Atop a hill overlooking this Northern Iraqi town, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, President Masoud Barzani, positions himself behind a podium constructed of sandbags. It’s Friday, Nov. 13, and the sky is clear amid a drift of smoke trailing off into the far distance. Over Barzani’s shoulders, the brown streets and rows of houses of Sinjar stretch out over the horizon of the flat landscape. The sandbags are topped with microphones, a thin wire runs to a single, bare speaker.
Fifteen months earlier, the town behind Barzani was ransacked by ISIS fighters in what would become known as the Sinjar Massacre. In the days and weeks that followed, thousands of civilians in the surrounding area from the Yazidi religious minority were systematically killed or sold into sex slavery. Some men were executed individually for resisting and others were beheaded, but the vast majority of the estimated 5,000 killed were lined up and shot en mass. Women and girls as young as six were raped, and with thousands of others, forced into holding camps before being distributed for sale. Those who managed to flee to nearby Sinjar Mountain remained trapped without food or water for weeks. Their plight was cited by Obama as justification for starting the air campaign in which coalition forces and the Iraqi air force dropped supplies and carried out a number of Yazidis. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)—the militia fighting the Turkish government for Kurdish independence—later opened a humanitarian corridor to the mountain.
The recapture of Sinjar by Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes on Nov. 13 was an important strategic victory in the ongoing fight against ISIS. Taking back Sinjar cuts the strategic 75-mile-long Highway 47, the main supply line between the two largest ISIS strongholds of Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, isolating the two cities and making the transport of weapons, fighters, and oil between them much more difficult. Recapturing the predominantly Yazidi town was also an important symbolic victory after the Peshmerga’s failure to protect the city from ISIS the year prior, as well as proving that Kurdish forces can fight for ethnic groups other than themselves. But the victory has also raised new political tensions between the Kurdish government, which seeks eventual independence, and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government. The politicians in Baghdad want Sinjar to return to their control, as it was before ISIS conquered it, while Kurdish officials say it should become part of Kurdistan.