on all Iraqi authorities, civil society and international partners to work with the United Nations to ensure the delivery of life saving humanitarian assistance”. “I also call on the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure that those civilians fleeing the violence are facilitated entry to the Kurdistan Region in order to receive protection and humanitarian assistance,” he added. …
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Ali Awni, an official from Kurdistan Democratic Party reveals to Rudaw that despite claims to the contrary, not all of Sinjar is under the effective control of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He said, “Peshmerga forces are stationed in one part of Sinjar, and are waiting for reinforcements to arrive”. He also added,”A heavy force from Peshmerga under the leadership of Mansoor Barzani has arrived in the area, and in the next few hours will conduct a major offensive operation against ISIL to get rid of them in the area”. Anwar Haji Osman from the Ministry of Peshmerga briefly commented saying, “Peshmerga are planning an operating, and will have a big victory in the area soon. ISIL will have no choice but to leave this country, and they know this very well”.
Yazidis flee westward from Sinjar to Syria – from @ArjDnn
Added August 4, 2014: