The long, lonely road from Dohuk in the Kurdistan region to Sinjar, the site of the ISIS genocide of Yazidis, is symbolic of Iraq’s recent tragedies. It passes villages and towns destroyed in the fighting with ISIS. A patchwork of different armed groups have also struggled for control over the road in the last years, and from 2015 to 2017 a group of Kurdish fighters known as the Rojava Peshmerga controlled part of it.
Today, some in the US and Kurds in northern Iraq think this group may help forestall a crises with Turkey.
Turkey has said it will launch an operation in eastern Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Turkey views as terrorists connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But the US has partnered with the YPG to fight ISIS; officially, the US works with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group that includes the YPG.
These are key plays in the fight to defeat ISIS and are heroes who helped save tens of thousands of Yazidis from ISIS in 2014 when they intervened in Sinjar.
Now their key role is being challenged by Turkey which has promised that in “coming days” it will launch an operation in eastern Turkey along with Syrian rebel allies to “cleanse” the border of the YPG.
US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey spoke at the Atlantic Council on December 17, saying that there is a “deployment of the Rojava Peshmerga across the border, that was done with our understanding and the understanding of the SDF, that is one of the various steps being taken.” Currently this deployment consists of only dozens of these men. But who are they and why are they important?
I met the Rojava Peshmerga in December 2015 on the road to Sinjar. At the time these men were doing checkpoint duty along dozens of kilometers of the lonely road from Rabia to Snune. A Lt. Col. from the unit said his regiment controlled 30km of road.
“We are from Rojava [eastern Syria’s Kurdish region] and have taken parts in battles near Mosul, Rabia and Sinjar,” he said.
As the men warmed themselves by a small heater and drank sweet tea, the officer described how his men numbered two brigades of fighters. He described them as refugees who had fled to northern Iraq in the early years of the Syrian civil war; they were Kurds, persecuted by the Syrian regime.
“We grew up under Assad, it was very difficult because we had no citizenship,” he said. “We had no rights. We couldn’t even speak Kurdish.” Many of these men, stateless because Syria had denied them citizenship, came to northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region to live a normal life. “We couldn’t even get married in a court. I had to marry through a mullah [Islamic religious leader].”
As the war in Syria escalated, the YPG came to control areas in what Kurds call Rojava. However, some Syrian Kurds in Iraq opposed the left-leaning YPG and wanted to join units more closely connected to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which leads the Kurdish region. “It’s worse now in Syria, the Kurds have nothing,” Rojava Peshmerga members said in 2015. They complained that the YPG was too close to the Assad regime.
Kurdish patriots who are ready to fight ISIS, the Rojava Peshmerga sought to prevent Islamic State sleeper cells from infiltrating back into northern Iraq. But they also clashed several times with PKK and YPG members in Yazidi villages near Sinjar. Four Rojava Peshmerga were wounded in March 2017 clashes. They were very critical of YPG policies as they patrolled that lonely road within eyesight of the Syrian border, but unable to cross.
In June 2016 another group of Rojava Peshmerga were posted near the Mosul Dam, including some women who had joined an all-women’s unit. Their job was to guard the road near the dam. One of the male commanders said he had lived in Iraq since the Syrian conflict began in 2012. The women told similar stories. They said they had fled Syria during the war in 2012. They preferred to join a Peshmerga unit as opposed to the YPG because they said the YPG-affiliated women’s units did not allow fighters to marry.
“It is our land [in Syria] and we want to return to Rojava after ISIS is defeated,” they said.
The women were also harshly critical of the YPG, accusing them of taking their lands and keeping other political parties from eastern Syria.
“The international community is working with the YPG to solve the problem and let us go back,” they said. Brett McGurk, the US anti-ISIS envoy, had been involved in these discussions, they claimed. “We went three times to Faishkhabur [the border crossing with Syria] and the YGP said we couldn’t come,” One of the women, her AK-47 by her side, said. “We don’t want to end up as housewives back in Syria, we want to protect and live on our land.”
According to the women’s unit at Mosul Dam, by 2016 there were 5,000 members of the Rojava Peshmerga.
Since 2016, these fighters have increasingly wanted to return to eastern Syria.
“We are ready to go back to our land,” they said.
The women estimated at the time it would take three more years to defeat ISIS and they hoped to play a role. But they were concerned about the YPG’s policies, which they characterized as being too close to Iran and too confrontational with other Kurdish political parties. They said the economy in Rojava had been harmed and that Kurds had also been forced off their land.
“We want the whole world to know that we exist and we fight and we want to go back to fighting the extremists,” they said.
After more four years fighting ISIS and working alongside the US-led international Coalition, the groups in eastern Syria are now facing new crises. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said December 12 that there was no ISIS threat in Syria and that “we are determined to turn the east of the Euphrates into a peaceful and livable place for its true owners.” Turkey will not allow a “terror corridor” along its border, Erdogan added Tuesday.
The US has sought to downplay Turkey’s continued claims that it will launch an attack, with US President Donald Trump calling Erdogan and Turkey claiming the US made concessions on Syria and other issues.
Concerns about what comes next have been felt in Washington as well as in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. Former Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani met with US anti-ISIS envoy McGurk, US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman, US State Department advisor William Roebuck and Consul General Steve Fagin on Monday. According to Kurdistan24, Barzani expressed concern about threats to the Kurds in eastern Syria. Meanwhile Jeffrey was speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington where he hinted at the deployment of the Rojava Peshmerga.
The Rojava Peshmerga are now caught in the middle of a complex political balancing act between Washington and Ankara. For years, they were prevented from returning to eastern Syria because they are linked to the Syria’s Kurdish National Council, a group of Kurdish political parties that are close to the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The YPG has periodically raided eastern Syria, according to their members who relocated to Iraq.
The YPG’s political branch, the PYD, has been criticized for stifling other political opposition groups in eastern Syria. Turkey also views the YPG as terrorists, and Ankara has historically had more amicable relations with the KDP. This means that some think the presence of the Rojava Peshmerga would be more palatable to Turkey.
But a handful of Rojava Peshmerga deployed near posts of YPG or SDF members is not going to change Ankara’s view. Turkey launched airstrikes against the YPG in Iraq’s Sinjar in April 2017, killing five Peshmerga by mistake. It is also not clear how a few Peshmerga will change Turkey’s calculations, since the government structure of eastern Syria will remain in the hands of groups that Turkey views as terrorists. Moreover, Ankara’s main concern is not just a few posts along the border, but accusations that the US is investing in a “stabilization” force in eastern Syria made up of SDF members.
The Rojava Peshmerga have sought for three years to return home. Now it remains to be seen whether they will be pawns in a complex game between Washington and Ankara, or if they will be able to fulfill their dreams of serving in their native Syria.