This op-ed was first published on August 15. It has been rewritten to account for subsequent events, including a link to a report from the helicopter crash on Mount Sinjar, the Kurdish PKK (considered a terrorist organization by Turkey) throwing in with the Peshmerga, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula throwing in with ISIS, and, finally and sadly, ISIS releasing a video of journalist James Foley being beheaded for the stated purpose of getting President Obama’s attention.
In my clearest memory of Iraq War I, I was in a graduate school dorm at the University of Nevada, where the rooms had no televisions. Just about every student I knew in Reno was gathered in the lounge down the hall for most of the night around a communal TV. Ten p.m. in Reno was 8 a.m. in Baghdad and the son of one of my fellow students was commanding a flight in an early wave of the air war.
In my clearest memory of Iraq War II, I was chatting on line with my son in a FOB north of Baghdad, when the light fixture behind him started gyrating and the screen shook.
“What’s going on, Paul?”
“Don’t you need to take cover?”
“It’ll be over before I can get to the shelter. They don’t stay around long enough to fire very many…see, they quit.”
My stake in Iraq War III will be less personal, but I’d still just as soon see nobody’s child in harm’s way, American or Iraqi. I’d rather skip part III of this tragedy.
Still, it was hard to watch the non-combatants on the slopes of Mount Sinjar lacking food and water. The U.S. has the ability to drop food and water, but the aircraft that do it come in heavy and slow and they would be likely to draw fire. Maybe it is personal that I did my hitch in the Air Force and I believe enough U.S. airmen would volunteer for that mission. Still, fighter cover seemed to me prudent.
Under fighter cover, American, British, and Iraqi pilots began making drops. Having proved the zones were not hot by exposing themselves to fire, the airmen flying relief started sending in helicopters, flying low and slow. Some embedded reporters shot video of people scrambling through the flying dust for bottles of water and MREs.
On the news the evening of August 13, there was video of an Iraqi chopper with an embedded British reporter dropping food and water and landing to take a load of people off the mountain. After an attempt at triage, the pilot relented and let everybody board.
The aircraft could not take off, so men were asked to leave. Five men said tearful farewells to their families and got off, and the rest of the Yazidis were able to lift off. The reporter counted 50 refugees on an aircraft rated to carry 15. Earlier, an Iraqi chopper had crashed because of overload, killing the pilot and severely injuring a New York Times reporter, who survived to dictate a report on her experience published August 17.
People here in the safe seats need to know who the Yazidis are and why they should be protected from genocide. If reason is needed in addition to the general rule that if you have the power to prevent evil at minimal risk, you ought to prevent it.
Evil? Genocide? Strong language. The Google machine can bring up stuff you don’t want to see under “ISIS beheadings.” The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would be disinterested in denying beheadings, since they have released some of the video themselves. There’s also a video going around of a mass execution of prisoners, some of whom appear to be Iraqi soldiers and some not. They are marched into a pre-dug mass grave and shot with AK-47s on full automatic. Then an ISIS fighter walks down the line of bodies and administers headshots. If there is ever a war crimes trial, ISIS itself will provide much of the evidence.
There have been allegations of beheading children, and there are a couple of still photos of headless children going around the Internet. There is no question ISIS has executed children and they don’t deny it, but beheading is a further step. The fact police of the World Wide Web, Snopes.com, have written an unbiased examination of the claim and come up unable to confirm or deny.
Child victims or not, ISIS does beheadings proudly if not competently. The headsman who dispatched Mary, Queen of Scots, comes down to us as clumsy because he failed to take off her head in one axe stroke, contrasting poorly with Anne Boleyn’s end by sword, her head flying while her lips were still moving from her final prayer.
The ISIS fighters are not professionals. They use big long knives, apparently dull, because they saw for a long time. The spine is severed last—of concern for the condemned because the good side of beheading is that the severing of the spine is thought by doctors to put the lights out, although none of the doctors expressing the opinion have been beheaded.
Obviously, ISIS will behead captured soldiers. They also behead some non-Muslims who refuse to convert or pay the tax on non-belief. They also behead Muslims of the Shi’a or Sufi variety, because the ISIS fighters are Sunni. Deviant Muslims, they believe, must be killed for apostasy. Christians are merely infidels. On August 19, they released a beheading video of reporter James Foley, as a message to President Obama. I shall not post the link, even though they censored most of the sawing. Just like the other beheading videos released by ISIS, anybody who really wants to see them can find them.
Yazidis are in a class by themselves and ISIS is determined to exterminate every last Yazidi—textbook genocide—because of a case of cosmic mistaken identity.
Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing that the U.S. would try to protect the Yazidis, referred to them as “a Christian sect.” Not even close.
The Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that contains elements of Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Sufi Islam. They believe that God (the same One God as in the Abrahamic faiths) put Earth in the custody of seven angelic straw bosses, headed by an Archangel called Melek Taus, or “Peacock Angel.”
Melek Taus, like Satan, had a falling out with God and was cast into Hell, where his tears of remorse put out the flames and he was reconciled with God. The original falling out was over Melek Taus’s ego, just like Satan’s revolt. In Satan’s case, there is essentially the same story without the reconciliation. It is this similarity that causes the confusion. When the Yazidis render ceremonial obeisance to Melek Taus, mainstream Muslims conflate Melek Taus with Shaitan (aka Satan) and accuse the Yazidis of being devil worshippers.
For complicated reasons, the Yazidis believe the rest of humanity is descended from Adam and Eve, but they are only descended from Adam. They believe in reincarnation and they have both a clan system and a caste system. Proving Yazidis are not immune from the misogynistic craziness in the Middle East, a viral video of the 2007 death by stoning of Du'a Khalil Aswad, alleged to be an “honor killing,” was perpetrated by a Yazidi mob. The video of the stoning shows a young woman’s death if anything even more gruesome than having one’s head sawed off with a dull knife.
Since Iraq War I, everybody but President George W. Bush has understood that Iraqi real estate is divided among Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurds, among whom the Yazidis live as ethnic Kurds with some colorful beliefs. ISIS is not alone in persecuting the Yazidis.
The Shi’a and the Sunni are Muslims who differ over identifying the proper successor to The Prophet, a difference somewhat like that between Protestants and Catholics, both of whom claim to be Christians. Lots of Muslims and Christians have died over fairly arcane theological differences, which therefore must be taken seriously. The sectarian breakdown of Kurds is the opposite of Iraq as a whole, with more Sunnis than Shi’a.
The Kurds are an ethnic group rather than a religion, and they have the misfortune of a population spread over parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and many other countries. In Turkey, the Kurds have been violent separatists. Our NATO ally, Turkey, fears as the Iraqi Kurds become more autonomous, they will stir up Turkish Kurds.
Turkey’s fear became more concrete on August 19, with reports that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, has joined forces with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga militia to fight ISIS. The U.S. is doing its best to ignore this minor bit of embarrassment, perhaps because of the major embarrassment that the U.S. has another ally in the tip of the Shi’a spear, Iran, declared by President George W. Bush to be a charter member of the “axis of evil.”
What the Turkey and Kurdistan difficulty has to do with the United States is that we owe the Kurds a blood debt from Iraq Wars I and II, when they took our side at considerable risk. The charge that Saddam Hussein “used poison gas on his own people” was only true in the sense that the Kurds hold Iraqi passports. Hussein was a Sunni Arab and would not consider Kurds, particularly Shi’a Kurds, to be “his people.”
The Kurdish Peshmerga militia is the best fighting force in Iraq now that the U.S has pulled out. They were too poorly armed to fight ISIS, but we are now arming them and the ISIS advance into Kurdish territory has been halted.
This week, U.S. Special Forces fast-roped to the ground on Mount Sinjar, placing boots on the ground for the purpose of deciding whether getting the refugees off the mountain would require troops. They have apparently decided not, because ISIS has been pushed back by U.S. air strikes and the newly armed Peshmerga. Not that the Yazidis can go home, but at least they won’t star in the next ISIS snuff film.
The organization analysts call Al Qaeda Prime, formerly headed by Osama bin Laden and now by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, has written ISIS out of the jihadi movement for being too brutal. On August 19, however, the Yemen Times reported that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an organization with more terrorist legs recently than Al Qaeda Prime, has endorsed ISIS aka Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and self-described as the Islamic State.
The ISIS self-description is based on their claim to have re-established the Islamic Caliphate where Osama bin Laden failed in that common goal. Anyone tempted to laugh off the alleged Caliphate as grandiose should understand that ISIS is better fixed to attack in North America than Al Quada ever was, because some ISIS fighters are born and raised in the U.S. or Western Europe and so can get admitted at the border. They have more money than Osama bin Laden’s personal fortune provided for Al Quada, acquired from friendly sheiks, robbing the banks when they took Mosul, and selling oil from the territory they occupy on the black market.
They would define us as enemies anyway, but President Obama has now picked a fight with them. It’s not at all clear what we should do, and in better and more rational times there would already be a roaring debate in Congress.
August 14 marked the 60th day since President Obama sent Congress the first notice of deploying American troops under the War Powers Resolution. In all, Obama sent notices to Congress on June 16 and 26, and again on August 8. By that law, the troops are supposed to begin withdrawal in 60 days unless Congress approves the deployment.
The do-nothing Congress has to date done nothing. No hearings. No authorization for use of force. No command that the President take what now exceeds 1,000 troops out of harm’s way. Congress was on recess and remains so.
President Obama justifies military force to prevent genocide and to protect U.S. consular personnel, who were about to be engulfed by the ISIS advance on Erbil. Some people are concerned that ISIS could strike us in our homes, and that’s a rational fear, although probably not soon. They are busy right now trying to govern their new Caliphate.
Many in the U.S. are skeptical of the danger in any time frame and add that we cannot be the world’s genocide police and that the President could order the U.S. consulate in Erbil evacuated rather than defended.
These are good arguments to have in public before we have Iraq War III. It’s up to Congress, not the President, to have the arguments, and it’s up to Congress, not the President, to engage U.S. military power…or not.
In the immortal words of President George W. Bush, and speaking of having the moral and policy arguments rather than having Iraq War III, “bring it on.” Bring on the debate! The deadline set out in the War Powers Resolution has passed. The do-nothing Congress has already cost us money by shutting down the government in the noble cause of denying universal health insurance. Now, our sons and daughters in the military stand to lose their lives because they, unlike Congress, will do their duty.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.