THE BLOG
10/06/2014 06:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

The Flag of Kobani, the Ghosts of Sinjar

SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images

The black flag of the Islamic State flies over the Syrian border city of Kobani, in plain view of Turkish soldiers and Kurdish refugees who watch from across the border, as well as the eyes of the rest of the world who witnessed the act on their television and computer screens. Despite the frantic efforts of Syrian Kurdish fighters, supported by sporadic American airstrikes and Turkish artillery, the Islamic State has once again demonstrated that it has the capacity to seize and hold contested territory in the face of an ineffectual American-led coalition.

Pundits in the west have been extolling the viability of American and coalition airpower, combined with indigenous "boots on the ground," as the most effective means of containing and eventually defeating the military power of the Islamic State. Such a defeat is a prerequisite for any future political solution to the Islamic State phenomenon sweeping Iraq and Syria today. But as the battle for Kobani has graphically demonstrated, the fighters of the Islamic State have shown a willingness to close in and destroy their enemies with a fervor that outstrips any similar inclination on the part of those they confront. In short, their willingness to die for their cause far exceeds that of their opponents. In such a battle, those who are not willing to make the ultimate sacrifice have a tendency to pack up and run.

To the east of Kobani, just across the Syrian border with Iraq, is the town of Sinjar. Sinjar is located in a remote region of Northern Iraq, some 90 miles due west of the Iraqi city of Mosul. Mosul fell to the fighters of the Islamic State in June, unleashing a flood of Islamic extremism under the banner of the Islamic State that eventually made its way to Sinjar. The main feature of Sinjar is a slab of a mountain range thrusting up from the surrounding desert. Sinjar has a feel of antiquity about it. Noah, the Biblical patriarch of flood fame, is said to be buried there, and local tradition holds that Mount Sinjar is the actual resting place of his eponymous Ark. Sinjar was once a crossroads of ancient societies and cultures, and when one drives through the streets of the town, the ruins of empires past can be seen in the very foundations of its buildings, with bits and pieces of Persian, Greek and Roman carved stone mixed in with the brick and mortar of modernity.

The people of Sinjar consist of Sunni and Shi'a Arabs, Turkmen, and an ancient people of Kurdish ethnicity known as the Yazidi. The Yazidi represent a direct link to history as told in the Old Testament of the Bible, the Koran, and the Zoroastrian texts of old Persia. The Yazidi were among the first worshippers of the monotheistic entity of Judeo-Christian upbringing call God, and the Yazidi men all claim direct lineage to Adam, the first man created in God's image. That the Yazidi of Sinjar have survived, intact, into the modern era is a testament both to their resilience as a people and the remote nature of the land they live in. Today this has all changed. The fighters of the Islamic State unleashed genocidal ethnic cleansing in and around the town of Sinjar that drove the surviving Yazidi into the Sinjar Mountains for survival, prompting a massive rescue effort. The Islamic State's actions threaten to exterminate the Yazidi as a people, or failing that, to drive them from the place they have called home for several millennia.

I have a personal affinity for Sinjar and the Yazidi people. In October 1993, I spent several days on top of Mount Sinjar, the very place the Yazidi fled to take refuge from the Islamic State. I was in charge of a UN weapons inspection team looking for the vestiges of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction suspected of being hidden in the craggy caves and ravines carved into the sides of the mountain range. Sinjar was the home to one of Saddam Hussein's so-called "superguns" (giant cannons designed either to propel satellites into space, or rain death and destruction down on Israel, depending on who one believed -- in actuality the "supergun" could do neither), which was installed on a slope of Mount Sinjar. A ballistic missile test launch facility was located in the nearby town of Tal Afar. I spent several days coordinating the movements and actions of teams of inspectors, flying in helicopters equipped with sensitive sensors or driving around the circumference of the mountain range in four-wheel drive vehicles, searching for weapons that, it turned out, never existed.

In preparing for this mission, I had spent a considerable amount of time researching the Yazidi in anticipation of the inevitable clash of cultures that would take place when my teams entered their villages. Team members were instructed to respect Yazidi sensibilities regarding the purity of the earth and air by not spitting in their presence (many inspectors chewed tobacco, so this was an issue), or pass gas or urinate where they could be seen or heard by the Yazidi (most of the inspectors were from military backgrounds and had spent a lot of time "in the field," so this, too, was an issue.)

Of particular curiosity to me was the reputation the Yazidi had for being "devil worshippers." According to my research, the Yazidi revered the archangel Melek Taus, who refused to bow before Adam at the creation of man out of deference to God, thereby incurring God's favor. Islamic teachings in the Koran tell of a similar story, except the angel in question -- Shaytan, or Satan -- fell from God's grace due to his insubordination. It is this theological divergence that has prompted Islamists over the centuries to condemn the Yazidi as "devil worshippers," although nothing could be further from the truth. In any event, the team was instructed to avoid any discussion of religion around the Yazidi lest offense be taken, and the inspection passed without any cultural crisis.

Ten years later, Mount Sinjar and the insular Yazidi who resided there were once again visited by outsiders, this time in the form of US military forces who invaded and subsequently occupied Iraq. American troops established a base of operations in a former army camp that had been used by the Iraqi army prior to its defeat and subsequent disbanding. These troops soon found themselves confronting a shadowy force of Islamist fighters who used Sunni villages in and around Mount Sinjar as safe havens in support of the infiltration of anti-American jihadists from Syria into Iraq. The American military worked hard to interdict this Islamist "rat line." A jihadist safe house in the town of Sinjar was raided, and the documents captured there detailed the extensive funneling of fighters, most of whom were foreign, into the larger anti-American struggle in Iraq. Anyone who believes that the current activities of the Islamic State are a manifestation of new circumstances only needs to review the American effort in and around Sinjar a decade ago to recognize that the problem of Sunni Islamist extremists has been around for some time.

Given the enthusiasm for the American presence in Sinjar demonstrated by the Yazidi, one did not need to be a fortune teller to predict the inevitability of an anti-Yazidi backlash in the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011. The trials and tribulations of the Yazidi of Sinjar played out before the world as they were flushed from their homes, into the mountains, where they faced death by starvation and exposure, or capture and worse at the hands of the Islamic State, before either being evacuated by helicopter or forced to hike miles across the desert to safety in territory controlled by Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.

The Yazidi are not the only ethnic or religious minority to feel the sting of violent intolerance at the hands of the Islamic State. After Mosul fell, on June 10, the Islamic State has targeted Christians, Shi'a Turkmen and Shabaks, and even Sunni Arabs who espouse Sufism -- anyone, in short, who does not share their extreme vision of life under Shari'a law as interpreted by the Islamic State. The tomb of Jonah, the Biblical figure best remembered as being swallowed by a whale, was blown up by Islamic State fighters, and Chaldean Christians were given the choice of converting or being put to the sword. Those that could, fled. Those that could not, perished. The black flag of the Islamic State soon flew over Shabak villages surrounding Mosul, and Shi'a shrines located there were destroyed. The same fate awaited Turkmen villages.

The only bright spot on an otherwise bleak canvas came when Kurdish peshmerga, working in concert with the Iraqi Army, broke the siege of Amirli, a Shi'a Turkmen village located south of Irbil, in late August. This action, which involved coordination between the Kurdish and Iraqi forces on the ground, supported by American-led airstrikes, has been viewed by many analysts as a model of how the west can best deal with the threat posed by the Islamic State. But the victory in Amirli proved to be limited in scope and duration, as the Islamic State's occupation of Kobani demonstrated.

The coalition that is being assembled under American leadership is as fractured as it is ineffective. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga -- ostensibly the most effective fighters in the coalition -- lack the resources and inclination to operate beyond the borders of their autonomous region. The Iraqi Army lacks any real motivation to engage in anything resembling serious fighting. The so-called "moderate Syrian resistance" simply doesn't exist as a viable fighting force capable of projecting itself in any meaningful fashion. Even Turkey, whose parliament recently voted to authorize its military to take action against the Islamic State, seems impotent in the face of the Islamic State forces operating across from its border. (Turkey claims it seeks to impose a broad security buffer along its border with Syria, inclusive of a no-fly zone, but will do so only if the United States embraces a broader strategy that seeks the forcible removal of Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad. Given America's recent experience with regime change in Iraq, this option seems doubtful). The coalition's air power looks impressive on paper, but fails to impress upon closer scrutiny. Iraq does not want Arab aircraft operating against targets in its territory. The British contingent is small (six aircraft) and limited to operations in Iraq. Only the United States brings serious capability to the table, and even this is limited in terms of what air power, void of any supporting ground forces, can actually deliver.

America has some stark choices before it on how to best deal with the problems presented by the Islamic State: to continue to engage in an expensive and ultimately fruitless game of "whack-a-mole" against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, to escalate its involvement to include the deployment of significant American ground forces -- the dreaded "boots on the ground" -- in an effort to do some closing with and destruction of enemy forces of our own, or to let the Islamic State phenomenon run its course, unimpeded by American intervention.

None of these options satisfies, a fact reflected in the current refusal by the US Congress to engage in any meaningful debate over the use of force in Iraq and Syria. The first option, which is currently being implemented, is unfolding at a pace that suggests decades-long involvement, something Americans have historically balked at supporting (witness Iraq and Afghanistan). The second sounds good, but our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan strongly suggest that a massive infusion of ground combat troops only delays the inevitable -- void of any viable competing ideology, American occupations only lead to dead and wounded American troops, an alienated and angered indigenous population, and an frustrated American electorate prone to taking its angst out at the polls.

The third option has the most realistic chance of success, but is the least politically viable for American politicians. It would require the United States to yield to the influence of Iran in both Iraq and Syria, accept (and even facilitate) the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria (the only military force seemingly willing and able to fight the Islamic State in any meaningful, sustained fashion), and not stand in the way of the probable disintegration of Iraq into Shi'a, Sunni and Kurdish rump states. The Islamic State could be contained to an area of operations roughly equal to what it currently enjoys, and over time would self-regulate. The natural course of human events has a way of balancing out historical anomalies. It may take time -- generations, even centuries -- and the results may be bloody and tragic, but, in the end, equilibrium of sorts will be reached, and America will avoid becoming embroiled in yet another regional conflict that only succeeds in further draining its resources and credibility. But if history has taught anything about the United States, such a path is the least traveled. The American nightmare in Mesopotamia and the Levant, begun in 1990-1991 with Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, will continue into the indefinite future with no guarantee but its ultimate failure.

And what of the Yazidi of Sinjar, that ancient people caught up in the tragic turmoil of change sweeping the Middle East today? For the moment, the Islamic State seems to have succeeded in its goal of driving the Yazidi from the villages and fields their ancestors lived in and toiled for thousands of years. Ethnic cleansing, in the strictest sense of the term, has been accomplished in Sinjar, even if genocide was avoided. It is questionable if the Yazidi will ever be able to return to their homes in and around Sinjar. The change that is transforming their region works, crudely, in a macro sense, allowing the Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds to carve out their respective areas of interest, at the expense of the micro -- the Yazidi, Christians, Shabak and Turkmen who find themselves at the mercy of their more populous neighbors. Sinjar is not considered to be part of traditional Kurdistan, and while the peshmerga have proven to be willing and able to fight to rescue the Yazidi trapped in and around Sinjar -- backed up by ample US air power -- what price they might be willing to pay to secure the mountain and its environs is another question altogether. Deprived of their traditional homeland, the surviving Yazidi will be condemned to join their brethren in Diaspora. This is a tragic outcome for a proud and noble people.

I remember hiking up to the highest point on Mount Sinjar, where the Yazidi had constructed a stone temple to their archangel, Melek Taus. The building was as old as the land itself. Inside, red strips of cloth hung from the ceiling, their length marked by numerous knots that were tied every time a prayer was said. Shelves and alcoves lined the walls, filled with glass jars and clay pots containing food offerings. I was alone, and yet felt as if the ghosts of the temple's past were watching me. Local legend held that Melek Taus, when confronted with the evil that man had done to the world, cried for forty days and nights, flooding the world with his tears and extinguishing the fires of hell. Noah and his Ark, carrying the hope for continued life on earth, came to rest on Mount Sinjar, at the very spot this temple stood. The Yazidi had held this place in great reverence ever since, and now they are gone, perhaps never to return. If the Islamic State holds true to form, this temple will be destroyed, and the ghosts it housed will be dispersed into the winds. Perhaps it is time for Melek Taus to start crying again.