Iraq’s Yazidi Existential Crisis Amidst Sinjar’s Hyper-militarization
It is estimated that 77% of Sinjar's indigenous inhabitants have not returned to their areas for four years since the Iraqi armed forces re-controlled the district. Today’s Sinjar is faced by the destruction of homes, farms, infrastructure, and the widespread pollution from the explosive remnants of war and the improvised explosive devices. The Yazidi return dilemma is based on the existential crisis that was alienated by the ISIS-led offensive against Iraq and genocide against the Yazidis in August 2014. This existential crisis is not limited to the Yazidi experience. Still, it harms the entire societal harmony of Nineveh, where Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, Turkmen, and Christian communities live which will also fear of a damaging schism.
According to a 2020 report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict, which presented surveys from the ground, many Yazidis blame a large portion of their Sunni Arab and, to some extent, Sunni Kurdish neighbors for joining the ISIS back in 2014, and therefore, fear from sharing the land with them again. In return, many Sunni Arabs internally displaced persons (IDPs) also fear to return from potential revenge from the increasing number of the Yazidi armed groups in the district.
The Yazidi question allows us to reflect on Iraq's broader identity issue: which is heavily dominated by the 'Shia Islamist power' notion, which seems not to be the case here. While a Sunni extremist group attacked the Yazidis, administrative shortcomings have also failed to improve their living conditions by Kurdish and Shia political groups.
“I saw it coming a long time ago,” a Yazidi activist told IRAM – who escaped the genocide with his family in 2014 and is currently based in Duhok’s Khanqe Camp (who preferred to stay anonymous for security reasons). The individual adds that, "The ISIS-led genocide was a natural result of the accumulations that occurred for years: the economic and political monopolization by the political parties, and the limitations of any grassroot independent approach with imprisonment and intimidation of activists.”
The Sinjar District, where the Yazidis are the predominant group, witnessed various security transformations, which eventually resulted in demographic changes throughout time. These can be outlined as: the US 2003 invasion and the Kurdistan Democratic Party's (KDP) Peshmerga control, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-aligned People’s Protection Units (YPG)'s infiltration during the ISIS war, and the re-entrance of the Iraqi federal forces along with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
Just when some Yazidi families were gradually considering returning to their former hometowns, things re-escalated again. In addition to the already existing new Yazidi armed groups, the KDP Peshmergas, and the PKK-affiliated YPG, Sinjar is currently witnessing the deployment of many Iran-backed groups from the PMU – a move that undermines the most recent Sinjar Agreement between Erbil and Baghdad of November 2020. The Sinjar Agreement, which was dubbed as "historic" and was welcomed by the UN, US, Turkey, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), presented provisions to limit the district's security to the local police under a federal administration, and KRG appointment of 2,500 residents to local security forces, eviction of all armed groups, and a joint-administrative committee between Baghdad, Erbil, and Nineveh. However, the agreement was undermined and arguably not implemented at all.
Shahab Ahmed, a Yazidi activist and an author of a book on the Yazidi genocide, claims that despite the exclusion of the Yazidi stance, the Sinjar Agreement is a good start towards reconciliation if it guarantees, “unification, ends Erbil-Baghdad competitive dual administration, and prosecution of criminals involved in the genocide.” However, Ahmed did emphasize on the Yazidi disappointment towards the lack of the Iraqi governmental efforts to facilitate the Yazidi IDPs return to Sinjar – “Most people cannot return due to their financial inability to rebuild their houses. The government did not even cover the transportation costs for the returning families. Also, they were delayed for hours at the checkpoints.”
For others, the Sinjar Agreement is pessimistically viewed, “despite the agreement’s importance, not a single point of it was implemented,” says Chakdar Atrushi, a war journalist that was injured during Mosul’s Liberation in 2017 and has covered Sinjar extensively. “Baghdad and Erbil equally have no say in Sinjar, and the district is fully controlled by the PKK, the PMU, in addition to the IRGC, the IRGC Quds-Force, and Iran's Basij,” concludes Atrushi.
In the midst of all of these geopolitical escalations that could determine Sinjar's future for the following years, if not decades – how can the Yazidi return question even be proposed? It seems that the Yazidi discourse is heavily focused on how to rebuild societal trust with their neighbors based on their dark memories following the ISIS occupation of Sinjar. Meanwhile, the reality on the ground reflects Sinjar as a distorted geography to Iran and Turkey with conflicting standpoints.
An online event tackled the Yazidi existential crisis on the new Clubhouse platform, titled "Will the Yazidi wound heal? Can the Yazidis trust their neighbors again”? on March 13, 2021. The discussion was organized by Rasha Al-Aqeedi from the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy and Murad Ismael from Yazda Organization.
The discussion met remarks that focused on how to rebuild the Yazidi hope through the reformation of the extremist interpretation of religion and communal self-ownership to crimes. For the former, it is argued that ISIS remnants in areas close to Sinjar complicate any Yazidi communal attempts to re-establish a new civic life. It is hard for Yazidis to forget the local silence in the face of the ISIS genocide towards the Yazidis. The latter reflects on how proclaiming that ISIS is a group of foreign fighters only is a problematic denial to the local and communal betrayal to the Yazidis.
Murad Ismael points out that justice cannot be delivered without eliminating the extremist ideology in itself and establishing a new social contract theory that depends on justice, equality, and the state of law. Moreover, the empowerment of a pluralistic and inclusive Iraqi citizenship would allegedly be the most valuable approach by the Iraqi state in protecting all Iraqi minorities against future attacks.
Other participants during the discussion emphasized how alarming currents on the ground continuously overshadow the Yazidi existential crisis. The attention by Iraq’s religious leaders towards the Yazidi genocide arguably does not equal its importance.
A new federal court law was recently introduced to add to its committee Shiite, Sunni Islamic and Kurdish jurists to the federal court committee, who will be granted veto power and the ability to review, approve, and reject new laws before legislation. The proposed committee would not allow any law to be passed without two-thirds approval from the 15 members. Activists, politicians, and writers protested the federal court law, and most importantly, were boycotted by the Yazidi, Christian, and Sabean representatives in parliament. The law would further ethno-sectarianize Iraq's political system, which is arguably one of the main reasons behind the failures of establishing a pluralistic and civic democracy that could protect all the Yazidis' rights in Iraq.
The journey to reform in Iraq through democratic, civic, and legal means is a struggle faced not only by the Yazidis – it is a fight Iraqis across all sects, religions, but cultural and geographical backgrounds also attempt to achieve, most notably, during Iraq's October 2019-2020 anti-government protests.
The Yazidi loss to justice is a loss to all of Iraq. The existential crisis to the Yazidi identity threatens the diversity of the collective Iraqi identity, which should equally protect all communities' rights living under it.