The National – 18 december 2014
Kurdish forces have launched an offensive to recapture the Sinjar area in northern Iraq that was overrun by ISIL earlier this year. On a recent visit to Mount Sinjar The National met with the fighters from the patchwork of armed groups preparing to take on the militants.
MOUNT SINJAR, IRAQ // High on this moutain in northern Iraq, the two powerhouses of Kurdish politics recently squabbled over who is doing the most to save the mountain from ISIL.
In one camp were politicians and fighters loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), the ruling party in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.
Just a stone’s throw away were their rivals from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), known for its decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government and now involved in the battle to drive back the Islamist extremists who surround the base of the mountain.
Four months on from ISIL’s assault on the town of Sinjar, which sent thousands of mostly Yazidi people fleeing on to the nearby mountain, Kurdish forces on Wednesday finally launched a counter attack.
Eight areas were recaptured in the initial phase of the offensive, Kurdish officers said, and about 80 ISIL fighters were killed.
Some believe the offensive was delayed, in part, due to political battle lines dividing the many Kurdish and tribal groups that based themselves on Mountain Sinjar after it was besieged.
Sinjar town, at the base of the mountain, holds vital strategic importance. Highway 47, which connects Mosul in Iraq to Hassakeh province in eastern Syria, passes directly through the town. The road is the most efficient route for ISIL’s military and commercial interests between the cities it holds in the two countries.
Yet despite this opportunity to break such a vital ISIL supply line, the situation around Sinjar had changed little since the images of fleeing Yazidi families shocked the world in August.
The Iraqi Kurdish government’s peshmerga forces have in the build-up to their new offensive focused their energies on towns farther north, in particular Zumar and the border town of Rabia, leading to a waiting game for those stationed on Sinjar.
The government’s brains trust tasked with driving back ISIL recently sat in a circle of brightly coloured lawn chairs at a camp on top of the mountain.
Beneath several banners of the PDK and its military force, party officials sipped tea and held court with local tribal leaders coming to beg for new weapons.
Gen Ashty Kojar, a short, chubby man with a patchy beard and a field cap, wandered into the camp. The leader of the peshmerga, gen Kojar had been atop the mountain for three months, waiting for orders to attack the town below. He said his men made up only 500 out of a total of 1,900 fighters from several different groups on and around the mountain. “We protect the families,” he added quickly.
Not far from the yellow and orange PDK flags stewed the head of the PKK’s military wing on Mount Sinjar who goes only by his nickname, Agid, meaning “hero” in Kurdish.
The 22-year-veteran of the PKK scoffed at the 500 fighters Gen Kojar claimed he had. “Even if the PDK are here with 10,000 men, they haven’t shot a single bullet,” said Agid. “They came here just to eat.” Agid said there were no more than 300 PDK fighters on the mountain.
The primary goal of the PDK force atop Sinjar had never been front-line action, but aid, protection of families and weapons distribution to the tribal fighters.
The biggest recipient of these weapons was Sheikh Qassem Shasho of the Juana Yazidi tribal collective, which had a force of no more than 300.
Sheikh Shasho said the seven heavy machine guns, and the handful of 2002-vintage RPGs, mortars and sniper rifles he had received were far too little to take on ISIL. He only received the weapons, he said, after directly contacting the PDK’s leader, Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurds’ regional governement.
Unlike Sheikh Shasho, other Yazidi tribal groups receiving weapons were not working by themselves. More often than not, they worked directly with fighters from the PKK and its new offshoot, the Sinjar Resistance Units.
One of those fighters was Mamo, a cheerful old man who has spent 15 years in the PKK. The right side of his body was burnt and riddled with shrapnel. He was disarming an explosive device in the Solagh area on the south side of Mount Sinjar when he accidentally hit one of the trip wires.
Nonetheless Mamo was cheerful. He claimed he has killed more than 50 ISIL fighters in the months since the PKK got involved in the fight against the group. He showed off his coat: a souvenir from one of his kills.
“I am asymmetrical,” he said with a smile. His fellow PKK fighters nodded in agreement.
The PKK’s fighters are first and foremost guerrilla fighters who focus much of their efforts on raids and ambushes, in many cases under the cover of night. The PDK, however, is a more regular military.
“The battle here with ISIL is harder than with the Turkish army,” said Mamo, “because ISIL fights like we do. They fight like guerrillas.”
Part of the PKK’s strategy to turn the tide was to franchise their group by training militants to form the Sinjar Resistance Units. This allowed them to have small units on fronts all across the mountain.
For the most part, the PKK had good relationships with the local tribal fighters as well.
At one front in an area called Kazl Khant, just west of Sinjar town, The National witnessed an Iranian PKK fighter leading a unit of 11 PKK and Yazidi fighters alongside a mixed Iraqi tribal group of 20 fighters. They claimed to have all worked together in a series of night raids against ISIL along Highway 47.
The situation on the mountain has been precarious, in the months building up to the new offensive.
On the north side, ISIL had managed to close off the corridor between Sinjar and Syrian Kurdistan in late September, cutting off access for fighters from Syrian Kurdistan’s Popular Protection Units.
That left Iraqi army helicopters as the only reliable supply line between Mount Sinjar and the outside world.
The PKK have clearly been making a play for longevity and influence in the area against the PDK.
“We won’t make any decisions now. We will ask the Yazidi people [after Sinjar is liberated] and if they want us to stay, we will stay,” Agid had said.
From his lawn chair at a PKK base, he looked down the road at the PDK. “Barzani [the PDK’s leader] can’t tell us to go from here,” he added.
Published by The National