The KRG’s Relationship with the Yazidi Minority and the Future of the Yazidis in Shingal
Source : http://www.nrttv.com/en/birura-
By : Matthew Barber*
Following the closure of Yazda, a Yazidi humanitarian and human rights organization, by the KDP asa’ish (security police affiliated with Kurdistan’s largest political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party) on January 2, 2017 in Dohuk, people have been asking many questions about why this took place. Fortunately, the government has now reversed its position on the closure and Yazda has reopened. Nevertheless, this episode points to some serious political issues that impact the status of the Yazidi minority in Kurdistan. I will explore these issues in this article.
Having left the country last August after a year of leading Yazda’s Iraq and Kurdistan-
A Broken Relationship
Understanding the tension between the KDP government and the Yazidis requires investigating why the KDP generally has an adverse relationship with the majority of the Yazidis. In fact, those Yazidis who become close to the KDP political establishment usually lose favor and respect among much of their community. This is because the agendas of the KDP often conflict with the welfare of the Yazidi people, and a number of crucial issues jeopardizing the future of the Yazidis have come to a head this past year.
What do I mean by a clash of interests between the Yazidis and the KDP? Ever since the fall of Saddam, Kurdistan has worked hard to expand the boundaries of what is hoped will be a future independent Kurdistan. These aspirations and efforts are noble considering the many ways that Kurds have been victimized by the various regimes in Iraq through history. But many Kurds today do not realize that despite this history of victimization, their newfound power also creates the possibility and risk of victimizing others—especially the minorities who often inhabit the disputed territories that Kurdistan would like to appropriate.
The Sheikhan district in the Nineveh Plain used to be a Yazidi-
In Shingal (“Sinjar” in Arabic) after 2003, the KDP quickly became a powerful presence.
Many Yazidis were open to pursuing a future for Shingal as part of Kurdistan, hoping
that life under Kurdish government would offer greater rights for minorities than
had been the case under Ba’thist rule. But from those early days, the KDP asa’ish
began systematically arresting and intimidating Yazidi civilians who joined competing
political parties, especially those who favored keeping Shingal’s administration
under the authority of the central government. Though services in Shingal are almost
entirely paid for by Baghdad, the KDP bullied non-
Because of this legacy, by 2014 the majority of the Yazidis of Shingal already resented KDP control; the Peshmerga withdrawal the morning of the genocide was simply the final straw, severing trust with the KDP forever. But because of KDP policy, the Yazidi situation has become even worse following the genocide, which is the main issue that this article will explore.
Today there is a bitter political standoff in Shingal that is exacerbating the already poor relations between the Shingali Yazidis and the KDP. In order to understand the development of this conflict, we must first clarify some key aspects of how the genocide unfolded, and also debunk several myths propagated by government officials regarding the day of the genocide.
Setting the Record Straight on Shingal
Though everyone is familiar with the Peshmerga withdrawal on August 3, 2014, the day the Yazidi Genocide began, many citizens of Kurdistan and Iraq have been led to accept three key excuses advanced by KDP officials trying to justify the withdrawal: 1) that the IS (Islamic State) invasion of Shingal was a surprise attack; 2) that the Peshmerga lacked adequate weaponry to defend local Yazidis from IS; and 3) that the Peshmerga defended but IS was just too powerful and the front line collapsed.
The first claim is obviously false since everyone knows that Mosul was conquered
in early June, almost two months prior to the attack on Shingal. During the period
between the conquest of Mosul and the Yazidi Genocide, IS gradually solidified control
over the Arab areas south and east of Shingal. Tel Afar was conquered during that
period, and IS forces grew increasingly close to Shingal. In fact, several small
attacks occurred on outlying Yazidi villages southeast—and even north—of Shingal,
prior to August 3. Tel Banat was attacked several times. In other words: The IS threat
The second claim is an attempt to side-
But most important is the third claim, that the Peshmerga’s lines were overwhelmed by the might of the IS jihadists. This claim is demonstrably false in light of the way that the withdrawal was conducted. The withdrawal was not a chaotic, haphazard fleeing after engaging the enemy; Shingal Mountain is 72 kilometers long, and with the security presence in many of the towns all around, it would be nearly impossible that every single “front line” would collapse simultaneously. If troops had been overwhelmed in one location, many other troops would have been able to hold their ground in other locations. But the withdrawal was collective (involving almost all security and militia personnel in the entire district), and was conducted in an organized fashion, with all weapons and military vehicles being transported out of Shingal and back to Kurdistan. When local Yazidi civilians saw that the Peshmerga were abandoning them, they begged them to at least leave behind the weapons so that they could defend their own families. But the Peshmerga refused. According to hundreds of survivor accounts, this planned withdrawal occurred before the jihadists reached Shingal. These countless testimonies of civilian eyewitnesses were corroborated by a Peshmerga leader named Sime Mulla Muhammad, responsible for troops in Shingal, who disclosed to the Xendan newspaper in an interview published August 3, 2016 that he withdrew his men without engaging the enemy, prior to the arrival of the jihadists, after it was known that IS was moving on the area. Beyond all of this, not only did Qasim Shesho (the current leader of the KDP Peshmerga in Shingal) state for the record that the Peshmerga fled before the civilians could evacuate, but President Barzani’s reaction to the withdrawal also dispelled any notion of the front line breaking, as in early August 2014 he referred to the “negligence” of those in command and formed a committee to investigate possible desertions.
The facts presented above become even more painful when considering that the day before the genocide, August 2, 2014, local people in Shingal knew that IS was mobilizing. They could sense that an attack might be imminent. Yazidis asked those responsible for security if the people should evacuate. Peshmerga leaders gave assurances to the people that they would be protected, and told them to stay in their villages. In some cases, asa’ish even prevented families from evacuating; some families had loaded up their cars and were attempting to drive to Kurdistan but were turned back at the checkpoints guarding village entrances.
I have presented this background to make it perfectly clear why the trust of the Shingali Yazidis in the KDP was irreparably shattered on August 3. This should also explain why the YPG and PKK forces that entered Shingal to defend the Yazidis won so many hearts and minds. Not only did those forces save the lives of tens of thousands of Yazidis that had been left to die, but they enabled the local Yazidis to hold the front line against IS for the next 15 months, killing more jihadists than any other militia.
Preventing Yazidis from Returning and Rebuilding: The Economic Blockade
This brings us to the present political conflict that is victimizing the Yazidis.
As is common knowledge, after the PKK-
The KDP wants the YBŞ to disappear. They want all non-
And that brings us to the most discouraging of facts, the economic blockade of Shingal,
which is the KDP’s disgraceful strategy to keep Yazidi families, who survived a genocide,
trapped in camps that they have lived in for over two and a half years, rather than
allowing them to return to Shingal. The north side of Shingal Mountain has been free
of the IS presence since December 2014, without any IS-
As an unannounced and therefore “unofficial” blockade, it is selectively enforced. Those with close ties to the government, asa’ish, or Peshmerga are sometimes allowed to bring some goods through. A few basic retail items are allowed through for the shops in Snune. This allows government officials to deny the existence of the blockade when challenged about it. But even when certain goods are allowed through, drivers are often treated roughly and humiliated by the asa’ish, being forced to unload their entire delivery (crates of vegetables, for example) in the sun. Many drivers for hire have simply given up trying to transport goods to Shingal. When some farmers complained about the restrictions on moving ordinary goods, government officials told them that they must apply for certain permits in order to bring goods to Shingal (permits that never existed before and that no one had heard of). Farmers that have tried to navigate this process are given a runaround, being sent from office to office, and the process—just to get official authorization to take farming supplies to one’s small farm—can take months. This can mean missing a planting or harvesting season. Most people simply give up trying. One farmer who finally succeeded in securing a permission document from the Dohuk governorate was still blocked from transporting the goods to Shingal by the asa’ish at the checkpoint: there’s no guarantee that the asa’ish will respect government documents.
Human Rights Watch investigated this blockade and recently issued a report, condemning the government for actively preventing reconstruction. I have personally always been in favor of reconstruction so that Yazidis can have a future in their homeland instead of being forced to emigrate. Emigration destroys the traditional diversity of the local society and puts the heritage of small minorities at risk. However, current policies actively prevent Yazidi families from returning and rebuilding, which produces hopelessness and prompts greater emigration from the country.
Political Violence toward Yazidis
This situation becomes even worse. Not only are families who were targeted with genocide and are now in their third year of living in camps prevented from returning home to resume normal lives, they are also punished severely if they complain about this situation. The asa’ish maintain strict control of Yazidi activities in the camps. Yazidis in the camps are generally not allowed to organize a public meeting unless it is for an activity related to an official political party. This included memorial gatherings to commemorate the anniversary of the genocide, last August, which asa’ish feared could turn into opportunities where dissent would be expressed. Yazidis in the camps holding peaceful demonstrations or speaking out on social media to protest the political policies that harm them have often been arrested, beaten, or threatened. In general, the asa’ish have succeeding in suppressing the voices of Yazidis who are broken and frustrated about their situation.
Worst of all is the political violence targeting Yazidis who join rival militias.
These young people—and their families—can be persecuted through arrests, jailing,
interrogations, and beatings. Young Yazidi men and women who join the YBŞ cannot
visit their displaced relatives in the IDP camps in Dohuk, or else they will be arrested.
In fact, KDP asa’ish have arrested poor taxi drivers accused of carrying YBŞ-
One of my employees when I was leading Yazda in Iraq and Kurdistan was an uneducated, destitute man who worked as a cleaner in Yazda’s health care center. He had no interest in politics, but several of his grown children decided that they would join the YBŞ to defend their homeland. One day, he was taken by the asa’ish to an office where he was interrogated and told that he would be made to disappear (i.e., imprisoned without charges or trial) if he did not convince his children to disaffiliate from the YBŞ. He could not convince them to leave their cause of defending Shingal, so he had to leave the Kurdistan Region. He moved back to Shingal where he has no work and no resources, out of fear for his safety. Such stories are commonplace.
The political persecution of Yazidis who voice criticism of the government is so severe that it has prompted many families to immigrate to Europe. A number of Yazidi activists and journalists, not affiliated with any party, received threats against their families from the asa’ish because they spoke out. They chose to leave the country rather than live in fear. Individuals and families are not the only ones targeted; organizations are also victims of the crackdown on free speech.
Yazda Iraq is not the first local Yazidi organization to be shut down by the KDP
since the genocide. Rainbow, a Yazidi-
While working in the KRI, I was frequently attacked by Kurdish officials if I voiced even the smallest concern about the situation and how it was affecting the survivors of the genocide. If I mentioned in a UN cluster meeting that the asa’ish were preventing certain goods from being transported to Shingal, I was ridiculed publicly by the government representative and accused of being a “troublemaker.” Of course, it was the government that was making trouble for the victims of the genocide.
Individuals or organizations expressing any criticism of KDP policy in Shingal were often accused of “supporting the PKK.” This is a strange allegation; critiquing harmful KDP policy does not constitute support for the PKK.
Aside from the competition in Shingal, the political dynamics inside the Kurdistan
Region were also unhealthy. In the spring of 2016, I was visited by a PUK Peshmerga
captain who commanded the small contingent of PUK Peshmerga in Shingal. He described
to me how he had a large shipment of medicine that he was trying to bring to Shingal
but was being prevented from doing so by the KDP asa’ish, despite being a Peshmerga
leader. During my period of work in the country, the primary health centers in the
Shingal region suffered from a lack of medicine. I am not speaking of the health
centers created by the PKK to serve displaced Yazidis on top of the mountain; I am
referring to the established, government-
The Risk of Demographic Change
Like the program to change the demographics in Sheikhan, Shingal is at risk of being
targeted with a similar project. Yazidis are very afraid that the KRG may inhibit
them from returning home and instead try to settle them within the Kurdistan Region
where they will be easier to rule, leaving Shingal open for settlement by KDP loyalists,
making the district easier for the KDP to control. As a disputed territory that still
officially belongs to the central government, it would be far easier for Kurdistan
to gain permanent control of Shingal if it could be populated with Kurdish party
loyalists, rather than by an “unruly” minority. As soon as the mass displacement
of Shingal occurred in 2014, Yazidis began voicing fears of a possible long-
Of course, if the Kurdish government continues to prevent the Yazidis from returning to Shingal, the real tragedy will be for the Yazidis to lose their historic homeland, with all of its sacred religious and cultural sites.
The Future That the Yazidis Need
Recently, Kurdish officials have intensified calls for the PKK to “leave” Shingal. The PKK itself has only a minimal presence in Shingal. What they mean is that they want PKK support for the Yazidi YBŞ forces to be eliminated so that the YBŞ will dissolve. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is presenting this as a prerequisite for the ending of the blockade.
By saying that the PKK presence prevents peace from returning to Shingal, Nechirvan Barzani is pretending that the KDP has no choice in its implementation of the blockade. He is effectively saying, “We are helpless in victimizing the Yazidis unless we get the political outcome we want.” But of course the KDP has control over its actions and could lift the blockade today, whether or not it gets its way.
Nechirvan Barzani’s remarks do not acknowledge that the YBŞ’s forces are primarily
local, consisting of Yazidis from Shingal—not a foreign force that has invaded the
country. (The largest foreign force in the area is actually the Peshmerga Rojava,
Most Yazidis from Shingal are worried about the PKK becoming the next KDP in Shingal.
They do not want to see the PKK replace the KDP as a new hegemon in Shingal—the next
chapter in single-
Therefore, the desire of most of the Yazidis who join the YBŞ is not to support the
The KDP had a decade to convince the Yazidis to join with them instead of seeking
their own administration under Baghdad. They failed in this endeavor because they
used excessive intimidation rather than extending goodwill and respecting the right
of the Yazidis to choose. When I was in Shingal in the summer of 2015, I spoke to
wheat and barley farmers who had left the camps in Dohuk to temporarily return to
their farms on the north side of the mountain, in order to harvest their fields that
had been left standing after the genocide. They hoped to sell their grain and return
to the camps. But instead of facilitating this effort on the part of the poor families,
Peshmerga leaders in charge of the area after the liberation of the mountain’s north
side were not allowing Yazidis to bring their grain to Dohuk. (This was prior to
the economic blockade discussed in this article.) The Peshmerga leaders were forcing
the Yazidi farmers to sell their grain within Shingal, below the current price, to
the Peshmerga leaders themselves, who were then transporting it to the Kurdistan
Region to sell for a large profit. This is only one example of the kind of corruption
that Shingal suffers under single-
Today should mark the end of these abuses. The desire of the Yazidis for self-
A New Message from Kurdistan to the Yazidis
At this stage, the KDP has lost the contest for Yazidi loyalty. The best thing for the KRG to do now is to approach the Yazidi community with a new message. Here is the message that President Barzani, the KDP, and all of Kurdistan should give to the Yazidis of Shingal:
The purpose of this article has not been to attack Kurdistan, but to address some
problems that are weakening social cohesion among communities in Kurdistan and northern
Iraq. Kurdistan is a wonderful place with wonderful people who have fought very hard
for their own rights and freedoms. On my first visit to Kurdistan years ago, I visited
a prison that Saddam had built in which he would imprison Kurds who expressed dissent
about their situation. The prison was turned into a museum and I was moved by the
depictions of human suffering that the Kurds had endured at the hands of Saddam,
and by the bravery of the Peshmerga that had labored so tirelessly to liberate their
people. Being honest in our confrontation of new political realities of this generation,
and the failure of the Peshmerga in Shingal, does not constitute a denial of the
heroism of the Peshmerga over the many years that they have defended Kurdistan. Nevertheless,
it is essential that we confront the Ba’thist-
*Matthew Barber is a PhD student studying Islamic thought and history in the Department
of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He was
working in Kurdistan when the Yazidi Genocide began and later served as the Iraq
Executive Director of Yazda for one year in 2015-