In August, the Obama administration intervened to stop what it called a pending genocide of Yazidi minorities in Iraq. Now the U.S. is gone, but the genocide continues.
Thousands of Yazidis remain stranded and starving on Mount Sinjar while thousands more have been sold off into slavery by ISIS, according to Yazidi leaders, several of whom are in Washington to beg for urgent assistance.
When President Obama announced U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq in early August, he said the mission was twofold: to protect U.S. personnel in Erbil and to save the ethnic Yazidis from ISIS, who had fled from their villages, chased by ISIS, and were stranded on the mountain with no food, no supplies, and no protection.
“People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide,” said Obama. “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.”
At first, international airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops somewhat alleviated the Yazidi crisis and opened up an escape corridor for many Yazidis to flee. But in October, the United States turned to other parts of the battle, leaving the Yazidis largely to fend for themselves. ISIS has now surrounded Mount Sinjar again, trapping approximately 10,000 Yazidis there. Meanwhile, ISIS forces are taking over Yazidi villages near the mountain one after another, killing the men and selling the women and children into the slave trade.
“The Yazidis are trapped on the mountain, surrounded by ISIS, and there is no pathway to reach them,” Nuri Khalaf Elias, leader of the Hababa tribe in Sinjar, told The Daily Beast. “There is a shortage of food, there is little aid, and they are in a dire situation.”
Elias is part of a large delegation of Yazidi leaders who came to Washington last week, led by Baba Sheikh Khurto Hajji Ismail, the leader of the Yazidi Supreme Religious Council. They met with senior White House and State Department officials and pleaded for the U.S. government and the U.S. military to turn their attention back to the Yazidi crisis. The delegation met with, among others, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall, and Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who leads the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
“Our hostages, children, women, and girls, between 4,000 and 5,000 of them, have been captured by ISIS and sent to other areas. We need help to rescue these hostages,” said Sameer Karto Babasheikh, the son of the Yazidi Supreme Religious Council leader. “In Mosul, they opened a market to sell Yazidi girls. Some of them ended up in Fallujah, some of them were taken to Saudi Arabia and Raqqa in Syria.”
On the mountain, between 6,000 and 7,000 civilians and between 2,000 and 3,000 Yazidi fighters are still trapped and struggling to stay alive, cut off from any supply routes, the Yazidi leaders said. Since the airstrikes trailed off to a trickle in October, ISIS has taken over the five remaining Yazidi towns near Mount Sinjar, killing hundreds of civilians and abducting hundreds more.
Even the humanitarian airdrops have halted. The Iraqi government provided two helicopters to deliver aid, but they are old and fly only once or twice a week, Babasheikh said. About 100 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are on the mountain, he added, but they don’t engage ISIS. The extremist group continues to fight to take the mountain once and for all, and the situation on Mount Sinjar could go from dire to catastrophic within a couple of weeks, the Yazidi leaders said.
“President Obama promised that they are not going to let ISIS get any more land, that they are not going to let them get another genocide on the Yazidis. But this is going to be worse than in August,” said Kamal Elias, a Yazidi activist who is part of the delegation. “If ISIS gets to the mountain, all of these people are going to be slaughtered, and then it’s going to take years for the U.S. or anyone else to get them out of the mountain.”
For the Yazidis, this ISIS attack is only the latest in a long history of Sunni Iraqi attempts to drive the Yazidis from their land and extinguish their religion in Iraq.
“Most of the ISIS members are from the towns around ISIS,” he said. “They were our neighbors. We lived with them for hundreds of years. Now all of a sudden they are ISIS. They joined ISIS.”
The Yazidis blame several parties for their plight. They blame the government of Iraq for not protecting them for years, they blame the Kurdish forces for fleeing Mount Sinjar without fighting ISIS this summer, and they blame the United States for starting the air war against ISIS and then appearing to lose interest, giving ISIS the idea that it can act against the Yazidis with impunity.
“We thank President Obama because he started the operation, but we were expecting he would not stop until clearing the area of ISIS,” said Ali Khalaf, a Yazidi dentist from Iraq who now lives in Germany.
American officials all promised the Yazidis during their visit that they would make their humanitarian crisis a priority for the U.S. government in the context of its strategy to fight ISIS and overall policy toward Iraq. But officials gave the delegation no specific commitments and made no concrete promises of increased U.S. assistance.
“Mr. Rhodes reiterated the United States’ commitment to the safety and security of the Yezidi community within a unified and pluralistic Iraq,” the White House said in a statement after Rhodes met with the Yazidi delegation, using an alternate spelling for the community. “He noted the recent positive steps in the formation of an Iraqi government under the leadership of Prime Minister Abadi and stressed continued U.S. support for the development of a national program in Iraq that addresses the interests and desires of all its communities. He pledged continued humanitarian assistance for those who have been displaced inside Iraq, including the Yezidi population, and expressed our determination to provide support for Yezidi women and girls who have faced terrible abuse from ISIL.”
Asked if he believed the White House’s statements of continued support, Khalaf said: “We have to believe the U.S. will come to help us. There’s no other option.”