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Is Turkey behind border wall, Iraqi deployment in Sinjar?

Baghdad’s military moves in Sinjar, coinciding with a Turkish military operation in northern Iraq, and the construction of a wall along the border with Syria have rekindled fears among the local Yazidi population.
Iraqi riot police protect the Turkish embassy in Baghdad on February 18, 2021.

As the struggle for control in Iraq’s northwestern region of Sinjar escalates, some observers believe that Turkish pressure underlies recent moves by Baghdad in the area, including the construction of a wall along the border with Syria and clashes between government forces and local Yazidi militia.

A fresh Turkish cross-border operation codenamed Claw Lock has been underway in northern Iraq since April 18 against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Simultaneously, the Iraqi government has deployed reinforcements to Sinjar, resulting in clashes with PKK-linked Yazidi forces in the area.

The PKK, which Ankara designates as a terrorist group over its nearly four-decade armed campaign in Turkey, has gained influence in Sinjar since it came to the help of the Yazidis after the Islamic State’s (IS) brutal onslaught on the region in 2014. It helped create the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi militia that remains a major actor in the war-ravaged region. The PKK foothold in Sinjar provided a crucial link between the group’s long-standing bases in Iraqi Kurdistan’s mountains and northern Syria, where PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds hold sway. Ankara has warned it will not let Sinjar become "another Qandil," a reference to the PKK headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountains, and carried out airstrikes in the region.

A local source close to the YBS told Al-Monitor that clashes between the YBS and government troops, dispatched at the behest of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, erupted when the latter attempted to seize a checkpoint controlled by Ezidxan Asayish, a security force affiliated with the YBS, in northwestern Sinjar on April 18. There were more clashes later in the day leading to casualties on both sides, as government forces took control of several positions along Highway 47, a crucial route in western Sinjar. The fighting prompted the Iraqi military to send tanks and howitzers to the region.

A complex balance of power has emerged in Sinjar after the defeat of IS. The YBS, Ezidxan Asayish, Iraqi government troops, the mostly Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a Yazidi group within the PMU and a Yazidi unit within Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmerga forces are all present in Sinjar city and surrounding settlements. A key factor shaping the climate in the area is an enduring mistrust among Yazidis toward the Iraqi army and the peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan, over their abandonment of Sinjar during IS’s genocidal campaign in the region. 

This mistrust has helped the PKK-linked YBS assert itself in the area and made it conjunctural allies with the PMU, which was similarly created to fight IS. The PMU has adopted a hostile posture against Turkey’s cross-border operations and military presence on Iraqi territory, an attitude that clashes with Baghdad’s rather flexible approach.

Under an October 2020 deal with Iraqi Kurdistan on stabilizing Sinjar, the central government has been taking steps to assert control in the region, including the establishment of about 10 checkpoints around Sinjar, but has failed to change the situation on the ground thus far. Most recently, Kadhimi appointed the governor of Ninevah as the acting administrator of the Sinjar district on April 26 but was forced to retract the decision within hours after Yazidi objections. 

More importantly, a concrete wall is being erected along the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent infiltration. The construction began last month as part of a project that followed Kadhimi’s visit to Sinjar in January. According to Kurdish sources, the wall — 3.75 meters high and 1 meter wide — is expected to run from the border town of Fish Khabur, not far from the point where the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian frontiers meet, to southwest Sinjar, a distance of about 200 kilometers. The authorities have been installing also a barbed-wire fence at a depth of 5 kilometers from the border, running parallel to the wall. Local villagers have staged protests against the fence, which has separated Arab and Yazidi villages.

Highway 47 leads to an unofficial border crossing with Syria, which the Yazidis used to flee IS. The YBS took control of the crossing in 2014 but later ceded it to Iraqi border guards. On the Syrian side, the crossing is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Though the crossing is used for commercial purposes today, it has been engraved as a “humanitarian corridor” or an “escape route” in the Yazidi psyche.

The local source said, “Shutting the border like this is cutting off trade, affecting cooperation with the YPG and thus scaring the Yazidis. The Yazidis mistrust the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army, which abandoned them in 2014. The wall is evoking a sense of besiegement. Imagine the wall existed in 2014 – all Yazidis would have been slaughtered. Where will they flee if another massacre happens?”

Disabling such border crossings is a strategic priority for Turkey in its efforts to cut the connections between PKK-linked groups in Syria and Iraq. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on a second border crossing between Turkey and Iraq 15 kilometers to the west of the existing border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan has similarly stemmed from security concerns, aiming to open an alternative route to Tal Afar and Mosul.

Erbil-based political analyst Siddik Hasan Sukru believes the escalation in Sinjar is linked to Turkey’s Operation Claw Lock. 

Since government-affiliated forces are already present in Sinjar, the latest deployment decision was “odd” and the troops acted “as if they were conquering an occupied land,” Sukru told Al-Monitor. Kadhimi ordered the deployment at Erdogan’s request, he claimed, noting that security cooperation was underway between the two sides under a deal reached during the Turkish defense minister’s visit to Baghdad last year.

According to Sukru, Turkey’s ongoing operation against the PKK in the KDP-controlled Bahdinan area is a “crucial” one, and its lasting success depends on “fully shutting” the militants’ route between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, known as Rojava in Kurdish. “So Turkey wants Sinjar to be in the hands of reliable forces. The KDP and Turkey prefer the Iraqi government forces to the YBS and the self-rule administration in the area. They are against a model similar to the one in Rojava. In fact, Erdogan, Kadhimi and [KDP leader Massoud] Barzani share the same policy,” Sukru said. He opined that Baghdad’s deployment of troops to Sinjar was likely because of Turkish objections to the use of PMU forces in the area. 

The PMU has vocally slammed Turkey’s cross-border operations and been blamed for rocket attacks on a Turkish base in Bashiqa near Mosul. 

Sukru stressed that Iran, too, would object to upsetting the power balance in Sinjar, given its close ties with the PMU. Should Turkey consider a ground operation in Sinjar after purging Bahdinan, it will face a joint resistance by the Yazidi and Shiite forces, he added.  

As for the Yazidis' determination to maintain their self-rule, Sukru said, “The Iraqi army failed to protect Yazidis and Shiites alike [against IS]. Turkey and other regional Sunni states had a hand in those events. This has left a deep scar and mistrust. Sinjar can now trust the PMU but not the KDP and the Iraqi army. And the KDP and the Iraqi army cooperate with the Turkish military and intelligence. They identify YBS targets for the Turkish jets to hit. For a people that has suffered massacres and genocide [throughout history], the Iraqi army and the Turkish jets evoke the [trauma of] the Sinjar genocide.”

Asked about the motives underlying Kadhimi’s moves in the area, Sukru said, “What he does in Sinjar is aimed at placating Turkey and averting a prospective operation by the Turkish military. Besides, everybody is trying to consolidate their positions."

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