An uncertain future for minorities in a post-ISIS Iraq

As Evon Sworesho explains, there are many actors involved in the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq, but some are more vulnerable than others.

By: /
June 30, 2016
Yazidi people walk at Lalish temple in Shikhan, Iraq, February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

The world first woke up to the increased danger of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in June of 2014 when its fighters swept through Northern Iraq, capturing Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and reaching the gates of Baghdad and Erbil. The Iraqi Army all but collapsed against the ISIS advance with soldiers simply leaving their posts and military commanders abandoning their troops on the front lines.

That June, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces were also pushed back and ISIS was quickly threatening Erbil, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital city. Both advances were held off with help from American Air Force.

Much has changed in the last two years. The Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga are not the same as they were. They both have learned and adapted to the unique military tactics ISIS deploys and are now on the offensive, having recaptured more than 50 percent of ISIS held territory in Iraq.

But the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga are not the only forces engaged in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. The Shi’ite-dominated Al-Hashd Al-Sha’be, or Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), has claimed many victories against ISIS, as has the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Iranian and American Special Forces both operate in Iraq, as do, to a limited capacity, the Canadian Special Forces. 

Many of the aforementioned groups have little love for one another and in the past were openly engaged in battles against one another, however ISIS has brought them all on the same side, for now.

Just as the great Allied powers of World War II were eyeing each other warily even while fighting Nazi Germany, sounds of a future post-ISIS conflict have resonated from various anti-ISIS leaders. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has stated that the Kurds will not give back to the Iraqi government one metre of land they capture from ISIS. Similarly, Barzani's son and the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, Masrour, has also stated that the future of Iraq will either be a loose confederation of three different states or all out independence of the Kurdistan Region from Iraq.

These threats are not taken lightly by the Iraqi government and Shi’ite militias who try to combat ISIS as well as attempt to quell Kurdish advance into previously Iraqi government controlled lands.

Caught between fragile fault lines

With all these factions, militias and power plays, the minorities are largely ignored. Those minorities include the Yazidis, Assyrian and Armenian Christians, Shabaks, Turkmen, Sabian Mandaeans and more.

What complicates things for Iraq’s minorities is that they live in the fault lines between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Region Government lands. Both the Iraqi Government and the KRG claim the lands and both governments have largely abandoned the minorities that live there.

For example, after the fall of Mosul in June 2014, the Peshmerga entered the Assyrian Christian-dominated Nineveh Plain (east of Mosul) and Yazidi-dominated Sinjar guaranteeing inhabitants they would be protected from any ISIS advance, and that the small militias present would be disbanded. These minority groups were asked to turn over all their personal weapons to authorities. 

Then, on Aug. 2 and Aug. 6, the Peshmerga retreated from their posts in Sinjar and Nineveh Plain respectively. As a result, an ISIS offensive killed 5,000 Yazidis, thousands of Yazidi and Christian women were sold into the sex slave trade, and up to 500,000 Yazidi and Christians from Sinjar and Nineveh Plain were displaced. It was only with the help of PKK (and Syrian YPG) Kurdish forces, with support from the U.S. Air Force, that the remaining Yazidis were saved from starvation and thirst on the Sinjar Mountain.

Since the fall of Nineveh Plain and Sinjar, both the Yazidis and Assyrians have formed their own militias in order to take back their land and provide security for their own people and land.

Realizing the lack of support for the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga amongst the minority groups, the central government, the KRG and even the PKK have begun funding their own minority militia groups in order to shift the region into their sphere of influence. These power plays have resulted in armed conflict in Sinjar as the Yazidi Protection Force, a militia group claiming to be loyal to the KRG, and Sinjar Resistance Units, an offshoot of PKK, have engaged in sporadic engagements against one another.

After tensions between the two Yazidi groups increased, they joined forces and formed a neutral Sinjar Alliance Force. However, this has brought increased criticism from the KRG as it has tried to assert its dominance of Sinjar, asked for PKK and all affiliated groups to leave Sinjar region, and has arrested prominent Yazidi commander Haider Shasho in the past.

Similarly, the Assyrians formed their own militia called the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU), which has since been partially funded by the central Iraqi government. After the creation of NPU two other Assyrian Christian militias, Nineveh Plain Forces (NPF) and Tiger Guards, were created and funded by the KRG and Peshmerga.

“We want to be the force that will protect our people in our lands and towns,” Athra Kado, a member of the NPU, said in an interview. “The Iraqi Army failed to protect us in Mosul and the Peshmerga failed to protect us in Nineveh Plain, it’s time that Assyrians protect ourselves, it’s our right.”

Neither the Iraqi central government nor the KRG want to lose the vital lands in Nineveh Plain and Sinjar, and both are attempting to divide the fragile communities into their own political spheres of influence in order to shape the future of the regions. Other ethno-religious minorities such as the Shabaks and Turkmen, who also have large demographic concentrations in the disputed territories, are caught in the central and Kurdish governments’ conflicts.

Earlier this year, in the multi-ethnic town of Tuz Khurmatu, which is within the disputed territories, the Peshmerga and Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces exchanged intense fire, resulting in many citizens fleeing their homes. The town is one of the remaining areas with a large concentration of Turkmen minorities. After negotiations between the two groups it was ordered that both the Peshmerga and the PMU would leave the town and local citizens would provide security for themselves.

What’s next for Iraq, and for minorities? 

Within Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, a referendum of the inhabitants living in the disputed territories, which include Kirkuk, Ninveveh Plain, Sinjar and other regions, will determine the future of the lands and the minorities within.

The referendum was scheduled to be held before Dec. 31, 2007, but amid security concerns and increasing demographic changes the referendum has still not occurred, nearly nine years later.

The calls for the referendum are once again being heard. Barzani stated in a Rudaw News interview on May 23 that the Kurdistan region will hold a referendum some time in 2016 because it is “ripe for independence.”

However, many minority groups have shared their concerns. They are afraid that the referendum will not reflect their interests, but rather only the interests of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments.

“The referendum will inherently be unrepresentative of the Yazidis and other minority groups if the only choice given is between the Kurdistan Government or the Iraqi Government,” Mirza Ismail, the president of the Yezidi Human Rights Organization-International, said in an interview. 

“We are demanding an alternative option be give, one where the minority groups in the disputed regions are able to govern themselves as autonomous states and determine their own futures.”

In a future Iraq, there are two models the partition of the country can take. The first and most desirable one would be the Czechoslovakia model. Following the bloodless Velvet Revolution, the state of Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which have had an extremely fruitful border ever since.

Although the aforementioned partition is more desirable, the trends in Iraq seem to follow another more popular European partition, Yugoslavia. With ethnic enmity, rampant sectarianism and a history of ethnic cleansing campaigns and genocides, Iraq seems to be following the model which boiled over into an armed conflict resulting in thousands of deaths and continued enmity between all states involved.

 The second model is what the minority groups are most fearful of. If the partition of Iraq is not a peaceful transition then the minority groups will be stuck in the middle of yet another conflict between regional powers, forced to choose a side in a conflict they do not want to be a part of and one where they are not represented.

“I would like for the minorities to be able to protect themselves and determine our own future, not be told by others what our future is,” said Kado, with the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit.

“We have learned that we should protect ourselves because no one else will.”

But some, like Ismail, of Yezidi Human Rights Organization-International, feel the international community could do more to understand the plight and ensure the safety of these groups.

“If we aren’t given a place where we can provide our own security, economy and well being…then our future will remain just as it is now, full of fear, emigration and being treated as pawns of others, second class citizens or worse.”

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