Why did the PKK withdraw from Sinjar?

Iraqi government forces arrived in the town of Sinjar on Sunday, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his forces had started an offensive into the northwestern Iraqi district against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting Turkey for 33 years and had set up bases in the area.

It was not the first time that Erdoğan has threatened Sinjar, about 80 km southwest of the Turkish border and close to the border with Syria. Erdoğan said the PKK wanted to establish what he called a second Qandil in Sinjar, referring to the Qandil Mountain base in northeast Iraq where the PKK has its headquarters. Erdoğan fears Sinjar would give the PKK strategic depth in Iraq from which to threaten Turkey (although its far from the border).

According to the International Crisis Group, Sinjar, populated by the Kurdish-speaking Yezidi religious minority, has since 2003 fallen victim to competition between rival forces due to its disputed and strategic status. The Iraqi government, Islamic State, the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, Shi’ite paramilitaries and the PKK and its Iraqi and Syrian affiliates have all vied for control, it said.

But the PKK on Friday announced it would withdraw its forces from Sinjar, but said the local PKK-backed Shingal Resistance Units (YBŞ) would stay and come under Iraqi control. The PKK said it withdrew in order to prevent a Turkish attack on Sinjar.

After Iraqi forces arrived in Sinjar, the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad denied a Turkish operation was underway.

The PKK created the YBŞ in Sinjar after the Turkish Kurdish group and its Syrian allies saved thousands of Yezidis from massacres carried out by Islamic State after Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) withdrew from the town without a fight in August 2014.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File photoarabicphoto 2017103

The PKK opened a corridor through Syria for many Yezidis to reach safety, but the extreme jihadists still raped, enslaved, and killed thousands of the non-Muslim minority. The Yezidis called it the 74th genocide carried out against them.

For the PKK, Sinjar became a crucial supply route from Iraq to allied Syrian Kurdish fighters in Syria. Saving so many Yezidis in Sinjar also gave the PKK a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.

KDP peshmerga forces recaptured Sinjar in November 2015 with the help of U.S.-led coalition air strikes. But the PKK-linked YBŞ also took control of several positions in the town, leading to tensions between them and the KDP.

Fighting between the rival groups was for a long time averted, but a one-day clash between the KDP and the PKK did break out in March 2017 after the KDP tried to take control of the Syria border near Sinjar and break supply lines to PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish forces. That clash hardened the division between areas under PKK and KDP control in Sinjar. 

Turkey and the United States tried to push Baghdad into cutting the salaries of YBŞ fighters. The United States wanted to weaken PKK influence in Sinjar, in order to prevent Turkish attacks on the YBŞ and the PKK there.

Talks between the KDP and the PKK on a possible withdrawal failed, but the KDP said it was recruiting YBŞ fighters to join the Peshmerga. In April last year, Turkey carried out air strikes on Sinjar and Syria that killed several fighters and led to Yezidi fears that civilians would become victims of a new conflict.

The political situation dramatically changed in Sinjar, when the Shi’ite majority Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMU) and Iraqi government troops took southern Sinjar from Islamic State in May 2017. Newly created Yezidi PMU affiliates took part in the operation, convinced Sinjar would come under Iraqi government control, and not part of Kurdish-administered northern Iraq.

The PMU and Iraqi forces then took control of Sinjar and other disputed territories in October last year after the KDP peshmerga withdrew for the second time, while the YBŞ still held positions and actually took over the small town of Sinune on the Syrian border.

Turkish leaders declared they would carry out more operations following the Turkish capture of Afrin in northern Syria on March 18. Turkish army forces took control of several villages in northern Iraq in anticipation of further operations against the PKK and carried out several air strikes. On March 21, four civilians were killed in a Turkish air strike in the northern Iraqi district of Choman.

Now the withdrawal of non-local PKK fighters changes the Sinjar conundrum and brings the district under full Iraqi government control. Most likely the United States favours a deal between Iraq and the YBŞ over a Turkish military intervention. “[We] intending to see them [PKK] pull out of the Sinjar area, [that] would be our intention there,” the U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday.

The PKK also preferred a deal with Baghdad than a fight with Turkey in Sinjar. The YBŞ already sees itself as an Iraqi force, and has enjoyed good relations with Baghdad and the PMU.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Turkey will accept Iraqi control over the YBŞ.

“There was some fear that despite the withdrawal of the PKK, Turkey would attack YBŞ positions in Shingal from the air. But since these are now controlled also by Iraqi troops, air strikes are unlikely,” Hayrî Demir, editor in chief of ÊzîdîPress, told Ahval.

“The YBŞ will be recognised as a Yezidi unit by the central government and integrated into the Iraqi military. This was the agreement between PKK officials and representatives of the Iraqi military,” he said.

“At least in the short term, Yezidis will lose a part of their autonomy. The political situation in the region will be easier with the absence of another party, but what concessions Iraq makes to the Yezidis remains to be seen. Much will be clearer after the May (Iraq) elections,” he said.