Safe zones are not the answer for religious minorities in the Middle East

Religious minorities in the Middle East today face real existential danger. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) brutal campaign against Christians and Yazidis, rising violence against Shiite Muslims, and growing intolerance across the region demonstrate the urgent need for action on the part of the international community to protect and preserve minority communities.


Policymakers have suggested creating autonomous "safe zones" for Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in the region to prevent further bloodshed and the escalation of religious and ethnic conflict. Yet policymakers should proceed with caution in creating special regions designated for minorities. Despite well-meaning intentions, we risk worsening the situation on the ground and exacerbating tensions that already exist.

Such autonomous zones are not the solution for violence against minorities nor do they get to the root cause of violence. ISIS's targeted violence toward Christians and Yazidis is the exception, rather than the rule, for violence in the region. State-initiated discriminatory policies and lack of provision of social services to specific groups incentivizes violence against religious communities, as demonstrated by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's targeted discrimination against Sunni Muslims in Iraq. ISIS arose from the power vacuum created by government policies aimed at excluding specific groups, creating tensions between Sunni and Shiite communities. The creation of special zones for minorities can give the impression to majority groups that the international community plays favorites by selectively assisting some while ignoring the plight of others, creating resentment. U.S. assistance to Yazidi groups has already ignited a backlash among Iraqi Muslim and Christian communities who feel excluded from international attention and assistance despite being the targets of brutal violence at the hands of ISIS. Autonomous regions would further alienate communities and create tension among groups that is counterproductive for peace-building.

Autonomous zones are created with the intention of providing for the physical and existential protection of minorities. However, these regions do not guarantee protection nor do they allow minority communities to be self-sufficient. Rather, communities become increasingly dependent on the international community for protection and assistance, perpetuating the status quo rather than improving the status of minorities on the ground. For example, the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq continues to face significant security threats despite extensive foreign assistance. The Kurds have lost significant ground to ISIS and have relied heavily on U.S. support to keep ISIS at bay. Furthermore, smaller minority groups with less military resources will not be able to hold their own against hostile groups without substantial assistance from the international community. The creation of an autonomous zone will only render minority groups more vulnerable and exacerbate the divide between groups in the region.

The international community needs innovative solutions that protect religious minorities without contributing to tensions on the ground. As we engage with the Iraqi government and other governments in the region, we need to ensure that our political and development assistance have conditions that are inclusive of minorities. Policies designed to assist minorities abroad should prioritize ways in which foreign assistance can strengthen institutions to protect these groups without isolating other groups.

Our programs and assistance should also promote the resiliency of communities by enabling minorities to make decisions and participate politically. We should focus on increasing funding for reconciliation and the collaborative dialogue processes that bring a plurality of voices to the table. For example, the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities serves as a collaborative resource and decision-making body for civil society and minority groups, enabling dialogue and connecting minority communities with the Iraqi government. Strengthening groups like these to participate in governance is key to combating violence against minorities.

We also need more effective early detection and warning mechanisms for identifying and reporting threats to minorities and other communities and incentivizing the international community to act upon them in a timely and responsive manner. Despite threats of genocide and excessive violence over the past several decades, there has consistently been a lack of collective political will and a failure to act on the part of the international community. The Iraqi minorities, including the Yazidis, have repeatedly told the international community that they face existential threats and are at risk of annihilation. Protecting minorities requires a comprehensive and holistic approach that avoids feeding into tensions on the ground.

Omar is associate vice president of the United States Institute of Peace's (USIP) Middle East and Africa Program. She also serves on the board of IREX (the International Research & Exchanges Board).