Mexmûr and Sinjar – “Disputed Territories”? The Significance of Two Resistant Places in an Increasingly Chaotic Region by Baxtiyar Çelê

The article was published in the November/December 2021 issue of the Kurdistan Report. We are here republishing an English translation of this article, which was originally published here:

Mexmûr and Sinjar – “Disputed Territories”?
The Significance of Two Resistant Places in an Increasingly Chaotic Region

Baxtiyar Çelê, Member of the People’s Council of Mexmûr


The Mexmûr camp and its population of around 12,000 political refugees are located in an unusual area whose status, described as “disputed,” is supposed to be finally determined in a referendum according to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. We are talking here about an area that stretches from Sinjar in the west to Xaneqîn in the east and thus over about half of the territory of South Kurdistan. A wide variety of forces, each pursuing its own political goals in the region, are active there and are increasingly intensifying the chaos through their constant interventions. In light of this confusing situation, it is worth taking a step back and asking the following questions: Why was this area given the status of a ” disputed territory”? Why is it described as “problematic”? Why was its status separately regulated in the Iraqi constitution by Article 140? We will now try to briefly discuss these questions and to find answers.

The area in question, which includes Mexmûr, is historically, geographically, demographically and culturally part of Kurdistan and a settlement area of the Kurds. Despite this fact, after the Iraq intervention in 1991, the U.S. and its allies decided to establish a security zone extending to the 36th parallel. In doing so, they turned roughly half of South Kurdistan into a “disputed area” that has resembled a kind of Gordian knot ever since. Officially, this status was stipulated in Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution drafted after the second U.S. intervention in 2003 and officially adopted in 2005. But it later became clear that this constitutional article was a trap that had not been recognized in time. The representatives of South Kurdistan at the time were obviously incapable of understanding this and, moreover, were simply not attentive enough. In this context, it is worth taking a closer look at the strategy and policy of the USA and the other imperialist forces in the region. They are constantly developing new plans to maintain the status they have developed in Iraq and especially in Kurdistan, and to adjust it according to their imperialist interests as needed. Currently, the U.S. military is withdrawing its combat units from the Arab parts of Iraq and moving them to South Kurdistan. At the same time, the EU branch, with France at its head, is taking an increasingly active role within the international coalition. These developments make the interest in the “disputed territories” all the more intense. In addition, the UN mission in Iraq, which is more like a representative of the international coalition, is playing a very provocative and negative role due to its activities and relations in the region.

Approximately 70 % of all oil reserves in South Kurdistan are located in the area we just described. From Sinjar to Xaneqîn there are rich oil and gas fields, many of which have not yet been fully exploited or processed. Historically important trade routes pass through the area, and various projects and plans are currently being developed to reinforce this role as a central trade route. Fresh water from numerous springs in North and East Kurdistan and vast plains of fertile soil give the region the potential to supply the entire country with agricultural products if properly managed. Consequently, it attracts the attention of imperialist forces and neighboring states due to its historical, geographical and current conditions.


Turkey’s Occupation Efforts

Turkey’s regional strategy is based on a mentality that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, Turkish attempts to occupy the region continue. Turkey has stationed large contingents of troops in South Kurdistan and conducts continuous military operations in all parts of the region – as if it were Turkish territory. It maintains over 60 military and intelligence bases here. Başika is one of the areas where Turkish troops are stationed. The fact that it is one of the “disputed territories” is crucial to military plans within the framework of Turkish occupation efforts. Despite resolutions to this effect by the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi central government, Turkey still refuses to withdraw its troops from Başika. This occupation, enforced with the help of the collaboration of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), is today clearly noticeable in all KDP-controlled areas of South Kurdistan. In the “disputed areas,” neither Iraq nor the South Kurdistan Regional Government has yet succeeded in gaining complete control. Militarily, the Iraqi army is present, but administratively, the regional government still rules in many areas. The area is kept permanently unstable. The political vacuum and instability were two major reasons why IS terror managed to maintain a presence in the area for a long time in 2014. Today, the area is still very vulnerable to intervention, which the fascist government of Turkey uses to intensify its occupation activities. As part of its attempts to expand contacts with Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, Turkey relies on forces such as the Usama an-Nujahifi family, which already collaborated with the Ottoman Empire, or the remnants of IS. At the same time, Turkey is moving proxy Islamist forces it has trained to the region.

Based on a fatwa issued by Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the military units of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) were established in 2014 to fight the “Islamic State” (IS). They were composed of volunteers. Their resistance contributed to the liberation of numerous cities from IS terror, including the provinces of Mosul and Kerkûk, which are considered “disputed areas”. It is well known that Shiite groups affiliated with Iran played an active and decisive role in the war against IS and in the liberation of the region. Today, they still have great influence on the security there. From Sinjar to Xaneqîn, they are a dominant military force and in some places influential administratively as well, while actively seeking to win the sympathies of the local population. In places such as Tuz Xurmatu and Tal Afar, part of the population consists of Shiites. However, the fact that most of the people living there are Sunni and have profound historical contradictions with Shiite forces leads to widespread rejection of the Hashd al-Shaabi forces there.

This region represents an important transit route in the Iranian regime’s expansion efforts. Accordingly, Iran attaches great strategic importance to it, including Sinjar and Mexmûr. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that the Shiite forces from Iran and Iraq will abandon this area, which was liberated by them and in which Iran plays an influential role.

It is equally unlikely that these forces will be accepted by the local population and will be able to gain a foothold on the ground accordingly. This also applies to Turkey’s Ottoman legacy of oppression and violence and its fascist dictatorial aspirations in the region. Turkish support for IS and other jihadist forces, as well as Turkey’s expansionist ambitions in the Middle East, are well known to the population here today. Despite U.S. and NATO aid and the collaboration of local forces such as the Sunni Turkmen and the KDP, it will be very difficult for Turkey to win over the local population. Its fascist mentality, based on a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, encounters strong objections from the people living in the region. In particular, because of Turkey’s attempt to gain influence by supporting IS, the local population feels a much closer affinity to the Arab nationalism promoted by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

All these forces, which have a military presence on the ground but very little social support, have nothing new to offer the local population. Their presence is based on oppression and violence. The people have recognized that the existing system is centuries old and has now lost all power to solve the existing problems. Neither do its rulers have anything to offer the people, nor do they have the power to bring about change. They have no plans whatsoever as to how freedom, democracy and economic prosperity, of which the peoples have been deprived, can be restored, the existing conditions changed and the numerous problems solved. Whether the completely weak and helpless system in Iraq, the democratic culture of imperialist powers such as the USA or the EU, the expansionist, sectarian system of Iran or the fascist occupying power of Turkey – none of these forces is capable of doing so. On the contrary, they all have historically motivated contradictions and conflicts among themselves. The existence of these states poses an enormous threat to the entire region. Only a slight intensification of the interventionist policies of these powers can lead to results here that would ensure massive changes. Turkey receives extensive support from the U.S. and NATO. At the same time, it itself supports IS, the KDP and parts of the Turkmen tribes. If a direct confrontation between Turkey’s fascist forces and those supported by Iran were to occur, the region could be rocked by wars whose consequences would be incalculable. Current developments make such a scenario increasingly likely. Accordingly, the status of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, this remnant of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, is also acutely threatened.


Targets of Attack: Sinjar and the Mexmûr camp

We can currently see, without much effort, rapid developments toward a deepening of the regional chaos. It is completely inconceivable that in the context of this mess Sinjar and the Mexmûr camp will not also become targets of attack. This is because these two places have the most resistant and organized populations in the region. They have prepared extensively for all possible developments. Moreover, they see themselves as representatives of a significant project and as an alternative to the existing system. On this basis, they maintain direct contacts with the population in their neighborhood. The more they succeed in making the people there understand their ideas, the more Sinjar and Mexmûr themselves will gain in strength. The people of Sinjar can look back on an enormously long history of resistance. Particularly as Islam spread through the region, the people of Sinjar were subjected to constant massacres because of their faith – a total of 74 massacres over the centuries. Yet they resisted throughout, protecting their faith and have thus been able to keep it alive to this day. Although they were continuously oppressed, discriminated against, and isolated, the Ezidis did not give up their faith. United in their common faith, they developed a culture of permanent resistance. Most recently, they were attacked by IS gangs in 2014. Thousands of Ezidis were murdered or sold as slaves to Turkey and other countries. Hundreds of thousands saw no other option but to flee and now live scattered in various parts of the world. In the KDP-controlled areas of South Kurdistan, the Ezidi refugees have experienced all kinds of corruption and immoral acts. In the camps there, they are held like hostages and abused as a source of profit through the misappropriation of international aid funds. At the beginning of the IS attacks in 2014, the people of Sinjar resisted together with a small group of guerrilla fighters. Later, together with the HPG (People’s Defense Forces) and the YPG/YPJ (People’s/Women’s Defense Units), they liberated their homeland of Sinjar. Based on this spirit of resistance, the people of Sinjar today are staying on their feet, organizing and educating themselves. In this way, they turn their terrible experiences into the opposite and continue their resistance with their heads held high. Through their own renewal, they are struggling to evolve as a community. With the help of the inspiration that Abdullah Öcalan represents to them, they are organizing and strengthening themselves to advance the construction of the system of Democratic Autonomy. Sinjar has developed a resistant way of life and has enormous experiences of resistance. Therefore, today it is able to share all these experiences with the other peoples in the region and act as a role model through its free, equal and organized life. In this way, Sinjar can become a place where the peaceful coexistence of peoples prevails in an exemplary manner. In prayer, the Ezidis turn to God with their wishes – first for all humanity, then for their neighbors, and only last of all for themselves. On the basis of their rich faith, newly developed consciousness and experience, but also their culture characterized by security and selflessness, they can today make it their task to lead the way for humanity and the other peoples in the region. Thus they can succeed in creating new hope not only for themselves but for the entire region.

The people of Mexmûr Camp have now lived in Mexmûr for 23 of their 27 years of displacement. Here, their lives have always been characterized by resistance and struggle. With their way of life, they have earned the respect and trust of the surrounding communities. Despite all the obstructions from the powers that are active in the region, they have managed to develop and maintain harmonious relations with their neighboring communities. As a result of Mexmûr’s fight against the IS gangs, the peoples of the region now have a very positive image of its people. In 1998, Abdullah Öcalan addressed the camp population over the radio. In addition to the hope and excitement his words conveyed at the time, he also gave the people a mission: “As the population of the camp, you will play a role as a bridge to the other peoples of the region.” Today, Mexmûr can combine this mission with the experience and knowledge it has gained in the meantime. The camp thus faces the urgent task of spreading the paradigm and system based on democracy, ecology and women’s freedom to the other peoples of the region. Thus, today Mexmûr has the historic opportunity to live up to its historic mission.

We can conclude that the region of the “disputed territories” including Sinjar and Mexmûr will be characterized by great chaos for the foreseeable future. Just as in the past, this situation in the region may again bring great losses to the peoples. In this situation, Sinjar and Mexmûr face the historic task of playing a leading role in building a promising future by spreading the democratic-confederal system and Democratic Autonomy in the region.

This article was first published in the November/December 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.