Has The Tide Turned Against ISIS?

Clashes between ISIL and Peshmerga forces in Sinjar

Taking stock of the conflagration in Iraq and Syria at year’s end, Wayne White sees the jihadist group on the defensive:

Despite the jitters many have concerning the sweep of Islamic State forces, the view from the IS capital of Raqqa is hardly rosy. Still stalled in front of embattled Kobani, IS could not stop a sweeping Iraqi Kurdish, Yazidi, and Iraqi Army drive across northern Iraq to take Sinjar Mountain (again rescuing Yazidi refugees) and wrest from IS much of the town of Sinjar by December 21. Back in mid-December, the Pentagon also confirmed that an air strike killed Haji Mutazz, a deputy to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as the IS military operations chief for Iraq, and the IS “governor” of Mosul. Meanwhile, daily coalition air strikes grind away at various targets within IS’s “caliphate” (now increasingly wracked by shortages).

The implications of ISIS’s retreat from Sinjar are significant; Khales Joumah reports that the group’s grip on Mosul may be weakening as a result:

In the city of Mosul itself it seems as though ISIS is at a loss. Members of ISIS are still on the city’s streets but most of the foreign fighters appear to have gone.

The ones left on the streets tend to be younger, local fighters some of whom don’t even seem to be 25 yet. Some of the fighters on the streets admit that they’ve been forced to withdraw from Sinjar but only very quietly.

“For the first time you can sense the feelings of fear and frustration in ISIS’s fighters,” one Mosul doctor, who had been seeing ISIS casualties come in, told NIQASH; he had to remain anonymous for security reasons. “As the number of dead and wounded from among their ranks increases, they look more and more like they’ve lost confidence in their leadership.”

Juan Cole also stresses the importance of Sinjar’s liberation:

Historians refer to polities that exist on both sides of a mountain range, united by passes, as a “saddlebag empire.” These were common in South Asia, where southern Afghanistan and Punjab were often part of the same kingdom despite the barrier of the Hindu Kush mountains. What I have called the ‘neo-Zangid’ state of the Daesh unites the area from Aleppo to Damascus, across Mt. Shinjar , just as had the medieval ruler `Imad al-Din Zangi. It is a sort of contemporary saddlebag empire.

But now not only have the Peshmerga taken the Mt. Shinjar area away from Daesh, helping rescue the besieged Yezidis but they have at the same time cut the supply routes between the terrorist group’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, and its Iraqi power base, Mosul. If you take shears to a saddlebag, it can’t straddle the horse’s back any more and will fall down.

Still, hold off on the celebrations for now. As Loveday Morris reports, the humanitarian situation in Iraq remains grim:

U.N. officials acknowledge that the assistance is insufficient. The U.N. response plan for displaced Iraqis remains only 31 percent funded, while the World Food Program has stopped procuring supplies for the displaced because of a lack of money. That means the distribution of boxes of food to families, the only assistance many get, will end by February unless emergency funding is found.

“It’s not that we can do more with less; it’s that we don’t have anything and the needs on the ground are immense,” said Barbara Manzi, the outgoing Iraq representative for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is overseeing the organization’s response to the displacement crisis.

(Photo: Smoke rises as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) fighters burn tires to obstruct the sight of warcraft during clashes with Peshmerga forces in Sinjar district of Mosul, Iraq on December 22, 2014. Peshmerga forces stage attacks against ISIL to liberate ISIL occupied Sinjar. By Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

An Actual War On Women, Ctd

by Dish Staff

The Islamic State’s “Research and Fatwa Department” is circulating a pamphlet on what the jihadis are allowed to do to the thousands of women and girls they have captured and enslaved in their rampage through Iraq and Syria:

Much of the pamphlet talks about ISIS’ policy on having sexual intercourse with a female slave, something that the group cites the Quran to justify. “If she was a virgin, he (the owner) can have intercourse with her 1(355)immediately after the ownership is fulfilled,” ISIS explains. “If she was not a virgin, her uterus must be purified (wait for her period to be sure she is not pregnant.)”

There are other rules as well, like that two men who co-own a captive can’t both have sex with her and that a man can’t have intercourse with his wife’s slave. As to girls: “It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse,” the document reads. “However, if she is not fit for intercourse, he (the owner ) can only enjoy her without intercourse.”

An English translation of the evil document, via MEMRI, is available here. Jamie Dettmer notes how many women ISIS is believed to have kidnapped:

According to Nazand Begikhani, an adviser to the Kurdistan regional government and researcher at the University of Bristol Gender and Violence Research Center, ISIS has kidnapped more than 2,500 Yazidi women. Yazidi activists, meanwhile, say they have compiled a list of at least 4,600 missing Yazidi women, seized after they were separated from male relatives, who were shot.

The women were bussed, according to firsthand accounts of women who have managed to flee, to the ISIS-controlled cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and chosen and traded like cattle. Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq say they have freed about 100 Yazidi women. In October, ISIS justified its enslavement of the women—and of any non-believing females captured in battle—in its English-language digital magazine Dabiq. Islamic theology, ISIS propagandists argued, gives the jihadis the right, much in the same way that the Bible’s Ephesians 6:5 tells “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”

Katie Zavadski finds some perspective on the ghastly situation:

The pamphlet may be part of a response to a recent condemnation of the group by Islamic scholars from around the word, according to UMass Lowell security studies professor Mia Bloom. Instead of engaging with centuries of Islamic theological debates, ISIS is reverting to seventh-century norms, at which point “women would have fallen under the rubric of war booty.”

She also doesn’t rule out the possibility that some foreign fighters might find these guidelines attractive. “Maybe they think that this is a recruiting tool,” she says, for frustrated men from abroad. But Bloom worries that this cycle of sexual violence will be difficult to stop. “They are creating a very perverse incentive system,” she says, noting the uptick of domestic violence complaints in postwar Serbia.

Previous Dish on the Islamic State’s barbaric view of women here.

The Plight Of The Yazidis Still Isn’t Over, Ctd

A group of Iraqi Yazidi leaders came to Washington last week to meet with officials and plead for assistance in protecting their people and lands from a renewed assault by ISIS. Josh Rogin caught up with the visiting dignitaries and listened to what they had to say:

“Our hostages, children, women, and girls, between 4,000 and 5,000 of them, have been captured by ISIS and sent to other areas. We need help to rescue these hostages,” said Sameer Karto Babasheikh, the son of the Yazidi Supreme Religious Council leader. “In Mosul, they opened a market to sell Yazidi girls. Some of them ended up in Fallujah, some of them were taken to Saudi Arabia and Raqqa in Syria.”

On the mountain, between 6,000 and 7,000 civilians and between 2,000 and 3,000 Yazidi fighters are still trapped and struggling to stay alive, cut off from any supply routes, the Yazidi leaders said. Since the airstrikes trailed off to a trickle in October, ISIS has taken over the five remaining Yazidi towns near Mount Sinjar, killing hundreds of civilians and abducting hundreds more. Even the humanitarian airdrops have halted. The Iraqi government provided two helicopters to deliver aid, but they are old and fly only once or twice a week, Babasheikh said.

Reporting from Dohuk, Alice Su confirms that “there remains no open path for civilians to get out, or for aid to get in”, while the Yazidis blame the Kurdish Peshmerga for abandoning them:

Humanitarian agencies are ready to aid Sinjar as soon as military action opens a way. Around Zumar, for example, a town north of Mosul just recaptured from the Islamic State on Oct. 25, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) are already hard at work. “People in these risky areas are much more in need,” said ICRC spokesperson Dabbakeh Saleh. “They have been totally cut off from the rest of the world.”

A Peshmerga-led effort to liberate Sinjar would represent a reversal from the situation in August, when their retreat left the Yazidis exposed to the assault by the Islamic State. “There is no doubt that the Peshmerga not only did not fight in Sinjar, but they also did not evacuate people or tell the towns that IS had arrived in the south of the mountain,” said Iraq-based researcher Christine van den Toorn. “It was total abandonment.”

Previous Dish on the Yazidis here.

(Video: ISIS militants chat and joke about buying and selling Yazidi slaves on “slave market day”. Via Joel Wing.)

The Plight Of The Yazidis Still Isn’t Over, Ctd

Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains arrive in Syria's Haseki

ISIS militants returned last week to further harass the hundreds of Yazidis who remain on Mount Sinjar. Joel Wing provides an update on the fighting:

During the second week of the month the Kurds said that they were liberating Sinjar, which was taken by the Islamic State in August, but then it was revealed that IS had actually surrounded Mount Sinjar and were trying to take it once again. On October 20 there were clashes in all the surrounding areas such as Khazir, Bartella, Bashiqa, Tilkaif and Mount Sinjar itself. IS was able to seize two towns north of the mountain that day as Yazidi fighters ran out of ammunition. Twenty peshmerga were also killed and 51 wounded. On Mount Sinjar there are two Yazidi militias resisting the IS push. They told Rudaw that they had not received supplies for weeks. There are also YPG, PKK, and peshmerga fighters in the area as well. IS has cut off the supply routes to the mountain and the Yazidi forces are desperate for weapons and ammunition.

With hundreds of thousands of Yazidis displaced from their homes and unable to return, and with international attention having shifted to the battle for Kobani, Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery fear that the Yazidis won’t get the help they need before winter arrives:

Since news about the Yazidis first appeared in the headlines, more substantial — and much-needed — relief efforts have stumbled. Liene Veide, the public information officer for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says the organization is doing all it can for internally displaced persons and refugees in the region, but that more funding and manpower is required. Coordination, it seems, is another problem: The United Nations is working with other local Kurdish organizations, along with the Kurdish Regional Government, to deliver aid, but some communities are receiving assistance multiple times, while others are getting none at all due to a lack of communication between these different organizations, Veide explained.

According to Veide, even with the new UNHCR camps currently in the planning stage in for Iraq, there still won’t be room for everyone. “What we are working on now is absolutely not enough for the whole number — absolutely not,” Veide says.

Cathy Otten reports on the psychological trauma the displaced Yazidis have endured and the limited treatment options available to them:

It’s mid-morning in the hospital and patients crowd the narrow corridors outside Dr [Haitham] Abdalrazak’s office in Zakho General Hospital. He estimates that over 70 percent of Yazidi IDPs in Zakho, a small city in Dohuk Province near the Turkish border, are suffering from trauma. Abdalrazak has a kind, serious expression. He says about 20 percent of his patients have considered suicide and about five percent have attempted it. … Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders warns that PTSD, anxiety and depression are now also affecting displaced children. The organisation has been offering psychological support to displaced people in their Dohuk mobile clinics since August, but do not have any psychiatrists working with them in the area.

(Photo: Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains without food and water for days, due to the Islamic State (IS) violence, arrive in Haseki city of Syria on August 10, 2014. By Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Plight Of The Yazidis Still Isn’t Over

George Packer checks in with his Yazidi contact “Karim” in northern Iraq, who reports that his community remains on the brink of a humanitarian disaster two months after a much-heralded rescue effort:

Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with Karim. He’s still at the top of Mt. Sinjar, living in a military camp with around a hundred fighters, the majority of them Kurdish, the rest Yazidis. They sleep in United Nations tents and eat canned food brought in by humanitarian airdrops. There is no real way out except by airlift—in the past ten or twelve days, according to Karim, ISIS has pushed Yazidi fighters out of villages north and west of Mt. Sinjar, and they now surround the mountain. Karim told me that there are still about a thousand civilians around the mountain, also living in tents. The humanitarian airdrops are not enough, food is running low, and the past few nights have been cold with the approach of winter. The Yazidi resistance fighters want an international ground force to liberate Sinjar—something that they are unlikely to get.

A few hours before we spoke, Karim said, five Yazidi girls arrived at the mountaintop camp. The youngest was nine, the oldest twenty. They had walked several dozen miles from their town to the south of the mountain. They carried nothing with them and were barefoot. The girls said that they had been held prisoner for weeks by ISIS fighters, and were badly beaten, according to Karim. Other Yazidi girls and women have been distributed in slave markets to ISIS fighters, and when I asked Karim if the girls had also been raped, he told me, “I couldn’t bear to ask that question, to be honest.”

Ralf Hoppe interviews a Yazidi woman who was kidnapped by ISIS but managed to escape after nine days in captivity:

Their captors beat them, sometimes several times in a single day, for no apparent reason. There was a man with a beard who used an electric cable, while two others preferred wooden switches. Sometimes they were also punched and kicked, and they were repeatedly sexually abused.

Nadia doesn’t give a literal account of these rapes. It is virtually impossible for her to talk about them, and it contravenes the conventions of her culture. She merely says: “We were taken individually to another room, to one of the men.” Then she lowers her head, in silence, awash with shame. “What else could we do?” she says after a while, now speaking very quietly. She says the men were merciless. Some women threw themselves at their tormentors’ feet, kissed their knees and hands, and — eyes filled with tears — pleaded for mercy. It was no use. The men remained unmoved. It only entertained them.

The jihadists are claiming a theological justification for enslaving the Yazidis in their English-language propaganda newsletter Dabiq:

The Islamic State newsletter, released online at the weekend, also contains an article by John Cantlie, a British journalist being held hostage, in which he says he fears he will soon be killed like his four fellow hostages, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines and Alan Henning. But most of it is devoted to theological justifications for Islamic State behaviour, citing early clerics and the practices of the Prophet Mohammed and his Companions during the early years of Islamic expansion.

“The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrikin were sold by the Companions before them,” the article, entitled “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour”, says. It says that “well-known” rules are observed, including not separating mothers from their children – something which may account for the number of teenage girls being used in this way, according to their families. It says that 20 per cent of women are being taken in this way, in accordance with rules demanding a fifth of property captured in war to be handed over as tax.

The Plight Of The Yazidis Isn’t Over, Ctd

by Dish Staff

While the White House views the operation to break the siege on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq as a success, Spencer Ackerman, Mona Mahmood and Kenton Powell report that as many as 4,000 displaced Yazidis remain on the mountain and are looking for help in driving out the ISIS militants who still threaten their homeland:

The Pentagon estimated two weeks ago that 4,000 to 5,000 people remained on the mountain, and says it cannot offer a more current estimate. The US Agency for International Development assesses that perhaps 2,000 people do not intend to leave. The United Nations mission to Iraq pegged the residual population at “a few hundred who did not want to leave,” said spokeswoman Eliana Nabaa. Although Barack Obama said US warplanes and Kurdish forces “broke the siege of Mount Sinjar,” Isis fighters remain, confronted by a small and desperate Yazidi force. “We need weapons now more than food or water,” Salim Hassan, a Yazidi fighter on Mount Sinjar, told the Guardian.

Ford Sypher provides a grim update on the Yazidi women who were kidnapped by ISIS, who are reportedly being sold as sex slaves or subjected to gang rape in the Mosul prison where they are held:

Survivors who managed to escape from ISIS say the women held in its prison in Mosul face two fates: Those who convert to Islam are sold as brides to Islamist fighters for prices as low as $25, and ranging up to $150. Those who do not convert face daily rape and a slow death.

Accounts of the prison have come from women who managed to hide their cellular phones, calling relatives to describe their plight. Some imprisoned women have been forced by militants to call their families. The mother of one woman still held captive told The Daily Beast about the call she received from her daughter. She was forced to listen as her daughter detailed being raped by dozens of men over the course of a few hours. Still other women testified that multiple children had been born under these conditions, with the newborns ripped away from their mother’s arms to fates unknown.

The Plight Of The Yazidis Isn’t Over

by Dish Staff

While the Yazidis who fled their hometown of Sinjar and sought refuge in the mountains to the north are apparently no longer under siege by ISIS and hopefully will be able to escape to safety soon, Kimberly Dozier points to the others, for whom no rescue is forthcoming:

ISIS has taken hundreds, if not thousands, of Yezidis prisoner, and threatened them with slavery and rape. But a few of the prisoners have smuggled in cellphones and are reaching out—pleading for help. In desperate phone calls to relatives in Iraq and in the U.S., they’re begging for rescue from the prisons, schools or mosques across northern Iraq, where they are being held by ISIS militants.

They all tell a similar tale of horror:

families fleeing on foot caught by militants in trucks and cars. The men are then dragged away at gunpoint from their wives and children, never to be seen again. The younger unmarried women are being told they will be forcibly married to ISIS fighters. Some are taken away and raped and a few have even been sold at Mosul’s main market. The married women aren’t sure what will happen to them and their children—they fear they will be sold into slavery.

Matt Cetti-Roberts spoke to some Yazidis who managed to escape when ISIS overran Sinjar but whose families were not so fortunate. Resaleh Shirgany recounts:

I left my mother. I had never met her before because my parents were divorced, and four other family. [Crying.] They were living in the the Al Jazeera [housing] complex in the northwest of Sinjar. It was the third day after da’ash arrived. They discovered where they were living and my mother was one of five families that were raped. First they raped the women in front of the men, they then killed the husbands while the wives watched and then they killed the women. It was a massacre there. [Crying.] …

The same day when we ran away [from the mountain], my two female cousins who were behind us in a car as we left were captured by da’ash. One of them was pregnant and with her husband and her brother-in-law. They were stopped in the middle of the street. They raped them in front of the people that were with them and I could see it from the back window of the car. Suddenly everyone was gone. They took them away.

Previous Dish on the plight of the Yazidis here.

Rescuing The Yazidis

by Jonah Shepp

More than half of the 40,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar by ISIS militants have managed to escape through a safe passage opened by Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish militias, but many still remain in danger:

The refugees, all members of the Yazidi sect, began streaming back into Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday after a perilous journey past Islamic State militants who had vowed to kill them and had surrounded their hideout on Mount Sinjar after storming the area. The day-long trek took them first over a mountain range into Syria, then through the Peshkhabour crossing three hours north-west of Irbil, where Kurdish officials were rushing to provide food and shelter.

Fleeing Yazidis said their escape had been aided by the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish rebel faction, and by US air strikes on Islamic State (Isis) positions which had forced the jihadists to withdraw for around six hours on Saturday. Their retreat gave a window for thousands of Yazidis, all desperately low on food and water, to begin streaming down the mile-high mountain and north across the Nineveh plains, which have been an ancient homeland of Iraqi minorities.

It’s important to remember that “rescuing” the Yazidis means, for now, sending them to save havens far from home. They are refugees, part of a massive wave of displacement, and will require consistent support while in exile and at some point (hopefully) in returning to their homes. I stress this because refugees have a tendency to get buried in our consciousness of protracted conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Esther Yu-Hsi Lee tallies the Iraqis displaced in the current conflict, who number over 1 million:

Just this week alone, the rapid advance of ISIL forces in several cities of Iraq has forced the internal displacement of about 195,000 refugees, including adherents of the religious Yazidi sect, Palestinians, and Turkmen living in Iraq — a move that has sent neighboring countries and international agencies scrambling to accommodate the refugee crisis within Iraq. …

Overall, nearly 200,000 internally displaced people have fled away from major cities, like Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city captured by ISIL this week, with the greatest concentration of people fleeing towards the northern provinces of Dahuk, Erbil, and Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah, near Turkey. Between January and July, there were at least 1.2 million displaced refugees within Iraq. And in June, the United Nations upgraded Iraq’s crisis to a level 3 humanitarian disaster — the most severe rating it has.

There’s really no overstating how catastrophic this situation is. Hundreds of thousands of refugees is one thing; hundreds of thousands more refugees, on top of multiple, unresolved refugee crises involving millions of people, is quite another. The sheer scale of the displacement is hard for us as Americans to comprehend, which makes it equally hard to appreciate the outsized role refugees have played in the history of the modern Middle East and the conflicts playing out there today. Some Arab communities, particularly the Palestinians, have suffered the trauma of being shuffled from one conflict zone to another over the course of three generations. That has to take a toll on one’s psychological wellbeing as well as one’s worldview: it’s really no shocker that people in such an intractable predicament are prone to radicalization and have a hard time building democratic states and civil societies.