Genocide or not, civilians need protection from ISIS
© Getty Images

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) engages in a wide array of extreme violence targeting civilians, including men, women and children; ethnic and religious minorities; and even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not accept the group's radical and totalitarian ideology. Now the Department of State is about to determine if ISIS violence amounts to acts of genocide.


Buried in the omnibus spending bill Congress passed in December is a provision demanding that "the Secretary of State ... shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees an evaluation of the persecution of, including attacks against, Christians and people of other religions in the Middle East by violent Islamic extremists ... including whether either situation constitutes mass atrocities or genocide." The bill mandated that the secretary of State's finding be provided to Congress by March 17.

On the same day, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution signed by over 200 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, expressing the sense of Congress that ISIS's actions against Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and others amount to "committing 'war crimes,' 'crimes against humanity,' and 'genocide.'" Beyond the debate over the term "genocide" itself, some worry that an affirmative answer could force the administration's hand and require it to take action — either against ISIS, or in defense of minority groups and civilian populations, or both — that it would otherwise prefer to avoid. In point of fact, given the widely acknowledged concept of a "responsibility to protect," world powers should be doing much more to protect civilians in Syria and Iraq, whatever the secretary of State's determination on the applicability of the term "genocide."

"Extinction of the Gray Zone"

ISIS adheres to a hardline Salafi-jihadi ideology overlaid with an apocalyptic end-of-times worldview pitting true believers against everyone else. In this black-and-white worldview, it is not just permissible to kill enemies and unbelievers, but it is a religious duty to do so. For example, ISIS classified Shiites and Alawites as apostates, meaning they are summarily subject to punishment by death.

In the seventh issue of its glossy propaganda magazine, Dabiq, "From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: The Extinction of the Gray Zone," ISIS's English-language mouthpiece reveals the group's polarized view of a conflict between believers and apostates. ISIS sees the battle between faith and disbelief as the "binary test of Muslim faith." The group stubbornly denies any chance of peaceful existence with people who hold different beliefs.

In issue No. 4 of Dabiq, ISIS focused on the Yazidi minority, concluding that their women could be enslaved and their vision for dealing with polytheists would apply to the Yazidis: "[K]ill the [polytheists] wherever you find them, and capture them, and besiege them. ... But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go]."

While ISIS claims to be defending its territory, "its idea of 'defense' includes attacking, killing, raping or enslaving Syrians and Iraqis who do not share its beliefs, or who resist in any way," according to a Dutch intelligence service report. "Anyone travelling to the so-called Islamic State is knowingly opting to join a terrorist group which regards all outsiders as 'infidels' and uses excessive violence on a daily basis," the report concluded.

War crimes and crimes against humanity

Since it took the world by surprise in the summer of 2014, ISIS has undoubtedly perpetrated crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. In March 2015, the United Nations reported that the evidence "strongly suggests" that ISIS committed a long list of war crimes. Five months later, in August 2015, the United Nations released a new report in which it definitively concluded that ISIS had, in fact, "committed war crimes, including murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking, rape and sexual violence, recruiting and using children in hostilities and attacking protected objects, as well as other serious violations of international humanitarian law." In addition, the same U.N. report found that ISIS has also committed acts of violence and terror targeting civilian populations, from murder and torture to rape, sexual slavery "and other inhumane acts as part of a widespread attack on the civilian population, amounting to crimes against humanity."

In the aftermath of a fact-finding trip to northern Iraq, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a report concluding that "based upon the public record and private eyewitness accounts, we believe the self-proclaimed Islamic State perpetrated crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing against Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka'i people in Ninewa province between June and August 2014."


But does all this amount to genocide? The United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (December 1948) defines genocide as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

The European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution on Feb. 3, 2016 "recognizing the Islamic State militant group's (ISIS) systematic killing and persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East as a genocide." ISIS, the EU determined, "is committing genocide against Christians and Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities, who do not agree with the so-called 'ISIS/Daesh' interpretation of Islam."

Other investigations have come to similar but less definitive conclusions. According to a joint report by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), "The targeting of ethnic and religious communities by ISIL appears to be part of a deliberate and systematic policy that aims to suppress, permanently cleanse or expel, or in some instances, destroy those communities within areas of its control." Similarly, the U.S. Holocaust Museum also found "sufficient reason to assert that in addition to committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, IS [ISIS] perpetrated genocide against the Yezidi population living in Ninewa in August 2014."

Previously, both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have mentioned the term "genocide" when referring to ISIS actions, specifically the siege of Sinjar. On Aug. 7, 2014, Obama authorized military operations inside Iraq with the goal of protecting American personnel and saving thousands of Iraqi civilians threatened by ISIS. Explaining his decision, the president stated, "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." Commenting on the same situation in Iraq, Kerry said "ISIL's [ISIS] campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide. For anyone who needed a wake-up call, this is it."

A determination of genocide is complicated by the need to determine the intent to destroy an entire national, ethnic, racial or religious group. But in some cases, ISIS's intent to do just that appears to be quite clear. For example, in August 2014, ISIS members attacked the small village of Kocho, just south of Mount Sinjar, where it is believed they massacred hundreds of Yazidis. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the attack on Kocho revealed "a methodical effort to destroy the Yazidi population there, as nearly every man over the age of 12 was executed and all of the women and children were kidnapped and enslaved." The goal was to effectively wipe out this religious group.

ISIS also appears to have committed genocide against Christians. In a testimony in May 2015, Sister Diana Momeka, a nun from a convent in Mosul, testified before Congress, pleading that "we have realized that ISIS's plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we ever existed. This is cultural and human genocide. The only Christians that remain in the Plain of Nineveh are those who are held as hostages." Then later, in December 2015, a prominent leader in the Yazidi community testified before Congress, also declaring that "The Yezidis and Chaldo-Assyrians Christians face this genocide together."


There is no doubt that ISIS intentionally employs ultra-violence as a matter of policy, and that many of its acts of violence constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. A determination as to whether or not specifics acts of ISIS violence also constitute genocide should be made based on the facts alone, not on what the policy ramification of such a determination might be. In fact, while such a determination might create public support for greater action against ISIS, it would not necessarily require new action under international law.

Whatever the outcome of the State Department's deliberations, civilian protection must clearly have a more prominent place in the counter-ISIS coalition's tactics and strategy. ISIS will ultimately be defeated, but in the interim, the group's declared and determined campaign of ultra-violence targeting civilians — including entire ethnic and religious groups — must be countered. The strategy to defeat ISIS should include degrading the group's ability to conduct operations and carry out acts of violence, but it must also involve protecting local populations from risk of mass atrocities. In Syria, the place to start would be the creation of safe zones to protect civilians in liberated parts of the country from the wanton violence of both ISIS and the Assad regime. In Iraq, the focus should be on ensuring protection of Sunni and minority communities from retribution by Shia militias. Whatever else, the world has a responsibility to proect.

Levitt directs the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Beloff is a research assistant in the Washington Institute's Stein program.