August is a solemn month for the Yezidi community of Iraq’s Sinjar province. On August 3, 2014, ISIS advanced into the area in an attempt to eradicate the Yezidi people altogether. Men and older women were killed, younger women and girls were forced into sexual slavery, and boys were forced to become ISIS fighters. Those who managed to escape were trapped on Mount Sinjar for days with little food or water. To this day, many Yezidis displaced then are unable to return to their homes, and many captive women and children remain missing.
Yet this August, the Yezidis who survived genocide seven years ago were unable to mourn in peace. On Monday, August 16, as the world was preoccupied with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Turkey assassinated a respected Yezidi military commander, Said Hassan Said, while he was on his way to meet with Iraq’s Prime Minister in Sinjar. And on Tuesday, Turkish warplanes repeatedly bombed a hospital in the village of Sikeniye, killing four wounded Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) fighters receiving treatment there and four healthcare workers.
These strikes are part of a pattern of Turkish attacks in the region going back to 2017, just over a year after Sinjar was liberated from ISIS control. While Turkey never fought ISIS in Iraq, they continue to threaten the community more impacted by ISIS atrocities than any other — leaving many on the ground wondering if NATO’s second largest army seeks to finish what ISIS started.
Turkey’s justification for attacks on Sinjar is the supposed presence of the PKK — an armed Kurdish group fighting for democracy, Kurdish rights and decentralization in Turkey.
The PKK has indeed played an important role in Sinjar’s recent history. They were the first armed force to respond to ISIS attacks in 2014, with their top military commander announcing intervention the night of August 4, days before Coalition airstrikes began. The group’s humanitarian mission there ultimately broke the ISIS siege on Mount Sinjar and allowed tens of thousands of Yezidi civilians to flee to Syria, where the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) guaranteed safe passage and the Democratic Autonomous Administration set up refugee camps.
They remained in the region for the next several years, helping liberate Sinjar from ISIS and training local Yezidis to form their own armed forces. This was something no other actor in Iraq would do. The Kurdistan Regional Government had notably left the Yezidi population disarmed to face the ISIS advance, and its military personnel fled the province in the days before the attack. Iraq’s central government had neglected the Yezidis as well.
The PKK also spread the political principles at the heart of their struggle: self-determination and women’s liberation. Many Yezidi women took up arms and joined the YJŞ, an all-women’s branch of the YBŞ supported by the female fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s military wing of the PKK, and YPJ. A civil government, the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Administration, was founded in 2015, based on the grassroots democratic confederalist model being implemented in northern Syria at the same time.
In early 2018, the PKK withdrew its armed forces upon request from Sinjar’s population. What remains there today are the YBŞ, YJŞ, and the Democratic Autonomous Administration — all institutions made up of local Yezidis seeking to govern and defend themselves.
While they benefited from the PKK’s military support and share its political philosophy, they have no interest in fighting the Turkish government. They demand peace, democracy and coexistence in Sinjar, and the basic assurance that nothing like the ISIS assault will ever happen again. Their call for autonomy is in line with Iraqi law, and their armed forces have been, to some degree, integrated into Iraqi structures.
The real reason why Turkey targets the organized Yezidis of Sinjar is because they have a blueprint for democracy, self-determination and survival — and a tenuous but real chance of putting it into practice.
Preventing minorities from gaining political power and security has been a primary goal of Turkish policy in Iraq and Syria since new conflicts in the region began in 2011, fueled by far-right nationalism and growing Islamist sentiment. Here, Turkey found a shared interest with ISIS: many of the ethnic and religious communities that the terror group massacred and persecuted have faced similar atrocities hands of the Turkish state and the Ottoman Empire before it.
Yezidis were no exception: most who once lived within the borders of modern Turkey have long since fled abroad. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thus saw no need to stop jihadists from doing in Iraq what Ottoman and Turkish oppression had done in Turkey long before. Instead, while ISIS committed genocide in Sinjar, Turkey allowed foreign ISIS recruits to pour through its borders and stifled international efforts to begin a military campaign against the group.
Turkish military activity in Sinjar only began well after ISIS was defeated. In April 2017, they bombed the area for the first time, striking Yezidi and Kurdish military positions and a local Yezidi radio station.
Subsequent attacks there have targeted leading figures in the PKK and YBŞ’ fight to liberate the region from ISIS. In August 2018, Yezidi Society Coordination and KCK Executive Council member Zeki Shengali was assassinated while returning from a commemoration for the victims of the ISIS massacre in Kocho. A Yezidi from Turkey who had joined the PKK in the 1980s, he went to Sinjar after the genocide to help defend the area and rebuild civilian government. In January 2020, YBŞ commander Zerdesht Shengali, who fought in key battles against ISIS since 2015, was killed alongside three other YBŞ fighters in another Turkish strike.
PKK commanders who led the group’s counter-ISIS efforts in Sinjar and since went on to fight elsewhere have also been targeted. Agit Civyan, responsible for PKK forces in Sinjar during the fight against ISIS, and Dilsher Herekol, who led his unit of just 12 men into Sinjar in August 2014 to begin the rescue operation, were both killed in combat in Turkey in late 2020.
Turkey has not confined its attacks on Yezidis and the people who defended them to the military field. Erdoğan is an enthusiastic supporter of an October 2020 agreement between the KRG and the Iraqi central government which, as written, would dissolve the Democratic Autonomous Administration and disarm the YBŞ and YJŞ.
The agreement does not address the failures of both governments that led to the events of 2014, and no Yezidis were at the table when it was made. It is likely that Turkish officials had more of a say in its provisions than the populations it would impact did. Despite this, it has won praise from the US and from UN bodies, none of which engage with local Yezidi-led structures.
Taken together, these actions suggest that Turkey wants to see Sinjar vulnerable, undefended, and politically disempowered — just as it was on the eve of the ISIS assault. The international community appears all too willing to support them.
While the United Nations, the European Union and the United States have recognized ISIS atrocities against the Yezidi people as a genocide, they remain silent when Turkey bombs the survivors. This week has been no exception: as desperate civilians worked late into the night to pull bodies from the rubble of the Sikeniye hospital, not one foreign government had so much as condemned the attacks.
When the United States did make a statement, they said only that they were “aware of the press reports concerning the Turkish operations in northern Iraq” and called on Turkey to respect Iraqi sovereignty. This was a weak condemnation, but a perfect summary of the international indifference that the victims of Turkish war crimes face.
The Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Administration knows exactly who has put them in danger. “We would like to state here that the attacks of the past two days are a new link in the chain of genocide in Shengal. These are not everyday attacks,” they said in a statement Wednesday morning. “We know exactly what the enemies of Yezidism are aiming at and what message they are supposed to send out.”
“The basis for this is the agreement of October 9, 2020 concluded between Iraq, the KDP, and the Turkish state. Our people have called this agreement an understanding of genocide from the very beginning, and with vehement opposition have declared it invalid,” they continued.
At the same time, they promised to stand firm against future threats. “Sinjar will not surrender, but will resist and liberate itself.”
In this, the people of Sinjar deserve nothing less than worldwide support. Many governments and institutions are complicit in Turkey’s attacks on Yezidis. Solidarity with genocide survivors fighting to stand back up on their feet and determine their own fate must be just as global.
Citizens of Western countries allied with Turkey must call on their governments to end support for the Erdoğan regime’s endless wars, and instead demand solutions based on peace and democracy. Legitimate local demands for recognition and autonomy put forward by the people of Sinjar should be elevated. If we want “never again” to be more than a platitude, we must ensure that Turkey is not allowed to target the survivors of ISIS crimes — and that the Yezidi people are free to build their future in their historic homeland without the looming threat of further atrocities.