Key sectors: security; energy; trade

Key risks: civil unrest; political violence; business interruption

The rivalries between Iraqi Kurdish armed groups came sharply into relief in early March. On 3 March, armed clashes broke out between Rojava Peshmerga forces, security personnel funded by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KD) in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, and the Shingal Protection Units (YBS) when the Rojava Peshmerga attempted to enter YBS-controlled territory near Khanasur in Sinjar in northern Iraq. There were reports of casualties although numbers have yet to be confirmed by either side. Federal authorities later declared Sinjar a military zone in an attempt to stem an escalation. Despite this, tensions continued for the following ten days, with violence breaking out on 14 March between Syrian Kurds and Yezidis holding an anti-KDP protest in the area in front of a checkpoint manned by KDP fighters. One female activist and a female journalist were killed and several protestors injured after KDP personnel opened fire on the group.

Sinjar and the border area with Syria will remain potential flashpoints.  As a response the KDP increased its security personnel deployments to Dohuk and will likely bolster their numbers in Sinjar where possible. KDP officials have suggested they are willing to make good on their threats to eject Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) elements from Sinjar, although this would be an unwanted distraction just as Kurdish forces may be preparing to eradicate the final elements of IS north of Mosul, and at the very least could undermine protective security measures designed to defend against IS fighters fleeing from Mosul into Kurdish-controlled territory as the Mosul offensive progresses.

There have been reports of a KDP mobilisation to the Qandil mountains where the PKK has multiple bases in the wake of activity in Sinjar, which will prove a largely ineffective if un-subtle warning to the PKK leadership resident there. It would be difficult to forcible remove the PKK from Sinjar, given the pro-PKK sentiment among local Sinjari residents. An attempt to do so would also spark a military response from the various Kurdish factions in Syria and increase the risk of the Turkish military becoming directly involved in support of the KDP.

Putting further pressure on the PKK in Sinjar, some 1,000 fighters of the Ezidkhan Protection Force, a Yezidi volunteer force in Sinjar, is now officially under the command of the KRG’s Peshmerga ministry. This will contribute to the fractious environment of splintered political loyalties in north-western Iraq. Events in Sinjar are both exacerbated by and themselves exacerbate inter-Kurdish tensions in Kurdish-governed northern Syria which continue to deteriorate as the Turkish military puts increasing pressure on Kurdish forces.

This instability is not only likely to undermine the settlement to govern Mosul and Ninawa province as fierce bargaining between local ethnic minorities for influence gets underway, but raises longer-term questions as to how useful the federal government’s tacit support to the the PKK is if it actively weakens Iraq’s border security. Should tensions edge further north of Sinjar, there is a risk to energy infrastructure including crude oil pipelines that carry supplies from Kurdish and Iraqi fields to Ceyhan and other facilities in Turkey.