Turkmen in Tal Afar: Perceptions of Reconciliation and Conflict

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With the military defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul city, the task to liberate Tel Afar continues to loom large. The fall of Tal Afar to IS on 16 June, 2014 has severely damaged the already strained Sunni/Shia relations in the area, as well as Turkmen relations with other ethno-religious communities. Most of Tal Afar’s Sunni and Shia population were displaced during the crisis. However, some Sunni Turkmen decided not to flee and remained in Tal Afar. Although much is still unclear, it is widely believed that a number of Sunni Turkmen from Tal Afar joined IS and stand accused of having committed war crimes in their name.

Reconciling communities and repairing social ties are critical needs in ensuring stability and preventing the onset of renewed cycles of violence in the future. Such processes however, can only be advanced through consultation with local populations regarding their needs and vision for the future. The focus of this report is therefore on Turkmen perceptions of needs, opportunities, and obstacles to reconciliation within their own community as well as with other communities.

The report finds that Turkmen from Tal Afar overwhelmingly conceptualise reconciliation as a security objective that is important for enabling the safe return of the displaced. At least in the short term therefore, participants prioritised reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia Turkmens over reconciliation with other communities living elsewhere.Interviews revealed strongly overlapping views on how sectarian violence had emerged and escalated in the past, and how it should be addressed in the future. Because reconciliation in Tal Afar requires communities to reject and actively combat extremist ideologies, the process must encompass mechanisms to enable these communities to resist the influence of radical organisations. According to the majority of both Sunni and Shia participants, the first step in this process is the inclusion of Sunnis in the security sector. Creating an inclusive, formal security sector comprised of all elements of society is seen as the main need for enabling reconciliation in the future.

Serious issues of distrust, however, appears to stand in the way. The process of building trust between Sunni and Shia Turkmen faces additional challenges stemming from the fact that both communities continue to perceive each other as serving an exogenous agenda. While Shias suspect Sunnis of alignment with Turkey, Sunnis for their part see the Shias as an extension of Iranian interests in the area. Nonetheless, both communities clearly labelled security sector reform as the first step in stabilising the area after liberation, and expressed the hope that any process would not be thwarted by external actors.

In terms including Sunnis in the security sector, Shias expressed concerns about infiltration of government institutions by extremist elements. This obstacle can partly be overcome by recruiting Sunnis in the force tasked with liberating Tal Afar. For the Shias, Sunni participation constitutes a vetting mechanism which can identify those who are committed to peaceful relations and oppose extremist ideologies. Sunni inclusion in the operation to liberate Tal Afar will also increase inter-group contact and cooperation, thus contributing to the formation of shared experiences and long-term objectives.

Although intra-community reconciliation is clearly prioritised over reconciliation with other communities, participants also reflected on ways to improve relations with the neighbouring Eyzidi community. The liberation of Tal Afar will present opportunities for doing so. Criminal investigations into the crimes committed by IS as well as other actors should be initiated promptly. Sunni tribal leaders must strongly condemn crimes committed by members of their tribe and cooperate closely with law enforcement to ensure accountability can be imposed. However, it is equally important to publicise positive stories of Turkmen from Tal Afar who have risked their own lives to resist IS and help free some Eyzidi captives. Highlighting these accounts can serve an important role in countering perceptions of collective guilt towards the Sunni Turkmen community in Tal Afar.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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