An Iraqi-Kurdish Conflict Casts Doubt on the “Shia Crescent” Theory

An alliance between Kurdish leftists and Iraqi militias shows why it’s dangerous to overestimate Iran’s role in the so-called “Shia crescent.”

Yezidi YBŞ Resistance Fighter in Shingal

In light of the breakdown of state structures in Iraq and Syria, it’s tempting to try to build narratives that portray entire ethnic groups or sects as pawns of great powers like Iran, as a recent alarmist article in Newsweek does. However, theories like the “Shia crescent” are dangerous because they overstate the level of outside control in local politics. As the current conflict around Mount Sinjar on the Iraq-Syria border demonstrates, the motivations of local actors are far more than an academic curiosity, but critical for the future of the Middle East.

Sinjar, an Iraqi mountain town near the Turkish and Syrian border, has been inhabited for centuries by the indigenous Êzîdî, who practice an ancient religion that has often put them at odds with their neighbors. Especially since the fall of ISIS, outside powers have tried to use persuasion and force to win influence in Sinjar and the strategic mountain range it controls.

The arrival of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in May 2017 has raised alarms with many analysts about a sudden Iranian takeover of the Syria-Iraq border. In reality, local Êzîdî factions have been playing outside powers—from Shia clergy to leftist revolutionaries—against their enemies in a bid to gain autonomy.

Sinjar has become increasingly important in the past few months, as pro-US leader Mesûd Barzanî and his Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) plan to hold an independence referendum in late September. Many areas in Iraq are disputed between the KRG and the central government, and both sides are attempting to consolidate their influence in case the vote succeeds—turning provincial boundaries into international borders.

One of these disputed areas is Sinjar, officially administered by Baghdad but held by KRG troops before the rise of ISIS. Êzîdî who were suspicious of Barzanî’s power thus leaned on Baghdad for support in creating an autonomous polity called Êzîdxan or Ezidkhan. Additionally, sectarian violence occasionally rocked Sinjar, usually due to a Sunni Kurdish and Arab misconception that the Êzîdî worship Lucifer.

ISIS exploited these preexisting tensions when it attacked the region in August 2014. KRG forces abandoned Sinjar, leaving thousands of Êzîdî civilians to be kidnapped, raped or killed by ISIS. “Whether it was a conspiracy or not, the end result was the same,” says Cpt. Bradley Brincka, who worked with the Êzîdî relief organization Yazda and drove ambulances for the Iraqi Army in Mosul, “and the trust between the Yazidis [sic] and KRG is broken forever.”

As thousands of survivors remained trapped at Mount Sinjar’s peak, guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) crossed the border from Turkey along with their left-wing Syrian allies—now part of the Syrian Democratic Forces—to break the siege (the US considers the PKK a terrorist group but supports the Syrian Democratic Forces). During operations over the next year and a half that successfully cleared ISIS from Sinjar, the Êzîdî threw their weight behind two different armed factions.

Both groups share an affiliation with the Popular Mobilization that is difficult to explain for proponents of the “Shia crescent” theory. Kurdish-German expatriate Heydar Shesho’s Ezidkhan Defense Force (HPÊ) was initially armed and trained as part of the Popular Mobilization, but Baghdad ended its support after Shesho was accused of mismanaging funds. Afterwards, a PKK affiliate called the Sinjar Resistance Unit (YBŞ) was put on the Popular Mobilization payroll

Shesho was arrested by the KRG in April 2015 for forming an unauthorized militia, but the HPÊ later pledged allegiance to Barzanî in May 2015. According to Brincka, much of the HPÊ defected to a new PMU called the Lalish Battalion after the May offensive liberated areas south of Sinjar. All of this casts doubt on the characterization of the PMUs as Iranian proxies. After all, Tehran isn’t exactly enthusiastic about PKK affiliates in its own backyard.

The presence of figures such as Abu-Mahdi the Engineer suggest that Iran may be trying to expand its influence around Sinjar. However, because of the wide variety of forces already there, they can only do so by providing better security and autonomy than their competitors. As the alleged mass defections from HPÊ to the Lalish Battalion show, the Êzîdî are willing and able to court different sponsors based on their own interests.

Despite sectarian assertions to the contrary, “the Shia” are not a mindless horde controlled directly by Tehran. Muqtada Sadr, the populist nationalist leader who commands a large portion of the PMUs, has both flirted with and rejected Iranian backing. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose edicts were the impetus for forming the Popular Mobilization, opposes Iranian-style theocracy on theological grounds. Although the Iranian government supports many PMUs, and is seen positively by Iraqi Shia, supporters of Sistani and Sadr are well represented by their own respective PMUs.

In addition to disagreements between Shia, the Sunni Kurdish factions have their own conflict, one that has been dangerously under-reported in foreign media. Barzanî’s forces have kept Sinjar under an economic blockade, occasionally shelling villages and deploying right-wing paramilitaries, in order to reduce the PKK’s influence. Turkey, which fears a repeat of the decades-long PKK insurgency, has supported Barzanî with airstrikes.

Today, Lalish Battalion and other PMUs control the mountain’s south side, but there is little travel or trade between the halves, leaving the north side at the mercy of fighting between KRG forces and YBŞ. “It’s sad in the north,” Brincka says. “The villages look no different than it did the day ISIS destroyed it three years ago.”

While some see Sinjar as another step in “Iran’s road to the sea”—which would have to go through the semi-autonomous, left-wing cantons of northern Syria—the opening of a Baghdad-Sinjar land route is an opportunity to re-establish Iraqi sovereignty over the mountain. Some locals seem to welcome it as a respite from the PKK-Barzanî conflict.

In other areas disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, similar dynamics are taking place. Given allegations that the KRG deliberately disarmed Assyrian Christians in Nineveh ahead of ISIS attacks, and that the KRG continues to interfere in Nineveh’s local politics ahead of the September referendum, many Assyrians have formed a PMU called the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit. Indeed, many Assyrians want to integrate their own homeland of Nineveh into an autonomous Sinjar/Ezidkhan.

The lynchpin of the alliance between “Shia” forces and minorities like the Êzîdî Assyrians is a “Sunni Arab tribe.” Shammar, an influential family with branches across the region, is represented in Iraq by a PMU called Nawadir al-Shammar. Men in the proudly Arab, Sunni-majority clan have been fighting and dying alongside the YBŞ and other PMUs. If this isn’t complicated enough, there is also a Shammar militia in Syria called al-Sanadid that participates in the Syrian Democratic Forces and carries banners of PKK founder Abdüllah Öcalan into battle.

So it would seem that the alliance structure in Sinjar crosses sectarian and ethnic lines while linking powers traditionally seen as enemies. Local groups like the YBŞ and HPÊ may lean on outside patronage for furthering their goals, but are ultimately seeking security and dignity over any grand ideological project. The differing approaches of Baghdad and Erbil show how far a nuanced, sober view of how local politics can go.

Image courtesy of KurdishStruggle. 

Matthew Petti

About Matthew Petti

Matthew Petti is an undergraduate junior at Columbia University studying Middle Eastern history and languages. His work has been published in The National Interest, Reason Magazine and the Columbia Political Review. Find him on Twitter: @matthew_petti.

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