At the end of January, the Syrian Institute for Human Rights (SIHR) estimated that about 80% of the town had been retaken by the Kurds, with the help of the Coalition’s air strikes. Indeed, according to the US government statistics, 80% of their strikes in Syria since the beginning of winter had been around Kobani (over 270 out of 333). Despite this, at mid-January the US government had not gone back on the statement made last October by John Kerry in Cairo. On that occasion He had said that the Kurdish town was of little importance in US global strategy regarding Syria. Thus the Pentagon’s press secretary, Vice-Admiral John Kirby, in a media statement on 13 January, repeated that his government had not changed its views on the low importance it gave Kobani, except that the waves of ISIS fighters rushing to attack the town were making themselves easy targets for the Coalition. “So long ad they set themselves up we’ll hit them”. (USA Today)
However, regardless of the White House’s attitude regarding the joint defence by the YPG and the Peshmergas, US opinion is showing itself more aware of the symbol represented by this Kurdish resistance, which is alone successfully confronting ISIS in the field. The fact that this symbol has also hurt ISI can be seen by the numerous almost suicidal assaults it has launched against the town.
On 16 January ISIS launched a final attack at four points in the town to break the YPG — an attack that Rahmi Abdel Rahman (SIHR) considered the biggest for over a month (AFP). Four days later, however, the Kurds succeeded not only is repelling ISIS but in seizing a strategic hill overlooking the town, called Mishtenur that enables them to open fire directly on the enemy positions still inside the Kobani. In doing so they killed about forty ISIS militiamen and seized a substantial stock of arms and ammunition. On 25 January a 75 metres long. TEYDEM banner flew above the hill, while the YPG announced that it again controlled the whole town and some villages to the East and south of it. TEYDEM stands for the Movement for a Democratic Society, which is the PYD’s political front.
However, the ISIS militia still hold the immediate surroundings of the town and all the Kobani “canton”, which means that there are still 350 villages to win back, while half of the town is in ruins, leading some journalists to talk of a Pyrrhic victory, especially as some 200,000 refugees are still at Sunuc, on the Turkish side of the border and Turkey is building another camp, with a capacity of 35,000 people — the biggest refugee camp on its soil.
On 21 January, one of the Peshmergas sent by the Iraqi Kurdistan Government lost his life fighting ISIS. Jabbar Yawar, general secretary of the Peshmerga Ministry, officially announced that Zerevan Akrem Abdulmajeed, a member of one of the medical team, had been killed by a sniper.
The total assessment of the human losses and operations was drawn up and announced at a Press conference given by the YPG military command’s spokesman, Shoresh Hassan:
- the Kurdish defence forces have successfully carried out 220 military operations, 98 others were indecisive and 37 suicide attacks were carried out by the YPG.
- the ISIS militia had launched 19 suicide attacks and had lost 3,710 men, the bodies of 316 of them remaining in the hands of the YPG
- the YPG damages 87 vehicles, including 5 Hummers, 2 Panzers and had destroyed 16 armoured vehicles and 18 Duchka machine guns.
- 408 YPG fighters and one Peshmerga lost their lives in the battle for Kobani.
After the retreat of ISIS from Kobani was announced, John Kerry stated, in a markedly spectacular about face, that the Kurds had just won a “strategic” victory against ISIS.
From the ISIS side, Amak, a Press agency located in the part of Syria occupied by ISIS, published an interview with two men described as ISIS fighters, talking about their retreat from Kobani. According to them the main reason for their retreat was the incessant air strikes carried out by the Coalition.
“We recently gradually withdrew from ’Ayn al Islam (meaning “Source of Islam”, a name that ISIS has given to Kobani) because of the heavy air raids and the deaths of a number of our brothers”.
One of the fighters also described the destruction of the town as a “message to Obama”. The other described the air strikes in these terms:
“I swear before God that their planes were incessantly in the air, day and night. They bombed us all through the day and all through the night. They aimed at everything — they even attacked vehicles. They didn’t leave a building standing”.
Alongside this, other fighting took place mid-January, more unexpected by also more sporadic, between the YPG and the Syrian government forces in the “Canton of Jezireh”, at Hassake, a town divided into areas controlled by the YPG and those by the Government forces. These occurred when Syrian soldiers and Baathist militia took over a building that, by agreement between the YPG and the Army, should have remained “demilitarised”. According to the SIHR the YPG arrested 10soldiers and militiamen, while prolonged fighting took place in the town causing 18 casualties — 8 YPG and Asayish and 9 of the regime’s soldiers and militia. The Army also shelled three Kurdish areas in Hassake.
Hassake is divided into Kurdish and mixed quarters and some purely Arab quarters. The Kurdish YPG control the first while the Army and Syrian forces run the second, in accordance with an agreement between the two made in 2012. There are divergent reasons given for these clashes. Some say that the Hassake based Syrian General Mohammed Khaddour, has been trying for the last three months, to close down all the checkpoints manned by the Kurdish YPG and push them out of the town — as he had already done with those manned by the Arab National Defence Forces (a paramilitary militia set up by the government in 2012).
If this is so, it could suggest an attempt by the regular Army to take control of the whole town by expelling all its militia, Kurdish and Arab. These have been clashing to take control, this tending to start an “ethnic cleansing” as between Kurds and Arabs, each being obliged to seek shelter either in North Hassake, with its Kurdish majority or South Hassake with its Arab majority.
For over a year the PYD co-president, Salih Muslim, has been predicting a “sensitive” situation at Hassake that could lead to Kurdo-Arab conflict, as occurred at Sere Kaniye. The difference here id that instead of opposing the Free Syrian Army and the Jihadists, the YPG would here be faced with the Government forces. Unlike the former fighting at Sere Kanuye, both protagonists are threatened and being attacked by ISIS.
Despite an advance slowed down by snipers and booby traps, the Peshmergas announced on 7 January that they had reached the Sinjar town centre. Thus a “source close to the Peshmergas” stated to the daily paper Basnews that, at the time, they controlled “all the town’s strategic points” and were only waiting for orders from the top before cleaning it completely. However, this kind of optimistic statement should be treated with caution becaue, as the paper itself commented, this is the second time that Sinjar Hospital was said to have been “freed”. This kind of street fighting, like trench warfare’s, often takes the form or advances and retreats to the extent that attacks succeed or are repelled. A month to the day after the arrack of 17 December, the Peshmergas had to fight off a 3-hour-long ISIS attack on three sides. A Peshmerga Major, Bahram Arif Yassin, affirmed that the Jihadists had been checked but that fighting was still taking place.
It seem, however, that the Jihadist movements are becoming increasingly slow as explained by Bahram Doski, a Peshmerga commander, to Basnews, remarking that his men were watching their movements and that these were becoming less and less frequent and taking place especially at night, because of the Kurdish watch. “So long as Sinjar’s main road is controlled by the Peshmergas, ISIS is unable to move its positions or to resupply them. They have set up their position inside Sinjar and we are ready to repel any offensive and to attack them as soon as we receive the order to do so”.
At the same time, the Coalition air strikes are targeting ISIS inside e and outside the town of Sinjar while the Peshmergas are besieging their former attackers, acting as snipers in their turn. These air raids, moreover, raise the question of the state the town will be in once cleaner, even if it hasn’t suffered, so far, bombing to the same extent as that at Kobani, which has been half destroyed. The Mayor of Sinjar has recorded the extent of the town’s destruction and has asked the KRG for a budget to rebuild it. “The city is badly damaged because of the fighting between the ISIS militia and the Peshmergas. It needs to be entirely n=renovated after its liberation because of the improvised explosive devices that have been placed in and round almost all the buildings, houses and streets. It will nave to be completely cleaned before the town can live again”. (Basnews).
Water and electricity supplies have to be restored, especially as previously Sinjar was administratively dependent on Mosul and received it electricity from it. At the moment no services are working in the capital of Nineveh and we cannot hope for any return to normal for quite a while. Moreover the Kurdistan regional Government having taken the step of including Sinjar in its borders, it is now Erbil or Dohuk that it will have to supply the town with power.
In addition to a budget entirely devoted to the reconstruction of Sinjar, the Mayor is asking for a Peshmerga unit specially attached to the town and its province — a force that would probably largely consist of local people or Yezidis, like those that ensure the protection of Lalesh or Sheikan.
On 5 January, the Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister, Nêçirvan Barzani, climbed Mount Sinjar and vested the local Yezidi officials as well as the tomb of Sheikh Sharafaddin and the Yezidi “holy places”. He held a Press conference in which he laid out his plans for the future of Sinjar, affirming that his government would do all in its power to restore the basic services that would, henceforth, be provided by Kurdistan and not Mosul. The Prime Minister also announced the formation of commissions to visit the localities of Sinjar and other areas liberated as the Kurdish troops advanced towards Mosul. He promised that the inhabitants would be “compensated as soon as possible” and that his government was determined to make the Yezidi genocide recognised by the international organisations.
On 22 January it was the turn of a Parliamentary delegation to travel to draw up a report on the present situation in the region and its inhabitants. The purpose of this report would be the Erbil government’s plan of reconstruction. The Erbil Parliament also opened an office in Sinjar.
However, the Erbil Parliament is not the only Kurdish authority to take an interest in the future of Sinjar. Although the PKK has denied any attempt to set up a “canton” there, some small pro-PKK Yezidi grouping, some from Syria, have carried out something that is very much like the unilateral proclamation of the 3 Cantons of Rojava. Thus on 4 January a “Popular Assembly” of some 200 people elected a Council of 27 members to take charge of the “destiny of the Yezidis of Sinjar” and the PKK immediately welcomed this election as “an important historic step”.
Understandably the reaction of the KRG leaders was sharp and the Regional Government’s communiqué was not delayed:
“The Sinjar region has gone through some tragic events since it was seized by the terrorist organisation ISIS or the “Islamic State” on 3 August 2014. The people of Kurdistan have felt the mass murder of the Yezidi Kurds and the kidnapping of the Yezidi Kurdish women as a painful tragedy for Kurdistan. Because of these deep sufferings the President of the Kurdistan Region and Commander in Chief of the Peshmerga forces has personally followed and supervised the plans and operations of the Peshmerga forces in this region.
In these difficult circumstances, the Kurdistan Regional Government has made great efforts to rescue and provide assistance to the population of this region as well as trying to free the Yezidi Kurdish women, a number of whom are still be held by ISIS. Moreover, the Kurdistan Regional Government is pursuing its efforts through a special commission to secure an international recognition that the crimes against the Yezidis amount to genocide.
While the KRG Council of Ministers expresses its gratitude to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) for having helped the Peshmerga forces during the ISIS attacks to rescue the Yezidi Kurds in the Sinjar region, we consider the attempt made on 4 January by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to create an administrative council for the Sinjar region to be an illegal action that goes against the Constitution and the laws in force in North Iraq and the Kurdistan region.
The PKK must refrain from interfering in the affairs of the Kurdistan region — such interference is inacceptable. The distress of this wounded region must not be exploited for partisan ends by what is an illegitimate action that would lead to political and administrative chaos.
The Kurdistan Region and Iraq have constitutional and legal institutions. The Yezidi Kurds of the Sinjar region are represented in the Kurdistan Parliament and in the Iraqi Council of Representatives (its Parliament) as well as in the Nineveh Provincial Council. All the measures that will be taken, now or in the future, will be through some legal institutions of Kurdistan or Iraq — not by illegal means or unacceptable interference.
The KRG’s Council of Ministers is trying to help all the parts of Kurdistan — Sinjar like the other regions of Iraqi Kurdistan — in order to improve relations, not to create divisions and tensions. We thus ask the PKK to immediately stop its illegal endeavours in Iraqi Kurdistan. We hereby wish too reaffirm the statements made by the Yezidi Kurdish dignitaries and religious leaders as well as other Yezidi Kurdish public figures, that this interference will lead to a deterioration of the situation in Sinjar. Those who will be most adversely affected will be the populations of Kurdistan in general and of Sinjar and its neighbouring regions in particular. Consequently such attempts must cease.
The Peshmerga forces are at the regaining complete control of the whole Sinjar region. The KRG will continue it efforts to help and rebuild this well-loved region and well succeed in this objective in concert with the Iraqi Federal Government.
The KRG’s Council of Ministers is at present examining the proposal asking for the creation of a Sinjar Governorate. This will be discussed with the Iraqi Federal Government on a legal and Constitutional basis. The Nineveh Provincial Council will be kept informed of the progress of these discussions.
The KRG Council of Ministers, 17 January 2015.
If the KRG refers to the Iraqi Constitution, it is because Sinjar in one of the areas covered by its Article 140, which provides for a referendum of the regions removed by Saddam Hussein from Kurdish Provinces. While it is true that in June, when the Peshmergas deployed in these areas, Masud Barzani considered that the referendum had become invalid (indeed, the Constitutional deadline for holding the referendum had expired in November 2007). In any case, the Iraqi Constitution also provides for the possibility of Provinces forming autonomous Regions, like that of Kurdistan or of joining an existing Region. All that was needed was for a request to me made by 2/3 of the Provincial Council or a tenth of the electors. There was, therefore, no need to amend the constitution for Kirkuk, Makhmur or Sinjar to join the Kurdistan region. Moreover, in the field, Baghdad was no longer able to militarily restore the pre-2014 situation regarding the Kurdish areas. However, Masud Barzani’s policy had always been one of extreme caution regarding any advance towards autonomy or independence since the 1992 elections and of making every effort to find a legal framework for his actions. He always tried to ensure his right on the issue and either the agreement (or least the absence of a categorical rejection) not so much of Baghdad but of the International powers to avoid a diplomatic isolation that might lose Kurdistan’s political gains. This is the diplomatic and institutional weakness of the “Rojava cantons” that have no legal existence apart from the PTD proclamations.
The liberation of Sinjar will depend, above all, of ISIS’s withdrawal from the region if its fighters find themselves increasingly cut off from reinforcements from Mosul. As for the future of Sinjar, its future in Iraq’s Mosul Province is inconceivable. That Province’s population is predominantly Sunni Arab and many of them have collaborated with ISIS to exterminate or kidnap the Yezidis and this is unlikely to change and create a peaceful situation in which the Yezidis live.
Nor would linking Sinjar directly to Baghdad work as Baghdad has lost any authority over the Sunni Arab provinces that cut it off from the North especially as the Shiite-Sunni conflict shows no signs of easing. Quite apart from patriotic attitudes of Kurdish and Yezidi public opinion, the integration of Sinjar into Kurdistan is the only solution for the security of the region and its inhabitants. It would also re-unite the three major Yezidi homelands of the “Yezidi country”, Sinjar, Lalesh and Sheikhan within common borders.
On 8 January the Iraqi Central Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government signed an agreement of military cooperation so that their respective forces, the Peshmergas and the Iraqi Army, could co-ordinate against the ISIS militia. According to sources close to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence and the VOA news Agency, Baghdad has accepted to provide the Kurdish fighters with arms and ammunition — which the Iraqis have refused to do especially since their loss, in June of their Sunni Arab territories to ISIS and the Kurdish areas to the KRG.
On 22 January, the Peshmergas launched a major offensive towards Mosul and Tel Afar with the aim of cutting the lines of communication between these two towns, held by ISIS. Their advance was backed by several air strikes from Coalition forces, aimed at vehicles, Jihadist fighting units and their heavy weaponry and a bridge. The Kurdish advance was fairly rapid and two days later, on the 24th, their first rockets began to fall on Mosul, with the Peshmergas only about twenty Km away. The air strikes had not been directed at the city but only the surrounding areas, to limit civilian casualties.
Round Tel Afar, several localities, small towns and villages, were taken by the Peshmergas and a vital junction point for communications with Mosul, thus preventing the Jihadists from transporting arms, food and reinforcements to defend the “Islamic State’s capital”. Brigadier General Bahjat Taymes also indicated that capturing this road would protect the Mosul dam. As they withdraw, the Jihadists destroyed several bridges and power lines to slow the Kurdish advance. As they advance, the Peshmergas take care to strengthen their defences with trenches, sandbags and banking to cover their rear and avoid any hit and run attacks in this hostile area.
The Sunni Arab localities that are outside the Kurdish regions are not intended to be permanently defended by the Peshmergas and the Kurds hope to withdraw as soon as the Iraqi Army has linked up with them. The Kurdish government hopes to avoid being involved in the inter-Arab conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, which they consider none of their business. The population of Tel Afar, moreover, see the Peshmergas arrival with mixed feelings — relieved at the departure of the ISIS forces that they had, at first, welcomed as liberators before becoming disillusioned, they nevertheless fear “reprisals” from the Kurds for their collaboration with ISIS. For their side, the Kurdish troops are wary of pro-ISIS units, infiltrated amongst the population, which could indicate their positions to the enemy. A Peshmerga Colonel told AP the perhaps “ten percent” of the inhabitants of Eski-Mosul were still loyal to ISIS and that it was essential to identify them to ensure the security of operations. However, there have been no acts of violence by Kurdish troops to the Sunni Arabs have taken place — whereas evidence from reporters and Human Rights NGOs condemn the Shiite militia who have been involved in several massacres of Sunni Arabs in Northern Iraq.
The military and security situation was tense and bloody this month both because of the growing hostility between the Shiite militia and the Peshmergas and of the conventional attacks by ISIS. Following the collapse of the regular Iraqi Army at Mosul last June, Nuri Maliki, at that time still Prime Minister, had armed and encouraged the recruitment of sectarian para-military militia to try and stop ISIS’s advance and to win back the Sunni Arab areas since he had no confidence in either the regular Army for this. The deploying of these militia in Kirkuk was supposed to provide military support for the Iraqi and Kurdish troops defending the province against ISIS. However their presence and their heavy weaponry led the latter to fear a threat to Kirkuk and its own troops should Baghdad feel like re-imposing its control over the province.
By the beginning of the year the number of these militiamen had reached 8,000 and Falh Fayaz, an advisor of the Iraqi National Police announced, during a visit to Kirkuk, an increase of their number as well as the formation of a local National Guard unit, but commanded by the Iraqi Defence Ministry — which the Kurds rejected. Some Shiite militia have been responsible of real acts of war grimes on a par with those committed by ISIS, such as massacres of Sunni Arab civilians and arbitrary kidnappings.
On 2 January, some Peshmergas arrested a 9 strong group of Shiite militia to the South of Kirkuk, at the Dubz checkpoint as they were transporting six “prisoners”, one of which was a Kurd. The Kurdish information services identified these captives as people who had been reported “missing” since September. A week after Fahl Fayadh’s visit, the Iraqi government announced the formation of three brigades of Shiite militia, directly commanded by the Prime Minister, Hayder Al Abadi, which recalled the bad old days when Maliki also held the Posts of Minister of Defence and of the Police.
Baghdad’s avowed objective is to form a total of six brigades of National Guards in Kirkuk that would include all the Province’s ethnic communities: the Kurds, the Arabs and the Turkmen would each make up 32% of the troops. However the Kurds demanded that these brigades should operate solely under the command of the Peshmergas while the Arab tribal militia wished to answer to the Iraqi Defence Ministry.
Alongside these tensions, the heaviest losses incurred by the Kurds were due to ISIS. In the night of 10 January, an ISIS force carried out a surprise attack in the region of Gwer, 40 Km from Erbil, killing 26 Assayish (Kurdistan Police) and some Peshmergas. The ISIS fighters crossed the Zab using boats under cover of a mist. They attacked the Kurds for over an hour before being repelled. Brigadier General Hejar Ismaïl stated that nearly 200 corpes of ISIS fighters were left behind. According to Shafaq News Agency the ISIS wounded were take by their men to Mosul Hospital and the inhabitants were obliged to donate blood for them. In withdrawing the ISIS unit took 8 prisoners with them. According to the Peshmerga command the attacking force was some 550 strong.
Finally, on 30 January, an ISIS suicide attack caused the death of several Peshmergas, including a senior office, Brigadier General Fatih Shwani. A car bomb first of all exploded near the Police Headquarters in the town centre, causing 5 wounded. Then the attackers tried to take up positions on the roof of a hotel before being killed by the Police. Fighting continued at several points in southern quarters of Kirkuk, while a curfew was imposed on the city till all the ISIS fighters had been eliminated.
On 22 January an International Conference took place in London that brought together the Foreign Ministers of 22 countries, to discuss means of fighting against the “Islamic State” (ISIS), and particularly how to prevent the flow of new recruits to the Jihadist ranks and how to cut their reception of financing...
This conference was jointly Chaired by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and the Commonwealth’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Philipp Hammond. The other countries invited were Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Holland, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey.
The fact that only the Iraqis were invited and not representatives of the Kurdistan Government at a time when the Peshmergas were launching their offensive towards Mosul while the Iraqi Army was notable for its absence in the field greatly offended the Kurds. President Masud Barzani expressed his annoyance in an official communiqué:
“The London Conference to oppose the ISIS terrorist group is taking place at a time when Kurdistan is leading the struggle against this terrorist organisation, and when our brave Peshmergas are risking their lives and inflicting heavy defeats on the ISIS terrorists. After the ISIS massacres the Peshmergas sacrificed their lives to protect hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, including people of different ethnic and religious communities. They have liberated wide areas irrespective of the ethnic background of these regions.
We were expecting some expression of respect for the se sacrifices made by the people of Kurdistan and its Peshmergas by inviting a representative of Kurdistan to this event and further similar events. There is no doubt that the most effective forces fighting global terrorism directly and in the field are our Peshmergas. We hereby express our annoyance and that of our people at the organisers of this conference.
It is extremely discouraging to see the People of Kurdistan sacrificing itself while others get the credit. The People of Kurdistan and its brave Peshmergas deserve to be represented at such international meetings, so as to give their points of view. The Kurdistan people is the first victim of this situation and no other party or individual can represent it or speak in its name at such international meetings”.
Questioned on this issue during a Press conference, the US State Department spokesman, Jen Psaki, answered that the Iraqi Prime Minister, who was present in London, represented “all the Iraqis, including the Kurds, who were part of Iraq”.
“We have enormous respect for the courage that the Kurds have shown and the splendid struggle they have conducted to recover land from ISIS. We have seen, in the last few weeks, consistent and continuing gains being made by the Iraqi forces, including the Kurdish forces in co-ordination with the Iraqi security forces. The United States and the Coalition have greatly supported these Iraqi Kurdish forces and are continuing to do so (…) London was the occasion for a small group of the Coalition to work directly with the Iraqi Government to identify the areas where we can improve our help and our cooperation, including with the Kurds, while continuing to put pressure on ISIS to put an end to it siege of the Iraqi people. As head of the Government, Prime Minister Abadi represented the Iraqi government at this conference(…). General Allen and Ambassador McGurk have directly met representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government during their travels in Iraq and they will continue to do so”.
As one of the journalist objected: “You well know that Iraq is, basically formed by two states: Baghdad and Kurdistan and that you have worked with the tow of them” independently”; Jen Psaki merely repeated: “They are part of Iraq and Prime Minister Abadi is still the head of the Iraqi Government”.
Hassan Sisawe, the great Kurdish dengbêj, died on 10 January in Shaqlawa Hospital near Erbil at 89 years of age. According to the doctors’ communiqué, his death was the result of a road accident two years previously, from which he had never fully recovered.
Hassan Sisawe was born in a village on Erbil Province in 1928. He has never married, which is rare amongst Kurds, explaining that since he had not succeeded in marrying his beloved, he had decided to remain single. He began his career as a performer of Kurdish maqams (especially Heyran maqams) in the early 60s and rapidly became famous in Erbil Province. Thus he used to sing whole nights through in the main square of villages he visited, surrounded by a large crowd.
Those close to him encouraged him to record his performances on Baghdad’s Kurdish radio and he went to the Iraqi capital with a few friends. There he was welcomed at the radio by the Kurdish singer Ali Merdan, who interviewed and auditioned him himself and allowed him to record live for the first time.
Hassan Sisawe came from a humble background and began as an agricultural labourer along the Hamilton highway. He frequented some of the greatest Kurdish singers: not only Ali Merdan but also Hassan Zirek, Taher Towfiq and Rassoul Gerdj. Several dozens of his maqams have been recorded — some based on traditional folklore, others that he had composed himself.