Up to 40,000 members of Iraqi minority groups are at severe risk from the advancing forces of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS/ISIL). The most urgent crisis, according to accounts from eyewitnesses, news and humanitarian organizations, is the plight of the Yazidis—a small group that follows an ancient monotheistic religion that includes elements of Christianity and Islam. There have been credible reports of massacres, enslavement, forced conversions and forced flight of Yazidis as IS forces take-over their home villages. Tens of thousands are feared trapped on a mountaintop–exposed to the elements, with the young and vulnerable dying at alarming rates and no way to escape. Iraqi Kurdish fighters, peshmerga, the strongest local force, have been pushed back and neither they nor anyone else are sufficiently aiding this civilian population at risk. The Iraqi national army is in tatters. Massacre or intentional creation of the conditions that would lead to the destruction of this group appears imminent. That’s a threat of genocide under any interpretation.
Getting emergency aid to this group is necessary: not only to deliver humanitarian supplies with great alacrity but also to help them find safer refuge.
The stakes for the Yazidi civilians was highlighted by the Obama Administration in comments by Secretary of State John Kerry on August 7, 2014: “ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.”
Immediate aid is a tactical response—a deployment of the oft-called “atrocity prevention toolbox.” Efforts to build an atrocity prevention and response community, roughly hewn as it is to include those who work exclusively on these issues as well as a host of humanitarian and human rights organizations with wider mandates, were spurred precisely to meaningfully engage crises such as this one. That such urgently needed response is tactical does not belittle its importance. For those at risk, there may not be another day to consider the larger context or longer-term consequences.
But for policymakers and advocates further afield, it remains necessary to evaluate how emergency action to save lives fits into the larger picture of a political response to the unraveling nightmare that spans across Syria into Iraq. Immediate aid may be a necessary and urgent measure; but even while responding to this crisis there must remain enough political bandwidth to heed the call for a strategic response that can contribute to a sustainable political outcome.
A strategy of atrocities prevention cannot be mere amplification of crisis-mode responses, just as economic development could never be humanitarian relief writ large. Militarized humanitarian action is not a strategy; it is a tactic, however important a tactic it might be. The strategy must be political. This has also been acknowledged by Secretary Kerry: “the only durable way to stop ISIL is for Iraq’s real leaders to unite and form an inclusive government as rapidly as possible within their own constitutional framework, including the selection of a prime minister.” Kerry’s statement runs counter to both the recent and longer history of U.S. involvement in Iraq. The U.S. has viewed Iraq through a military lens for decades, in support of Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to Iran, and then in the forms of regime change, occupation and counter-insurgency over the last decade. Throughout, as WPF’s study of patterns of violence across Iraq’s history concludes, U.S. engagement has aggravated Iraqi leader’s tendency to view expression of power as synonymous with threats of violence:
…the solution to any political problem has been militarized, with political elites (domestic and exiled) cultivating fear as the core national emotion and source of legitimacy: whether to instill it into everyday state functioning under Saddam or to use it to organize opposing factions in the post-‐2003 era. Both rulers and ruled lived in a state of constant and ubiquitous fear. With fear comes a sense of statehood defined by exclusion. The question of national identity is addressed primarily in negative terms‐-‐who does not belong, who cannot be trusted. (6)
The U.S. Administration is correct to respond to today’s crisis, but it—and those offering policy recommendations–should simultaneously ask two further questions. First, how does response to today’s crisis fit into the larger regional instability? Response to Iraq must be part of an integrated engagement with region, particularly the war in neighboring Syria. Regional and international actors have turned the on-going conflict in Syria into a competition for violence where no one wins in the pursuit of larger regional power struggles. How does Syria policy impact not only that country, which is certainly bad enough, but Iraq and the entire region? Is continued pursuit of a policy of overthrowing an admittedly brutal government in Syria worth the regional price in civilian lives and instability that is being extracted? [Some solid analysis of how the rise of IS (ISIS) fits into the wider region, and suggestions for building a coherent and integrated response can be found here.]
Second, is it possible to respond in crisis, all the while increasing focus on the political priorities? It is worth recalling that knee-jerk military response to crises can all too easily feed the very dynamics that sustain violence. The answer to this question should be very simply, yes, that is what diplomats do all the time. But it is not, in fact, what often happens. Too often the tactic overwhelms or undermines the strategy. Let’s hope this is not the case today.
Those concerned with atrocity prevention should scrutinize their calls for action and make sure that civilian protection actually protects civilians, and a coherent strategy for moving beyond today’s crisis reduces the overall reliance on force to resolve problems.