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6 October 2021

Massacred by Islamic State, Yazidis now face Turkish airstrikes

Data analysis shows that civilians are often the victims.

By Ben van der Merwe

Seven years after genocide at the hands of Islamic State (IS), approximately 200,000 Yazidis remain trapped in Iraqi Kurdistan’s sprawling refugee camps.

The terror group has long been vanquished from the Sinjar Mountains, the Yazidis’ ancestral homeland, but few feel safe returning. Drones and jets have returned to the skies above Sinjar, bombing not IS but the Yazidi militia that defeated it. 

Turkey considers the militia to be a front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a US and EU-designated terrorist group, and has vowed to remove it from Sinjar province.

A New Statesman analysis of Turkey’s airstrikes against the Yazidi militants has found that 60 per cent resulted in reported civilian casualties, including two-thirds of strikes since 2020.

Three in five Turkish airstrikes in Sinjar have reportedly harmed civilians
Turkish airstrikes in Sinjar province since 2017, by whether civilian casualties were reported

Building upon a database of airstrikes compiled by researchers Amy Austin Holmes, Diween Hawezy and Brett Cohen, the New Statesman verified and geolocated 27 individual airstrikes. The data shows that Turkey has intensified its bombardment in recent years. Almost half of the attacks have occurred since August 2020.

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Holmes is calling for an independent investigation of the strikes. “This hasn’t happened yet, in part because the world is focused on Afghanistan,” she told the New Statesman.

“But I also fear it is because the underlying causes of the genocide against the Yazidis are still there: they are seen as unworthy of protection.”

After Sinjar was abandoned to IS by the Kurdistan Regional Government in 2014, the PKK launched a major rescue operation. The group later facilitated the formation of two Yazidi self-defence militias, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) and the Êzîdxan Women’s Units (YJÊ).

In 2015, the three groups successfully recaptured the region, establishing a local administration and police force autonomous from both the Kurdish and federal governments, the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Assembly (MXSD).

The Yazidi militias have since partly integrated into Iraq’s centrally funded Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Despite formally withdrawing from Sinjar in 2018, the PKK continues to maintain a presence in the region. Turkey has threatened to invade Sinjar if the Iraqi government does not remove the PKK and MXSD. “We may come there overnight, all of a sudden,” President Erdogan said in January.

Last October, Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government reached an agreement to expel the groups and re-establish federal control over Sinjar. Backed by the UN, the Sinjar Agreement was supposed to stabilise the province and enable reconstruction. However, local Yazidis were not consulted on the plan and have resisted its implementation. Ten months later, little has changed.

“There was no meaningful consultation with the Yazidi community about the Sinjar Agreement, and there are a number of major gaps,” Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, told the New Statesman. “Still, most Yazidis also saw some parts of the agreement that could be helpful if implemented. But the starting point should not be the expulsion of those Yazidis who are in Sinjar now.”

Iraq’s silence has infuriated Yazidis

On 16 August, as Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi travelled to Sinjar for the first such visit since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a car exploded in the city’s busy market district. Seîd Hesen, a Yazidi leader and PMF commander, had reportedly been travelling with his nephew for a meeting with Al-Kadhimi at the time his car was hit by a Turkish airstrike. The attack killed both men and injured three civilians.

“We have no expectations of the Iraqi government,” the YJÊ’s Viyan Hebabî said at the funeral that evening. “If Iraq were really a state, the fascist Turkish invading state would not have been able to cross its borders and attack our people.”

The following day, Turkish bombs levelled a hospital in the nearby village of Sekina, reportedly killing four healthcare workers and four YBS fighters. Turkey denies that the building was a hospital.

It was not until the day after the second attack that Al-Kadhimi, along with the US State Department, condemned the strikes, though neither named Turkey as the culprit. That evening, Al-Kadhimi’s defence minister Juma Inad arrived in Ankara for an arms exhibition. When asked about the attacks in a subsequent press conference, Inad insisted that the strikes had not breached Iraqi sovereignty. When pressed further, the minister shouted, “Don’t provoke me!” before slamming the table and walking off stage.

Since 2015, Turkish airstrikes in Iraq are reported to have killed between 65 and 125 civilians while wounding between between 100 and 144, according to data from Airwars, a London-based non-profit that tracks civilian harm from airstrikes. 

Iraq, which depends on Turkey for the vast majority of its water, has been reluctant to respond to the attacks.

“It is a complicated political and economic issue,” said Ibrahim. “But in terms of global diplomacy and sovereignty, it is hard to understand how a country could permit its citizens to be killed by a foreign air force without any response.

“The individuals killed were not foreign fighters or PKK members – they were Yazidis, Iraqi citizens and survivors of the Yazidi genocide.”

Last summer, a volley of airstrikes against YBS positions lit the entire western face of Mount Sinjar on fire, with the damage visible from space.

Last summer, Turkish jets set fire to Mount Sinjar
Western face of Mount Sinjar, before and after 14 June 2020 Turkish airstrikes

“​​Some have cancelled their plans to return to Sinjar because of this issue. Some have left Sinjar and gone back to the IDP camps for safety,” said Ibrahim. 

“We are very clear – we don’t defend the PKK,” Murad Ismael, founder of Sinjar Academy, told the New Statesman. “We think Kurds have a legitimate cause in Turkey, but it’s not our conflict. But the Iraqi government hasn’t spent any money on Sinjar, so the simplest problems are not solved. You wouldn’t believe it, but they haven’t been successful in exhuming 80 mass graves.

“The Sinjar Agreement could have been an opportunity to bring everybody under the state. To create a structure for the militias within the Iraqi security forces, and ask all these young people to come and join.

“If Iraq was a united country, then it would be more powerful to resist both Turkish and Iranian influence. They influence what they can influence, and currently there is nothing repelling them.”

The Turkish Ministry of National Defence and Iraqi prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

[See also: What didn’t happen in Naftali Bennett’s first 100 days]

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