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Following the logic set out by then-Senator Joe Biden and the late Leslie Gelb in their 2006 op-ed in The New York Times, the US must continue to pursue a ‘one Iraq’ policy. However, Iraq can only survive as a united country if persecuted minorities are given autonomy to protect themselves. This means supporting the creation of an autonomous region for the Yazidis within the current territorial borders of Iraq.
After the recent reprisal against Iranian-backed militias in Syria, this would place additional pressure on Iran in retaliation for attacks on US forces in Iraq. Furthermore, Yazidis themselves are supportive of such a measure. As conflict continues to grow between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Ezidxane Asayish – the Yazidi police forces loosely affiliated with the PKK and controlled by the Sinjar Resistance Units – called for self-rule in Sinjar on 13 March 2021.
Delicate Identity Questions
It is important to note that there are some Kurds and Yazidis who see themselves as one people, given that the Yazidis speak a Kurdish dialect known as Kurmanji, although other members of both groups dispute this characterisation. Estimates of the number of Yazidis in the region vary from 100,000 to 800,000. Many are native Kurdish speakers, but they practice a unique faith. Some Kurds have labelled this faith ‘devil worship’ and do not consider Yazidis to be ‘People of the Book’, because their beliefs are passed down through oral rather than written traditions. Furthermore, Yazidis worship the ‘Peacock Angel’, who Christians and Muslims see as the 'Fallen Angel', or the devil. In Iraq, the Yazidis overlap with many Kurdish spaces. Outside of Sinjar, they are concentrated in Mosul and Duhok, and make pilgrimages to Lalish. However, intermarriage is forbidden, even with other Kurdish groups – despite the fact that the Yazidi faith unites elements of Islam, Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.
While pressuring the central government in Baghdad to do more about the Hashd al-Shaabi – or Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) – that pose a threat to both US interests and Iraqi sovereignty, the Biden administration must support the Yazidis having the option of an autonomous region on a par with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, or the government in Basra. This would give a long-persecuted minority the opportunity to govern themselves under the umbrella of Iraqi federalism and to defend themselves against persecution and discrimination.
Pushing for an autonomous Yazidi region would be a far-sighted move that would delay – if not altogether prevent – future calls for broader Yazidi independence that do not yet exist. However, the creation of an autonomous region would ultimately preserve a federal Iraq. The main Yazidi militias, the Sinjar Resistance Units and Ezidxan Women’s Units, fight under the umbrella of the Sinjar Alliance.
Strengthening the Iraqi State
Creating such a ‘Yazidistan’ is of paramount importance, as it would reinforce the Iraqi federal government’s support for the rights of all of the country's vulnerable minorities. Nearly 300,000 Yazidis live in displaced persons camps scattered throughout the KRG as a result of the Islamic State’s attempt to commit genocide against them in 2014. The deeper problem is that the Islamic State was not the only culprit. As in other areas during the Islamic State’s initial victories, the Kurdish Peshmerga simply dropped their weapons and did nothing, leaving innocent Yazidis to fend for themselves against Islamic State extremists.
The Yazidis were deliberately targeted by the Islamic State in Sinjar and left unprotected by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, in part because of elite splits. Kurdish leaders are believed to be opposed to the establishment of a Yazidi autonomous region due to concerns about maintaining the size and extent of the KRG. Yazidi areas that were depopulated from 1965 onwards, such as Sinjar, are now claimed by the KRG.
For all of President Biden’s experience in dealing with the country, he has signalled that he is ‘unlikely to turn back in Iraq’. However, after the 2011 drawdown of forces, Obama administration officials also thought that they were ‘done’ in Iraq, only to discover that, with the chaos that ensued in Syria, the Islamic State emerged. Washington must not now turn its back on Iraq – otherwise, continued discrimination towards the Yazidis has the potential to set off another series of human rights abuses and counterattacks that may open a window of opportunity for the Islamic State or a successor group.
The Shape of Autonomy
Setting up a special Yazidi region would allow Yazidis to move from refugee or displaced persons camps to a secure home. For a Yazidi autonomous region to work, two things would have to happen. A population transfer to less populated areas, such as northern Anbar and southern Ninawa, would be a good place to start. While far from ideal as a concept, this would give the Yazidis the opportunity to establish autonomy, move out from displaced persons camps and build an independent fighting force. The Iraqi Army would be forbidden by law to enter the Yazidi region. Furthermore, the Yazidi fighting force would need to establish its own subsidiaries responsible for areas such as intelligence. In the early years of the Yazidi autonomous region, conscription would likely be necessary. Also, the central Iraqi government would need to provide access for Yazidis to their holy places, such as Lalish.
There would be consequences to this course of action. On the positive side, an autonomous Yazidi region could mitigate the security dilemma between the Yazidis and other ethnic groups in Iraq. Although Iraq has a federal government, no autonomy has been offered to the Yazidis whatsoever. Autonomy for the Yazidis could allow them to provide security for themselves without taking security away from anyone else. Demarcated borders coupled with a well-armed fighting force would allow them to deter future genocidal attacks.
However, there are potential downsides. First, ethnic dominoes often fall: in multi-ethnic states, concessions to one group often lead to demands from other groups. This has not happened in Iraq when it comes to demands for autonomy. Yet, it has been a factor when it comes to the politics of oil concessions as well as budget distribution in Iraq.
The KRG has been involved in tussles over oil sales with Baghdad for years. Each side reneges on its commitments under the constitution and subsequently keeps its word when the fiscal situation worsens. Unfortunately, there is no institutional equilibrium unless the price of oil drops precipitously. As such, the Yazidis may maintain the individual payments they receive, battle with resource-rich provinces, or work to develop a comparative advantage in a sector of the country’s economy.
But problematically, the Balkanisation of Iraq would not be self-contained. As seen during the Kurdish independence referendum, states such as Turkey and Iran worked together to undermine any moves to break up Iraq. The US’s ‘One Iraq’ policy is shared by both its enemies (Iran) as well as allies with whom it has divergent interests (Turkey), as abandoning such a policy could lead to spillovers in the region that would adversely affect Iraq’s neighbours. There are also other US partners in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, that want to preserve the territorial status quo.
Second, a new ‘Yazidistan’ could draw the US into another nation-building exercise in the Middle East. While the US could (and should) help the Yazidis as doing so would maintain the stability of Iraq, its aid should only be targeted at training the Yazidi armed forces to be fully functional. Anything more than an advisory status for private military trainers and aid would risk re-establishing a US presence in the Yazidi region, in the heart of Iraq. The potential for an explosive re-ignition of internal conflicts with US forces on the ground would be disastrous.
Third, a potential complicating factor would be the response on the part of decision-makers in the KRG. Kurdish decision-makers in Erbil may feel snubbed if left out of the process. While the Kurds and others have jockeyed for influence among the Yazidis – by seeking their favour, sowing division, or pursuing repression – an autonomous ‘Yazidistan’ may be seen as an affront to Erbil or Kurdish decision-makers in Baghdad. However, President Barham Salih (working with Sunni Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi) has set his sights on purging Iraq of elements loyal to Iran. Furthermore, Salih has not played the ‘ethnicity card’ during his political career.
Kurdish leaders’ ideas are unlikely to be completely ignored in Baghdad. However, they currently face greater issues in terms of handling the coronavirus pandemic and the dramatic economic downturn, the eviction of pro-Iranian PMUs, as well as putting together a policy that would eventually lead to Turkey’s departure from its bases (whose raison d’être is the presence of PKK terrorists hiding throughout the autonomous Kurdish region). The Yazidis do not pose nearly as potent a threat to the political status quo in Erbil as any of the above. Simply put, given the problems in Erbil – much less the country as a whole – it is unlikely that an autonomous Yazidi region would be the issue where Erbil draws a line in the sand, especially given the damage incurred by the failed independence referendum of 2017. This included a freezing of the banking system in the KRG as well as a shutdown of the region’s airports.
Granting the Yazidis an autonomous region of their own makes sense now because of two US commitments: ending the ‘Forever Wars’, and the ‘One Iraq’ policy. The Biden administration has avoided making any clear commitment on the future of US troops in the country. While some scholars argue that retrenchment can foster instability in its wake, this is hardly inevitable if done responsibly. The construction of an autonomous ‘Yazidistan’ would help to stabilise a post-US Iraq by turning the Yazidis into stakeholders in a unitary country that respects their rights, rather than prospective secessionists.
Albert B Wolf is an Associate Fellow at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University of Central Asia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: A young man holding the Yazidi flag. Courtesy of Виталий Сова/Adobe Stock