In a major defeat for Kurdish forces the Iraqi town of Sinjar was captured Sunday by the group known as ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State. This is the Kurds first major loss to ISIS and a catastrophe for the religious minorities who had taken refuge in the area and are now at imminent risk of being slaughtered.
Reports from the region describe an unfolding tragedy with young women being abducted, religious monuments destroyed, and the ISIS flag now hanging over government buildings.
Without Western champions and sympathizers, the non-Christian religious minorities of Nineveh province are being slowly exterminated, driven off, or forced into hiding.
The Sinjar mountain area is a ring of villages and one of the few true homes for the Yezidi people. The Yezidi’s ancient faith, which combines elements of Christianity, Sufi Islam, and Zoroastrianism, is considered heretical by ISIS and puts them at great risk. Of the 300,000 who live in this district, most have left in the last 24 hours and the rest are desperately trying to find a way out with aid organizations in Iraq saying that a humanitarian disaster of epic scale is currently unfolding.
Sources in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces, told The Daily Beast that they only withdrew when they had run out of ammunition and were regrouping for a counter-attack to retake Sinjar and its surrounding villages. But this may come too late for the civilians now under ISIS control, most of whom are non-Sunnis, referred to by the Arabic pejorative Rafidah or 'the refusers' by the Sunni extremist group.
The fall of Sinjar is made worse by the fact that it had been the refuge point for thousands of Yezidis, Shabak, and Shia—who are in the minority in northern Iraq—and others who fled the fall of Tal Afar and Mosul in June. On June 16th, thousands of Turkmen Shia and refugees from Mosul left in the middle of the night, some on foot and with few belongings, to escape from ISIS fighters pouring into the city. Now Sinjar has suffered the same fate, with the UN reporting at least 200,000 civilians, mostly Yezidis, fleeing to the Kurdish lines. Pictures of gigantic traffic jams and families hiding in the mountains have been widely distributed and a new refugee crisis is building in a region already saturated with those uprooted from their homes.
Sinjar holds strategic importance to ISIS because it’s a border town that gives the group a direct line of attack against the Kurdish forces it is currently fighting in Syria. Caught in the middle of this struggle are the minority communities of Ninewa province: The Turkmen, The Shabak, The Christians, the Shia, The Kaka'i and, in the case of Sinjar, the Yezidis.
On August 3, an initial ISIS assault force assembled to the south of Sinjar. With reinforcements arriving from its Syrian factions, the group began their assault on the Kurdish Peshmerga. By the morning of August 4th, the outgunned Peshmerga were running out of ammunition and withdrew from Sinjar district entirely. ISIS quickly overwhelmed the small local militias guarding the area who were no match for columns of trucks and hardened jihadist fighters armed with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.
With the town under its control ISIS began destroying symbols of Shiism, as the Shiite led government of Iraq and its supporters are considered the group’s greatest enemy. Within hours of completing their takeover of Sinjar, the Sayyida Zaynab mosque, a Shia holy site, was reportedly blown up.
By the afternoon of Sunday, August 4, with ISIS in full control of Sinjar, terrified families from the area began their dangerous exodus. The speed with which ISIS engulfed the entire mountain range attests to the large numbers of fighters they brought to bear for this major offensive. Villagers in the Sinjar area gave accounts of girls and young women from their families being abducted by ISIS fighters and carried away.
Countless families fled to the mountains above their villages where they are currently surrounded by ISIS controlled areas and are desperately calling friends and family members who escaped, pleading for help. Pictures of families hiding in the mountains have circulated widely on Iraqi social media.
Besides the Sayyida Zainab mosque, ISIS forces were reported to have blown up the Sharif Al-Deen shrine on the Sinjar mountainside, a holy place for Yezidis. The ISIS flag was also raised over the only remaining church in the Sinjar area. Within 24 hours, Sinjar has been transformed from a bustling community into a string of ghost towns.
The Iraqi Peshmerga are reported to be moving heavy weapons and troops to the area and are planning their counteroffensive, but it is uncertain how capable they are of dislodging a determined ISIS force. For the families and religious groups still left in the area, time is running out.