The dirt road, closed closed on each side by mounds of earth, marks the front line: Here is the peshmerga force; on the other side is the Islamic State. We are on the Ninawa plain, 12 miles from Mosul, 50 miles from Sinjar and five checkpoints away from Erbil. At the last one, the Kurdish army keeps us waiting for half an hour.
A group of peshmerga fighters oversee the valley from a small station, a hut and some military vehicles: “Behind us there are the mountains of Bashiqa and Zardek. We freed them a year ago. Here the villages that you see in the front are Christian communities, still under control of the enemy.”
Today is a day of celebration in Kurdistan: Sinjar was liberated, a dramatic defeat for the Islamic State because its border with Syria has now lost continuity with the “capital” Raqqa, and the access road between Sinjar and Mosul is broken. The Kurdish president Masoud Barzani made the announcement yesterday, near the Yazidi city (“I’m here to declare the liberation of Sinjar,” he said), while groups of peshmerga manned the streets to locate unexploded ordnance and took control of the factories, the hospital and public buildings.
In the headquarters of Bashiqa — 10,000 men who control 20 miles of borders — congratulations are in order. They proudly show us some tanks, manufactured in the U.S. for the Iraqi army: ISIS had them confiscated, and now they are in the hands of the Kurdish army.
“We have to take over arms on our own, since the coalition sends everything to Baghdad and the heavy artillery is not sent here,” a soldier complains. Another soldier takes us to the building roof, where the peshmerga sleep: Mattresses are lying on the ground, one next to the other, amid ashtrays and dice. From the roof, he indicates the liberated zones. “Bashiqa had been taken by the Islamists after the fall of Mosul. We regained it a year ago.”
In the main tent, Gen. Hameed Afandi, former Minister of Peshmerga and Barzani’s right hand, is chain smoking cigarettes as he welcomes guests.
“We planned a counteroffensive a long time ago,” he tells il manifesto. “It was launched today because the weather is good: Sinjar is in a valley, and the attack against ISIS started from the mountains around, from every direction: They were surrounded. Our men have now taken control of Road 47 between Mosul and Syria and liberated the city in a few hours. There are no more Islamists within the city, I received confirmation an hour ago: Sinjar is in Kurdish hands.”
In the counteroffensive, he adds, thousands of Yazidi residents still living in Sinjar took part (many trained by the PKK), the people who survived the worst Islamist brutality: enslaved women, mass killing of men, starving civilians from the siege.
The noise of an explosion interrupts him: The general goes to seek confirmations (“Only a mine”), then he resumes talking. “The next goal? We will secure the Sinjar area and then we will move the front line to the Tigris river, to Mosul. We have peshmerga everywhere. Now it will be easy to think of the counteroffensive. We do not want Mosul, it is an Arab city. The Kurdish territory comes to the dam, to the river. This is what belongs to us.”
We ask whether any action to regain Mosul can occur through the coordination with the Baghdad army: “We have not received orders from Erbil on a possible joint action with Iraq,” Afandi said. “As far as we are concerned, we will continue until we liberate the last centimeter of Kurdistan. Who knows, we might even coordinate with those who supported us along this year. We were able to break the siege of Mount Sinjar in August of 2014 thanks to the intervention of the YPG [defense units of the Syrian Kurds]. For the first time in history, Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds fought together. They have supported us here; we have helped them in Kobane. Here, among my men, there are also Iranian Kurds.”
The recovery of Sinjar is a significant setback for ISIS. For a year, ISIS could move freely from Iraq to Syria, carrying men, military leaders, weapons, smuggled oil. Now the Islamic State is divided into two entities, no longer connected territorially. And, besides the loss of a strategic town from a military standpoint, the flight in 24 hours of Islamist militiamen from Sinjar affects seriously the propaganda machine prepared by the “Caliph” al-Baghdadi.
“A new offensive by the enemy in Sinjar is unlikely,” said Afandi, while putting out the last cigarette. “For them it would be a risk, once the area will be completely controlled militarily by the peshmerga. They are forced to fall back and this will make them even more fearsome in Mosul.”