The Budding Kurdish-Iranian Alliance in Northern Iraq

In an effort to deter Turkish intervention, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party had partnered with Iranian-run militias in and around Sinjar. It’s a strategic alignment that only further complicates the post-ISIS future of the country

The Budding Kurdish-Iranian Alliance in Northern Iraq
After Kurdisch units liberated the Iraqi city of Sinjar and kicked off ISIS a Kurdish fighter celebrates the victory while balancing on a destroyed ISIS tank / Sebastian Backhaus / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images

In August 2014, the Islamic State group (ISIS) attacked Sinjar (also known as Shingal) in northern Iraq, committing what the United Nations would later classify as genocide against the Yazidi minority. Men and older women were massacred, their bodies dumped in mass graves. Women and children were taken into slavery. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes.

Khal Ali was not a soldier, but every household in this part of the world has a gun, and he picked up one of these weapons to defend his family, his land, and his people. Forty other local Yazidi men joined him. “We didn’t have any name, but we fought Daesh,” said Ali, using an Arabic term for ISIS.

Little did Ali know that, seven years later, his impoverished homeland would draw regional powerhouses into a simmering conflict, one in which he is playing an unwitting role.

As a consequence of the Syrian civil conflict and the emergence of terrorist organizations like ISIS in Syria and Iraq, external actors Iran and Turkey, as well as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have gained footholds on both sides of the border. Tehran and Ankara are taking advantage of conflicts and weakened governments to expand their spheres of influence throughout the Middle East.

Iran is a longtime ally of Lebanon’s Hezbollah; it backs Yemen’s al-Houthi rebels; it is helping to prop up the Syrian regime; and it is permeating Iraq’s political and security structures. Turkey is also in Syria, supporting rebel groups on the opposite side of the conflict from Iran; it is interfering on Iran’s northern border with Armenia and Azerbaijan; and its footprint in northern Iraq is growing as it fights the PKK.

In the dusty farms and villages of Sinjar, the interests of Iran and Turkey collide. Sinjar is a microcosm of an evolving Middle Eastern landscape.

Its importance comes because of its geographic position — strategically located on a crossroads at the borders of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. “This road has become very busy now,” said Qadir Kacak, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) branch office in Sinjar.

After a year and a half of fighting as a small, independent group, Ali and his men looked for a larger force to join and selected Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic). “Officially, I became part of Hashd in early 2016,” he said.

There was an array of forces Ali could align with — Kurdish Peshmerga, PKK, the Iraqi army. He chose the PMF, calling them the “enemy of Daesh.” Ali now commands the Lalish Brigade, a unit named after a sacred Yazidi temple.

On June 14, 2014, a few days after Mosul fell to ISIS and the group advanced toward Baghdad as the Iraqi army collapsed, senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a statement calling on capable young men to fight the radical Sunni group. His call offered a cluster of existing militias, many notorious, a justification to operate. While the PMF were incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces in 2018, they remain a group of loosely affiliated militias operating outside of Baghdad’s control. Many preexisted ISIS and have decadeslong ties with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and they have inserted themselves into Iraq’s halls of power and society, building extensive patronage networks.

Yazidi units of the PMF, including Ali’s Lalish Brigade, are accused of revenge killings against Arab civilians they believe were aligned with ISIS, including the forced disappearance and murder of 52 members of the Imteywit tribe in June 2017 — men, women, and children who were fleeing clashes between the PMF and ISIS west of Mosul.

The PMF network in Sinjar has a specific purpose, according to Zmkan Ali Saleem, program director at the Institute of Regional & International Studies (IRIS) in Sulaimani, where he researches non-state security forces in Iraq.

Iran’s land connection to Syria and Lebanon passes through Iraq with the support of the PMF, from Diyala to Anbar. A second route through Sinjar is Plan B in case it loses the southern route if, for example, the United States boosts its forces stationed at the large Ain al-Asad air base northwest of Ramadi.

Iran builds these routes and bridges by co-opting local groups and getting the people on its side. The Iranians are “very strategic. They know what they are doing,” said Saleem.

Washington considers these Iranian-backed militia groups to be the “primary threat to U.S. personnel in Iraq.” In its Annual Threat Assessment, released in April, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence predicted that Iraq will be Iran’s main area of focus to expand its influence over the next year through its use of proxy forces.

The U.S. may view the PMF as a threat, but for people in Sinjar, they mean safety.

“The Hashd al-Shaabi fought for Sinjar, and they liberated Sinjar. The PKK fought for Sinjar, they liberated Sinjar. Those people came out from the community, they are from our community, so they are legally here, and people trust them,” said Qassim Khalaf, co-chair of the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Council, a PKK-linked civilian authority.

Just as the PMF have absorbed local groups like Ali’s Lalish Brigade, the PKK co-opted local populations to cement its presence. And the two are working together. A PKK-backed Yazidi force, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), has received funding and training from the PMF since 2015. “It’s a hybrid proxy,” said Saleem, ideologically tied to the PKK and funded by the PMF.

The PKK and IRGC have a long, pragmatic history of tolerating each other. “The PKK has had relations with Iran since 1982,” said a former guerilla who joined in 1993 and fought for the group for two decades.

From the very early days of the PKK, founder Abdullah Ocalan sought to establish ties with Iran, including the IRGC. Iranian intelligence helped the Kurdish insurgents find locations for camp sites in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq where the PKK now has its headquarters. Along stretches of the border, IRGC posts and PKK camps were in sight of each other, but they each turned a blind eye to the other. In 1999, when Ocalan was captured, thousands of PKK fighters withdrew from positions in Turkey and at least 5,000 guerrillas passed through Iran to reach Qandil.

“While I was in the PKK ranks, it was forbidden for me and others to fight the IRGC,” the former member said. On one of his several trips into Iran, he was detained by IRGC forces. The Iranians told him not to worry, they would hand him back to Cemil Bayik, a founder and senior leader of the PKK known among the guerrillas for his good ties with the Iranians.

Tehran and Ankara occasionally issue statements declaring their intention to militarily collaborate in combating Kurdish insurgents along their shared borders and in northern Iraq, including the PKK, but given their history, the former guerrilla is not at all surprised that the PKK and IRGC would be working together 300 kilometers (180 miles) to the west in Sinjar.

Working with the PMF helps the PKK further its own ambitions of expanding its area of influence, gaining bases of support beyond the mountains and within urban communities, both in Iraq and northeast Syria. In its mountain hideouts, the PKK is in a fight for its survival because of Turkey’s increasingly sophisticated drones. But ideologically aligned forces are gaining legitimacy: The People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are part of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the YBS, as part of the PMF, is a legal Iraqi force. The PKK has even been able to exchange messages with the U.S. through these friends.

But the PKK’s presence in Sinjar attracts the ire of Turkey, where it is a named terrorist organization. The U.S. and the European Union also consider the PKK a terrorist group. For years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed he will not allow the PKK to become established in Sinjar, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from its border. In January 2020, YBS commander Zardasht Shingali was killed in a Turkish airstrike. This past January, Erdoğan said he was ready for a joint operation against the PKK with Iraq. “We may come there overnight, all of a sudden,” he said.

As with Iran, Turkey’s interest in Sinjar lies in the strategic access it provides.

Ankara does not want the PKK in control of the area because Sinjar “can serve as a corridor” connecting the PKK’s headquarters in Qandil with Syria, said Mehmet Alaca, a non-resident fellow at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM). The “PKK’s presence in the region, moreover, threatens Turkey’s influence in Mosul, especially its access to Tal Afar and Turkmen regions, historically seen as a natural extension of Turkey’s hinterlands,” he added.

Erdoğan’s threatened invasion would tread on Iran’s toes. Tehran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, who had a long career in the IRGC before taking on the diplomatic role, stoked the fires when he told Turkey to stay out of Sinjar. His comments sparked a spat between Tehran and Ankara, each summoning the other’s ambassador.

The situation escalated on April 14, when a Turkish soldier was killed by rocket fire on a base in Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul. The attack bore the hallmarks of PMF actions against U.S. interests.

This threat shift “from verbal to more concrete actions” is a “harbinger of a new period,” said Alaca. Reluctance to harm relations with Tehran or damage its political and economic ties with Iraq are restraining Turkey’s hand for now. “However, threats by pro-Iranian militias may be interpreted as a provocation to force Ankara to adopt a more aggressive stance,” he said.

But Turkey’s first step will be to extend offers to Baghdad to collaborate militarily and to depend on the KDP, with whom Ankara enjoys close ties, Alaca added.

The KDP, the ruling party in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), controlled the Sinjar area prior to 2017. “We, the KRG and also Baghdad, have the same concerns and understand the concerns of Turkey,” said Edres Zozani, spokesperson for the KDP’s branch office in Sinjar. The PMF and the PKK are stirring up trouble, “and because of this, our people are suffering, and we expect Turkey will attack at any time. The reason makes sense. It’s logical for us as well.”

For the people who call Sinjar home, the last thing they want is for their region to be part of a geopolitical conflict. Yazidis, trying to heal their wounds and rebuild their lives and communities after the genocide, are tired of external disputes that have yanked their region and lives from one direction to another.

In October, the federal and regional governments signed an agreement over the future of Sinjar that put Baghdad in charge of security, tasked with expelling the militias and forming a new force drawn from the local population. But the PKK, the PMF, Kurdish Peshmerga, Iran, Turkey, “none of them put Yazidi interests first. Everybody puts their own interests first,” said Murad Ismael, a Yazidi activist and co-founder of Yazda.

“What everybody should realize is a genocide happened, and a people are suffering. We need to stabilize the situation, bring people back to their homeland, create an economy, create prosperity, create protection, and have a normal situation for the Yazidis to heal and to go back to normal life,” said Ismael. “We don’t need Sinjar to become a military base for any group.”

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