WASHINGTON - Hussein Suleiman Hussein, 26, was preoccupied with concerns about his family’s future after he had decided to return to Sinjar, along with his wife and 5-year-old daughter, six years after the northern Iraqi city fell to the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
With his hometown Sinjar now being free from the jihadists, Hussein’s main uncertainty is no longer IS but Turkey.
A NATO ally of the United States, Turkey has recently begun an intensive bombing campaign in Sinjar and other parts of northern Iraq against a Kurdish militant group.
“I am very worried about the Turkish airstrikes but what choices do I have, apart from returning?” Hussein told VOA by phone Thursday from an Iraqi checkpoint, where he had been waiting, along with dozens of other Yazidi families, for hours to get a permit to resettle in their war-torn hometown.
When IS attacked Sinjar in August 2014 and unleashed a genocidal campaign against the Yazidi religious minority, Hussein had to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan where he has been living in a tent in the Shaikhan refugee camp in northern Duhok province.
"I could not stay in a tent any longer. A tent feels as cold as a freezer in the winter and as hot as an oven in the summer," he said.
Hussein’s 50-year-old father and nearly 20 cousins were among thousands of Yazidis killed in the IS campaign. He says he is now unsure whether the rest of his family will be safe from Turkish airstrikes after they resettle in Sinjar.
On Wednesday, Turkey escalated its offensive by deploying ground troops to northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants and their affiliated groups.
The PKK, a Turkey-based Kurdish movement claiming to strive for Kurdish rights, is designated as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S. The group entered Sinjar in mid-2014 and allegedly opened a safety route for the minority’s civilians fleeing IS.
Turkish airstrikes in Sinjar also targeted the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a group that was formed in 2017 by a group of mostly young Yazidis with the help of the PKK to defend the pre-Islamic religious minority from IS.
Local Kurdish officials said Friday that additional Turkish strikes in the Duhok province had killed at least four civilians, according to local media reports.
Some experts say even though the YBS has not carried out any known attacks against Turkey, Ankara is concerned that it could become a future threat to its security as an extension of the PKK.
“Turkey's upped military campaign in northern Iraq has aimed to disrupt PKK mobilization in the Hakurk and Sinjar regions,” said Berkay Mandiraci, a Turkey analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“The Hakurk region functions as a logistical transit channel for the PKK into Turkey, whereas the militant group uses the Sinjar region as a transit route between Iraq and Syria,” Mandiraci said, adding, “Ankara aims to disrupt both.”
In the spring 2018, Turkey invaded the Kurdish city of Afrin in northwest Syria near the Turkish border. In an offensive dubbed “Operation Olive Branch,” the Turkish air force backed a group of largely Islamist fighters to seize the city from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militants whom Ankara accuses of having ties with the PKK.
The U.S. denies those connections and considers the YPG a key local ally in fighting against IS.
“Yazidis in Turkish-occupied Afrin were displaced and forced to renounce their religion. Yazidi shrines and cemeteries were destroyed,” said Amy Austin Holmes, a Harvard University professor who has visited and extensively researched northeastern Syria, during a webinar last week hosted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Some Yazidi activists say the alleged persecution of their community in Afrin continues to resonate with many Yazidis in Iraq.
“Yazidis heard the Turkish president threaten many times of military intervention in Sinjar,” said Saad Babar, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Yazidi advocacy group Yazda. “Yazidis fear that what happened in Afrin and northern Syria would happen again in Sinjar.”
For some others, the fear of the Turkish army is rooted in a more ancient history.
“It's well-known in the history of the Yazidis that the Turkish army has no mercy upon them,” said Khairi Ali, an activist with Eyzidi Organization for Documentation, a Sinjar-based organization that documents crimes against the Yazidis.
“The history is filled with massacres of our people by the Ottomans," said Ali.
A diplomatic source at the Turkish Foreign Ministry told VOA in an email that the country's strikes were surgically targeting the PKK, adding that it was the militant group, not the recent Turkish strikes, that had prevented most Yazidis from returning to Sinjar.
“Utmost care and precision are employed to keep civilians off any harm during our operations. Our air capabilities destroyed 81 terrorist targets with no civilian casualties so far,” said the source.
The offensive in northern Iraq started days after Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan paid an unannounced visit to Baghdad.
Since the beginning of the operation, however, Iraq has summoned Turkey’s Baghdad ambassador twice and condemned it “in the strongest terms.”
“We affirm our absolute rejection of these violations that breach the charters and international laws,” read a statement published by Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday, calling on the Turkish troops to leave the country.
Despite this public denunciation, some observers doubt that Turkey could carry out such a large-scale military campaign without Baghdad’s prior consent.
“We know that these attacks were coordinated with the Iraqi government,” said Hussam Abdullah, the executive manager of Eyzidi Organization for Documentation.
By Friday, Iraq’s newly elected prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, had not yet publicly addressed the Turkish military operation. The northern Kurdistan Regional Government, which has strong economic ties with Turkey, condemned the bombing of areas under its control in a statement issued Friday, calling on PKK to leave the area and on Turkey to respect Iraq's sovereignty.
"Turkey now bombs Sinjar Mountain. Why is it doing that? Don't we also have a family? Aren't we also humans?” said Hussein, hours before he was about to make Sinjar his permanent home anew.
This story has been updated with a comment from the Turkish Foreign Ministry.