Over the course of the last several months, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or alternatively as ISIS) has rebranded themselves as the Islamic State (IS) and established an informal caliphate across large swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Islamic State has swiftly asserted control over the residents of the cities it has captured, driving out hundreds of thousands of refugees in the process. IS has specifically targeted non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim minority groups including Yazidi, Christian, Shabak, and Turkomen peoples in what Amnesty international has described as ethnic cleansing. Militants from IS have staged mass executions, coerced conversions to Islam under the penalty of death, and have forced women and young girls into sexual slavery. These deplorable acts persist unabated in areas under IS control as the extremist jihadists continue to seize territory and threaten to further destabilize the region.
The Islamic State is embroiled in direct fighting with Syrian government forces, anti-Assad rebel groups, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite militias, and Iraqi government forces. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, in tandem with US airstrikes, achieved a key strategic victory when the Mosul Dam was retaken on August 17th. The US has carried out over 150 airstrikes since the initial attacks in early August, and President Obama has noted that it will likely be an extended campaign as part of the offensive to degrade and destroy IS. As a result of US involvement, a representative of the Islamic State executed American journalists James Foley in a highly publicized event. Steven Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist, was beheaded days later. Anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric has been a staple of the Islamic State, hoping to incite additional extremists to join their cause. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has warned that the jihadist group could reach Europe in a month if left unchecked in the Middle East, and the number of foreign fighters joining the IS ranks is staggering.
The severity of the threat the Islamic State poses is only now being recognized. What has not been appropriately addressed in the discourse is the appalling and inhumane treatment of minority groups and women under the banner of the Islamic State. The UN on September 1st approved an investigation into human rights abuses by the Islamic State on an ‘unimaginable scale’ but it is likely to reveal what is already being heard from individual accounts, but largely ignored.
The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish ethno-religious minority who follow elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, and have lived in northern Iraq for centuries. The Shabak people are a separate ethnoreligious group who have a distinct language, culture, and religion. Along with Iraqi Christians, Turkomen, and smaller minority groups, they have been persecuted relentlessly by Islamic State militants. In some cases they are offered the choice of paying a monthly ‘jizya’ tax or the option to flee, but in many other cases these people are killed en masse. Women and girls captured through jihad have been sold as sex slaves and repeatedly raped, justified under a perverted interpretation of Islam. The barbarity has been widely documented from refugee reports, but has received little attention as it is impossible to ascertain the extent of the crimes. These minorities and civilians are critical to the future of the region, as they will ultimately determine who to support, complicity or explicitly, through the long road ahead. IS would not be as powerful as they are today if not for the exploitation of the grievances of marginalized Sunnis and other groups, and it will not be easy to win them back.
In President Obama’s speech on September 10th, he repeated the goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State. France has recently announced its intention to join in striking IS targets. The focus on eliminating the jihadist group ignores a common mistake that has plagued Western involvement abroad for far too long. The airstrikes that helped free some 20,000 Yazidis from Mount Sinjar saved countless lives, and such actions on humanitarian grounds must continue to protect civilians. Working with regional and international partners is a necessity, but any boots on the ground risk worsening grievances. The idea that foreign powers can ‘systematically’ eliminate IS is shortsighted. The goal should not be to defeat an abstract enemy that will always exist in some form, but rather to enable the locals to reject the extremists that continue to thrive on discontent and conflict. The US and other powers must think forward to what will happen as soon as the air campaigns cease and what will emerge afterwards. It is necessary to retake what IS has captured, but it is impossible to do so without creating new enemies in the process. The US should not stand idly by, but it should reevaluate what it realistically hopes to achieve. Taking back cities without a plan on how they will be administered in the wake of IS demise only serves to create another vacuum of power. Thus all the parties involved in fighting the Islamic State need to win back the trust of the citizenry that has been left in this devastating situation. Providing stability, security, and a real alternative to the Islamic State–for minority groups, marginalized Sunnis, and all other civilians– should be paramount over any long term military objectives.