Iraqi militias close to establishing Iran-Syria corridor

Offensive by predominantly Shiite forces, including many backed by Tehran, aims to drive ISIL out of areas west of Mosul.

Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi visits Mosul on May 29, 2017, as government forces battle to drive ISIL from the west of the city and state-sanctioned militias attack the extremists near the border with Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office via Reuters
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Erbil, Iraq // Iranian-backed Shiite militias advancing on ISIL in northern Iraq are poised to complete a land corridor spanning from Iran to Assad regime territory in Syria.

The Iraqi militias, known as the Hashed Al Shaabi, on Monday attacked the extremists in the village of Sheba in the Sinjar area, less than 30 kilometres from the Syrian border, sources on the ground said.

A Hashed commander, Sheikh Sami Al Masoudi said later that one brigade reached the border for the first time in the afternoon, taking Um Jrais village.

The Hashed launched an offensive to flush ISIL out of the area on May 12, advancing westward from the town of Tal Afar that they have besieged for months. The militias have since taken a string of villages in Sinjar, home to the Yazidi minority.

“There is fighting every day, every minute,” said a Yazidi militiaman aligned with the Kurdish peshmerga, who helped liberate a part of Sinjar, but stopped short of pushing ISIL out of its southern plains where the Hashed are now advancing.

The peshmerga were expected to sweep into southern Sinjar soon, Kurdish sources have said, but are now reduced to bystanders as the Hashed move forward.

ISIL swept into Sinjar on August 3, 2014, soon after taking the nearby city of Mosul. Regarding the Yazidis as devil worshippers, the extremists massacred more than 3,000 Yazidi men and trucked off about 6,000 women and children. Thousands of women and young girls remain in captivity, where they are abused as sex slaves. Many of the boys have been brainwashed to join the ranks of the insurgents.

In November 2015, the peshmerga and Kurdish PKK guerrillas drove ISIL out of the town of Sinjar that is nestled at the foot of the southern slope of the eponymous mountain, an elongated plateau stretching from east to west. The Kurdish advance cut the motorway that runs through the town and connects Mosul to Raqqa in Syria, but left ISIL lodged in the towns and villages straddling the motorway to the south.

The Hashed have now taken the initiative, and have advanced steadily over the past two weeks. They have already taken the village of Kocho, site of the worst ISIL atrocities against the Yazidis, and have set their sights on the town of Baaj a little to the south of Sinjar. According to a Hashed spokesman, the Shiite militias are preparing for an assault on Baaj, the last major ISIL stronghold on their way to the Syrian border.

The inhabitants of Baaj are thought to have strong sympathies for the terror group, and the battle for the dusty town on the plains will be a tough one.

“Daesh is very strong there, because it is the gate to Raqqa,” said the Yazidi fighter. Already, the Hashed are shelling the town with rockets, and two helicopters providing air cover are strafing ISIL resistance nests there.

The Hashed are sanctioned by Baghdad, but enjoy close ties with Tehran. In the past two years of fighting ISIL, they have carved out an area of influence stretching from the Iranian border to Sinjar. Should they reach the border, they can link their gains in Iraq with the Kurdish enclave in Syria. The Kurdish leadership there is in an informal truce with the Assad regime, making transit to regime areas possible.

“The area will be part of the corridor from Iran to Syria,” fears Naser Pasha Khalaf, a Yazidi official working for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the main parties in the autonomous Kurdish region.

The Kurdish Regional Government regards Sinjar as part of its territory, a claim rejected by the central government in Baghdad.

When ISIL attacked in August 2014, tens of thousands of Yazidis who had taken refuge on Mount Sinjar were rescued by the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla group that has been fighting a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. Since then, the PKK and its Yazidi affiliate, the YBS, has had a strong presence in northern Sinjar. To stifle the KRG’s territorial ambitions, Baghdad for a long time put the YBS on its payroll.

The KRG’s claim to the southern part of Sinjar is now undermined the presence of the Hashed. In recent days, between four and five hundred Yazidi men have joined the Shiite militias, according to sources on the ground, indicating that the Hashed enjoy some support with the Yazidi population.

With ISIL still in Sinjar, most Yazidis live in displacement camps in the Kurdish region. When the extremist group is expelled, Yazidi land and allegiances will be split between the KRG, the PKK and the Hashed. The tense stand-off could prevent peace, and the population, from returning to Sinjar for a long time to come.