Foreign Policy Essay
Negotiating Peace in Iraq’s Disputed Territories: Modifying the Sinjar Agreement
Editor’s Note: Iraq faces many knotty political problems, and one of the most difficult concerns the population in the area near the border with Turkey and Syria. There, the legacy of Iraq’s civil war and broader regional strife interacts with Iraq’s political dysfunction, creating a potent stew of grievances and potential violence. Boston University’s Shamiran Mako assesses the Baghdad-Erbil Sinjar agreement, explaining how discontent among local communities may jeopardize this fragile settlement and stability in general.
On Oct. 9, the federal government in Baghdad signed the Agreement on the Restoration of Stability and Normalization of the Situation in the District of Sinjar, a joint security agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over Sinjar, a Yazidi town in Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate that fell to the Islamic State’s onslaught in 2014, culminating in a genocide against its inhabitants. Strategically located in Nineveh’s northwestern region, Sinjar closely borders Syria’s al-Hasakah province to the northwest and Turkey’s Silopi/Sirnak province to the northeast. The town’s position in territory disputed by the federal government and the KRG shapes the competition over government control. While the agreement placates persistent tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish elites, it falls short of addressing local demands for an inclusive political settlement. Unless local minority populations become stakeholders alongside Iraq’s national and subnational governments, exclusive, top-down negotiations will continue to prevent conflict resolution in one of the country’s most fragile regions.
Why Iraq’s Disputed Territories Matter
The disputed territories are intertwined with various strategic nexus points for Baghdad and Erbil. Positioned between Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to the east, the KRG to the north, and the Syrian border to the west, the territories encompass Khanaqin, Kirkuk, the Nineveh Plains, Tal Afar, Mandali, Tuz Khurmatu and Sinjar. They are some of the most ethnically and religiously diverse of Iraq’s regions, home to substantial minority populations including Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, Turkmen, Kaka'i and Shabaks. Many inhabitants were subjected to Arabization campaigns under the Baath regime manifested by demographic manipulation through population exchanges and forced displacement where cities, towns and districts were repopulated with Arab tribes from Iraq’s western and southern regions. They are also some of Iraq’s most resource-rich regions. Cities like Kirkuk, Erbil and Mosul account for an estimated 20 percent of the country’s oil reserves, with Kirkuk alone containing 9 billion barrels of proven oil reserves managed by Iraq’s North Oil Company. According to one local Iraqi member of parliament I spoke with, the disputed territories contain approximately 25 billion barrels of oil reserves, making the region a resource asset for both the Iraqi government and the KRG.
Map of Iraq's disputed territories. Image credit: Congressional Research Service/Public Domain
Two interlinked sets of grievances have exacerbated Yazidi tensions. First, the lack of representation of Yazidi stakeholders in the negotiations for the agreement reached in October reflects a pattern of neglect at the national and subnational levels. Elites in Baghdad and Erbil often rely on co-opted elites instead of dialogue with civil society organizations. Second, local communities have been excluded from the execution and implementation phase of the agreement, particularly plans regarding putting forth mayoral candidates, integrating current and former Yazidi combatants who took up arms against the Islamic State since 2014, and building community engagement in reconstruction efforts. Other local minority populations, such as Assyrians in the Nineveh Plains, echo Yazidi concerns regarding security, representation and reconstruction.
Since the toppling of the Baathist regime in 2003, various U.S. and Iraqi policymakers have attempted to address local grievances, to no avail. Article 58(c) of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s interim Transitional Administrative Law for Iraq of 2004 and its subsequent incorporation into Article 140 of the permanent Iraqi Constitution of 2005 attempted to address the status of the disputed territories with a census, but it has yet to be conducted. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1770 committed the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) to assist and advise the Iraqi government to resolve the boundaries of the disputed territories. Between 2008 and 2009, UNAMI conducted a private study of the socioeconomic, political, and administrative conditions in the disputed territories and discovered that the majority of residents prefer an in-between solution, with a special status for Kirkuk (the most contested governorate of the disputed territories) jointly administered by Baghdad and Erbil. However, the recommendations of the report were never adopted due to continued tensions between Arab and Kurdish elites, particularly in the run-up to the 2008 election.
These areas are, in effect, spaces “in between” the clear control of either government, which has fueled much of the spat between Baghdad and Erbil. Starting in 2003, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, occupied key towns and districts, including Sinjar, as part of a U.S.-brokered security arrangement following the dismantling of the Iraqi army. This allowed Kurds to control an estimated 300 miles of territory outside the formal boundaries of the KRG, some of which is now under the control of the Iraqi army following the fallout from the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum. Western support for Kurdish political parties and the Peshmerga and a weak and fractured Iraqi army enabled the KRG to exercise near absolute political and security control in the disputed territories prior to 2014. Local communities were left vulnerable to the Islamic State’s onslaught when Kurdish Peshmerga forces unexpectedly retreated and abandoned Yazidi towns as Islamic State fighters approached in early August 2014.
Fractured governance and insecurity in Sinjar and the rest of Iraq’s disputed territories have directly shaped acts of violence against minority populations. Following years of neglect compounded by insecurity and laggard development, minority populations sought help from internal and external non-state actors to protect them following the Islamic State’s advance in 2014. Having established a strong foothold in Syria’s Jazira region, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its proxy, the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units, offered fleeing Yazidis humanitarian and military aid, leading to the formation of a militia, the PKK-aligned Shingal Resistance Unit (YBS). Other Yazidis formed a Yazidi-Yazidkhan force, while some joined the Peshmerga and the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (al-hashd al-sha’abi). Currently, four Yazidi militias operate in Sinjar: The YBS has approximately 2,500 members; the Yazidi Peshmerga forces about 7,000; the Yazidkhan Protection Forces about 3,000; and between 1,500 and 2,000 Yazidis have aligned with the Popular Mobilization Forces. A key concern in the agreement is what to do about these forces and how best to demobilize them or integrate them into the government’s security forces.
Pacifying a National and Subnational Turf War
The agreement regarding Sinjar was mediated and signed by representatives of the KRG and the federal government in Baghdad; diplomats from Turkey, the United Nations and the United States expressed optimism about its prospects. It prioritizes three stabilization programs relating to administration, security, and reconstruction aimed at bolstering coordination between the regional and federal governments. Broadly, it calls for electing a new mayor and expanding existing administrative offices, appointing a 2,000-member local security force in Sinjar inclusive of displaced Yazidis for the purpose of eradicating the presence of the PKK and other militias, and establishing a Baghdad-Erbil reconstruction partnership. Article 4 of the agreement stipulates that a field committee comprising representatives from Baghdad and Erbil will oversee all consultations and implementation. Despite support from regional and international actors, the agreement has been met with dismay from the Yazidi community. The agreement in some ways reflects recent reform efforts by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, especially his focus on consolidating control over paramilitary groups. Additionally, the privileged place of the KRG in the negotiations fits into a broader political context: Kadhimi’s shaky tenure hinges on getting Kurdish elites in the KRG to support his candidacy in the upcoming elections in 2021 by appealing to KRG demands to regain control in the disputed territories and Sinjar.
The absence of Yazidi leaders and stakeholders from the negotiations amplified long-standing grievances between local populations and Baghdad and Erbil. According to Hadi Pir—co-founder and vice president of Yazda, a Yazidi advocacy organization—the agreement omits important details about its strategic planning and implementation. More clarity is needed regarding the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (if possible) of PKK-affiliated Yazidi forces; the process for selecting a mayoral candidate not affiliated with powerful political blocs; and the provision of police and security oversight to minimize meddling in local Yazidi affairs. These concerns were echoed by Pari Ibrahim of the Free Yazidi Foundation, who noted that “[g]overnance in the Sinjar area and other disputed areas really must rely on the local people, and in this case, on the Yazidi voice. … Mayors and political decisions should be made through choice and consultation with the locals, which is important for democracy. It should not always have to do with political blocs or parties.” The ambiguous nature of the agreement hinders efforts to create durable and long-term solutions predicated on local capacity-building that minorities in the territories have long supported. It could aggravate the precise conditions that impeded durable political solutions in the past.
Revising the Sinjar Agreement
Insecurity in Iraq since 2003 is emblematic of fractured and fractionalized center-periphery relations, aggravated and sustained by ingrained corruption and co-optation of local elites at the local, subnational and national levels. Citizens, and minority populations in particular, in the disputed territories are caught between a rock and a hard place with little power to influence policy at the federal and regional levels. The protracted conflict over the disputed territories requires carefully tailored political, economic, and security strategies that make minority communities stakeholders in local governance through meaningful representation.
In a joint statement signed by various Yazidi elites and members of civil society organizations in October, Yazidi leaders hailed the agreement as an important step toward addressing Yazidi grievances. However, the signatories outlined significant bottom-up implementation mechanisms currently absent from the agreement. These include, but are not limited to, taking steps to curb external influence in Yazidi affairs in Sinjar, consulting directly with Yazidi stakeholders, allowing Yazidis from Sinjar to select a nonpartisan mayor, committing to provide reparations for Yazidi victims of genocide, and establishing a nonpartisan Yazidi-administered local police/security force. The statement in some ways is antithetical to the securitization objectives of the agreement, which focus on returning Kurdistan’s two ruling parties as key political and security players in Sinjar while appeasing Turkey’s demands for eradicating the PKK there and in other northern borderland regions in Iraq.
Recalibrating the existing agreement requires short- and long-term conflict resolution strategies to assuage local demands for substantive representation in governance, security and reconstruction. In the short run, power brokers in Baghdad and Erbil should facilitate cross-communal, local-level participation and representation by engaging directly with multiple Yazidi stakeholders, especially civil society organizations. Communal group demands and interests are seldom monolithic. The existing agreement should be reformulated to grant local populations agency through bottom-up community-oriented solutions as a pathway toward reconciliation and everyday peace. Eventually, Iraqi leaders in Baghdad will have to devise institutional solutions to address the status of the disputed territories that center minority interests alongside those of the KRG—interests that are not necessarily mutually inclusive. Options include establishing distinct minority administrative zones as promulgated in Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution and reviving the 2008 UNAMI process regarding the disputed territories in consultation with minority stakeholders in light of evolving socioeconomic, political and security conditions since 2014. Such bottom-up political settlements, long advocated for by minorities in the disputed territories, could mitigate existing tensions regarding political representation, foreign intervention and influence, security, and reconstruction.