The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) announced yesterday that its fighters have pushed their way into Sinjar, which the Islamic State overran in August 2014. The so-called “caliphate” has maintained control of the northern Iraqi town in the 16 months since. But a new offensive launched in recent days has loosened the jihadists’ grip.
“Peshmerga forces today successfully reached Sinjar town from two flanks, East and West, as part of Operation Free Sinjar,” the KRSC said in a statement released online. The operation, which is “supported by International Coalition airstrikes,” has the “strategic objective of cordoning off Sinjar town and disrupting [Islamic State] supply routes.”
Yazidi fighters are also reportedly part of the offensive. And BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio, who has been covering the battle to retake Sinjar from inside the town, reports that the YPG and the PKK shouldered much of the heavy fighting before the Peshmerga offensive began. The YPG, or Kurdish People’s Defense Units, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government.
As of early yesterday evening, the KRSC reported, “Peshmerga forces had taken control of a significant stretch of the main road from Ba’aj to Sinjar.” The town of Ba’aj, which is located in a district with the same name to the south of Sinjar, is a known Islamic State stronghold.
The KRSC describes Ba’aj as a “staging ground for VBIEDS” (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) and says that “[v]ideo footage” from earlier today shows Islamic State fighters “mobilizing VBIEDS from Ba’aj to Sinjar in an effort to prevent Peshmerga advances.”
According to Shafaq News, the coalition has been bombing sites in Ba’aj to suppress the Islamic State’s ability to send reinforcements.
Kurdish ground forces, backed by the US-led coalition’s warplanes, are attempting to end the Islamic State’s control of Highway 47, which runs from Mosul, past Sinjar, and into Syria. The highway is a key supply line connecting Mosul and Raqqa, the “caliphate’s” two capitals. The loss of Highway 47 will force the Islamic State to use secondary supply routes through the desert.
“The targeting of Highway 47 over Sinjar Mountain…and the ground operation by the Peshmerga will degrade the ability of [Islamic State] terrorists to funnel fighters and equipment into Iraq, and help cut off an important means of funding their terrorist activities,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters. “Severing that supply route will impact [the Islamic State’s] ability to move men and materiel between those two hubs,” Cook continued, “and since November 11th, I can tell you, the coalition has conducted 36 airstrikes supporting this operation.”
Separately, US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that coalition military forces conducted twelve strikes near Sinjar on November 12. The airstrikes hit “five separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed 27 ISIL fighting positions, three ISIL heavy machine guns, five ISIL vehicles, an ISIL vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), 11 ISIL staging areas, and denied ISIL access to terrain.” ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is the acronym used by the US government for the Islamic State.
The Islamic State’s victory in Sinjar last year precipitated a major humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, mainly members of the Yazidi religious minority, were trapped on top of Mount Sinjar after fleeing the pillaging jihadists. The US airdropped food, water and other provisions to the Yazidis. Iraqi and Peshmerga forces came to their aid as well.
Thousands of other Yazidis, however, were massacred or taken as slaves. 5,270 Yazidis were abducted in 2014 and approximately 3,144 of them were still held by the Islamic State one year after the “caliphate” took Sinjar, according to The New York Times. The Islamic State has enshrined “a theology of rape,” the Times reported, with Yazidi women and girls being bought and sold as sex slaves. The practice is even used as a recruiting tool to attack new fighters.
Assuming Peshmerga forces can hold Sinjar, it would be the third major loss for the Islamic State inside Iraq this year. Iraqi forces, heavily backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, seized control of the cities of Tikrit and Baiji in central Iraq from the Islamic State over the past six months. Iraqi troops and the militias are also attempting to retake Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar.