Iraq, Syria, Turkey complicit in genocide against Yezidis

August 11, 2022
A commemoration of eight years after the Yezidi genocide was held on August 7 in Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle

Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist militias launched a major attack on August 6, 2014, on the Yezidi people living in the Sinjar district in northern Iraq.

The Yezidi are a religious-ethnic minority in the Middle East that practice a religion that pre-dates Islam and Judeo-Christianity. They have suffered persecution and discrimination in the region for many years, including massacres and forced conversions. But the ISIS assault on the Yezidi community that began eight years ago was truly horrific and of unimaginable scale.

Thousands of Yezidi men and boys were murdered and thrown into mass graves. Thousands of women and children were abducted and given as sex slaves to ISIS fighters, or sold in revived slave markets.

The Iraq federal military fled the area before ISIS’ offensive, leaving their weapons behind.

Kurdish Peshmerga militias aligned to the Kurdistan Democratic Party — run by the notoriously corrupt Barzani family — moved in and took the abandoned weapons, but then retreated and left the Yezidi undefended.

The Peshmerga did this despite assuring the Yezidi that they would protect them.

It was left to Kurdish freedom fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) from Rojava to defend the Yezidi people.

The PKK, YPG and YPJ fought fiercely to clear a humanitarian corridor, to allow about 50,000 Yezidi people who had fled up to Mount Sinjar to escape to Syria.

The Yazidi Justice Committee (YJC), a high-powered group of international legal experts, released a damning report in July on the culpability of various governments under the Genocide Convention of 1948.

The YJC is an ad hoc committee of members from the Accountability Unit, Women for Justice, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, the Geoffrey Nice Foundation and the Bar Human Rights Committee (England and Wales).

Primary responsibility lies with ISIS, but it is not a recognised state and only a few individuals involved in the atrocities have been tried for their crimes. However, the YJC found that “at least three states have failed in discharging one or more obligations under the Genocide Convention with respect to the genocide committed by ISIS”.

The three countries are Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

The YJC found that, from at least April 2013, the Iraqi government knew there was a serious risk of genocide against the Yezidis in Iraq. Baghdad called upon the United Nations in June 2014 to recognise the atrocities already being committed by ISIS as genocide, and made a formal request to the United States to launch air strikes against ISIS.

“In particular, Iraq’s Federal Government failed to coordinate diplomatically, and/or militarily, with the Kurdistan Regional Government in order to ensure the Yazidis’ safety and security in the Sinjar and other regions before August 3, 2014, and took no measures to evacuate the Yazidis to safety in the light of the clear risk of ISIS’ advance to Sinjar, following its capture of Mosul in June 2014,” the report said.

The report said Iraq continues to fail to protect the Yezidis who have since returned, or are trying to return, to Sinjar.

Instead, Iraqi armed forces have surrounded Sinjar and are trying to force the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) — Yezidi self-defence units that Kurdish freedom fighters helped set up after the genocide — to disarm and disband.

The YJC report found the Bashar al-Assad regime also knew about the risk of a genocidal attack on the Yezidis from as early as 2013, but “no attempt was made by the Syrian government to provide any form of protection to the Yazidis in any context prior to the commission of prohibited acts, during the commission of prohibited acts and/or after the commission of prohibited acts”.

Turkey also knew of the genocide risk from as early as April 2013 and did nothing to prevent it. Instead, it allowed ISIS fighters, including “significant numbers of Turkish nationals joining ISIS”, to pass through Turkey.

Turkey also allowed “the trafficking of materiel and resources to ISIS”, the report said.

Turkey failed to “prevent the sale, transfer and enslavement of Yazidi women and children that occurred on its territory”. Some of the notorious slave markets were in Turkey — abducted Yezidi women are still being found in Turkey to this day.

The report concluded that “from at least June 2014, Turkish officials turned a blind eye to, or deliberately allowed, the trafficking and sale of enslaved Yazidi women and girls in Turkey”.

The report said that Turkey is complicit in genocide because it failed to “restrict the illicit oil trade, which financially benefitted ISIS and allowed it to fund its commission of prohibited acts”.

The report said there are “reasonable grounds” to conclude that Turkey provided assistance to Turkish-backed militants, or at the very least, “knew that there was a serious risk that they would engage in the commission of prohibited acts of genocide against the Yazidis”.

The report said Turkey gave military training and support to ISIS, which continued even after Turkish officials knew it would be used against the Yezidi.

Turkey continues to attack the YBS in Sinjar as part of its ongoing cross-border military operations in northern Iraq.

The report concluded that there are grounds to take Iraq, Syria and Turkey to the International Court of Justice for their failure to act according to the Genocide Convention.

While the report did not find legal grounds to do the same to other, more powerful countries active in the region at the time of the Yezidi genocide, detailed evidence suggests that other countries were also complicit.

The report said Iran, France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Russia and Britain “failed to prevent genocide as and when it was occurring in Iraq and Syria”, or “failed to apprehend or take any action (by way of legislation, policy, or practice) to punish possible perpetrators”.

The US, which had a powerful military in the region at the time of the genocide, is not listed, even though it was publicly forewarned and would have had intelligence reports to support that.

The report said then-President Barack Obama’s announcement of US military action “recognised that ISIS forces had called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide, acknowledged the unique capabilities of the US to help avert a massacre, and committed to act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

The US launched air strikes two days after the attacks began against ISIS targets in Iraq, and dropped humanitarian aid to Yezidis trapped on Mount Sinjar.

But this begs the glaring question: Could the US have acted earlier to avert the genocide and pressured its allies in Turkey and Saudi Arabia to stop supporting ISIS?

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