The Fall of Tal Afar and the Situation of Turkmens
Bilgay Duman, ORSAM Middle East Researchers
Among the districts highly influenced by the state of conflict during and after the US invasion in Iraq, the town of Tal Afar, which is part of Mosul province and populated by Turkmens, fell to ISIS following an expected operation after ISIS created the zones of control in Mosul, Salah ad Din (Tikrit), Diyala, Anbar and some parts of Kirkuk on 6 June 2014 and headed for Baghdad. Tal Afar is experiencing one of the biggest disasters again after the US attacks in 2004-2005. While ISIS was taking the control in and around Tal Afar, the citizens massively fled from the town. Iraqi army has been carrying out air operations on Tal Afar.
Therefore, Tal Afar is collapsing again due to both the ISIS terror and the air operations of the Iraqi army which is targeting the settlements. In addition to the central town of Tal Afar, which has a population of approximately 510,000 people, the districts of Rabia, Zummar and İyaziye, where 230,000 people are living, are fully composed of Turkmens. Both the center of Iyaziye and the surrounding villages of Zummar and Rabia were heavily populated by the Turkmens. While the Turkmens compose 70 % of Tal Afar, the Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis and Gergeris live out of the town center, as well. At present, the region ISIS has targeted is the town center of Tal Afar. In this sense, the operation of ISIS has targeted only the Turkmens.
Before the operation of ISIS, Tal Afar had witnessed violence many times. The ethnic and religious division in Iraq had negatively reflected on Tal Afar and many conflicts had taken place in the town. Especially Al Qaida and Al Qaida inspired organizations had seized the town in order to create a transit point. In response, the multinational forces led by the USA and the Peshmerga troops started an operation known as "Black Typhoon" on 9 September 2004 in order to restore the security in the town and establish the control of the government formed by the USA in Iraq. An important number of Turkmens had to leave the town as a result of the operations and Tal Afar witnessed a terrible chaotic atmosphere. The justifications for the operation led by the US troops and peshmergas were "the entry into Tal Afar of the forces led by Muqtada al Sadr, the foreign fighters who tried to enter Iraq from Syria, some insurgents fleeing from Fallujah and Ansar al Islam militants affiliated to Al Qaida." This operation lasted five days and later on, the US soldiers left the town. Meanwhile, the Sunni insurgence took place in Mosul and Fallujah. Also, the terrorist organizations had begun to gather in Tal Afar in a year. Thereupon, in September 2005, the USA, alongside with the Iraqi security forces, conducted a new massive operation called "Restoring Rights." It is said that nearly 70 % of the citizens left Tal Afar during these operations. The conflict dynamic took root in Tal Afar after the operations increased. After al Askari Mosque was bombed in February 2006 in the city of Samarra, sectarian tensions arose in Tal Afar, too. The state of conflict intensively continued until 2009 and many families who had left the town between 2004 and 2009 were not able to return to Tal Afar. Along with the decrease of the sectarian conflict in Iraq after 2009 and the agreement between the tribes in Tal Afar, the efforts of Turkey to consolidate the tribes produced some positive results and the acts of violence in Tal Afar considerably decreased. However, the sectarian tension showed continuity and accordingly the town center in Tal Afar took a bi-zonal form. Still, the fact that there had been no conflict in this period and the relative restoration of security comforted the town and the migrants who had left the town due to 2004-2005 operations and the conflicts caused by the sectarian tension returned.
Yet, Tal Afar has still remained under pressure. As a result of the strategic position of Tal Afar, the biggest part of this pressure is due to the struggle between the Iraqi central government and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with the effect of the ethnic and sectarian division. Also, the repercussions of the incidents in Syria have kept the tension in Tal Afar at a high level even if there has been no concrete violence and conflict. At this point, all other ethnic and religious groups in Iraq have been affected the developments in Tal Afar. As the Kurds have created pressure on Tal Afar, which is a buffer zone preventing the unification of the KRG borders and the region of Sincar that the KRG dominates, the town has become a part of administrative, political and energy discussions between the central government and the KRG. Besides, Tal Afar has become the focus of the Iraqi central government's pressures on the Sunnis particularly in Mosul which have made the people in the town a part of this polarization. The approval of Tal Afar as a province by the Iraqi Council of Ministers in January 2014 has become the most significant example of this situation. The Sunni Turkmens in Tal Afar who had previously demanded the town to become a province opposed the approval, as they refrained from the government's pressure which had influenced Mosul as well, while the Shia Turkmens who had previously opposed the idea of Tal Afar's becoming a province persistently defended the approval as they were encouraged by the Iraqi central government. After the incidents in Syria, Tal Afar acquired importance again and some arguments were asserted claiming that the armed people who went to Syria to fight was using the passageway of Tal Afar.
Today, Tal Afar has received attention again with the pressure of ISIS, which blockaded the town to expand its area of control and enable border crossing between Syria and Iraq after the seizure of Mosul. Beginning from 14 June, howitzer attacks have been staged for two days. After the army withdrew from Tal Afar in addition to the other cities captured by ISIS, the local police composed of the townspeople and the public attempted to restore security on their own. After the help of Peshmergas for the restoration of security in Tal Afar, the prominent tribes and authorities in Tal Afar and the KRG held meetings. Although the Peshmergas accepted to restore the security with a demand from the public to hand in their weapons to them and a precondition to enter the town center, the Tal Afar side who refrained from allowing the Peshmergas to enter the town center refused to hand in their weapons to them and the sides could not come to an agreement. Within two days, the resisting people of Tal Afar were not able to endure the rising pressure of ISIS and the town was largely captured by the group while nearly all of the townspeople left Tal Afar. Heading for especially Sincar, Rabia and the regions under the KRG control, the Turkmens were at the edge of a disaster, as especially Rabia and Sincar were also under the pressure of ISIS. Also, the Turkmens of Tal Afar had difficulties in entering the KRG, because the KRG demanded controlled passage. Moreover, neither Sincar nor Rabia has the capacity to host the population escaping from Tal Afar. The Turkmens' escape caused a tremendous human tragedy. Extremely high levels of temperature ratings as a result of the summer conditions also negatively affected the migrants. It is said that there have been some difficulties to sustain basic needs such as water, food, medicine and sheltering. The people took refuge in the mosques and school buildings. However, these are temporary precautions and permanent solutions need to be generated. At this point, the Turkmens in Tal Afar have great expectations from Turkey. Providing the help of the KRG and international foundations is also crucial. The KRG should receive the Turkmens with open arms, likewise the opportunities it provided for the Kurds immigrating from the Kurdish territories of Syria. This will be, in a sense, a trust building attempt for the KRG. In spite of the problems regarding Mosul, Turkey should develop a strategy for the Turkmen’s escape, and the attempts to bring the Turkmens in Tal Afar to Turkey should be made if necessary. In addition to the human tragedy in Iraq, the hard conditions of Turkmens raises once again the kinship responsibility. Taking this sensitivity into consideration, the Turkish public also defends the necessity of creating a consciousness in order to take steps both at national and international levels.