Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq fears Turkish assault

(updates with statement from U.S. commission)

Members of the religious minority Yazidi group fear the ongoing Turkish air strikes on Sinjar and other parts of northern Iraq against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and worry that they could soon by persecuted by the Turkish army, Voice of America said. 

With his hometown Sinjar now being free from the Islamic State (ISIS), Hussein Suleiman Hussein, 26, decided to return with his wife and 5-year-old daughter, he told VOA on the phone from an Iraqi checkpoint, where he had been waiting, along with dozens of other Yazidi families, for hours to get a permit to resettle in their war-torn hometown.

“I am very worried about the Turkish air strikes but what choices do I have, apart from returning?” Hussein told VOA.

On Wednesday, Turkey escalated its offensive by deploying ground troops to northern Iraq against the PKK and affiliated groups. The PKK entered Sinjar in mid-2014 and reportedly opened a safety route for the minority’s civilians fleeing ISIS, VOA said.  

On Friday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, called on Turkey to end its "brutal airstrikes" and ground presence in Sinjar, the Yezidi ethnoreligious community’s stronghold in Iraq.

“USCIRF calls on Turkey to immediately cease its brutal airstrikes in Sinjar, Iraq and to withdraw any ground troops — who represent a dangerous escalation of violence in an already-fragile area," the statement attributed to commission head Gayle Manchin said.

"These actions are particularly threatening to hundreds of traumatized Yazidi families attempting to return to Sinjar and to other civilians in northern Iraq — none of whom deserve to be placed in harm’s way by a NATO ally,” it added.

Turkish air strikes in Sinjar also targeted the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), a group that was formed in 2017 by mostly young Yazidis with the help of the PKK to defend the pre-Islamic religious minority from ISIS. 

Ankara is concerned that the YBŞ could become a future threat to its security as an extension of the PKK.   

“Turkey's upped military campaign in northern Iraq has aimed to disrupt PKK mobilisation in the Hakurk and Sinjar regions,” Berkay Mandıracı, a Turkey analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told VOA.

“The Hakurk region functions as a logistical transit channel for the PKK into Turkey, whereas the militant group uses the Sinjar region as a transit route between Iraq and Syria,” Mandıracı said, adding, “Ankara aims to disrupt both.”  

Some analysts accuse Turkey of previously targeting Yazidis in its military interventions against Kurdish groups in northeast Syria. 

“Yazidis in Turkish-occupied Afrin were displaced and forced to renounce their religion. Yazidi shrines and cemeteries were destroyed,” Amy Austin Holmes, a Harvard University professor who has visited and extensively researched northeastern Syria, said during a webinar last week hosted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. 

Saad Babar, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Yazidi advocacy group Yazda, told VOA that “Yazidis fear that what happened in Afrin and northern Syria would happen again in Sinjar”.

For some, the fear of the Turkish army is rooted in history. 

“It's well-known in the history of the Yazidis that the Turkish army has no mercy upon them,” said Khairi Ali, an activist with Ezidi Organization for Documentation, a Sinjar-based group that documents crimes against the Yazidis.  

“The history is filled with massacres of our people by the Ottomans," said Ali.