Seven months ago, the Iraqi Government signed an agreement to rebuild and rehabilitate the war-torn city of Sinjar in the Nineveh Province of northern Iraq. It had been occupied and looted by Daesh in 2014-2015, where the majority of its Yazidi population uprooted, arrested, or killed.
Since then, a growing number of militias have risen to replace Daesh, among which is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU). The Sinjar Agreement called for their immediate eviction and replacement with government troops sent from Baghdad. The United States welcomed the agreement as a step in the right direction to heal the wounds left behind by Daesh. So did the United Nations.
Seven months later, however, the agreement remains ink on paper. None of its clauses have been implemented and both sides are trading accusations on who to is blame for its failure.
Resentment of the militias
There are presently 20,000 militants in Sinjar, affiliated with seven armed groups that are headed by the PKK and PMU. All of them, with no exception, refuse the Sinjar Agreement. So does Iran, which backs the PMU. Estimates vary but approximately 3,000 of those militants are on PMU payroll.
All have refused to disarm and move out of Sinjar, threatening to fight government troops if they try to evict them by force. Arms have been smuggled into the region in recent weeks, to be used against Iraqi forces by the PMU and PKK. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi sent troops to Sinjar last December, with orders to round up these militias and escort them out of the city.
That is easier said than done, however, and would undoubtedly trigger plenty of violence, which is the last thing Kadhimi needs ahead of parliamentary elections next October. Instead, he has deployed troops to Sinjar, but they have taken no steps towards dismantling militias and are actually avoiding any contact with them.
On April 13, 2021, KRG Interior Minister Reber Ahmed said that the PKK was still present in Sinjar, disguised as Iraqi government forces, adding that no development in services/infrastructure has been witnessed in city, and that the number of unsolicited arms has increased since the agreement was signed in October 2020.
To compensate for that failure, the Baghdad government has been peddling other achievements in Sinjar, like the return of 7412 Yazidi families, announced on 23 April 2021.
No steps have been made, towards providing information on missing persons taken hostage by Daesh in 2014-2015, nor at facilitating the return of 300,000 Yazidis who fled to Kurdistan during that time period. Last March, President Barham Salih signed a law for the compensation of Yazidi women survivors, but no progress has been made on this front as well.
An unpopular agreement
We also have another notable reason why the Sinjar Agreement has not passed the signing stage, because people don’t like it. The agreement doesn’t enjoy support within the Iraqi street, especially among Sunni Arabis, who were never too happy about Peshmerga rule in Sinjar, during the years that predated Daesh.
Although not part of Iraqi Kurdistan, Sinjar was surrendered to the Kurds after the downfall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, as part of the 300 miles of territory outside the formal boundaries of the KRG. Many Iraqis believe that it should return to the Iraqi state, and not to the Kurds.
The Yazidi community does not trust the Kurdistan Democratic Party that ruled Sinjar in 2003-2014, saying that it abandoned them to Daesh. Commander of the Yezidi Khan Forces Haidar Shasho said it bluntly: “The agreement is a big blow to the Yezidi community, putting them under control of the same people who surrendered them to Daesh.”
He described the security situation in Sinjar as “fine,” adding that the Yazidis will obstruct implementation of the agreement “no matter what it costs.”
The Yazidis are far closer to the PKK, which armed them, paid them, and protected them during the period of Daesh occupation, than they are to the Kadhimi Government or the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
A notable flaw in the agreement is that the Yazidis were given no say in it. It was negotiated on their behalf by Baghdad and Erbil. They feel that Kadhimi went ahead with it to please Turkey and the US by promising to put an end to PKK rule, but that he had no real intention of improving their conditions or giving them a say in their political future.
In addition to being excluded from the negotiations, they were also left out of the execution and implementation stages. The agreement called for the election of a new mayor for Sinjar, empowering local governing institutions, and appointing a 2,000-member security force to patrol the area, to prevent an Daesh resurgence, and oversee exodus of the PKK and PMU.
Yazidis want that force to be composed of Yazidis, rather than other groups from Iraq, while Kadhimi insists that such a condition is impossible to meet, saying that Sinjar will be controlled by an Iraqi force, regardless of the religious and ethnic composition of its forces.
The agreement also provides no technical clarification on how that new mayor ought to be elected, with no guarantees that one will not be imposed who is affiliated with the Barzani family or with the major political parties in Baghdad.
And finally, the agreement does not mention how to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate Yazidi fighters who took up arms against Daesh. Twenty-five thousand of them took up arms with the PKK-affiliated Shingal Resistance Unit (YBS) while 2,000 fought with the PMU.
These are no minor points. Unless they are addressed — and modified — the much celebrated Sinjar Agreement will remain tucked away in the drawers of Iraqi officialdom. Sinjar residents and militias alike will not let it happen.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.