PKK-aligned Yazidi militia battles ISIS

An Aug. 7 account on Daily Beast reports that young Yazidis—including women—are returning to the Mount Sinjar area of Iraq from which they were "cleansed" by ISIS last year, and fighting to reclaim their homeland from the jihadists. They also hope to rescue hundreds of Yazidi women and youth who remain in ISIS captivity. They are organized in a militia called the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS), which the article portrays as trained by and in the political orbit of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Young Yazidi fighters are quoted saying they feel betrayed by the Peshmerga of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, which they say abandoned them to ISIS. But we've noted before the problemetic nature of Daily Beast's reportage on Syria and Iraq, and this is no exception. The PKK is called a "Marxist and allegedly terrorist organization" (the word "allegedly" apparently having been added after publication, to go by the cache as it appears on Facebook). It states that the PKK was "[b]uilt on Marxist-Leninist ideals and Kurdish nationalism," without stating that it has in recent years moved away from both towards an anarchist-influenced politics.

Then there's the headline: "Yazidi Child Soldiers Take Revenge on ISIS." Most of the fighters are still in their teens. Accusations of use of child soliders have been levelled against the PKK before. On July 15, Human Rights Watch published a report accusing the PKK's allied militia in Syria, the People's Protection Units (YPG),  of violating a June 2014 "Deed of Commitment" it signed with the non-governmental organization Geneva Call pledging to demobilize all fighters under 18 within one month. Some 150 such fighters were indeed demobilized, but HRW finds that the YPG has again been recruiting underage fighters in the escalated war with ISIS. HRW linked to a response issued by the YPG pledging to investigate the charges.

One welcome addition to the Daily Beast story is a quote from David L. Phillips, a former State Department advisor and now director of the Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University who has been a strong advocate of the revolutionary Kurds. He states that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "took steps deliberately to provoke the PKK" by bombing their positions in Iraq. "By responding, the Western countries are going to put on the back burner any talk about taking the PKK off the FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organization] list."

Presumably, this means that the PKK response of escalating attacks within Turkey will provide the State Department and European Union an excuse not to remove the PKK from their "terrorist organization" lists—which they had been under growing pressure to do as the PKK and allied forces such as the YPG have proved themselves the most effective force on the ground against ISIS. Thus far, the Turkish air-strikes have mostly been on PKK targets in Iraq, but Phillips predicts, "I would say it's only a short matter of time before [Erdogan] starts bombing YPG facilities in Rojava," or northern Syria.

Perhaps there is still time. We say again: This is the moment for urgent pressure on the Turkish state. There must be an immediate halt to air-strikes on anti-ISIS forces in Iraq, and no extension of the air campaign to Rojava.

  1. ISIS ‘theology of rape’

    An in-depth Aug. 13 look by the New York Times into the Islamic State’s enslavement and rape of women from the Yazidi minority group has shed light on one of the most disturbing aspects of its rule in Syria and Iraq. The practice, according to reporter Rukmini Callimachi, was formalized a year ago, when ISIS announced it was bringing institutionalized slavery back. Since then an entire “infrastructure” – warehouses, buses, viewing rooms – has emerged to facilitate the trade of women and girls.

    A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted last year, and at least 3,144 are still being held, according to community leaders. To handle them, the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts. And the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.

    A growing body of internal policy memos and theological discussions has established guidelines for slavery, including a lengthy how-to manual issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department just last month. Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.

    Even if captives are released or manage to escape, the trauma doesn’t end, given the stigma that is associated with rape victims in conservative societies. So far, the Yazidi leadership has said all the right things. Baba Sheikh, a prominent religious leader, has at least twice reassured women they will be welcomed back to the community, according to a Human Rights Watch report in April.

    "These survivors remain pure Yazidis and no one may injure their Yazidi faith because they were subjected to a matter outside their control.… We therefore call on everyone to cooperate with and support these victims so that they may again live their normal lives and integrate into society," Baba Sheikh said in February, according to HRW. (CSM)

  2. More details on ISIS bureaucracy of rape

    The Independent on Aug. 14 runs a harrowing report on Kayla Mueller, the American woman (and veteran of the International Solidarity Movement) who was taken captive by ISIS while doing aid work for the displaced in Syria. According to the testimony of an unnamed 14-year-old Yazidi girl who escaped from ISIS captivity, she had been turned over to ISIS "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and repeatedly raped ("married by force," in the heart-wrenching phrase of the Yazidi girl). She also tried to rpotect that Yazidi girls she was held with—and apparently turned down an opportunity to escape with some of them, because she knew that a white woman among them would make them visible and a target.

    The escaped Yazidi girls say the sex trade was organized by Umm Sayyaf, the Iraqi wife of Abu Sayyaf, a Tunisian ISIS financier. She was captured in Syria in May by US Special Forces and has reportedly been co-operating with military interrogators. Last week the White House announced that Umm Sayyaf would be prosecuted in Kurdish Iraq and "held accountable for her crimes."