The Kurdish sect whose “potential genocide” at the hands of the Islamic State group prompted President Barack Obama to launch the U.S.-led intervention against the extremist organization last summer is back on front pages around the world. Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Yazidis fled the murderous advance of the militant group formerly known as ISIS, was liberated Thursday by Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, according to Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan national security council.
But that does not mean the Yazidis’ fight is over. Considered by the Sunni members of the Islamic State group to be devil worshipers and religious enemies to be wiped out, even worse than Shiite Muslims, the Yazidis living next door to ISIS’ so-called caliphate are still in danger of destruction by the extremist forces that outnumber them. The saga on Mount Sinjar, where Yazidis said they were abandoned by fellow Kurds to fend for themselves, also highlights the internecine fights that risk pulling apart any future independent Kurdistan.
The Yazidis have formed their own militias, attracting some wealthy people from the Yazidi diaspora to come back and finance the fight, but they say they do not stand a chance against the Islamic State if their Kurdish brethren don’t defend them and the U.S. doesn’t send weapons and consistent airstrike support.
The world “forgot us on the mountain,” said Asam Ibrahim, 37, a Dutch citizen of Yazidi origin who said he had gone back to northern Iraq to battle the Islamic State in August. Ibrahim, who described himself as “a businessman” with no formal military training, said he had been driven to go back and combat the brutality of ISIS.
“I see my people are in danger. They kill my people, and they kill children. They take so many girls, and they sell them like sex slaves,” he said via Skype last month, six days after returning from Sinjar. “I couldn’t stay here and watch it on TV.”
Among the 2,000 people Ibrahim said were fighting on Mount Sinjar at the time, several hundred were from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, based in Turkey, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, based in Syria. However, they included only a few dozen members of the peshmerga, the well-armed and organized militia of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq, the core of what the Kurds consider their homeland.
The bulk of the resistance consisted of Yazidi forces, many of whom used to be soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s army or came from abroad, like the group’s German-Yazidi leader, Qassem Sesho.
Division Among The Kurds
The Yazidis are a small ethno-religious group with roots in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism who believe in a mystical interpretation of the Quran. ISIS considers them the worst of the unbelievers, and calls them Satan worshipers -- a misinterpretation, Ibrahim said, of the name of one of the Yazidi gods. Historically, the Yazidis have been categorized as part of the Iraqi Kurdish population.
When Islamic State group militants launched an attack on the Yazidis Aug. 3, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq assured them there was no need to flee. Having no reason to doubt the KRG, almost everyone remained in their villages, where ISIS members found them asleep and defenseless. The peshmerga forces were “forced to withdraw” that day, and an attack three days later “did not materialize,” according to a United Nations report.
Shortly afterward, the U.S. launched an air campaign against Islamic State group targets, and, at the request of the Iraqi government, made several humanitarian airdrops on Sinjar. As the U.S. mobilized an international coalition to battle ISIS, YPG forces were able to open a “corridor” allowing tens of thousands of Yazidi to flee Sinjar, the U.N. reported. As far as most of the world was concerned, the fight for Sinjar had been won.
A U.S. Special Forces team assessed the situation in Sinjar after the corridor had been opened and “determined that no more humanitarian airdrops were required due to the significant effort throughout by Kurdish Defense Forces and Iraqi Security Forces to evacuate people from Mount Sinjar, the resiliency of the Yazidis who departed on their own, the humanitarian assistance airdrops and the airstrikes,” said Lt. Gary Boucher, a representative of the Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve.
No Weapons From America
However, the Yazidis tell a different story, about 10,000 people -- many of them women and children -- on a mountain where they lacked food, water, medical supplies and shelter, and were defended by a comparatively small force, armed with insufficient weapons.
Most of the Yazidi weapons come from the Iraqi peshmerga, who got them from the Iraqi armed forces, which received them from the U.S., according to a Kurdistan Regional Government official who wished to remain anonymous. However, the peshmerga are fighting their own battles against militants and have very few weapons to spare.
Ibrahim claimed that while he was in Sinjar, the Yazidi fighters received about 100 AK-47s, two rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, and some mortars -- an arsenal vastly overmatched by Islamic State group firepower. International Business Times could not confirm the exact numbers, but was able to verify the types of weapons. The U.S. has not directly supplied any weapons to the Yazidis.
The U.S. Central Command said coalition forces have had an “ongoing” air campaign in the “vicinity of Mount Sinjar” since August, but Ibrahim said he had not seen airstrikes from the coalition planes flying overhead. On one particular intense day of fighting, coalition planes flew overhead while the Yazidi and Kurdish forces battled ISIS on the ground and reportedly communicated airstrike targets to the U.S. Air Force, Ibrahim said. After nearly 10 hours, no bombs had fallen, and the Yazidi suffered losses.
‘No Friends At All’
Loss, Ibrahim said, was part of what brought him to the mountain in the first place. Between the two sides of his family, he said, at least five male relatives were killed, and at least 19 female relatives were taken captive. The girls are still being held by the Islamic State group in a prison in Tel Afar, according to Ibrahim, who met ex-prisoners after they managed to escape.
After Ibrahim heard what happened to his relatives, he and three of his brothers volunteered to go to Sinjar. His sister, Pari Ibrahim, said she left law school at the University of Amsterdam to found the Free Yezidi Foundation, a humanitarian organization that aims to open orphanages and post-trauma centers for Yazidi refugees.
The ordeal may leave a profound rift between Yazidis and Kurds, who share a homeland in the autonomous northern region of Iraq. And it does not bode well for the future of the Yazidi people.
“Prior to the ISIS attack on Mount Sinjar, it’s my understanding that Yazidis thought of themselves as Kurds,” said David Phillips, director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights and senior adviser to the U.S. State Department during the past three administrations. “But because they felt abandoned by the peshmerga, they’re much less likely to identify themselves with the Iraqi Kurds.
“When they’re protected by the Kurds and there’s a sense of loyalty, they’re going to closely identify with the Kurds,” Phillips said. But the Yazidis, on their own, “have no friends at all.”