This August marked the third anniversary of the atrocities committed by Islamic State (IS) against the sectarian minority Yazidi community, who are ethnically Kurds, in the strategic and disputed region of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq’s Ninewah governorate near the Syrian-Iraqi border (al-Jazeera [Doha], August 3; Reuters, May 4). Against the objection of Baghdad, Sinjar is reportedly being prepared to be included as an autonomous region within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and would be joined to the KRI if it declared independence from Iraq (al-Modon [Baghdad], March 4). Further complicating the situation, one of the region’s most powerful Yazidi political and military leaders, Haydar Shasho, the former commander of the Hêza Parastina Êzîdxanê (HPE-Ezidkhan Defense Units) and the head of the Yazidi Democratic Party, supports the inclusion of Sinjar in an independent KRI (Kurdistan 24 [Dohuk], August 5; Kurdistan 24 [Dohuk], April 18).
Shasho, a 47-year-old native of the Sinjar region, immigrated to West Germany in the late 1980s, to the region of Lower Saxony where there is a large Yazidi community. There he became a German citizen and settled in the city of Wolfsburg (Vice News [Sinjar], November 5, 2014; BZ [Berlin], October 26, 2014). After immigrating to Germany, Shasho continued to maintain a residence in the city of Dohuk, in the central-eastern area of the KRI, where he would periodically travel to from Germany. In 1993, he became a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has traditionally had a base of power in Dohuk, and he became active in intra-Kurdish politics in northern Iraq (Bas News [Dohuk], April 18). At the time of the formation of the HPE in August 2014, Shasho was already established as an important figure in the Yazidi diaspora community in Germany, and as an important figure in Iraqi Kurdish politics by his position as a member of the PUK’s Central Committee (Bas News [Dohuk], April 18; Sara Press [Dohuk]).
Organizing the Resistance
In August 2014, Haydar Shasho joined his uncle Qasim Shasho, a prominent member of the Iraqi Yazidi community who had also immigrated to Lower Saxony, Germany, and Qasim’s two sons, who were also resident in Germany, to organize armed resistance to the IS attacks against the Yazidi community in Sinjar (The Daily Beast [Sinjar], May 10, 2015; Vice News [Sinjar], November 5, 2014; BZ [Berlin], October 26, 2014). Although Qasim had been part of the Kurdish-led, armed opposition against the Saddam Hussein government in northern Iraq in the 1970s, Haydar rapidly emerged as the more important military commander. Haydar had reportedly joined the Bundeswehr for a period of time after immigrating to Germany, and was therefore considered the “commander” of the Shasho family that was in Sinjar mobilizing Yazidi armed resistance to IS (The Daily Beast [Sinjar], May 10, 2015; BZ [Berlin], October 26, 2014). Under his leadership, the HPE mobilized approximately 1,300 fighters capable for combat missions, and a larger reserve manpower pool of approximately 4,000 fighters (EKurd [Sinjar], January 10, 2016).
However, political tension between Qasim, who is associated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by KRI President Masoud Barzani, and Haydar, a member of the KDP’s rival the PUK, led Haydar to separate his effort from his family and to assume leadership over the HPE (al-Monitor, August 18, 2015). Under Haydar’s command, the HPE was considered to be a Yazidi armed wing of the PUK, and he struck a careful balance of leveraging financial and military support from Baghdad with the political reality that the Sinjar community would be joined to a KDP-led Kurdistan region in northern Iraq (Kedistan [Erbil], October 25, 2016; al-Monitor, August 18, 2015; Rudaw [Erbil], April 16, 2015). However, in April 2015, KRI authorities directed by the KDP arrested and detained Haydar Shasho in Dohuk for almost a week, on charges that he was organizing an illegal militia. He was released after pressure was applied on the KRI government by the PUK, which believed his arrest was politically motivated due to Shasho’s criticism of Masoud Barzani (Ezidi Press [Dohuk], April 13, 2015; Der Spiegel, April 7, 2015; Ehamalat [Dohuk], April 6, 2015).
Following his release from detention in April 2015, Shasho has put his energy into ensuring that the Yazidi community of Sinjar is provided with a formal, prescribed military role in the KRI, and toward the participation of the Yazidi community in the KRI’s government (Kurdistan 24 [Dohuk], August 5; al-Sumaria [Baghdad], April 6, 2016). To achieve the military objective, Shasho has reconciled with the KDP. In March 2017, he obtained the formal approval from the KRI’s Ministry of Peshmerga to incorporate the HPE as a constituent force within the KRI’s Peshmerga, with permission to recruit and mobilize 10,000 fighters (Washington Post, March 21; Kurdistan 24 [Dohuk], March 9).
Also to achieve his military objective for the HPE, and in order to build a relationship with Turkey, which is one of the most powerful foreign patrons of the KRI, Sasho has become an increasingly vocal opponent of the Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê (YBS-Sinjar Resistance Units), which is a rival Yazidi armed group to the HPE (Rudaw [Erbil], May 1; Daily Sabah [Istanbul], April 20). A powerful actor in Sinjar, the YBS is associated with the Syrian Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has links to the PKK, leading to Turkish military airstrikes against the YBS in the Sinjar region (al-Monitor, May 9; Anadolu Agency [Ankara], May 2). Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly stated that his government would not allow the PKK to create a “new Qandil” in the Sinjar region of Iraq (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], April 4; Anadolu Agency [Ankara], October 27, 2016). The HPE and YBS have an uneasy relationship in Sinjar, and have periodically clashed (al-Monitor, August 18, 2015).
Further working toward his goal of formalizing the Yazidi community’s enduring relationship with and political participation in the KRI, Shasho resigned from his leadership position in the PUK and established the Yazidi Democratic Party in April 2017 (Kurdistan 24 [Dohuk], April 18; Bas News [Dohuk], April 18). Under Shasho’s leadership, the Yazidi Democratic Party, which is headquartered in Dohuk, seeks to ensure that the Yazidi community’s rights are protected (Al-Aalem [Dohuk], July 19). Shasho is also using the platform of the Yazidi Democratic Party to push for the inclusion of Sinjar in the KRI, separate from the rest of Iraq, with the right to self-administration within the KRI, a politically controversial position both within the Yazidi community and with Baghdad (Kurdistan 24 [Dohuk], August 5; Al-Modon [Baghdad], March 4).
Haydar Shasho is one of the most important political and military leaders in the KRI, both due to his long history of participation in intra-Kurdish politics, and for his growing role as a leader within the Yazidi community. As a result of Turkey’s concern for the establishment of a PKK safe haven in Sinjar through the YBS, Shasho’s role as a military and political leader in Sinjar who is willing to counter the YBS is likely to make him an important local interlocutor for one of the KRI’s most important foreign patrons. With the September referendum on independence for the KRI looming, Shasho is also well positioned, regardless of whether the KRI moves toward independence or not, to continue to secure political and military guarantees from the Iraqi Kurdistan leadership.