U.S. Strategy in Syria Has Failed
Washington Must Acknowledge That It Can’t Build a State
On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State (or ISIS) attacked the region around Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, near the country’s border with Syria. The region was home to approximately 400,000 Yazidis, the members of an ancient and often-persecuted religious minority whose beliefs and practices incorporate elements of Christianity, Islam, and other monotheistic religions. ISIS seized Sinjar City and the surrounding villages in a few hours, kidnapping and killing the Yazidis who could not flee. Those who could escaped to Mount Sinjar, where they were besieged by ISIS for days, enduring temperatures of over 122 degrees Fahrenheit without access to water, food, or medical care. At the request of the Iraqi government, the United States began conducting air strikes and air-dropping humanitarian aid on August 8. Between August 9 and August 13, Kurdish forces opened a safe corridor, allowing most of the surviving Yazidis to flee through Syria into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
It has now been a year since a UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry determined that ISIS’ violence against the Yazidis constitutes a case of genocide, defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” ISIS had openly proclaimed, in its English-language magazine, Dabiq, its intent to destroy the “pagan” Yazidi minority through killing, enslavement, and forced conversion.
But although ISIS’ genocidal intent has long been clear, the extent of the group’s atrocities has remained murky. Local authorities and human rights organizations have made some attempts to compile lists of victims. According to those lists, between 2,500 and 5,000 Yazidis had been killed by ISIS while over 6,000 had been kidnapped. But the UN has not yet been able to independently verify these figures.
Despite the difficulties involved, it is important to document the extent of ISIS’ genocidal violence against the Yazidis. Such documentation provides information for humanitarian assistance and protection, aids rescue missions and health-care strategies, supports accountability in national and international courts and tribunals, and serves as a historical record for recovery and reconciliation.
To support these goals, we conducted a retrospective household survey in thirteen camps for internally displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the majority of Sinjar’s surviving Yazidis now live. Our field staff consisted of four pairs of local Yazidi interviewers supervised by Valeria Cetorelli, the lead researcher for the project. Between November and December 2015, we interviewed a systematic random sample of 1,300 households across the thirteen camps about killings and kidnappings of household members by ISIS. By analyzing these data, we estimated the total number of Yazidis killed and kidnapped by ISIS and their age and gender characteristics.
Based on the survey data, we estimated that around 9,900 Yazidis were either killed or kidnapped over the course of a few days in August 2014—roughly 2.5 percent of Sinjar’s entire Yazidi population at the time of the attack. An estimated 3,100 were killed, of whom nearly half were executed by gunshot, beheading, or being burned alive. The rest died from lack of food and water or from injuries received during the siege of Mount Sinjar. The remaining 6,800 were kidnapped, with over one-third still missing at the time of the survey. According to those who escaped, Yazidis in captivity have suffered abuses such as forced religious conversion, torture, and sex slavery.
Around 9,900 Yazidis were either killed or kidnapped over the course of a few days in August 2014—roughly 2.5 percent of Sinjar’s entire Yazidi population at the time of the attack.
Sectarian violence in Iraq has typically been directed toward adult men. Yet our survey shows that ISIS targeted the Yazidis independent of age and sex. In fact, around one percent of the nuclear families in our sample had had all their members either killed or kidnapped and could respond to the survey only because at least one member had escaped from captivity. Children under 15 years old were the most severely affected: they accounted for approximately 90 percent of those who died on Mount Sinjar during the siege and were much less likely than adults to escape in the event of capture. Several accounts from our interviewees confirmed that girls were sold or gifted to ISIS fighters while boys were forced into ISIS training camps.
A survey of this nature has a number of limitations—households in camps may not perfectly represent Sinjar’s broader Yazidi population, and some uncertainty remains about that population’s exact size at the time of the attack. Indeed, the survey may have underestimated the toll because of the unknown number of families whose members were all killed or captured, with no one surviving to tell their stories. Our estimates nevertheless clearly indicate the severity of the attack and corroborate figures previously reported to the UN by local authorities and human rights organizations.
Although the international community, including the United States, has been criticized in the past for failing to intervene to prevent genocide, ISIS’ atrocities against the Yazidis could have been far worse. Without the combined efforts of local and international forces, tens of thousands more Yazidis would have been killed or kidnapped. But had aid been more prompt and thorough, more lives could have been saved. And the violence isn’t over—almost three years after the attack on Sinjar the genocide is ongoing, with many Yazidis still in ISIS captivity. The parties fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria should consider rescue plans for Yazidi captives during their ongoing military operations, and there is a need for greater humanitarian efforts to provide medical and psychosocial care for survivors, which has so far been limited. The international community should also contribute with funding and expertise to the reconstruction of the Sinjar region now that it has been taken back from ISIS.
In addition to supporting the survivors, concrete steps should be taken to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, whether through a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal. As Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman who was enslaved by ISIS for several months and is now the UN goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking, said last July: “It is time for this tragedy to stop, and it is time for the world to see our wounds. It is my right to ask the world to be on my side. ISIS attacked us and killed us in our houses. They killed my brother and my mother. They kidnapped me and other girls with me. It is my right to request you to bring justice.”