On top of a ridge overlooking Şingal (Sinjar) town, Pêşmerge fighters shield themselves behind sandbags and earth walls. A shell passes close above with a whining sound and a second later hits the mountainside behind us. Seven or eight more follow, probably from a twenty-three millimetre auto-cannon. Soon we hear instead the dry thud of outgoing light mortar fire, aimed at an Islamic State (IS) position about five hundred metres away. A Pêşmerge fighter rushes forward to peek over the sandbags and observe the impact, adjusts the angle of the tube and drops another round in it. The procedure is repeated until the wooden box is empty — but all seven rounds miss their target.
About an hour and a half after sunset, we hear the first murmur of coalition aircraft, and twenty minutes later a missile finds its target with a loud bang. Soon thereafter, movement is detected below, and one of the Pêşmerge fighters opens fire with his G36 assault rifle. Maybe it was only an illusion — or he intercepted an enemy patrol. In the cover of darkness, fighters on both sides can move out from their entrenched positions to fire at a closer range, or even launch reconnaissance missions or attacks. Lacking night vision equipment, the Pêşmerge fighters light up the nearest hillside with flashlights, but only for a few seconds at a time, so as to minimise their own exposure. The murmur comes back, but there are no more airstrikes tonight.
Suddenly a heavy rain pours down, soaking everyone on the ridge, as well as the mattresses and blankets they have placed on the ground. Then, as if nature were conspiring against them, a cold wind starts blowing. The Pêşmerge fighters lead a hard life, and get precious little for their efforts. Low salaries have long made it normal to work second jobs in between deployments, and with an economic crisis in the Kurdistan region things have deteriorated further. “Since Daesh [IS] attacked, we only get one monthly salary every three months. It is very difficult to manage for those with families,” says thirty-seven-year old Azîz Hajî Taha, who comes from a village near Dîana. However, all seem to agree that the Pêşmerge have gained a completely new level of respect in their own society as well as internationally, and they hope that their toiling and bloodshed will eventually lay the foundation for a different future. “We want to get our independence,” says Azîz. He points to a burst of red tracer rounds making their way across the sky. “And we want these weapons to be finished, to live as a relaxed country without any problems.”
The many forces of Şingal
The fighters on the ridge belong to the 12th Pêşmerge Brigade, a mixed unit with half its members from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (Partiya Demokrata Kurdistanê or PDK) and the other half from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (Yekîtiya Nîştimaniya Kurdistanê or YNK). In the 1990s, the two parties fought each other in a senseless civil war, and although the process of unification has been slow, the creation of mixed units is a success story. “Now we do not think about political parties, we are family,” says Mihemed Ehmed Mihemed from Qeladizê, who has been a Pêşmerge fighter since 1991. The same fraternal sentiments are expressed towards fighters from other parties — including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê or PKK). “Before Daesh attacked we had a different mindset in all four parts of Kurdistan, but they made us into one group, fighting for one aim, which is Kurdistan,” says Mihemed.
When IS attacked Şingal in August, the Pêşmerge fighters tasked with protecting the area were caught unprepared and retreated quickly. As Ezidi (Yazidi) civilians fled up Mount Şingal, it was instead spontaneously formed local militias that defended the roads. “When Daesh captured Mosul, I told people to get weapons for themselves, so they could defend their families in case something happens,” says Qasim Derbo, a village leader turned militia commander. “We did not let Daesh go up the mountain,” he continues. Some of the Ezidi militias later branded themselves the Şingal Protection Force (Hêza Parastina Şingal or HPŞ), but political complications ensued when their commander Heydar Şeşo sought support from Baghdad, and was instead arrested by the authorities of the Kurdistan region. Eventually it was agreed that the Ezidi fighters would come under the control of the Ministry of Pêşmerge, and they now fly the Kurdistan flag but wear no other insignia, and have no official name for their units.
After the Ezidis were surrounded on Mount Şingal, PKK-affiliated forces punched a corridor through IS-controlled territory to enable the evacuation of civilians and shore up the defence. While some units have now returned to Syria, the People’s Defence Forces (Hêzên Parastina Gel or HPG) and an Ezidi militia called the Şingal Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şingal or YBŞ) still remain. However, the military and political presence of the PKK is a cause for concern for its long-time rival, the PDK, which dominated the area before IS’ attack. On and around Mount Şingal, both parties have now laboriously marked their presence with flags, graffiti and leader portraits.
The stalled battle
In December, Pêşmerge forces launched a large offensive to capture all territory north of Mount Şingal. “The plan was not to go into Şingal town,” says Brigadier Ezedîn Sindî, commander of the 12th Pêşmerge Brigade, which took part in the December operation and is now deployed in the area for the second time. He states that PKK-affiliated forces pushed further south and entered Şingal town on their own initiative, and were only later joined by Pêşmerge fighters. However, the offensive stalled and was even partly rolled back; almost a half year later, Brigadier Sindî is still waiting for an order from his superiors to attempt a full assault on Şingal town. “To take it is no problem, but to keep it is a problem,” he says, citing as reason that IS would counter-attack if they lost the highway that runs through the town, and which connects Raqqa with Tel Afar. From a tactical perspective his reasoning appears sound, yet from a strategic perspective it could be argued that this is precisely why this operation ought to be made a priority. Only about a quarter of Şingal town is currently held by the HPG and YBŞ along with the YNK-controlled 101st Pêşmerge Brigade, while the 12th Pêşmerge Brigade holds the ridges and lower hills together with Ezidi militias and the HPG.
“The weapons we have are not sufficient, and in a place like this you need more ammunition,” says Brigadier Sindî, echoing statements from his fighters. “We do not need anything else. We have no problems with morale.” The 12th Pêşmerge Brigade has received some new weapons, such as MILAN anti-tank missiles and SPG-9 recoilless guns, but the grinding, constant battle requires more ammunition for heavy weapons than is currently being provided, and there are too few armoured vehicles. Why do these problems persist, so long into the war? The most straightforward explanations are that Kurdish forces have a long frontline against IS, that there have not been enough deliveries from abroad, and that there is a mismatch between what has been delivered and what is needed. It is also possible that ammunition reserves are held back and saved for a future offensive. Yet another explanation is that armoured vehicles and heavy weaponry are unevenly divided between different Pêşmerge units, and party-controlled brigades in particular are reluctant to share their resources with “rival” or mixed brigades.
Since IS’ attack in August, supporters of different Kurdish parties have been using Şingal as a rod to beat their opponents, often through news media and social media. While PDK supporters accuse the PKK of exploiting the situation to try to take over the area, they are themselves frequently blamed for abandoning Şingal in the first place, as well as for the current military stalemate. However, despite that political rivalry remains ever-present, commanders and fighters of different party colours appear committed to working together to face IS on the battlefield. Considering the long and nasty history of intra-Kurdish conflict, it is actually quite remarkable that fighters from the PDK, YNK and PKK currently share the same trench on one of the ridges above Şingal town. It also bears remembering that things would have turned out far worse were it not for the initial defence mounted by Ezidi militias, while without the PKK there would have been no evacuation of civilians, and only a determined counter-offensive by Pêsmerge forces backed up by coalition airstrikes could finally break the siege. All have shed blood for the liberation of Şingal.