Yazidis tell of betrayal (and rescue) by Arab friends

The New York Time has a story on some accounts by Iraqi Yazidi Kurds of being betrayed to ISIS — and its fanatical agenda of killing all non-Sunnis — by close friends.

But his friend’s assurances did not sit right with Mr. Habash. That night, he gathered his family and fled. Soon afterward, he said, he found out that Mr. Mare had joined the militants and was helping them hunt down Yazidi families.

Your friends say “everything will be ok” and next thing you know they’re trying to kill you. It reads quite a bit like a small-scale Iraqi version of the Rwandan Interahamwe, the semi-impromptu and mass-hysteria-driven Hutu militia in 1994 that hacked Tutsi friends and family to death by the hundreds of thousands during the genocide.

The Times’ anecdotes are consistent with reporting by AFP a couple weeks ago:

“The Metwet, Khawata and Kejala tribes — they were all our neighbours. But they joined the IS, took heavy weapons from them, and informed on who was Yazidi and who was not. Our neighbours made the IS takeover possible,” the distraught white-bearded Hassan said.

Speaking to AFP in a transit camp run by the local Kurdish authorities for the displaced, Haidar said his childhood friend was among those who joined the IS. “I was shocked. The IS brainwashed him, and he started informing on who was Yazidi,” he said. “I would have been executed immediately had they found me.”

I guess this kind of happens everywhere when things go sideways into an ethnic slaughter.

Fortunately, as the Times also reported, there were also some bright spots in the crisis, as there also are in most such situations:

Though Mohsin Habash’s family suffered because of one Arab neighbor, he pointed out that they were saved with the help of another: a longtime friend who led a convoy of Yazidi refugees to safety at great risk.

The convoy drove through the night, passing ISIS-controlled territories undetected. Mohsin Habash believes it was because his friend knew the Arab areas better than any of the Yazidis.

Hours later, they reached Syria. From there, Mohsin Habash’s friend introduced them to another Arab man who took the group the rest of the way to the border with Kurdistan. “He saved us,” Mr. Habash said.

Even in the darkest moments, like when massive ethnic or sectarian cleansing is being attempted, some people still give us hope for humanity. (You can read some more examples from other cases here.)

Summary of developments in northern Iraq for August 9, 2014

The Obama Administration is apparently determined to prevent the fall of Erbil, Kurdistan Region’s capital, at all costs (or at the very least whatever it takes short of ground troops — though that might be on the table, too, as discussed below). It’s one of the advantages of being a longstanding protectorate and ally of the United States. The President ordered airstrikes on ISIS missile launchers and mortars as soon as Erbil came under long-range attack because most of the U.S. presence in Iraq (outside Baghdad itself) is located there and locals were already evacuating in a panic. The concern was that mass evacuation left Americans at the Erbil consulate and other sites even more vulnerable.

The U.S. military also asserts that the ISIS capture of Mosul Dam poses a risk to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, so I suspect it’s within the realm of possibility that we may see U.S. Special Forces land to re-take it very soon. Presumably this would be a very limited action to eject ISIS troops from the dam facilities and (one hopes) set up more secure defenses to help local paramilitaries and the Iraqi security forces hold it against future attacks. The destruction of this Tigris river dam, as attempted unsuccessfully by Saddam Hussein in 2003, would likely release quasi-apocalyptic flood conditions on the rest of Iraq to the south. That, however, would require ISIS to make the calculation that destroying the city of Mosul and much of their own territory in the process was worth the destructive power further south. It seems more probable they will use the dam, which is the country’s largest hydroelectric dam, to cut off water and power to the south. A 65-foot tall wall of water smashing through Mosul, the most important city in ISIS hands, seems a bit too Hollywood. Thus, it might not make much sense for the U.S. military to try to re-take the dam.

On the other northern front, Syrian Kurdish forces say they have broken out 10% of the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, which is located near the Iraq-Syria border. They will be taken across into an anti-ISIS rebel-held area of Syrian Kurdistan.

The mountain, which is perhaps better described as a 25-mile-long and 10-mile-wide ridge, is a dozen or so miles from the Syrian border.

USGS Satellite Image of Mount Sinjar ridge. Dark, bent line in the upper left corner is the Syrian border.

USGS Satellite Image of Mount Sinjar ridge. Dark, bent line in the upper left corner is the Syrian border.

It’s a very distressing situation. Before any evacuations, 40-50,000 people were trapped on a mountain without food or water, completely surrounded by ISIS forces. The latter are reported slowly starting to move in and are snatching women and girls. U.S. and Kurdish relief aircraft are continuing to drop food, water, and other supplies on to the mountain — reportedly under enemy fire.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Region has had to absorb 200,000 internally displaced Iraqis since Monday alone. On top of that, tens of thousands of local residents started moving southward within the region on Thursday in an effort to evacuate before ISIS invades.

Who are the Yazidis at Mount Sinjar right now?

Yesterday, U.S. and Turkish relief military operations began to try to help tens of thousands of displaced Yazidi Iraqi civilians who have been surrounded without food or water at Mount Sinjar, a Yazidi holy site, by ISIS forces.

These civilians belong to a long-suffering minority religious sect based in Iraq, and their latest oppressors at ISIS have shown themselves to be deeply inflexible toward even their own fellow Sunni Muslim Arabs. The Yazidi adherents are a predominantly Kurdish-speaking people but are very close-knit and inward-looking, like many of the very small Middle Eastern minority religious groups, most of which also prohibit marriage outside the faith on pain of death.

For global perspective, the Yazidi population has faced over 70 different concerted attempts in history to exterminate their entire population. This is done on the grounds they are “devil worshipers,” in an apparent misinterpretation of their monotheistic fusion doctrine that merges elements of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and a range of other Mesopotamian, classical, and pre-modern Middle Eastern faiths from the northern Iraq and western Iran areas. The primary point of contention is that they believe God’s most favored archangel (Azazel/Lucifer) did not fall from grace (to become Shaitan/Satan) and should be revered for refusing to bend to mankind on the orders of God, because he was actually complying with earlier orders from God not to bow to anyone, and God made him the leader of the archangels as a reward for remembering that.

The Yazidis are now a relatively small sect worldwide (no more than 700,000 and possibly less than 250,000). There are 40,000-50,000 members trapped on the mountain right now. It’s difficult to keep track of their current numbers after more than a decade of nationwide unrest in Iraq, but that figure may amount to more than half the remaining homeland/Iraqi population of Yazidi followers.

In 2007, New York Times reported at the time, terrorists detonated four bombs that were so big they flattened two entire towns full of Yazidis. The eventual death toll was estimated at just under 800, making it the second worst terrorist attack in modern world history — and one that further shrank an already endangered community.

Location of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. (Credit: Urutseg on Wikimedia)

Location of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. (Credit: Urutseg on Wikimedia)

Kurds say US airstrikes have begun in Iraq tonight

In an effort likely aimed at rescuing 50,000 starving Yazidi Kurd civilians trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar, Kurdish commanders say the U.S. has started airstrikes tonight on ISIS positions, in coordination with Kurdish peshmerga troops. The mountain, which is a Yazidi holy site near the Syrian border, is outside the normal zone of control of the Kurdish Regional Government and is virtually surrounded by the forces of Islamic State (of Syria & Iraq), following the recent Kurdish retreats.

From the New York Times:

An announcement on Kurdish television of what was described as an American intervention prompted street celebrations and horn-honking by residents of towns under siege by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Anwar Haji Osman, deputy minister of the pesh merga, the Kurdish military force, said in the televised statement that his forces had been in contact with the Americans and that the bombings had been carried out by fighter jets.

Kurdish officials said the bombings had initially targeted ISIS fighters who had seized two towns, Gwer and Mahmour, near the main Kurdish city of Erbil. A top Iraqi official in Baghdad close to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said that the Americans had consulted with the Iraqi government Thursday night about starting the campaign, the government had agreed and the bombing had begun.


Location of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. (Credit: Urutseg on Wikimedia)

Location of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. (Credit: Urutseg on Wikimedia)

The Pentagon is denying the reports of U.S. airstrikes there — though the Obama Administration has confirmed plans to drop food and supplies for the refugees — and tried to shift credit on to the Turkish military or Iraqi Air Force. While Turkey’s foreign minister did announce a food drop via helicopter, the government has denied conducting any airstrikes.

And although Iraq’s airforce has indeed been conducting airstrikes, they have already proven themselves far too incompetent to be responsible for the precision strikes near Sinjar. Iraqi airstrikes didn’t even make it past day 1 without indiscriminately obliterating big clusters of people who weren’t the intended target because the air force lacks the training — and desire — to be more careful or conscientious about their target selection. Killing 50 prisoners from your own side, while trying to liberate them by way of airstrikes, is not a smooth move.

The likeliest scenario is that this is a United States humanitarian intervention air campaign to try to rescue the Yazidis, a shrinking minority sect who have faced full-blown extermination campaigns by various factions more than 70 times in history. (Update, 8/8/14: The United States confirmed Friday morning that they had initiated airstrikes against ISIS missile launchers that were threatening Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. President Obama vowed to defend Erbil, a longtime U.S. ally city in northeastern Iraq, from any efforts by ISIS to move on it.)

In other news, the town of Qaraqosh also has fallen to ISIS and Christians are having to flee as the Kurdish Peshmerga troops fell back again. The town was one of the big centers of Iraq’s Christian populations. Earlier today, the UN claimed that the 50,000 trapped Yazidis were successfully and safely broken out, but US and most UK media outlets (following the lead of the US government) say they are still there. On another front, newly ISIS-aligned rebel forces in Syria struck at Lebanese military posts on the border, in retaliation for their failure to stop Hezbollah’s cross-border activities in support of the Syrian regime.

ISIS rolls back Kurdish forces in Iraq. What’s next?

ISIS — now known as “Islamic State” following its recent declaration of establishment — just won a significant operation against what is arguably Iraq’s most effective fighting force, the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitaries. So, everything is probably really about to go sideways now.

The immediate loss of two more towns is another destabilizing and demoralizing blow:

The Islamic State captured the northern towns of Sinjar and Zumar on Saturday, prompting an estimated 40,000 from the minority Yazidi sect to flee, said Jawhar Ali Begg, a spokesman for the community.
“Their towns are now controlled by [Islamic State] and their shrine has been blown up,” Begg told The Associated Press. The group gave the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with links to Zoroastrianism, an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death, Begg added.


But perhaps worse, through this operation, ISIS captured another northern oil field (number 5 in Iraq, not to mention their Syrian oil and gas fields), as well as the largest dam in all of Iraq, the massive hydroelectric Mosul Dam on the Tigris River. With every flare-up in violence or war since the 1986, there have been persistent fears that someone will intentionally blow it up to cause torrential and lethal downstream flooding in many major Iraqi cities.

The Kurdish troops, who retreated in the face of the ISIS advance after some fighting, assert that they were hung out to dry — not even getting sufficient ammunition assistance — by the central government of Iraq, which has been simultaneously blasting their separatist tendencies and explicitly relying upon them to “hold the line” against ISIS while they figure out what the do. The Kurds have been responsible for protecting thousands of refugees fleeing the city of Mosul, the center of ISIS operations in Iraq.
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