Iraq: Momentary Gains for a Jihadist Group


Video Transcript:

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham, ISIS, an al Qaeda-related group that is a principal extremist actor in the Syrian civil war and ongoing Iraqi insurgency, seized parts of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq on Jan. 3. Rather than viewing this as a fundamental power shift between ISIS and Baghdad’s security forces, however, it should be seen as a temporary victory.
Tensions between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province have been simmering through most of last year and boiled over on Dec. 30 when President Maliki ordered a Sunni protest camp to be dismantled by security forces. The arrest of a local senior Sunni politician led to clashes severe enough to prompt Maliki to withdraw security forces from the region in an effort to de-escalate the situation. It was this security vacuum that ISIS used to seize territory in both cities.
It is one thing to grab territory, especially if it is predominantly uncontested, and quite another to hold it against a concerted military operation mounted by the Iraqi security forces. Sources in Iraq claim that roughly 300 ISIS fighters remain in Ramadi while 800 or so are entrenched in Fallujah. While the urban terrain will give ISIS fighters a serious combat boost as the established defenders against the better equipped Iraqi security forces, they won’t have the numbers or ability to hold indefinitely.
ISIS survives in Iraq by being an insurgent group, avoiding direct confrontation and hiding and moving through the population. This territory grab in Ramadi and Fallujah gives them an address, alleviating the Iraqi security forces of one of their most difficult missions of just finding ISIS. Now they can actually concentrate force, and if executed correctly, degrade sizable chunks of combat power in detail.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops and their allies at the end of 2011 and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war next door has given ISIS the ability to rebound into a capable regional actor, but at the same time their aggressiveness has them overcommitted, outgunned and alienated on multiple fronts. Other rebel groups in Syria have started serious infighting with ISIS recently after they became disillusioned with their actions and have attacked several units despite the advantage this gives to the Assad regime.
This leaves the recent Fallujah and Ramadi seizures likely to be temporary at best. The only serious complicating factor for the Iraqi security forces is moderating their use of force so as not to antagonize the Sunni tribes further. While these tribes might covertly support ISIS or turn a blind eye to their actions against the Maliki government, they do not want to be drawn into an open civil war. Many of the tribes in Anbar have already come out in support of the government forces, with just a few throwing their lot in with ISIS.
ISIS’s ultimate goal is to destabilize Iraq to the point where they can accomplish their ultimate aim of a regional Islamic Emirate. They can only accomplish this if they can unite a sizable portion of the Sunni population into a sectarian civil war through their own actions or by provoking the Shiite government into actions that accomplish the same. Without this, they will come up short.

Iraq: Obama Reaffirms No Combat Troops To Iraq

Iraq: Obama Reaffirms No Combat Troops To Iraq

September 17, 2014 | 1940 GMT

U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed his stance against sending combat troops to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq in a Sept. 17 speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay, Fla., The Tampa Bay Times reported. President Obama said that the United States will rely on contributions from allies in the region and now has a coalition of over 40 countries offering support. 

Iraq’s New Government Must Unify to Defeat the Islamic State


Iraq’s New Government Must Unify to Defeat the Islamic State

September 10, 2014 | 0111 GMT
The formation of a new government in Baghdad on Sept. 8 is an important first step toward dealing with the Islamic State transnational jihadist movement. In sharp contrast to the post-Baathist Cabinets formed in 2006 and 2010, only four months have elapsed since parliamentary elections took place. More significant, the new government was formed against the backdrop of a major offensive by a unified militant force, a threat that far eclipses the 2003-07 Sunni insurgency.
The menace of the Islamic State provided the impetus for Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni political principals, and their respective international patrons, to agree on a new government, although the interior, defense and national security ministries have yet to be decided. There are some notable changes in the composition of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s new Cabinet, not least of which is the appointment of former Premier Nouri al-Maliki to the presidential council, holding the Shiite post of vice president. Outgoing parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi assumed the vice presidential position assigned to the Sunnis. Interestingly, Iraq’s Kurdish president, Fouad Massoum, chose to accept three vice presidents rather than two as part of a factional agreement. Former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and centrist politician supported by the country’s Sunni minority, came on as the additional vice president.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman Explains.
Another key change in the Cabinet was the removal of the Foreign Ministry portfolio from Kurdish favor, appointing instead Ibrahim Jaafari, a prominent Shiite politician and close ally to Iran. Outgoing Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari assumed the deputy prime minister post reserved for the Kurds, while noted Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq retained the Sunni deputy premiership. In a similar move to the expanded vice presidency, the Shia gained a deputy prime minister post that went to Baha al-Araji, a major gain for maverick Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose affiliates typically hold less important portfolios.

Kurdish Concessions

Iraq’s Kurds were able to gain two additional concessions in the new Cabinet. First, Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq replaced Abdul-Kareem Luaibi Bahedh as deputy prime minister for energy affairs. The new oil minister is not only close to Tehran but enjoys close ties with the Kurds, a relationship Arbil hopes will facilitate future negotiations over the chronic issue of energy exports and revenue sharing. The Kurds also gained a key position in the Finance Ministry with the appointment of Rose Nuri Shaways, who has held a variety of top positions in the federal and regional government.
Not everyone did so well: Hussain al-Shahristani, a controversial associate of al-Maliki, was demoted to minister of higher education and scientific research while his previous post as deputy prime minister for energy affairs was disbanded. Al-Shahristani faced deep opposition from the ethnic minority community because of a long-standing dispute over control of energy resources between the central government and the Kurds.
While the central government said it would resume fund transfers to the Kurdistan Regional Government, the two sides are unlikely to resolve their core energy disagreements anytime soon, especially considering the Kurds’ attempts to export their own oil and control their own energy revenues. Regardless of who is energy minister, Baghdad will continue its efforts to undermine the Kurdistan Regional Government’s energy policies, as well as its prominence in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Enduring Tensions

Despite achieving a basic framework for a government in which the Sunni community has been integrated, getting key Sunni elements to turn against the Islamic State will be difficult. The Sunnis are wary after being persecuted at the hands of al-Maliki, despite a 2007 agreement promising to make them stakeholders in Baghdad.
With al-Maliki still in the presidential council and wielding influence through the civil and military bureaucracies, bringing the Sunnis back into the system will be extremely difficult. The tribal and ex-Baathist core that is attempting to leverage Islamic State aggression will not sell out the transnational jihadist movement without exacting a high price. It hopes to gain a share of the political and security landscape, but more important, it wants a cut of the oil. It is precisely here that Kirkuk becomes a thorny issue: The Sunnis want a major share of the oil fields, and the subject is already a source of tension in the dispute between Baghdad and Arbil over energy resources.
On the security front, the Islamic State-led Sunni uprising will make the finalization of the Iraqi government’s security ministries difficult. The Shia are wary of the Sunnis retaining control of the defense portfolio, while the Sunnis are concerned that the Interior Ministry will go to a person like Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization and successor to the Badr Brigades. Al-Ameri is very close to the head of the overseas operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, at a time when Iran and the Iraqi Shia are employing Shiite militias in the fight against the Islamic State. The matter of who controls the National Security Ministry, which serves as a secondary intelligence service in the hands of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi polity, also has to be resolved.
Through no small endeavor, the Iraqi government is almost in place, but there are significant issues that have the potential to inhibit international efforts to counter the Islamic State. A unified Iraqi government, able and willing to cooperate with foreign powers, offers the best chance to defeat the Islamic State. Unfortunately, this is why the transnational jihadist movement will be exploiting any opportunity to undermine Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish cohesion at the parliamentary level and beyond.


The Virtue of Subtlety: A U.S. Strategy Against the Islamic State

The Virtue of Subtlety: A U.S. Strategy Against the Islamic State

September 9, 2014 | 0807 GMT
U.S. President Barack Obama said recently that he had no strategy as yet toward the Islamic State but that he would present a plan on Wednesday. It is important for a president to know when he has no strategy. It is not necessarily wise to announce it, as friends will be frightened and enemies delighted. A president must know what it is he does not know, and he should remain calm in pursuit of it, but there is no obligation to be honest about it.
This is particularly true because, in a certain sense, Obama has a strategy, though it is not necessarily one he likes. Strategy is something that emerges from reality, while tactics might be chosen. Given the situation, the United States has an unavoidable strategy. There are options and uncertainties for employing it. Let us consider some of the things that Obama does know.

The Formation of National Strategy

There are serious crises on the northern and southern edges of the Black Sea Basin. There is no crisis in the Black Sea itself, but it is surrounded by crises. The United States has been concerned about the status of Russia ever since U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The United States has been concerned about the Middle East since U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower forced the British to retreat from Suez in 1956. As a result, the United States inherited — or seized — the British position.
A national strategy emerges over the decades and centuries. It becomes a set of national interests into which a great deal has been invested, upon which a great deal depends and upon which many are counting. Presidents inherit national strategies, and they can modify them to some extent. But the idea that a president has the power to craft a new national strategy both overstates his power and understates the power of realities crafted by all those who came before him. We are all trapped in circumstances into which we were born and choices that were made for us. The United States has an inherent interest in Ukraine and in Syria-Iraq. Whether we should have that interest is an interesting philosophical question for a late-night discussion, followed by a sunrise when we return to reality. These places reflexively matter to the United States.
The American strategy is fixed: Allow powers in the region to compete and balance against each other. When that fails, intervene with as little force and risk as possible. For example, the conflict between Iran and Iraq canceled out two rising powers until the war ended. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to overturn the balance of power in the region. The result was Desert Storm.
This strategy provides a model. In the Syria-Iraq region, the initial strategy is to allow the regional powers to balance each other, while providing as little support as possible to maintain the balance of power. It is crucial to understand the balance of power in detail, and to understand what might undermine it, so that any force can be applied effectively. This is the tactical part, and it is the tactical part that can go wrong. The strategy has a logic of its own. Understanding what that strategy demands is the hard part. Some nations have lost their sovereignty by not understanding what strategy demands. France in 1940 comes to mind. For the United States, there is no threat to sovereignty, but that makes the process harder: Great powers can tend to be casual because the situation is not existential. This increases the cost of doing what is necessary.
The ground where we are talking about applying this model is Syria and Iraq. Both of these central governments have lost control of the country as a whole, but each remains a force. Both countries are divided by religion, and the religions are divided internally as well. In a sense the nations have ceased to exist, and the fragments they consisted of are now smaller but more complex entities.
The issue is whether the United States can live with this situation or whether it must reshape it. The immediate question is whether the United States has the power to reshape it and to what extent. The American interest turns on its ability to balance local forces. If that exists, the question is whether there is any other shape that can be achieved through American power that would be superior. From my point of view, there are many different shapes that can be imagined, but few that can be achieved. The American experience in Iraq highlighted the problems with counterinsurgency or being caught in a local civil war. The idea of major intervention assumes that this time it will be different. This fits one famous definition of insanity.

The Islamic State’s Role

There is then the special case of the Islamic State. It is special because its emergence triggered the current crisis. It is special because the brutal murder of two prisoners on video showed a particular cruelty. And it is different because its ideology is similar to that of al Qaeda, which attacked the United States. It has excited particular American passions.
To counter this, I would argue that the uprising by Iraq’s Sunni community was inevitable, with its marginalization by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite regime in Baghdad. That it took this particularly virulent form is because the more conservative elements of the Sunni community were unable or unwilling to challenge al-Maliki. But the fragmentation of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions was well underway before the Islamic State, and jihadism was deeply embedded in the Sunni community a long time ago.
Moreover, although the Islamic State is brutal, its cruelty is not unique in the region. Syrian President Bashar al Assad and others may not have killed Americans or uploaded killings to YouTube, but their history of ghastly acts is comparable. Finally, the Islamic State — engaged in war with everyone around it — is much less dangerous to the United States than a small group with time on its hands, planning an attack. In any event, if the Islamic State did not exist, the threat to the United States from jihadist groups in Yemen or Libya or somewhere inside the United States would remain.
Because the Islamic State operates to some extent as a conventional military force, it is vulnerable to U.S. air power. The use of air power against conventional forces that lack anti-aircraft missiles is a useful gambit. It shows that the United States is doing something, while taking little risk, assuming that the Islamic State really does not have anti-aircraft missiles. But it accomplishes little. The Islamic State will disperse its forces, denying conventional aircraft a target. Attempting to defeat the Islamic State by distinguishing its supporters from other Sunni groups and killing them will founder at the first step. The problem of counterinsurgency is identifying the insurgent.
There is no reason not to bomb the Islamic State’s forces and leaders. They certainly deserve it. But there should be no illusion that bombing them will force them to capitulate or mend their ways. They are now part of the fabric of the Sunni community, and only the Sunni community can root them out. Identifying Sunnis who are anti-Islamic State and supplying them with weapons is a much better idea. It is the balance-of-power strategy that the United States follows, but this approach doesn’t have the dramatic satisfaction of blowing up the enemy. That satisfaction is not trivial, and the United States can certainly blow something up and call it the enemy, but it does not address the strategic problem.
In the first place, is it really a problem for the United States? The American interest is not stability but the existence of a dynamic balance of power in which all players are effectively paralyzed so that no one who would threaten the United States emerges. The Islamic State had real successes at first, but the balance of power with the Kurds and Shia has limited its expansion, and tensions within the Sunni community diverted its attention. Certainly there is the danger of intercontinental terrorism, and U.S. intelligence should be active in identifying and destroying these threats. But the re-occupation of Iraq, or Iraq plus Syria, makes no sense. The United States does not have the force needed to occupy Iraq and Syria at the same time. The demographic imbalance between available forces and the local population makes that impossible.
The danger is that other Islamic State franchises might emerge in other countries. But the United States would not be able to block these threats as well as the other countries in the region. Saudi Arabia must cope with any internal threat it faces not because the United States is indifferent, but because the Saudis are much better at dealing with such threats. In the end, the same can be said for the Iranians.
Most important, it can also be said for the Turks. The Turks are emerging as a regional power. Their economy has grown dramatically in the past decade, their military is the largest in the region, and they are part of the Islamic world. Their government is Islamist but in no way similar to the Islamic State, which concerns Ankara. This is partly because of Ankara’s fear that the jihadist group might spread to Turkey, but more so because its impact on Iraqi Kurdistan could affect Turkey’s long-term energy plans.

Forming a New Balance in the Region

The United States cannot win the game of small mosaic tiles that is emerging in Syria and Iraq. An American intervention at this microscopic level can only fail. But the principle of balance of power does not mean that balance must be maintained directly. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have far more at stake in this than the United States. So long as they believe that the United States will attempt to control the situation, it is perfectly rational for them to back off and watch, or act in the margins, or even hinder the Americans.
The United States must turn this from a balance of power between Syria and Iraq to a balance of power among this trio of regional powers. They have far more at stake and, absent the United States, they have no choice but to involve themselves. They cannot stand by and watch a chaos that could spread to them.
It is impossible to forecast how the game is played out. What is important is that the game begins. The Turks do not trust the Iranians, and neither is comfortable with the Saudis. They will cooperate, compete, manipulate and betray, just as the United States or any country might do in such a circumstance. The point is that there is a tactic that will fail: American re-involvement. There is a tactic that will succeed: the United States making it clear that while it might aid the pacification in some way, the responsibility is on regional powers. The inevitable outcome will be a regional competition that the United States can manage far better than the current chaos.
Obama has sought volunteers from NATO for a coalition to fight the Islamic State. It is not clear why he thinks those NATO countries — with the exception of Turkey — will spend their national treasures and lives to contain the Islamic State, or why the Islamic State alone is the issue. The coalition that must form is not a coalition of the symbolic, but a coalition of the urgently involved. That coalition does not have to be recruited. In a real coalition, its members have no choice but to join. And whether they act together or in competition, they will have to act. And not acting will simply increase the risk to them.
U.S. strategy is sound. It is to allow the balance of power to play out, to come in only when it absolutely must — with overwhelming force, as in Kuwait — and to avoid intervention where it cannot succeed. The tactical application of strategy is the problem. In this case the tactic is not direct intervention by the United States, save as a satisfying gesture to avenge murdered Americans. But the solution rests in doing as little as possible and forcing regional powers into the fray, then in maintaining the balance of power in this coalition.
Such an American strategy is not an avoidance of responsibility. It is the use of U.S. power to force a regional solution. Sometimes the best use of American power is to go to war. Far more often, the best use of U.S. power is to withhold it. The United States cannot evade responsibility in the region. But it is enormously unimaginative to assume that carrying out that responsibility is best achieved by direct intervention. Indirect intervention is frequently more efficient and more effective.


EU Nations Teeter On the Edge of Deflation

EU Nations Teeter On the Edge of Deflation

September 12, 2014 | 1524 GMT




During an Aug. 22 speech at the U.S. Federal Reserve’s annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi laid out the framework for a new plan to raise inflation and promote sustainable growth in Europe. He also implied that the austerity measures imposed during the European crisis have been ineffective. The idea behind austerity, which Germany strongly supported, was that tight restrictions on fiscal policy would reduce debt, and that low debt would in turn facilitate growth. Draghi’s speech seemed to align with an alternative view from southern Europe, which sees economic malaise as a byproduct of a lack of demand and not a preponderance of debt.

The departure may not be as radical as it first appears. For the past two years, the European Central Bank has been forced to take more unorthodox measures to counter dangerously low inflation rates — rates that are actually nearing deflation, which wrecks countries with high levels of debt. The prospect of even looser fiscal policies in the eurozone, such as higher taxes and spending, will worry Germany, which has a longstanding mistrust of eurozone largesse. However, Berlin would be even more hesitant to accept the other major option for stimulating demand: quantitative easing.

Another reason inflation is such a problem involves the relationships among eurozone members. The eurozone inflation rate has been dropping steadily ever since the euro crisis of 2012. Heavily indebted peripheral economies (France, Ireland, Italy and Spain) have a strong incentive to keep their inflation levels as high as possible, since high rates alleviate some of the pain of debt repayments.

Meanwhile, competitiveness relative to Germany has complicated the situation. Before the eurozone was created, countries became more competitive by devaluing their currency. But that was no longer possible once those countries entered a monetary union. Their only recourse was to keep inflation lower than that of the strongest country in the union: Germany, which keeps its unit costs extremely low largely through reforms undertaken at the beginning of the last decade. So as eurozone inflation fell, eurozone economies had a hard time remaining competitive without slipping into deflation. Now, very low inflation levels benefit no one, least of all the fragile economies that are trying to grow while managing their debt.

Obama’s Islamic State Strategy: Intel, Advisers and No Boots on the Ground

Obama’s Islamic State Strategy: Intel, Advisers and No Boots on the Ground

September 11, 2014 | 0156 GMT
U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed a week’s worth of speculation Wednesday night on his administration’s strategy to combat the Islamic State. As expected, the basic idea is for the United States to lead an expansion of the air campaign in Iraq and extend it to Syria, treating the militant-trodden river valleys as a single battle space. Without nuancing the necessary role of intelligence assets and special operations forces, Obama tried to reassure the American public that he would not commit boots on the ground to another Middle Eastern maelstrom but that he had a plan nonetheless to contain an army of particularly brutal jihadists.
The United States has sought the support and assistance of its international partners in an attempt to lessen the military and political burden of the operation. During the Sept. 4-5 NATO summit, Washington failed to organize an official NATO intervention against the Islamic State, but it did shore up the support of a core coalition of nine countries (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark). On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also mentioned that there was a broader coalition of more than 40 countries that would be supporting the operations. It is not clear yet how substantial the commitment of any of these countries will be, but additional air assets, logistical support and basing will be some of the main elements in expanding operations in volume and in geographic reach.
Obama’s speech was essentially a political public relations effort, timed only after Iraqi leaders managed to pull together a government and ahead of November U.S. midterm elections. With most U.S. congressmen reluctant to vote on anything with a hint of controversy this close to the election, yet many all too prone to condemn the U.S. president for not consulting them enough, Obama was obviously trying to kill several birds with one stone in this speech. Domestic politics aside, this is a strategy that faces unavoidable imperfections as the United States tries to meld contradictory political and military objectives for the region.
The first and most glaring contradiction lies in the combination of attacking Islamic State targets by air while selectively arming and training Syrian rebels on the ground, not to mention that the United States will be working with Iranian proxies in Iraq and pro-Saudi actors in Syria. On the surface, and as Obama laid out, this makes perfect sense: The United States is not about to commit its own combat troops to engage with the Islamic State, so it must partner with local Sunni forces to degrade Islamic State fighters on the ground while it strikes from the air. Just as the United States is making gradual progress in standing up a coherent fighting force in Iraq through the Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribal forces and Iraqi army soldiers, it will be looking to do the same in Syria.
But if only Syria offered such a neat solution. On the contrary, no matter how carefully the United States tries to pick and choose whom it trains and arms in Syria, the Salafist-jihadist fighters are the ones who dominate the battlefield and are thus the most capable of beating back their Islamic State rivals. There is also no guarantee that the pockets of nominally moderate rebels concentrated around Aleppo are going to apply their weaponry and training toward combatting the Islamic State primarily when their priority is to break out of stalemate on the battlefield and get closer to the goal of toppling the regime of Bashar al Assad.
This brings the U.S. strategy to the next big contradiction: How does it back the Syrian rebels enough to degrade the Islamic State but not so much that it risks proliferating power vacuums for radicals to fill and destroying a working relationship with Iran? The U.S. administration will predictably expend a great deal of energy justifying an expansion of airstrikes into Syria and refuting claims that it is aiding a dictator. The announcement to arm Syrian rebel factions is a piece of that effort. But a meaningful effort to arm and train Sunni rebels in Syria could well develop into an existential threat for the Iran-backed Syrian regime. This would of course not be welcomed by Iran, with which the United States is engaged in a critical negotiation designed to put their long-hostile relationship on a stable tracking.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman Explains.
How much of the strategy is public relations versus reality will be seen in the coming days and weeks on the battlefield. The target set in Syria will offer a major clue as to whether quiet U.S.-Iranian coordination is proceeding via backchannels. If major energy infrastructure and surface-to-air missile sites are destroyed, thus seriously degrading both the Syrian regime’s capabilities and economic assets of the Islamic State, the evident lack of an understanding between Damascus and Washington will be sure to have negative consequences for U.S. negotiations with Iran. On the other hand, if the United States focuses its targeting on Islamic State concentrations along the river valleys to cut the group’s eastern supply lines while expanding the offensive in Iraq, the kabuki theater will continue.

Iraq: New Government Convened

Iraq: New Government Convened

September 9, 2014 | 1133 GMT

The new Iraqi government, chaired by Haidar al-Abadi, held its first meeting Sept. 9 after receiving the confidence of the parliament the night before, Shafaq News reported. The new government has also received international recognition from the United Nations and U.S. President Barack Obama. Al-Abadi takes the place of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose popularity dwindled with the rise of the Islamic State.

Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?

The U.S. contemplates sending military aircraft and possible ground troops to rescue the Yazidis, as more American military advisers arrive in Iraq to help plan an evacuation of the displaced people.

Photo of displaced Iraqi Yazidis demonstrating demanding more aid.

Displaced Iraqi Yazidis demand more aid at the Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan on August 13, 2014.

Photograph by Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty

Avi Asher-Schapiro

for National Geographic News

Published August 9, 2014

For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq’s estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. In less than two weeks, nearly all the Yazidis of Sinjar have fled north, seeking refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousands remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue. “Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community,” says Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen. “Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion,” she adds.

The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages.  Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State front lines.

Map of Yazidi

As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. “Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth,” warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.

While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation.  “This dilemma to convert or die is not new,” says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.

A Misunderstood Religion

The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq’s sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was what part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While some Yazidi practices resemble those of Islam—refraining from eating pork, for example—many Yazidi practices appear to be unique in the region. Yazidi society is organized into a rigid religious caste system, and many Yazidis believe that the soul is reincarnated after death. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local pre-Islamic beliefs.

Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.

“To this day, many Muslims consider them to be  devil worshipers,” says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. “So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions,” he adds.

The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north. But the Islamic State is capturing villages just a few miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. With the security of Kurdish territory in doubt, the U.S. launched air strikes on Islamic State positions late last week.

Organized anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by both Ottoman and local Kurdish leaders, and subjected to brutal campaigns of religious violence. “Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation,” says Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago who is in Dohuk interviewing Yazidi refugees.  “Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity,” he says.

Isolated geographically, and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq’s Yazidis rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. “They became a closed community,” explains Khanna Omarkhali, of the University of  Göettingen.

Iraqi Yazidi people who fled their homes in Sinjar, enter Iraq from Syria at a border crossing in Faysh Khabur in Dohuk Province, northern Iraq, Aug. 9, 2014.

These Yazidi people, who fled their homes in Sinjar, wait at a border crossing on August 9, 2014.
Photograph by Adam Ferguson, The New York Times/Redux

Victims of Hussein’s Regime

Yet, as Kurdish speakers, Yazidis often share the same political fate as Iraq’s other Kurds. In the late 1970s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched brutal Arabization campaigns against the Kurds in the north. He razed traditional Yazidi villages, and forced the Yazidis to settle in urban centers, disrupting their rural way of life. Hussein constructed the town of Sinjar, and forced the Yazidis to abandon their mountain villages and relocate in the city.

After the United States toppled Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds were given an autonomous region in northern Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But Sinjar, along with many border regions at the edge of the KRG, remains an area of dispute between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. The KRG claims Sinjar as Kurdish, while Baghdad still considers the area under its control.

As ISIL sweeps through the Yazidi homeland, Kurds throughout the region are rallying to defend the embattled religious minority. This week, Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey crossed into Iraq and joined with the KRG to push back ISIL and secure a safe passage for the Yazidis out of Sinjar. Some Yazidis are even fleeing into war-torn Syria, seeking the protection of Syrian Kurds in the north.

For now, these Kurdish fighters are the only thing standing between the Yazidis and the Islamic State. As he has continued his work with Yazadi refugees, Matthew Barber says that a general panic has set in as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from western Iraq flood Yazidi villages outside Dohuk, seeking shelter behind Iraqi Kurdish lines. “The Yazidis are terrorized,” he says. Refugees are now calling the mass exodus from Sinjar the 73rd attempt at genocide.

With the help of U.S. air support, the Kurds vowed to retake Sinjar in the coming days. For the Yazidis the stakes are especially high. “It’s difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq,” says Allison. “The struggle is truly existential.”

Iraq: Germany To Send Arms To Iraq

August 20, 2014 | 1711 GMT
The Bundestag approved the shipment of arms from Germany to Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq, Bloomberg reported Aug. 20. The government’s approval negates Germany’s post-WWII doctrine against shipping arms to countries involved in conflict. Soon after the German government’s decision, Italian legislators reportedly approved the shipment of weapons to Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq.


Iraq: Kurdish Ministers Rejoin Iraqi Government

August 20, 2014 | 1018 GMT
Kurdish ministers who had suspended their participation in the Iraqi government have rejoined the administration, Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd who is Iraq’s outgoing foreign minister, said Aug. 20, Reuters reported. Outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki angered Kurdish leaders by accusing them of harboring terrorists after Islamic State militants launched an offensive in June.


Iraq: Anbar Government Seeks Approval For Restoration Of Iraqi Officers

August 20, 2014 | 1132 GMT
Provincial officials in Anbar announced Aug. 20 that the province is acquiring preliminary approval to reinstate 200 officers of the former Iraqi military, Shafaq News reported. The Anbar provincial council is currently awaiting approval for the reinstatement of about 1,500 army and police officers who were removed during de-Baathification efforts, the leader of the council said.