In 2018 the anti-ISIS coalition should focus on helping Yazidi victims

In 2018 the anti-ISIS coalition should focus on helping Yazidi victims
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The U.S.-led coalition has helped liberate 99 percent of the land once held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. On Dec. 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS. However, the legacy of the militant group’s crimes still remains. An estimated 300,000 Yazidis, members of a religious minority ISIS attempted to exterminate in 2014, remain in internally displaced person (IDP) camps.

Thousands of Yazidis sold into slavery by the jihadists are missing, and 62 mass graves of victims have been found. The defeat of ISIS is only one part of the conflict. Rebuilding the lives of the victims and their ruined communities should be a priority in 2018.

The prevention of genocide against Yazidis was one of the motivating factors behind the U.S. decision to send forces to Iraq in August 2014. “When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” President Obama said on Aug. 7, 2014. Although the airstrikes and intervention helped to stop ISIS, they were unable to stop the murder and enslavement of an estimated 9,900 Yazidi people.


Since then, more than 70 countries and international organizations have joined the coalition against ISIS. According to coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon, more than 28,000 airstrikes have been launched in Iraq and Syria and 124,000 Iraqi forces, including Kurdish Peshmerga, were trained. But along the way, Yazidis stopped being a priority. Even though ISIS sold and trafficked women and children, using modern technology such as Whatsapp and Telegram, local authorities were left alone to try to track missing relatives.

When I went to Sinjar in northern Iraq in December 2015, the legacy of the genocide was fresh. Tens of thousands of Yazidis had taken shelter on Mount Sinjar and were living in tents and shacks, with one medical clinic for thousands of people. A month earlier, Kurdish forces had liberated Sinjar city. Mass graves were being uncovered. Bones and human hair of the men and elderly women ISIS had executed the year before poked from the soil. Clothes and toys left behind by fleeing people were visible along the roads.

At the time, the war was at its height and many IDPs expected that when it was over, investment would flow to rebuild the city, clear it of explosives that ISIS left behind, and locate survivors. But over the past two years, almost none of this has happened. Targeted programs have helped some Yazidi women survivors seek aid in Germany, and Canada is projected to take in 1,200 refugees.

In camps across northern Iraq, concentrated in the Kurdistan autonomous region, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are facing another winter in unstable conditions. “We are tired of living in camps,” wrote Khalaf Dakheel on Facebook on Dec. 19. Dakheel is a Yazidi who fled Wardia village near Sinjar in 2014 when ISIS attacked. “Three years have passed and we’re still homeless,” he said.

The coalition and public attention appear to ignore the Yazidis in favor of other priorities. For example, U.S. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE said on Dec. 29 that the United States was working on “initial restoration of services” in eastern Syria in areas liberated from ISIS by U.S. allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces. This will involve contractors, and “international money” will flow into reconstruction.

In Iraq, the same investment is taking place in Mosul and some other cities to support what the coalition calls “stabilization” to prevent the return of ISIS. This was on display during Christmas celebrations in Mosul and Nineveh plains, where local Christians returned for the first time in years. However, many Yazidi areas remain deserted and need basic services such as schools, electricity and health clinics for people to return. These areas around Sinjar also remain unstable because of the presence of former ISIS members among local tribes who also want to return, and the presence of Shi’ite militias who helped liberate the area.

The key to ending the legacy of suffering rests with the government of Iraq and the international community. In mid-December, three Yazidi sisters were reunited after years in captivity. One of them had been taken to Turkey by a family that kidnapped her; another was rescued in Syria’s faraway Idlib province from the family that bought her.

Despite immense resources at the disposal of the coalition, little has been invested to track the social media and communication accounts that ISIS used to sell people. This is a major blind spot. But it is not too late. The United States and its allies can invest in documenting mass graves, tracking missing people and aiding displaced people to return.

After more than three years, they should make this a priority in 2018. The legacy of ISIS should not be a landscape in northern Iraq that is devoid of minorities. The coalition has won the war, but it risks losing in its inability to complete the mission of protecting the local people.

Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC Herzliya.