ISIS and a Humanitarian Crisis

Iraqi mom with child

Image courtesy of NBC News

ISIS and a Humanitarian Crisis
| published August 13, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The ISIS militants who have swept across much of the Middle East in the last months have taken more towns in Iraq and Syria, according to reports from the Associated Press and Reuters, and according to British observers. Two of the towns now under ISIS control—Turkmanbareh and Akhtarin—are located in the Syrian province of Aleppo, widely considered strategically crucial to the Syrian government and the military forces backing President Bashar Assad.

The ISIS extremists, who only six months ago were working in a tenuous partnership with other anti-Assad rebel groups, are now exerting their dominance over rival rebels—attacking other opposition forces in violent, brutal assaults. Analysts in the U.S. and the U.K. say that ISIS is attempting not only to consolidate its territorial gains, but also eliminate all other rival fighting forces—even those who might be in agreement on specific political goals, such as the overthrow of Assad.

ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; sometimes also referred to as ISIL) has been on the move militarily since early June. Its forces sprang into action in northern Syria, taking control of dozens of towns and villages as far north as the border with Turkey, then, sweeping across into northwestern Iraq. Despite its having vastly superior numbers and better equipment, some of it provided by the United States, the Iraqi Army and Iraqi security forces crumbled, abandoning hardware and weapons, often shedding their uniforms as they retreated south toward Baghdad.

Faced with a collapsing Iraqi military, the ISIS militants moved with lightning speed, taking control of scores of cities and towns, seizing oil facilities, looting banks of cash and precious metals, and driving to within a few dozen miles of Baghdad. In the west of Iraq, ISIL militants captured border checkpoints and military outposts along the border with Jordan, and in the northeast, ISIS fighters clashed with Kurdish security forces. The fighting has at many times been intense, and ISIS often executes captured fighters and civilians after seizing control of villages and towns. Last week, ISIS forces captured the huge dam at Mosul.

Battles in the Kurdish areas have also led to a humanitarian crisis, as ISIS militants—intent on killing thousands of Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority—prompted the populations of entire towns and villages to flee into the hills and mountains to seek refuge. After days of encirclement and siege, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes and drone attacks on ISIS positions, and both American and British forces airlifted in supplies to the stranded civilians, many of them trapped atop Mount Sinjar. Obama said that the air campaign will continue as long as it is needed to provide cover for Kurds and Yazidis.

The crisis for the Yazidis is grave, as estimates by both Iraqi and British observers say the number of civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar ranges from 20 thousand to 40 thousand. Hundreds of airlift missions have been flown to drop in tents, bottled water, food and medicine. The U.S. has sent in an additional 160 military advisors—to supplement the previous 750 already sent to Iraq during June and July. Several news agencies, including CNN, have reported that sources in the Pentagon say that the latest groups of military personnel have been tasked specifically with gaining direct access to Mount Sinjar and the surrounding area—the goal being to formulate a plan for the safe exodus of the Yazidis though hostile territory. Some Yazidis have already made it to aid stations and camps along the border of Syria, and still others have found safe passage out of the mountains by way of northern escape routes. Kurdish fighters also assisted as many as 25,000 Yazidis in a mass escape into Kurdistan last weekend. But thousands remain isolated and trapped. Helicopter landings by Iraq forces or by American forces have prompted chaos as hundreds attempt to climb on board helicopters equipped to carry on a dozen or so.

Mount Sinjar is located in northwestern Iraq, not far from the Syrian border. Much of the area around it is now fully occupied or controlled by heavily-armed ISIS fighters.

A bit of geography and culture: the name Mount Sinjar is a bit of a misnomer, since in reality the Sinjar Mountains are a small, contiguous range, approximately 100 kilometers in length (60 miles) and about eight miles wide. Part of the “Ninevah” anticlinal structures along the low ranges to the west and east of the Tigris River, Sinjar is the largest, tallest, and most westerly of roughly 25 such rugged, hilly features. At its highest peak, the Sinjar range stands 4449 feet above sea level. Most of the range stretches along an east-west line, with a tiny fraction of the plateau reaching inside the border with Syria at its western tip.

Though there are Yazidis in Europe, Canada, the United States, and in other countries of the Middle East, the area around Mount Sinjar is home to the highest concentration of Yazidis in the world. Yazidis consider the region to be their holiest land, and according to Yazidi texts, Mount Sinjar is where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Great Flood. Winding, treacherous paths and trails lead from the town of Singal, on the south side of the range, up toward the tallest peaks, where the Yazidis have set aside shrines and holy areas. Depending on the season, the smooth foothills of Sinjar’s slopes are carpeted with scrubby grasses and expanses of lavender flowers.

Despite U.S. President Obama’s insistence that no new U.S. ground forces be sent into Iraq, the total number of personnel in uniform now numbers about 900. Most of these advisors are in Baghdad, or near the front lines where Iraqi troops now face off against ISIS militants. But the 160 being sent in now are being inserted behind the lines into the area near Sinjar using Osprey aircraft—planes with a much longer range than helicopters but also with vertical take-off and landing capabilities. Among the military personnel being inserted into Sinjar are Marine Green Berets and U.S. Army Special Forces. Though not stated publicly, their mission will be to form a plan to shepherd the Yazidis to safety, possibly into Turkey.  (At the time we were posting this story, an announcement by Defense Dept. press liaison Rear Admiral John Kirby stated that the number of Yazidis still on Mount Sinjar was less than estimates from the last two days, in part because Kurdish forces have been able to lead many civilians to safety; Kirby's announcement also suggested enough food and water had been air-dropped onto the mountain to sustain the remaining refugees for several days, and an immediate evacuation was not imminent.)

According to the few reports by journalists who have made it into the area, there are only a few narrow roads leading into the mountain, and only one is marginally open to four-wheel-drive traffic—guarded at the moment by Syrian Kurds and a handful of Iraqi soldiers. But there are scant few vehicles available for the treacherous mountain drive, and only four or five people would be able to fit in a single SUV. ISIS fighters have encircled parts of the area, using guns and artillery to harass Yazidis and their allies. But the U.S. airstrikes have been carefully planned and executed, hitting a dozen or more ISIS artillery and heavy weapon positions, and destroying vehicles being used by ISIS militants.

Of more concern to many observers: lack of food and water in the makeshift encampments on the mountain, where thousands wait in blazing summer heat or in the limited shade of small shrubs and trees or tents made of blankets. Hundreds of tents have been airlifted in, but it has not been enough for many of the Yazidis to find shelter.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the loss of towns in the Aleppo province may indicate a serious problem for the regime of Assad, and for the stability of the region as a whole. ISIS gains have been much faster and more efficient than predicted even as recently as weeks ago, and the capture of Akhtarin means that ISIS forces are well-poised to consolidate more territory within Syria. Anti-Assad rebel groups with a tendency toward moderation might quickly find themselves outgunned and outflanked is ISIS continues its rapid advance.

In Iraq, rumors on Monday and Tuesday that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki would reluctantly step down now seem premature, as the prime minister spoke again on Wednesday with no indication that he intends to relinquish his power. Iraq’s President has nominated a replacement—widely regarded as more agreeable to forging a partnership between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in Baghdad—but Maliki has so far ignored the move, worrying some observers in the U.S. that Maliki may attempt to use the mostly Shiite military to cling to power, further dividing the country.

Al Maliki is widely blamed for the current crisis in Iraq for his sectarian policies regarding the government, official appointments, and military officers—mostly positions he personally filled with his political cronies, backers, and Shiite supporters.

Syria’s long, bloody civil war, now in its third year, is regarded as having created the breeding ground for ISIS, which sprang out of the lawlessness and chaos in northern Syria. ISIS has publicly said its goal is to create a caliphate—an Islamic state based on the strictest interpretations of Islamic law—which would stretch from Turkey, across the wider Middle East toward the borders with Iran, and into the south toward Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. ISIS propaganda and printed materials have appeared in locations as varied as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Will U.S. Airstrikes Stop ISIS?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 10, 2014.

Iraq’s Maliki: Under Pressure; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 21, 2014.