Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli, former correspondent for Kurdistan TV in Sinjar (kurd. Şingal) in Iraq:
»The PYD did not fight in Sinjar and it did not save the Yazidis; that is nothing more than propaganda«
KurdWatch, September 30, 2014—Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli, b. 1978 in Sinjar (Şingal), married, two children, was the Sinjar correspondent for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) station Kurdistan TV from 2007 to July 2014. When the Islamic State (IS) captured Sinjar on August 3, 2014, he was among the last persons still able to leave the region. In an interview with KurdWatch, ʿAli accuses military and political leaders in Sinjar of corruption and serious failures in the fight against the IS. At the same time, he contradicts the claim that the PKK »saved« the Yazidis in Sinjar. Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli left Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2014 out of fear for his own safety.
KurdWatch: What happened on the day that the Islamic State captured Sinjar?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: Before we speak about the day that the Islamic State captured Sinjar, we have to first go back several months. We know that the IS captured the city of Mosul on June 10, 2014. When the Iraqi army gave up its positions without a fight, IS fighters were able to acquire heavy weapons, thereby becoming a serious danger. Most of the Arab Sunnis in Ninawa joined them. The IS wanted to expand its rule, especially in the Sunni regions. Sinjar is strategically very important for this. Sinjar connects the IS‑controlled regions of Syria with those in Iraq. Before the IS captured Sinjar, there were numerous military conflicts between the peshmerga, which were stationed in Sinjar, and IS fighters. For example heavy fighting took place in Tarbikah, near Sununi. If the IS had captured Tarbikah, it would have had direct access to Syria from Iraq. But the peshmerga were able to defeat the IS. Later IS fighters attacked near Umm ash‑Shababit. If they had broken through here, the path to Sinjar would have been free and they would have controlled the road to Syria. But that time, too, they failed because of the peshmerga. In July 2014 alone, there were six attacks by the Islamic State, six attempts to advance into Sinjar. All of the attempts were driven back even though Sinjar was almost entirely surrounded by IS fighters. The road to Syria was the only thing not under IS control. On July 27 the IS attacked near Shilu with a very strong force. There was heavy fighting for four hours, and the Arab tribes in the surrounding area joined the IS. The goal was to celebrate Ramadan in Sinjar. Here, too, the peshmerga were successful and the IS terrorists fled. They lost many fighters in these conflicts. I was reporting from the front at the time, and I barely escaped death. My vehicle was peppered with bullets by IS fighters. After this conflict, we did not expect that the IS would attack us again. After all they were defeated in all six attacks. We thought they knew that they would not succeed against the peshmerga. But on August 2 at two o’clock in the morning, there was another attack. They did not attack only one post as usual, but instead attacked four at once. The fighting lasted until half past six. Then it was quiet and we thought that they had been defeated again and had retreated. But suddenly at around a quarter to seven, they attacked the post of Shaykh Khidr with heavy weapons. The peshmerga were not well armed and the Islamic State was able to take over the post. That gave them a huge boost, and the news that the IS had overwhelmed a post spread like wildfire. Word also spread quickly that many people had been killed and that IS fighters were moving toward Sinjar. The population hastily left the region. The peshmerga, which were supposed to protect other posts, also fled when they heard that the IS had taken over a post. The political, military, and security service leaders in Sinjar opted to retreat from the region. As a correspondent for Kurdistan TV, I believed this decision was incorrect. As a result of this decision, the people there were defenselessly delivered to the IS. I was among those who remained in the city of Sinjar until the end. The IS was approximately two kilometers away from us when I left the city for the Jabal Sinjar with Qasim Shesho [the head of communication for the KDP in Sinjar, see also below] and his men. Shortly thereafter the IS captured the city. Many people who did not have cars were arrested, killed, or kidnapped by IS fighters. Many of those who fled also sought refuge on Jabal Sinjar. Only a small number managed to get to Iraqi Kurdistan in time. Later Jabal Sinjar was almost completely surrounded by the IS and the people could no longer leave. The political, military, and security service leaders in Sinjar fled to Syrian Kurdistan because the road from Sinjar to Iraqi Kurdistan had been cut off. They wanted to return from Syrian Kurdistan to Iraqi Kurdistan via the Fish Khabur border crossing.
KurdWatch: Who was in charge in Sinjar?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: Sarbast Bapiri, political leader for Branch 17 of the KDP, Saʿid Kesay, supreme commander of the 1st Division of the peshmerga’s special force [Zêrevanî], and Shawkat Kaniki, head of the security service. All three leaders are originally from Duhok, but were in Sinjar that day. The three fled to Syria on August 3 with about eight hundred to one thousand of their people.
KurdWatch: Were the people warned when the peshmerga retreated?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: As I said, until a quarter to seven there were no particular problems. The IS then captured Sinjar within thirty minutes. It happened very quickly. It’s very difficult to warn the population in just half an hour. News did spread quickly that the peshmerga had suffered a defeat in Shaykh Khidr and that the IS could break through the border to Sinjar.
KurdWatch: How far is Shaykh Khidr from the city of Sinjar?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: Not even twenty-five minutes by car. The problem was that the peshmerga no longer offered any resistance. I can say that the peshmerga fled before the residents did. They believed that they were a direct target and that the IS fighters would definitely kill them if they fell into their hands.
KurdWatch: Was there an order, for example, from the peshmerga leader Saʿid Kesay, that the peshmerga should retreat?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: He and Sarbast Bapiri decided that the retreat should happen.
KurdWatch: There are claims that the decision to retreat was made in Erbil. It is said those in charge in Erbil knew that there would be a mass exodus, that the IS would treat the Yazidis brutally, and that in this case international aid, including weapons, would be forthcoming. In other words, the persecution and murder of the Yazidis was tolerated in order to achieve this goal.
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: I doubt that. For more than a year the IS has spread its terror in Syria and for the last three months it has done the same in Iraq. Many Christians were killed, but the international community did not step in. Why should it be otherwise if Yazidis are attacked? No one could have expected this international solidarity. I am among those who spent the entire day of August 3 with the political and military leaders of Sinjar. I didn’t sleep that night and accompanied these people until the early morning. I don’t believe that the decision was made in Erbil. I was with Sarbast Bapiri, Saʿid Kesay, Shawkat Kaniki, and several other people, including Qasim Shesho, when the decision was made to retreat. We were in the KDP party office in Sinjar. There was no time to coordinate with the next level of authority. Several minutes after we left Sinjar, IS troops had already reached the city. After the first post was overwhelmed, this took less than half an hour. The decision to retreat was made within two minutes. There was no time to discuss or to contact Erbil.
KurdWatch: Did Qasim Shesho agree with the decision to retreat?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: No, he asked for the heavy weapons that were available. He wanted to stay in Sinjar and fight. He said that he would at least try to protect the holy Yazidi city of Sharaf ad‑Din. Qasim Shesho couldn’t defend the city of Sinjar with the few people under him. He and his people went to the mountains, to Sharaf ad‑Din. He knew that IS troops would destroy the Yazidis’ holy places. They had already done this elsewhere and Sharaf ad‑Din is an important shrine. It is in the mountains and can be defended without many men.
KurdWatch: Why did the peshmerga have few heavy weapons in Sinjar? Were such weapons requested? Why didn’t headquarters deliver any heavy weapons?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: When Sinjar was attacked, the IS had already carried out attacks from the Iranian border in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan to Sinjar in the west. The front along which the peshmerga and the IS faced each other was around one thousand five hundred kilometers long. In our reports, we representatives of the press pointed again and again to the fact that there would be heavy fighting with the IS in Sinjar. I think that leadership in Erbil hadn’t expected that the IS could gain control of Sinjar. Those in charge in Sinjar also gave the leadership a false picture of the situation. Each time that the leadership contacted those in charge in Sinjar, they were told that everything was quiet and there was no need for assistance. On the evening of August 2, Kurdistan TV was still conveying this view. I conducted the corresponding interviews with those in charge. Even I didn’t believe that the peshmerga would flee and surrender the population to the IS.
KurdWatch: There are rumors that there were in fact heavy weapons for Sinjar, but that they were sold illegally. Is that true? Nawaf ʿIsa Ali: When the IS captured Tall ʿAfar and Mosul, the 11th Division of the Iraqi army was stationed at the border to Sinjar. It had heavy weapons. Sarbast Bapiri, Saʿid Kesay, and Shawkat Kaniki had all the weapons brought from Sinjar. We know that some were transported to Iraqi Kurdistan and another large portion was sold on the black market. They committed treason against the population and abused their positions for their own personal gain. They were removed from their posts. They are in custody and are awaiting trial.
KurdWatch: How many peshmerga were stationed in Sinjar when the IS attacked?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: More than three thousand peshmerga.
KurdWatch: How high was the number of IS fighters when they attacked Sinjar? Nawaf ʿIsa Ali: That I don’t know. It’s not a question of whether the IS had more fighters than we did or vice versa. The IS had heavy weapons and the peshmerga didn’t.
KurdWatch: According to your description, the IS takeover of Sinjar did not take more than an hour. The international media as well as the PKK and PYD media claim that the PKK or PYD respectively protected the people of Sinjar. In what ways did it protect people and when did the PYD and PKK even become a player in this conflict?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: The PYD and PKK did not have a single fighter in Sinjar prior to the invasion. It first became an actor in this conflict when Masʿud Barzani denied the peshmerga, who had fled to Syria, entry into Iraqi Kurdistan via Fish Khabur and gave them the order to return to Sinjar. The eight hundred to one thousand fighters who had fled to Syrian Kurdistan with Sarbast Bapiri, Saʿid Kesay, and Shawkat Kaniki then returned to Sinjar, accompanied by approximately two hundred PYD fighters. There was one single road into the mountains, one single way to access Sinjar that was not controlled by the IS. Together with the PYD, the peshmerga then formed a corridor for the refugees in the mountains. There were hardly any military conflicts with the IS here. Nor were any PYD fighters or peshmerga killed. The PYD did not fight in Sinjar and it did not save the Yazidis; that is nothing more than propaganda on behalf of the PYD. The only thing that it did was to build this corridor with the peshmerga and allow the refugees to enter Syrian Kurdistan and later return to Iraqi Kurdistan.
KurdWatch: If I understand you correctly, the PYD opened the border to Syria for the refugees from Sinjar and, with a small unit of around two hundred fighters, assisted eight hundred to one thousand peshmerga in building a corridor for the refugees. Where there even any conflicts with the IS?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: The IS was not present where they were building this corridor. There are only small villages there and the area is not strategically important for the IS. The IS was interested in the larger cities and the main road which runs through Sinjar to Syria. The next largest city the IS had under its control was Sununi. From here they fired several missiles. There was never a direct fight, and the IS did not attempt to cut off the road for the refugees. That is also the reason why neither a single peshmerga nor a single PYD fighter was killed during the so-called liberation of the Yazidis.
KurdWatch: What about Qasim Shesho? Did he fight against the IS?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: Initially he and his people went into the mountains. At first he had about three hundred fighters with him. He and his people showed several Yazidi refugees the way to Syria. Three or four times the IS attacked the Sharaf ad‑Din shrine, and Qasim Shesho’s people fended them off. They killed several IS fighters, but Shesho also lost people in the direct conflict with the IS. Qasim Shesho is a member of the KDP and the head of communication for the KDP in Sinjar. He had already fought against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. But he also did not attempt to defend Sinjar against the IS. He did so because it was obvious to him that he was clearly outnumbered by the IS. One thing he felt he was to protect the shrine of Sharaf ad‑Din. I was in contact with him when he was in the mountains. He said that the YPG [the PYD’s militia] was trying to capture the mountains of Sinjar. They also wanted to cooperate with him, but he refused. It went so far that the YPG put an embargo on him and his people for a short period of time. He subsequently explained in an interview that if the YPG didn’t lift the embargo against his fighters, he could see no difference between the YPG and the IS. If the embargo wasn’t lifted, he said he would also fight against the YPG if necessary. The conflict with the YPG arose when the YPG wanted to raise its flag on Jabal Sinjar. Shesho rejected this proposal and said that no party flags would be raised on Jabal Sinjar. He understood that the PKK and the PYD were concerned with partisan interests and not with the people in Sinjar. The PKK wanted to use the Yazidis’ understandable anger with and disappointment in the peshmerga to increase its own influence. The YPG recruited refugees and established its own militia for Sinjar. Refugees who weren’t willing to join it were disarmed.
KurdWatch: Who supported Shesho’s fighters?
Nawaf ʿIsa ʿAli: The Iraqi government provided them with food by air and the Kurdish regional government armed them. On September 15, Masʿud Barzani met with Qasim Shesho in Duhok. Shesho is now the peshmerga leader for Sinjar and Barzani has agreed that he will receive heavy weapons.
September 16, 2014