Lessons from the Liberation of Sinjar
The U.S.-led coalition’s recent offensive in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain, supported by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, represents a much-needed tactical victory against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The successful combination of Operation Inherent Resolve’s precision airstrikes, intelligence, and advise-and-assist support to over 7,500 Kurdish and Yezidi forces from Iraq, Turkey, and Syria effectively expelled ISIL from Sinjar and allowed Kurds to seize parts of the strategically important Highway 47 between Mosul and Raqqah — a supply and transportation route to Syria that ISIL depended upon. ISIL territorial losses in Ninewah have also helped facilitate the gradual return of persecuted local populations, including the Yezidis, to their homes.
Still, tactical gains in Sinjar do not translate into a strategic victory over ISIL. While reinforcing the coalition–Kurdish alliance, the Sinjar offensive has exposed the deep divisions within the Kurdish camp, and the limitations of future Peshmerga engagements outside their claimed territories. Nor has reclaiming Sinjar enhanced Sunni Arab support for this war — requisite for effectively countering ISIL in Iraq and Syria. In some ways, the Sinjar aftermath has done just the opposite by reinforcing the ethno-sectarian conflicts into which ISIL has been superimposed. If the coalition wants to gain real momentum in countering ISIL in strategically significant strongholds such as Mosul and Raqqah, then it must pay closer attention to the second- and third-order consequences of its campaign on the local balance of power between ethnic and sectarian groups, particularly in Iraq’s disputed territories and where Sunni Arab support is vital.
A deeper look into the Sinjar offensive challenges assumptions about Kurdish capabilities and momentum toward Mosul. The Kurds did not expel ISIL and gain territories from a position of strength, but rather, from one of weakness. The Sinjar offensive was unlike offensives in southern Baghdad, where Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and popular mobilization units (PMUs), or Shi’a militias, expelled ISIL with concentrated force but minimal airpower. At Sinjar, heavy coalition airstrikes, alongside ground support from Kurdish forces from Turkey and Syria, as well as Yezidi fighters, neutralized ISIL in the months before the actual liberation maneuver was launched. It was this combination of force, and not the presence of any single Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga faction, that led to an ISIL retreat (or, as some say, a mere tactical withdrawal) without a lengthy urban battle.
Sinjar highlights another key problem: The Kurds remain deeply divided. Kurdish divisions have prevented the creation of a unified command structure, the even distribution of weapons among rival Peshmerga forces, and more timely operations to push back ISIL. The Sinjar offensive was delayed for a year due to intra-Kurdish struggles between Ma’sud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the key conduit for coalition support in Erbil, and other Kurdish forces that are seeking to check Barzani’s power. These include Jelal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and local Yezidi (Shingal) Protection Units.
These divisions will continue to undermine local and regional stability long after Sinjar’s liberation. They are inseparable from the trans-border Turkish–PKK conflict in southeastern Turkey, which includes Ankara’s bombing campaigns in eastern Syria and PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountains. These tensions also manifest themselves in the larger Kurdish nationalist power struggle — mainly between Barzani and the PKK — where political aims often have little to do with ISIL. For Barzani, controlling Sinjar means extending his authority to the Ninewah Plains and its hydrocarbon resources, re-gaining legitimacy among Yezidi populations abandoned by his KDP forces last year, and burnishing his nationalist credentials. The PKK regards Sinjar as an access point to territories it controls in Syria, a base for their Yezidi supporters, and an opportunity to challenge Barzani’s rule.
Ongoing power struggles in Sinjar also reveal the fundamental ethno-sectarian and territorial tensions at the heart of this complex civil war. Over the past year, coalition operations have unintentionally deepened this conflict and alienated Sunni Arabs by shifting the balance of power in the disputed regions of northern Iraq in the Kurds’ favor. In the absence of local power-sharing arrangements, ISIL territorial losses have essentially become de facto Kurdish gains, at least for now, and have translated into Sunni Arab losses in the disputed regions. These power shifts reinforce the general sentiment among many Iraqi Sunni and Shia Arabs that the Kurds are using the U.S. Air Force to redraw borders under the guise of fighting ISIL.
The absence of Sunni Arab engagement in the Sinjar offensive has reinforced these optics. Despite the fact that Sinjar is a mixed territory, with a strong Yezidi presence surrounded by Sunni Arab and Shi’a Turcoman-populated towns and villages, and lies about 60 miles west of Mosul city, Sunni Arabs willing to fight ISIL were not part of the operation. One important, excluded group was the Sunni Arab Shammar tribe that controls the Rabia border region with Syria, cooperates with Barzani, has a good relationship with the Yezidi, and had hundreds of fighters ready and willing to help liberate Sinjar.
Circumventing Sunni Arab engagement in northern Iraq may help concentrate Kurdish control over Sinjar but it does little to expel ISIL from the strategically important areas around Mount Sinjar. For instance, capturing the Mosul–Raqqah highway impedes ISIL re-supply and transportation, but it probably will not stop its trafficking operations, which can be re-routed through various desert roads surrounding Sinjar. ISIL also still controls outlying Sunni Arab villages about 15 to 20 kilometers from Sinjar, and more importantly, the town of Ba’aj and Mosul city, where attacks against Peshmerga have continued since the Sinjar offensive.
The aftermath of the Sinjar liberation further highlights the gap between tactical and strategic gains. During and after the operation, Kurds and Yezidis marked, ransacked, and burned Sunni Arab homes. Attesting to this retribution, a leading Sunni Arab tribal leader from the Mosul area who is also against ISIL noted that “five Sunni Arab villages in south Sinjar were burned completely, with more than six mosques burned as well.” These retaliatory measures coincided with Ma’sud Barzani’s inflammatory statement that “no flag but the KRG will be permitted in Sinjar” — directly targeting the PKK. He has also proclaimed that Tuz Khormatu, another disputed territory populated by Sunni Arabs and Shi’a Turcoman, is part of Kurdistan, and that the KRG plans to build a trench around Sinjar.
Sinjar’s political fallout has implications for U.S. policy and strategy moving forward. Tactical expediency should not override long-term strategic imperatives. Providing precision-strike capabilities to Kurdish partners, and advising and assisting ground operations, should continue in support of kinetic operations. However, U.S. engagement should equally focus on the second- and third-order consequences of its military support that are undermining its strategic objective of effectively containing, if not defeating, ISIL. Policy and strategic priorities should include the following measures:
Clarify Strategic End-State
While continuing to support local partners militarily, the United States should clearly and consistently affirm its strategic end-state in Iraq: to defeat ISIL and maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq. This aim should be driven by enhanced engagement at the executive level that affirms the U.S.–Iraqi strategic partnership.
Reassess Kurdish Capabilities and Limitations
The Kurds’ priority in this campaign is not to expel ISIL. Rather, it is to remain strategically significant, consolidate control over territories and resources, and maintain long-term coalition support to help protect their expanded borders. These nationalist priorities mean that capturing Sinjar will not necessarily embolden the Kurds to expel ISIL outside areas they consider Kurdish, at least not without Sunni Arabs taking the lead. Washington should recognize these limitations and also focus on the Sunni Arab local partners that can and should liberate ISIL strongholds, in coordination with the Iraqi government.
Influence Local Partners
Sunni Arab grievances are not only tied to a sense of exclusion in Iraq, but to unchecked coalition support that is shifting the balance of power and alienating Sunni Arab groups. The United States should assert greater leverage over its local partners by placing conditions on military support, closely monitoring the delivery of weapons within the Kurdish region, and threatening withdrawal of support when civilians are abused or retaliated against.
Leverage Sunni Arab Engagement
The KRG cannot be a default umbrella organization for Sunni Arab groups willing to fight ISIL in northern Iraq, particularly in liberating Mosul. The Kurds have little interest in developing a strong Sunni Arab force and Sunni Arabs do not want to be governed by the Kurds. U.S. forces should directly train Sunni Arab forces in northern Iraq who are willing to fight ISIL for their own lands in coordination with the Iraq government. In addition, the U.S. military and State Department should mediate between Arab and Kurdish groups, and help negotiate local pacts between Sunni Arab tribal leaders and Baghdad. These pacts, which are already developing in Anbar and elsewhere, should target real local leaders in Sunni Arab communities, and not leaders who are hand-picked by external actors and who lack local support.
Prepare for the Day After ISIL
As ISIL is expelled from its safe-havens, the United States should be engaged in stabilizing ISIL-free territories. Military advisors, alongside other international actors, should be present to act as neutral brokers and help mediate territorial and communal disputes, establish local power-sharing arrangements, reconstruct territories, create economic and commercial opportunities with local and regional actors, and repatriate populations.
Dr. Denise Natali is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She may be contacted at (202) 685-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Follow her on Twitter: @DnataliDC.