The tipping point in the U.S. debate over initiating an air campaign against the Islamic State was the plight of non-Muslim minorities in IS-controlled areas of Iraq, namely that of the Yazidi population in Sinjar. Via effective international messaging efforts, the Yazidis, a tiny religious minority unknown to the outside world, mobilized the United States and the international press behind them. In a roundabout fashion, the Yazidi crisis prompted the Catholic Church’s remarkable approval of the military intervention, which it believed would protect other non-Muslim minorities in Iraq, including Chaldean Catholics. As long as non-Muslim minorities are able to effectively message their concerns beyond their domestic borders, they will hold a power over much larger regional adversaries that is far greater than traditional force comparisons would indicate.
Vian Dakhil Yazidi, member of Iraq Parliament, on August 5, 2014:
“Mr. Speaker, our women are being taken captive and sold on the slave-market… Please, brothers… Please, brothers… A genocide campaign is taking place right now against the Yazidis… Mr. Speaker, we call upon the Iraqi parliament to intervene immediately to stop this massacre. The Yazidis suffered 72 genocides, and it is being repeated in the 21st century… We are being slaughtered, annihilated. An entire religion is being wiped off the face of the Earth. Brothers, I am calling out to you in the name of humanity! In the name of humanity, save us!”
President Obama on August 7, 2014:
“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain–with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help–in this case, a request from the Iraqi government–and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”
Pope Francis on August 9, 2014:
“The tragic experiences of the Twentieth Century, and the most basic understanding of human dignity, compels the international community, particularly through the norms and mechanisms of international law, to do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities.”
In the predawn hours of Sunday, August 3, 2014, fighters from the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni Muslim extremist group, entered the town of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. In short order, they seized control of municipal buildings, scattered Kurdish security personnel, and began to systematically terrorize the local population. It was, for IS, a well-worn formula, implemented in countless communities across large portions of Iraq and Syria since 2013: establish an armed presence; proclaim itself the local governing authority; implement its extreme version of Sharia law; and begin a violent process of categorizing the locals into two groups–Sunni Muslims who chose to submit to IS’s ideology and everyone else. Those who fell into the latter category ended up there for various reasons, but they all shared a common set of dire options: convert, pay an unaffordable jizya tax (if IS deemed them eligible to do so), or die.
Sinjar’s besiegement, however, turned out to be quite unique. IS’s behavior there followed its standard template of atrocity and intemperance, but it was applied in a place and to a people that would, only days later, motivate the opening salvos of a sustained multinational military response against IS and bring the extremist group’s sweeping, speedy offensive across Mesopotamia to a jarring halt. IS, by failing to forecast the unique, disproportionate implications of applying its standard tactics to small, non-Muslim minorities during its Iraq campaign, suffered a major strategic setback that far outweighs the local tactical and ideological progress it sought to achieve in Sinjar.
Crisis and Response
Situated in Nineveh Province in northwestern Iraq, Sinjar and its environs are home to most of Iraq’s estimated 500,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority. IS’s onslaught prompted an estimated 130,000 Yazidis to flee Sinjar for Iraqi Kurdistan; of those who remained, approximately 500 were murdered by IS. During the assault, roughly 40,000 men, women, and children, mostly Yazidi, took refuge on nearby Mount Sinjar. Surrounded, bombarded, and insufficiently provisioned, the survival of those on the mountain was, by any sober estimate, gravely imperiled.
The situation for the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, however, brightened considerably and unexpectedly on August 7 when President Obama announced airstrikes against the IS targets in Sinjar to break the siege. Ultimately, the plight of the Yazidis bolstered the argument in favor of direct U.S. military action to destroy IS. Overcoming public reticence in the United States for military re-engagement in Iraq required compelling justifications, as the security of a handful of U.S. personnel in Erbil and the stability of the perpetually hamstrung Iraqi government failed to sway public opinion. The Yazidis—via timely, aggressive, and distressing communications initiatives like the broadcast of Vian Dakhil’s parliamentary speech —rapidly informed the international community of the dire circumstances on Mount Sinjar. Within days, the word “genocide” began to appear in the speeches, testimonies, and press releases of Western leaders, policymakers, and human rights groups—and few terms more urgently implore action. In the months since President Obama’s speech on August 7, the United States and its allies have executed over 1,000 airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria, enabling ground advances by Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces and forcing IS into a defensive posture.
The Messaging Power of the Existential Threat
It is useful to conceptualize of the various minority groups in Iraq not as an accumulation of unrelated, disparate entities, but rather as a confederation of peoples sharing two impactful characteristics: very small populations and non-Islamic (certainly in the traditional sense) theologies. While these attributes aren’t often beneficial, they can be leveraged to garner international attention and response in times of crisis.
With respect to the small size of these minority groups relative to the overall population of Iraq, there is a tendency among international observers, surrogates, affiliates, and advocates to more frequently view threats toward these groups as existential in nature, thereby amplifying supportive messaging and upgrading the seriousness of the crisis at hand. Whether a reflection of perception or reality, both of these results distinctly increase the probability and substance of a useful international response to entreaties for assistance. The international response to the IS attack on the Yazidi minority demonstrated the informational power of a perceived existential threat to a small, besieged minority.
As with many persecuted minorities, Yazidi population estimates are varied and unreliable, ranging from under 300,000 worldwide to 700,000 in Iraq alone. About 200,000 people, primarily Yazidi, fled their homes in northwestern Iraq as a result of IS’s presence. Immediately following the initial IS onslaught on the town of Sinjar, upwards of 40,000 of its Yazidi inhabitants fled to hiding places on nearby Mount Sinjar. One might reasonably assess that these Yazidis represented perhaps 10 percent of the global Yazidi population. While these numbers are not certain, it is clear that even if IS had succeeded in its grisly objective to wipe out 40,000 Yazidis, the greater Yazidi community of several hundred thousand—now disbursed to places like Dohuk and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan—would have persisted as a distinct cultural group. Regardless of IS’s results, the Yazidis, mercilessly persecuted, scattered, and downtrodden, were not going away.
Genocide: A Mobilizing Threat
Yet, in the days that followed the initial IS attack on Sinjar, a distinct theme developed across the information spectrum among chroniclers and followers of the Yazidi plight on the mountain. The threat was not just articulated as mass atrocity or mass murder, but as cultural extermination and, notably, genocide. Genocide is understood by the general public to be the worst of atrocities, an attempt to systemically exterminate a group, and characterizes the most horrific events in modern human history—Nazi slaughter of over six million Jews, elimination of 70 percent of the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda, and the systematic killing of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
The legal definition of genocide, however, includes acts that are not necessarily intended to eliminate an entire group. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This definition does not imply that genocide must necessarily seek extermination of an entire group (it includes the phrase “in part”), but simply includes crimes that are committed against members due to association or affiliation. This legal conception of genocide is somewhat broader than the popular conception and could, in some circumstances, effectively conflate genocide with other heinous, but less culturally apocalyptic, transgressions.
The disparity between the broad international legal definition of genocide and its considerably more disturbing popular connotation was key to enabling a military response to the Mount Sinjar crisis. By using modern communications methods such as YouTube broadcasts and telecommunications links with Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, the Yazidis leveraged their small size to impact strategic outcomes for IS, which is derived from a much larger, regionally-ubiquitous Sunni Muslim majority. The U.S. justification for military action in Iraq, which needed to be very robust in order to be palatable to a war-jaded American public, achieved its requisite gravity by including as one of its principle elements the genocide threat that was originally communicated in a widely-televised, heartrending speech by Yazidi MP Vian Dakhilon the floor of the Iraqi Parliament. This enabled the Obama administration to shift the discussion away from niggling, subjective arguments over whether IS presents a sufficiently imminent national threat and instead allowed an appeal to universal values—in this case, the moral obligation to prevent an unambiguous atrocity. Support for (or, at least, lack of vocal objection to) airstrikes was, accordingly, widespread. Indeed, once airstrikes started, they continued to receive broad support from the American people even months after the first Sinjar strikes and after the primary advertised mission of the coalition became not just one of saving Yazidis, but of IS’s complete destruction. Complementing this solid popular footing, the legal underpinnings of the airstrikes were also effectively beyond reproach, thanks to the broad international legal definition of acts that constitute genocide, which does not require a threat of group extermination.
Small Groups, Loud Voices
The smaller the relative size of a threatened non-Muslim minority when compared with its aggressor, the more fragile its appearance and the more easily it can leverage this disproportion to its advantage in its communications with the outside world and in its appeals for intervention. Vian Dakhil’s speech has garnered nearly 200,000 views on YouTube since she delivered it in the Iraqi Parliament on August 5, and substantially larger audiences witnessed it as it was picked up by major news agencies like the BBC and the Washington Post. This propagation of the genocide theme in Yazidi messaging spread rapidly via social media, as well as through advocacy sites like freeyezidi.com and other internet news sources, thereby amplifying the voice of a tiny, regionalized religious minority and awakening the international community in a manner that would have been impossible just a decade ago. Technological advances that facilitate inexpensive grassroots communication and global exposure of isolated minority groups (to include, in the Yazidi case, effective and timely updates directly from Mount Sinjar) have changed the strategic calculus of minority persecution in the region. Geographic isolation no longer reliably masks atrocities. Today, it is far too easy to record and relay these events to wider audiences outside the conflict area. Even a group like the IS, whose leaders often openly seek coverage of their more gruesome acts and use this exposure as a terror tactic, have suffered stalled momentum in their offensive in Iraq as a result of the ongoing airstrikes, which were, in effect, initialized by the Yazidi awareness campaign.
Messaging of Minorities: Leveraging Powerful Allies
The messaging advantages conferred on Iraq’s minorities by their small size can often be further augmented by their non-Muslim theologies. While their religious beliefs render these groups nearly powerless within their domestic and regional boundaries, their beliefs are potentially useful internationally in two respects. First, because they are generally unaffiliated with Islam, their cause is free of the West-versus-Islam “clash of civilizations” rhetorical baggage that has dominated, quite unfairly, the post-9/11 ideological dialogue. While IS, with its extremist brand of Islam, is nearly universally rejected by the Muslim world, it and other Islamic extremist groups continue to enjoy far more media coverage in the non-Muslim world than is merited. This continues to foster a tainted image in the West of Muslims as a whole. However unfair this reality, it does have the potential to make Western audiences more sympathetic and attentive to the circumstances of non-Muslim minorities located in Muslim states or regions where they are profoundly outnumbered.
Powerful Affiliations: Chaldean Catholics and Rome
A second potential benefit of the non-Muslim nature of Iraq’s minorities is manifested in their affiliations with Western religions. Even though such links may only apply to certain minority groups, messaging can easily be made inclusive of multiple geographically adjacent groups, given the similar circumstances and challenges they all face as persecuted minorities. Chaldean Catholics in Iraq offer perhaps the clearest example of the benefits that religious ties to the West bestow.
Chaldean Catholics, an ethnic-Syriac minority group, comprise approximately 70 percent of Iraqi Christians, whose origins trace to the earliest days of Christianity. By the early 4th century, Christianity was well established and widespread throughout Mesopotamia. Iraq would become home to the seat of the Patriarch of the Church of the East, whose territory would, in the centuries to follow, span from the Mediterranean to China.
The history of Christian persecution in Iraq is nearly as old as the Christian origin story, beginning with Shah Shapur II in the 340s. Today, Christians remain among the most prominent—and, as a result, among the most targeted—non-Muslim minority groups in Iraq. As with the Yazidis, current population numbers for Iraqi Christians, including Chaldeans, are unreliable due to the mass migrations in the wake of violence after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the most recent IS advances. Before these emigrations, the Iraqi Christian population was estimated to total one million (about three percent of Iraq’s total population). Today, that number is likely closer to 300,000. Most remaining Christians are internally displaced and have taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Chaldean Catholics, via a rather circuitous hierarchical and historical route, are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican serves as a strong voice for their interests and is an influential conduit to the international community. Because the preponderance of Chaldean Catholics inhabit the Nineveh plains and other areas of northern Iraq, their territory overlaps with those of other non-Muslim minorities. Whenever violence occurs in the region, it is seldom directed at only a single minority group. Rome’s messaging in the aftermath of the Yazidi crisis in Sinjar reflects this reality. Few statements from Pope Francis or his surrogates refer to Iraqi Christians exclusively, but typically also draw attention to other, adjacent minority groups who do not have a direct link to international actors. This “coattails effect” enables the entire constellation of minority non-Muslims to benefit from the increased global awareness of their plight that the Pope’s powerful voice provides. Indeed, the remarkable popularity of Pope Francis worldwide has dramatically increased the value of this benefit. The “Francis Effect” continues to notably impact everything that the church touches—even the sufferings of obscure, disenfranchised minorities in neglected backwaters like northwestern Iraq. Rome’s continued doctrinal stasis notwithstanding, when this pope talks, people listen. Furthermore, “there isn’t a politician on the planet today—at least one who has to stand for reelection—who wouldn’t want a photo-op with Francis.” On December 6, the Pope, via video, addressed internally displaced Christians in Erbil and continued to message the genocide risk:
“Christians and Yazidis were forcibly removed from their homes, have had to give up everything to save their lives and not deny the faith. The violence has also affected sacred buildings, monuments, religious symbols and cultural heritage, as if to erase every trace, every memory of the other. It seems as if these people do not want us to be Christians.”
The Remarkable Scope of Rome’s Support for Non-Muslim Minorities
In the early stages of the IS siege of Mount Sinjar (a crisis, notably, that did not directly involve significant numbers of Christians), the Pope tacitly approved of U.S. airstrikes in a statement on August 9, when he compelled “the international community, particularly through the norms and mechanisms of international law, to do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities.” In Vatican-speak, this referred to the use of, among other instruments, military force, a sentiment subsequently reiterated by the Pope during an in-flight press conference. James Bretzke, a Boston College professor of moral theology, calls the Pope’s stance “the most pronounced endorsement of the use of force of any pope … in the last 100 years.” It represents a distinct reversal of the Vatican’s traditional anti-war messaging: it opposed military action in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and in Iraq in 2003. That the Pope would advocate such a dramatic course change on behalf of the small, peripheral Chaldean community (a group unknown to most of his Roman Catholic flock) and an even smaller, lesser-known Yazidi minority, is a potent highlight of the new reality of non-Muslim influence on the ongoing conflict in Iraq.
Given the timeline of events (the Sinjar attack on August 3, Obama’s announcement of airstrikes on August 7, and the Pope’s statement on August 9), it would seem that the same effective Yazidi messaging that gave critical mass to the Obama administration’s justification for airstrikes also prompted the Vatican’s elevation of the IS conflict to top priority in its own communications efforts. Thus, in a roundabout way, the Yazidi massacre fueled Rome’s augmented support for its own Chaldean Catholic population. Without the specter of a Yazidi genocide, it seems unlikely that such a dramatic exception to the Vatican’s anti-war principles would have materialized. The proximate negative effects on IS’s ability to conduct offensive operations in Iraq served to assuage, at least to some degree, the suffering of all minority groups in the area. Clearly, not only can the Catholic minority in the conflict area bring coattail support to adjacent affected minorities, but the conduit between Chaldeans and Rome can also be tapped directly by adjacent non-Catholic minorities, with subsequent positive effects on Catholic and non-Catholic alike in the affected area.
In the months since the Pope’s initial statement of support for action to stop IS, Vatican support for the ongoing operation has remained distinctly steadfast. Long after the initial bombings to halt the siege of Mount Sinjar—and well into a U.S. and coalition mission to destroy IS—papal surrogates continue to articulate support not just for suffering minorities, but for the ongoing use of force to protect them. There has been no sizeable public objection to this position from any quarter. During an official visit to Erbil on December 7, 2014, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, a past candidate for the Papacy and one of the most prominent authorities on the Muslim world among senior church officials, reiterated Francis’s “cautious blessing” of the ongoing military action against IS.
IS: Ideological Decisions, Strategic Implications
The decision-making and assessment process of IS’s leadership remains opaque, but it is likely that the organization’s senior leaders lament the operational price they have paid across their Iraq and Syria campaigns for a failed tactical mission to brutally subjugate one relatively small, isolated Iraqi town. IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has released only one public statement since the U.S. and coalition airstrikes began, a November 13 audio recording posted days after an airstrike in which he had been rumored killed. Naturally, he made no mention of IS’s transition from offense to defense in Iraq due to the airstrikes and related Iraqi and peshmerga ground operations. However, his thematic focus in the message on regional and global enemies—orienting on the far war rather than the near war—is perhaps indicative of the limited amount of useful messaging fodder coming out of IS’s Iraq operations of late. For IS, when it comes to Iraq, there is relatively little to trumpet these days. IS’s presence certainly remains robust, but after the air campaign’s prosecution of over 2,300 IS targets in Iraq and Syria since August, the group’s fast-and-loose offensive that shocked the world earlier in the year now more closely resembles a comparatively unglamorous defensive slog.
IS is often characterized as a sophisticated media manipulator, leveraging multiple platforms and developing customized and diverse messaging themes tailored to specific audiences: from comparatively softer programming for local Sunni residents of IS-governed areas in the post-kinetic stage to gruesome beheading videos for Western voting publics and jihadist aspirants. However, by misapplying its multi-pronged approach to messaging and image-building, which generally mirrors its operational strategy on the ground, IS has needlessly increased its exposure to attack and disproportionately empowered those it persecutes in Iraq.
IS’s headline-grabbing, albeit unrealistic, goal of establishing a pan-Arab caliphate, is perhaps bolstered by terror attacks on Westerners. Little can be gained, however, by attempts to exterminate, in brazenly horrific ways, relatively powerless and little-known local minority groups who refuse to bend to their roles in IS’s invented-historical narrative. The Yazidis did not pose enough of a threat to IS’s supremacy in rural northwestern Iraq to justify murdering hundreds of Yazidi males, enslaving Yazidi females, and besieging the thousands trapped on Mount Sinjar. The IS offensive and the group’s local domination would not have been imperiled by a small minority group had IS taken a less draconian approach to the Yazidi situation. It would still have easily taken control of Sinjar, and accounts of the events there would likely never have become briefing subjects for President Obama or Pope Francis. As a result, IS could have avoided (or, at least, delayed) the protracted air campaign and combined ground operation that muted the swift offensive responsible for its regional strategic legitimacy.
An Emerging Legacy
IS forces now face significant ongoing degradation from a multinational air campaign in support of local ground efforts that threaten its local and regional legitimacy as an empowered governing concern. The voices of tiny, non-Muslim minorities, rippling across media platforms all the way to the desks of world’s most powerful actors, initiated this new reality. Regardless of how IS’s story ends, Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities deserve credit for playing an outsized and notable role in writing it.
Matthew Gruba is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps and the Commandant of the Marine Corps Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
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