The Yazidis’ Crisis Continues to Unfold — Ending It Is a Moral Imperative

Yazidi women attend a ceremony to commemorate women who were killed by Islamic State militants at Lalish Temple in Shikhan, northern Iraq, March 8, 2019. (Ari Jalal/Reuters)
What the U.S., Iraq, the U.N., and the EU can do to help the ethnic minority return to their homeland in Iraq

The genocide of the Yazidis in northern Iraq’s Sinjar District will be remembered as one of the darkest chapters in the rise and “fall” of ISIS. It is hard to fathom the pain, suffering, and losses the Yazidis have endured. Five years after the genocide, the community remains shattered and deserted. Most of its homes and farmland were destroyed. The number of boys and men who were summarily slaughtered is estimated at 7,000 to 10,000, and nearly 400,000 Yazidis continue to languish in camps. Thousands, including women and children, suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). Thousands of women were raped, many repeatedly, while thousands of others were sold as sex slaves. The many thousands who have been injured are still in desperate need of medical treatment. Alas, there seems to be no end in sight to the Yazidis’ unfolding crisis, as they are now living in extreme anxiety and fear, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

Marginal Help
Many individuals and a few countries have made efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Yazidis. A Yazidi who lived in Iraq and was an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq co-founded Yazda, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that supports the Yazidi community. A group of Israelis, led by Ari Zivotofsky and Yaakov Hoffman, with the support of Bar Ilan University, brought 16 women to Israel for training on how to treat women back home who suffer from CPTSD. Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who co-won the Nobel Peace Prize, continues to work relentlessly to bring the plight of her people to the attention of the international community.

Germany provided invaluable assistance by accepting more than 1,100 women and children who had been rescued, and in Armenia, another country that understands the meaning of genocide, some 50,000 Yazidis found a second homeland. They recently opened Quba Mere Diwane, the largest Yazidi temple in the world, in Aknalich, Armenia. Yazidis are represented in the Armenian parliament. Canada has also helped, offering itself as a haven for Yazidi women and girls since 2017. At least 1,200 have been resettled as of June 2019.

Causes of the Persecution
The goodwill and the efforts of these countries and concerned individuals have been great, but they have fallen short because of the enormous magnitude of the humanitarian crisis facing the Yazidis. Amnesty International found clear evidence that ISIS targeted the rural environment that supports the people who live off the land. The Yazidis now face new threats caused by four interrelated developments, which are making their repatriation and rehabilitation extremely challenging.

First, the precipitous withdrawal of American troops from Syria has created a vacuum that Turkey, Russia, and Iran has been quick to fill. Despite President Trump’s claim that ISIS was “100 percent defeated,” the Pentagon in a report in August said that the group “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria.” The pullout of U.S. troops has already had devastating consequences for all minority groups, especially the Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians.

Second, Trump’s ill-fated withdrawal of U.S. forces invited Turkey to invade Syria — and invasion that Ankara was preparing for these past two years. There was never any love lost between the Turks and the Yazidis. The tension goes back to the Ottoman Empire. In 1915, entire Yazidi villages were wiped out; thousands were killed and many more displaced. When Turkey took control of the Afrin region in Syria, Turkish soldiers and proxy fighters in Syria were engaged in ethnic cleansing; they rained havoc on Yazidi temples, and many Yazidis were expelled from the areas. What makes matter worse is the fact that owing to ISIS’s deliberate targeting of agriculture, on which the Yazidis were wholly dependent for both their main food source and main source of income, no Yazidis who depend on agriculture live in Sinjar in northern Iraq any longer.

Amnesty International reports that the area around Sinjar suffered some of the worst destruction: “Irrigation wells . . . were often sabotaged with rubble, oil, or other foreign objects. Blockage was often accompanied by theft and/or destruction of the pump, cables, generators and transformers. IS[IS] also burnt or chopped down orchards and pulled down and stole vital electricity lines.”

Third, the Turkish invasion of Syria gave rise to the regrouping of ISIS. Not surprisingly, armed factions loyal to Turkey have released or simply allowed thousands of ISIS fighters to escape from prisons. One of ISIS’s main goals remains the annihilation of minority groups including the Yazidis. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded scores of incidents in which ethnic-minority civilians were kidnapped; many, including women, were executed, and ISIS and Turkish fighters mutilated female corpses.

Fourth, a significant part of Sinjar, which was populated by Yazidis, has now fallen to an array of militia groups, including pro-Iranian and other jihadists who have adopted a hit-and-run tactic. Now they are free to rampage through the area and inflict mortal danger, if not expel the Yazidis from Iraq altogether. The high level of insecurity and the ongoing conflict render Yazidi children vulnerable to forcible conscription by militias in Sinjar and the surrounding areas.

The U.N. Human Rights Council affirmed that, in the aftermath of the ISIS campaign to eradicate the Yazidi community in Sinjar, “the 400,000-strong community had all been displaced, captured, or killed. . . . The majority of the region’s Yazidis live difficult and impoverished existences in IDP [internally displaced person] camps scattered throughout the Duhok region of northern Iraq.” Complicating and impeding the return of the Yazidis are a housing shortage, insufficient security, insufficient access to basic services, and the mental trauma suffered by survivors.

Urgent Plan of Action
The need for a comprehensive plan of action to alleviate the plight of the Yazidis by resettling them in their ancient homeland is desperate and urgent. There is little time to spare, because a new peril faces this vulnerable community. The camps for internally displaced Yazidis do not have access to health care and face a scarcity of medical supplies. Resources to provide psychological and emotional healing, especially for the young, are lacking.

Because Iraqi security forces do not have the capacity by themselves to control Sinjar and other rural areas in Iraq, the Yazidis are fearful of returning to their homes. The security problem is compounded by thousands of land mines and unexploded ordinances of the sort that have claimed the lives of scores who have attempted to return.

There are four main actors that can help the Yazidis return to their homeland and begin the arduous process of building their shattered lives and of healing.

Notwithstanding the Iraqi government’s preoccupation with internal unrest, it must take special care to acknowledge the danger that Yazidis still face; it must stop short of nothing in the search for missing Yazidis and in the effort to repatriate them. Given that Sinjar is an integral part of Iraq, the Iraqi government must work with the U.S., the EU, and the U.N. and assume the task of coordinating all the assistance coming from outside. That central first step would begin with the placement of adequate security forces in the area.

The Iraqi Kurds have remained steadfast in their efforts to repel ISIS attacks in Iraq. Their heroism and commitment have prevented an even worse catastrophe. Despite their territorial dispute, both the Kurdistan regional government and the Iraqi government should train and arm able young Yazidis, along with state armed forces, to defend the Sinjar area.

The EU can provide financial support, offer vocational training to Yazidis and in particular train scores of Yazidi men and women to provide basic medical assistance, including psychiatric help for Yazidis who suffer from PTSD. In addition, European states should work with Iraq and the U.S. in the formation of peacekeeping troops.

Ideally, the U.N. Security Council would pass a resolution and station a multinational peacekeeping force in Sinjar. Granted, the Yazidi situation is largely an Iraqi problem, the U.S. military force in Iraq is already significant. The U.N. can at least direct special agencies, including the U.N. Refugee Agency, the U.N. Development Program, and the U.N. Children’s Fund, to assist the Yazidis.

The U.S. should assume yet greater responsibility to support the return of displaced Yazidis, by providing financial aid, medical assistance, and rehabilitation expertise. Together with Iraqi security forces, the U.S. should defend the area and provide the military hardware needed for that purpose.

Such measures to be taken by the U.S. could be incorporated into the resolution that was submitted by Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R., Neb.) and Anna Eshoo (D., Calif) in March 2019 and referred to the House Committee of Foreign Affairs. According to the resolution,

(1) it should be a policy priority of the United States, working with international partners, the Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and local populations, to support the safe return of displaced indigenous people of the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar to their ancestral homeland;

(2) Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga should work to more fully integrate all communities, including religious minority communities to counter current and future terrorist threats; and

(3) the United States, working with international allies and partners, should coordinate efforts to provide for the safe return and future security of religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar.

I would suggest the addition of a fourth article: The U.S. should provide an initial sum of at least $250 million to support health care, farm supplies, infrastructure, and security, to be coordinated with the Kurdish regional and the Iraqi central governments.

I fully agree with Representative Fortenberry, who states:

The prospect of unprecedented exodus, with most never returning, is real.  If this happens, Iraq will lose the possibility for a healthy pluralism.  Iran will seek to expand its influence. Permanent refugee camps will dot the landscape, placing inordinate pressure on Kurdistan and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. ISIS could regenerate.

The Yazidis have suffered enough. The longer they remain, with limited resources, scattered outside their homeland, the more they become vulnerable in the face of the prospective return of ISIS and other militias. It is urgent for the Iraqi government, in coordination with other players, to act with precision and with no further delay, lest the Yazidis become the victims of a second genocide.

This is a moral imperative. The countries that can prevent another catastrophe must come together to rescue the Yazidis, who have been subjected to unfathomable atrocities for no other reason than that they are ethnically distinct.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor and senior fellow at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, focusing on international negotiations and humanitarian conflict resolution.


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