As it has been a handful of times during recent periods of conflict in Iraq, remote Mount Sinjar is back in the spotlight. Baghdad deployed troops to the area in northwestern Iraq on March 26, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to launch an offensive in the region to drive out fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Although Turkey is standing down for now, it's not clear whether Ankara will be satisfied to let Iraqi forces hold Sinjar, and the situation could yet go in several different directions.
The Second-Quarter Forecast said that Turkey's efforts in northern Iraq to "deepen its existing operations against Kurdish militants" would risk " sparking conflict with Shiite militia forces allied with Iran." Ankara's attempts to conduct operations in Sinjar against the Kurdistan Workers' Party are part of this endeavor.
An Unlikely Prize to Fight Over
Lacking in natural resources and surrounded by desolate stretches of desert, Sinjar is not a particularly valuable asset. It is, however, a strategic one, for Iraq and Turkey alike. The region, straddling the blurry line between the Kurdistan Regional Government's jurisdiction and that of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, is home to much of Iraq's Yazidi population. The Yazidis, members of a religious minority, are still recovering from the destruction and persecution the Islamic State wrought on them between 2014 and 2017, and remnants of the jihadist group still linger in the deserts south of Sinjar. In fact, it is the terror of the Islamic State's occupation that set the stage for the current standoff in the area between Baghdad and Ankara.
When the Islamic State swept through northern Iraq in 2014, Iraqi and Kurdish militias retreated, leaving the mostly Yazidi local community to fend for itself. Militias with ties to the PKK moved into the area in their stead and began training the Yazidis to fight against the jihadist aggressors. The resulting Yazidi fighting forces — known as Sinjar Resistance Units, or by the Kurdish abbreviation YBS — have not forgotten their betrayal by the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish governments. At the same time, though grateful for the PKK's efforts on their behalf, the Yazidis were also wary of the group's presence in Sinjar. The PKK, after all, is an internationally recognized terrorist organization that has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades. Ankara has been conducting operations against it for just as long, including air raids in Iraq's northern Qandil mountains. What's more, Turkey views Sinjar as part of its rightful domain under the neo-Ottoman strategy it's pursuing in Syria and Iraq.
Hitting a Roadblock
That view is worrisome not only for the Yazidis but also for the Iraqi government. Beyond cooperation on securing their shared border, Baghdad is loath to allow Turkey deep military access to Iraq, lest it jeopardize its sovereignty. Maintaining its full authority over the country is especially important as elections approach in May, since a wide array of Iraqi voters oppose the spread of Turkish influence in northern Iraq. A joint Iraqi-Turkish operation against the PKK may be possible after the vote — despite Baghdad's insistence to the contrary — but it would have to be confined to the less contentious border area. To make good on weeks of saber-rattling about Sinjar, Ankara will have to face Iraqi forces first. Erdogan has since conceded, at least publicly, that the Iraqi deployment may have "partially resolved" the problem in Sinjar with the PKK, while the Turkish prime minister assured Baghdad that no operation against the group would take place without its signoff.
To make good on weeks of saber-rattling about Sinjar, Ankara will have to face Iraqi forces first.
Baghdad's moves in Sinjar are a setback for Turkey, but they won't temper its determination to combat the PKK in northern Iraq. And as Ankara continues to hash out the Sinjar issue with the Iraqi government, plenty of other risks await it. The Popular Mobilization Forces — a group made up of mostly Shiite Iraqi militias with support from Iran — could, for example, counter Turkish forces around Sinjar, where its fighters have proliferated since the Islamic State's defeat. Furthermore, the more Turkey feels that Iraq is blocking its way in Sinjar, the more strained its diplomatic relations with Baghdad will be. The paralyzed Kurdistan Regional Government in Arbil, meanwhile, will keep struggling to fend off Turkey's advances in far northern Iraq. To try to stave off more disruptive military activity elsewhere, Arbil, like Baghdad, may cooperate with Ankara on some anti-PKK operations.
Mount Sinjar is just one area among many in Iraq where ethnic, cultural and religious diversity has left the door open to interference from foreign powers such as Turkey. But for all its military might, Turkey is encountering in northern Iraq political and diplomatic barriers that it hasn't come up against in northern Syria. And as Ankara is learning, no matter how strong its armed forces are, negotiating these barriers will be no small feat.