By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine
When I had visited Kurdistan in June, the liberation of Shingal was certainly on many people’s minds. Now the chance to write about it presented itself in November, just as the Paris attacks had unfolded, the Kurdish forces swept down into Sinjar, the town where the agony of ISIS atrocities had been more felt.
The Magazine article begins with a description of the city laid out before the fighters, on the plain.
ISIS were buurning houses to make their escape. It’s a common tactic of the organization to shield itself from coalition air strikes.
In June, when a colleague and I visited the front lines on the Mosul plain, the smoke billowed from a Christian village in Islamic State hands. The enemy used old tires and trenches filled with oil to create thick black smoke. Now the black smoke was billowing again from the villages around Shingal as Islamic State soldiers were in retreat.
On November 12, Vager Saadullah, a freelance journalist with an MA in international relations, was with a long convoy of vehicles waiting for the orders to move forward. He photographed the surroundings. Parched rocky terrain, with not a tree in sight. Northern Iraq this time of year has light, sunny blue skies, but temperatures rise to only around 18º.
IN JUNE 2014, Islamic State claimed an unprecedented victory when it swept through northern Iraq, taking control of the large cities of Mosul and Tel Afar. The Iraqi army collapsed in these areas. The world was shocked. “How did 800 ISIS fighters rout two Iraqi divisions?” wondered an article in the US Army Times.
In August, moving along Route 47 which leads from the Syrian border to Mosul, the Islamists laid siege to the Yezidi (in Kurdish: Ezidi) city of Shingal (Sinjar). This sleepy, tarred road which cuts a straight line through boring, undulating plains became a highway of death for minorities.
The Yezidis are an ancient religion with deep origins in the region. Centuries of persecution have caused them to dwindle to a small minority of several hundred thousand in Iraq.
Terrorists had targeted them before, especially in 2007 when bombings in Khataniya killed more than 300 people. But August 2014 was different. As the Iraqi Army melted away and local Kurdish forces retreated from the Islamic State attack, the Yezidis were at the mercy of the extremists.
It was never clear to me how this whole genocide had transpired. Mosul had been captured before the tragedy unfolded in Sinjar. The Yezidis had seen the black flag before, they knew about Islamist extremism. They had not fled from ISIS it seems. Much is still not known about this mass killing, this enslavement of thousands of women. Mass graves have been uncovered since last year even. ISIS also blew up ancient shrines of the the religion. Buses collected the women and transported them to Iraq for sale. But some claimed they were “purchased” by local people that they knew. They were dehumanized and given new names. Their rapists prayed before they raped them.
While the world did try to provide some limited support on Mount Shingal, in general they were abandoned. There is still a dispute about whether they were abandoned, and also about who was responsible for carving a corridor out of Shingal for their escape.
Let’s go back to August, 2014 now:
The neighboring Kurds felt the trauma of the Yezidis, as Islamic State rolled over their Peshmerga forces. Yet by late August the battlefield had stabilized and the Kurds were able to regain areas north of the Shingal mountains, while Islamic State held on to Route 47 and the ghost town of Shingal.
The Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil set its sights on Shingal in January. “There is still more Kurdish land under ISIS,” Seyid Hejar, the deputy commander of the Zeravani Peshmerga, told reporters.
Two thousand five hundred kilometers of land along the Syrian border had been liberated from Islamic State by the Kurds, but there would be more. In late July of this year, Mustafa Sayed Qadir, the KRG’s minister of Peshmerga, told Rudaw news agency that the plan was to retake Shingal.
BUT BUDGET problems and disputes seemed to hamper the promised offensive. With a factious political system, the Kurds nonetheless became united in 2014 and 2015 because of Islamic State. In October, when long lines of Peshmerga military vehicles and trucks packed with men began to weave their way north toward the Shingal mountains, all factions were on the same page.
At the same time, Kurdish groups associated more with Syria – such as the YPG and the PKK, which has been involved in clashes with Turkish forces – intended to play their part. They had helped carve a corridor through Islamic State lines in 2014 and rescue Yezidis, and they would be on the field again in November 2015.
“For KRG – the policy-makers – they wanted to take back Shingal,” explains Saadullah. “It was very important to take it and liberate it. It is a strategic position that links [Islamic State capital in Syria] Raqqa and the Mosul area.
“And there are more than 300,000 Ezidis in displaced persons camps. This is a big burden – to manage those camps and to take care of their facilities and to give them all kinds of support so they can survive in this coming winter.”
Many Yezidis had joined a Yezidi Peshmerga force commanded by Qassim Shashou. The round-faced Shashou sports a large mustache and bulky uniform. “He fought against the Saddam [Hussein] regime in the 1970s and 1980s and is well known in Kurdish culture as a hero. They sing songs about him,” recalls Saadullah. Saadullah argues that the perception that the Yezidis are just victims and not fighters is wrong. [This has also been a point of contention because some Yezidis are training with the PKK and there seems to be some dispute about whether Sinjar would become a more independent Yezidi area, or totally under the KRG.]
“They are fighting,” Saadullah remarks as he recounts the 1,000 Yezidi fighters who had joined the offensive. “It was a very great step in order to get back those refugees before the winter.” Photos showed them flashing the peace sign, resplendent in red keffiyehs and fatigues. Some of the older men sported flowing beards.
ON SEPTEMBER 12, Major General Seme Busal surveyed Islamic State-held Shingal. “Peshmerga troops are holding their positions, waiting for reinforcements and more air strikes so they can move into the center of the town.” Strategically, the Kurds were in a perfect position, sitting in the nooks and hillocks of the Shingal mountains which rise 1,400 meters over the plains below.
The mountains, stretching 100 km. east to west, look like a kind of long anvil from above, tapering to points on both ends. Below them is Shingal, Route 47, and all the villages the Peshmerga wanted to liberate. These Peshmerga troops and their Yezidi allies had been beaten upon this anvil in 2014.
The writer Victor Davis Hanson argues that such traumas are common in liberation forces. “The great military strength of such open and free societies is less well known: the dramatic manner in which we can mobilize people in a tremendous retaliatory crusade for a just cause.”
The Peshmerga coordinated closely with the American military and its coalition allies, some of whom were on Mount Shingal with the Kurds, according to US Army Col. Steve Warren’s statements.
But the actual conquest was not the major battle anyone might have thought it would be. With 10 killed and 50 wounded, the Peshmerga seemed surprised by the ease of their victory. “They cannot stand, they are just fleeing,” Peshmerga fighters complained to Saadullah. “The volunteers who had come to fight were angry they couldn’t kill Islamic State [soldiers] before they ran.” Murad Ismael, who was monitoring their communications, claimed they had threatened to execute their own men for fleeing along the highway toward Mosul. Peshmerga, armed with MILAN anti-armor missiles, with dozens of Humvees and light armored vehicles, rolled into Shingal and the flat dry plains around it.
Much preparation had gone into this. The road from Shingal had already been cut. Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani congratulated the fighters for the swift liberation. He paid tribute to the Yezidis and offered condolences to the families of the Peshmerga who had fallen. “I express my utmost appreciation for the government and the people of the United States for their vital support to the Peshmergas during the Sinjar liberation operation. We, as the people of Kurdistan Region, are also grateful for the contributions of the Counter-ISIS Coalition members as well as our neighboring countries and our friends in the international community for supporting our region in combating the ISIS terrorists and preserving stability and peaceful coexistence in Kurdistan…The liberation of Sinjar is very important to the people of Kurdistan and the civilized world. The ISIS terrorists have committed grave crimes in Syria and Iraq, but the most barbaric and heinous crimes were committed in Sinjar. ISIS committed another Anfal [the Saddam gassing of the Kurds] against Kurds in Sinjar. Hundreds of Yezidi women and girls were kidnapped… The Kurdistan Regional Government will also continue its efforts to gain international recognition for the crimes committed against Yezidi Kurds as acts of genocide.”
As a final signal of victory a 60-meter by 100-meter Kurdish flag was raised over a silo in Shingal. Many in the West see in the Kurdish victories a surprising light.
It remains to be seen what the next step will be. IEDs have to be found, months of work to clear the rubble and remove TNT and booby-traps. People are still dying from the long lasting affects of ISIS. Will Yezidis return? People complain that the actions of ISIS have “harmed” relations between Yezidis and Sunnis in the city, and claimed Yezidis “looted” homes when they came back. It seems those who cheered ISIS are now playing victim.
Mass graves must be unearthed and a catalogue of the genocide created.
What about the push towards Tel Afar and Mosul? The swift conquest of Sinjar seems to have set in motion some clashes and comments by Shia militias in Tuz Khurmata. The Shia are claiming that Mosul is for them, that the KRG is taking over parts of “Iraq.”
The liberation of Shingal was an important symbolic victory. Strategically it is not clear what will become of it.