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World

After Retaking Sinjar, Iraq, How Kurdish Forces Can Prevent ISIS' Return

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

After a two-day battle, Kurdish forces have reclaimed the Iraqi town of Sinjar from ISIS. But there's not much left. Most of the people have gone and a lot of the town is now rubble. So how do people from a town like this rebuild, and how do they prevent ISIS from coming back? Jessica McFate, with the Institute for the Study of War, has written about this, and she's with us now.

Welcome to the show.

JESSICA MCFATE: Thank you very much for having me.

MCEVERS: So let's talk about Sinjar. I mean, as we said, most of the people have left and are now living as refugees in camps or in other, you know, tense situations. What will it take to get them to come back?

MCFATE: Well, this really is the very important question - and I think the one that isn't asked enough - that if military operations to clear ISIS are successful and towns are retaken, what happens next? These are population centers, in the case of Sinjar, that were largely depopulated as ISIS was coming in, and in order to come back they need a number of things. I think, chiefly, security that is durable. But they also need running water and structures and other things that are probably no longer there. So reconstruction is a very serious issue also.

MCEVERS: In this case and in other cases, we see Kurdish forces coming in and winning these battles against ISIS and then taking over towns and where there are other people living there. There are Arabs living there. It's difficult then when you've got one sect trying to govern another. Is that right?

MCFATE: Yes. This is particularly the case with a number of Arab-majority towns in northern Syria that Kurdish forces have taken over, where we're talking about a Kurdish liberation force that Arab populations view as occupying.

MCEVERS: Right.

MCFATE: So there is a further concern about resentment by a local population of being liberated - even from some force like ISIS - by Kurdish elements.

MCEVERS: And you said that in some refugee camps where people from these towns have fled, people are organizing themselves into something that, you know, sometimes looks like governing bodies. Do you think these could translate back into their original towns?

MCFATE: Well, I do think that communities that are displaced likely have undergone a galvanizing experience. ISIS does tend to bring people closer together, at least on the sentiment of being anti-ISIS. And they're highly motivated. A displaced community can potentially organize and mobilize and, in fact, take charge of an effort. I don't know the degree to which that is occurring within Kurdish communities across Iraq and Syria that are intending to go back to towns like Sinjar, but I do think that it's a potential, and it's definitely a community that can be engaged constructively in order to take charge of their own future security.

MCEVERS: What do you think we're going to see happen in Sinjar in the next few weeks?

MCFATE: Well, I think we will find that Kurdish forces will ultimately be successful in clearing the city from ISIS. I think that ISIS will remain a threat to Sinjar but that ISIS won't necessarily focus its campaign upon attacking Sinjar again because that town is actually not that significant to ISIS. It is very significant to Kurdish forces though, who look at that as key terrain between Iraqi-Kurdish areas and Syrian-Kurdish areas. And therefore we really need to be thinking about the Kurdish question here regarding what it means to have a Kurdish anti-ISIS force as the principal ground element.

MCEVERS: So I see what you're saying. You're saying, looking at it as a force that is going to act in self-interest and not necessarily in the interests of the broader coalition.

MCFATE: Yes, exactly, and that really I think the solution is to make sure that the Arab ground partners are reinforced to the same degree so that we don't create new conditions of perceived or actual preference.

MCEVERS: Jessica McFate is research director at the Institute for the Study of War and an expert on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Thank you so much for being with us today.

MCFATE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.