President Obama's announcement that the United States' will protect 40,000 Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq is a decisive and timely response to an unfolding humanitarian disaster. Airdrops of water and food, already under way, will save lives.
The Yazidis, however, will not really be safe until they can get off the desert mountain and back to their homes in Sinjar. This will require American airstrikes in combination with the ongoing campaign by the Kurdistan military, known as the peshmerga, to retake the city. President Obama has said he will authorize airstrikes, if necessary, to save the Yazidis, and they probably will be.
The Yazidis are Kurdish-speaking adherents to an ancient religion that considers that God is the creator of all, including good and evil. Because they consider Satan to be one of God's creations, many Muslims denigrate the Yazidis as devil worshippers and they have often faced greater persecution than other religious minorities. Needless to say, ISIS reviles them.
In their public decrees, ISIS gave the Yazidis a choice between converting to Islam and death. In Sinjar, the killings came so rapidly that it seems unlikely that anyone had the option to convert. As the terrorists set about massacring the men, they announced that the women would serve as temporary "wives" for ISIS fighters. In effect, ISIS has announced a program of rape that should outrage Americans much as the mass rapes in Bosnia did two decades ago.
President Obama has rightly accused ISIS of genocide. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention defines genocide as killing members of a group "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." There is no doubt that ISIS' killings are intended to destroy the Yazidis as a religious group. Article 4 makes clear that the Convention applies not only to duly constituted governments but also to individuals and organizations, such as ISIS.
In her 2002 book, A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power describes the Clinton Administration's contortions to avoid characterizing as genocide the killings of the Muslims in Bosnia and Tutsi in Rwanda. The reason for not using the g-word was, as Power explains, simple. If the killings were genocide, the U.S. would be morally and legally obliged to act to prevent it.
By using the term genocide, President Obama is obligating the United States to act to save Iraq's Yazidis and threatened Christians. This is not a small undertaking. The Yazidis and many of Iraq's Christians live in the borderlands between the Kurdistan region and the territory that had been controlled by Baghdad. After the Iraqi Army abandoned these areas in June, the peshmerga took over security.
When I visited the borderlands at the end of June, Kurdish leaders explained that they were now defending a 650-mile front against a highly mobile ISIS that was armed with modern American supplied weapons, all abandoned or turned over the collapsed Iraqi army. The United States, they complained, refused to sell Kurdistan weapons and they feared being outgunned. This week, their fears were realized. The peshmerga's small arms proved ineffective against the hundreds of American armored Humvees used by ISIS.
ISIS has used its advantage in mobility and arms to drive the peshmerga out of Sinjar, the Mosul dam area and several Christian towns. When ISIS attacks, civilians panic, particularly in Christian and Yazidi villages. This complicates the task of the Kurdish defenders, who not only must confront a ruthless foe, but must also look after terrorized civilians.
Although the peshmerga withdrew from certain areas, their units are still intact and they have their arms. Unlike the largely defunct Iraqi Army, the peshmerga can take advantage of US airstrikes. And, this week, the Obama Administration reversed a decade-long embargo on arming the peshmerga and began sending in arms. More will be needed, along with training.
President Obama, acting under the guise of protecting U.S. diplomats and military in the city, has committed U.S. air power to the defense of the Kurdistan capital, Erbil. This is not only a morale booster to the strongly pro-American Kurds, it will allow Kurdish commanders to shift forces away from the capital to the defense of the vulnerable borderlands.
President Obama's response to the Yazidi genocide has been swift and unambiguous. In four decades of working in war zones, I can't think of any other case where the United States responded so quickly to a humanitarian disaster. And except for the 1999 intervention to save Kosovo, the United States has an unfortunate record of identifying genocides only after they have taken place, and not when they could be prevented.
While moving to save Iraq's religious minorities, President Obama has articulated a new American approach to genocide. As the President said: "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."
In Iraq, the United States is acting with the authorization of the federal government in Baghdad. ISIS has no friends in the United Nations and, while not legally necessary, President Obama might usefully seek Security Council endorsement of his words and actions. It could set a useful precedent for prompt global action to deal with future genocides.
The president has taken a great deal of criticism in recent months for a perceived excess of caution and lack of resolve in U.S. foreign policy. But what he articulated this week should change that perception. Perhaps, some day, it may even be spoken of with admiration as the Obama doctrine.