On March 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution declaring that ISIS' attacks against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide. Two days later, Secretary of State Kerry affirmed that "Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims." In light of these declarations, Cornerstone asks: What legal and moral obligations, if any, does the United States have in designating ISIS' attacks as genocide?
By: William Inboden
While all genocides are horrific and appalling, not all genocides take place in the same political circumstances. Some genocides result from a totalitarian despot’s absolute control of his territory during peacetime, thus enabling him (and thus far genocidal dictators have almost always been “hims”) to target for extermination a particular group of his subjects. Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainian kulaks, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge charnel house in Cambodia are all grim examples. Other genocides occur within a country otherwise at peace with its neighbors when one community seeks to destroy another. Rwanda in 1994 and Khartoum’s genocide in the Darfur region in the early 2000s occupy this category. Then there are the genocides that take place in the midst of war, when an aggressor seeks not only to defeat its adversaries but also to exterminate an entire class of human beings found undesirable or otherwise unwanted. Such was Hitler’s “Final Solution” launched against Europe’s Jews in 1941, or Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s—or the Islamic State’s violent jihad today against Yazidis, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims.
The political and international circumstances of each genocide matter because they help shape the range of possible policy responses. As Samantha Power demonstrates in her classic book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the United States, and the international community more broadly, have a consistent record of non-intervention (or at best, much-delayed intervention) on genocides. In Power’s argument, this is in large part because the American national security system has a hard-wired dispositionagainst intervening to stop an unfolding genocide. The cumbersome inter-agency process of intelligence collection and analysis, generation and consideration of policy options, and development of decisions on intervention, contains built-in mechanisms at every stage that militate against decisive action. (Many observers have noted the irony that after authoring this book, Power joined the Obama administration, where her various roles, including her current position as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have not afforded her the opportunity to disprove the thesis of her book, in the face of Bashar Assad’s butchery of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians or the aforementioned ISIS genocide).
Yet in the tragic cases where the genocide is occurring against the backdrop of a larger war, the very fact of the war may help prompt more effective responses by outside actors against the genocide. Such is the case with ISIS. Not only has the jihadist group pledged itself to exterminate religious minorities, it has also virtually declared war against the United States and Europe, evidenced by the multiple terrorist attacks it has inspired or launched against American and European targets. This partly accounts for the Obama administration’s decision in 2014 to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, and why those military operations continue in tandem with the deployment of several thousand ground forces.
But it also bears remembering that the White House’s original decision to order the bombing campaign also stemmed in part from humanitarian concerns, specifically what appeared at the time to be the imminent ISIS threat to exterminate the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar. Thus from the beginning of the decision to use force, America’s strategic and moral interests have been intertwined.
The fact that almost two years later the administration has—correctly—designated the Islamic State’s escalated depredations against religious minorities as “genocide” also shows that the ongoing military campaign has not yet accomplished the humanitarian dimension of its original purpose from two years ago. Does this mean that war is not the answer to stopping the ISIS genocide? No; rather it means that our war effort thus far has been inadequate. Legal measures, such as pursuing indictment of ISIS leaders by the International Criminal Court, or carefully documenting the perpetrators and victims of the genocide, may be helpful but are hardly sufficient to stop the killing. The only sure way to stop the genocide is to defeat ISIS on the battlefield, just as the only way to stop the Holocaust was to defeat Nazi Germany, and the only way to stop Milosevic’s slaughter was a sustained bombing campaign that compelled him to negotiate for peace.
The U.S.-led operation against ISIS has enjoyed some tactical successes, including killing a number of ISIS forces, destroying large stocks of its cash reserves, and eroding some of its territorial control. But an escalated effort will be necessary to go from degrading to defeating ISIS, and in the process stopping the genocide. This will entail several measures, including 1) the deployment of larger numbers of ground forces to increase intelligence collection, target designation, and capturing or killing ISIS fighters; 2) an increase in the number of combat sorties and looser rules of engagement; 3) increasing operations in Syria, especially against the Islamic State capital of Raqqa; 4) creation of a safe zone for refugees fleeing ISIS or the Assad regime; and 5) a diplomatic strategy predicated on restoring trust and cooperation with our Sunni partner nations in the region, rather than the prevailing de facto reliance on Russia and Iran.
Genocide against religious minorities is not an incidental by-product of the Islamic State’s rule; it is as central to ISIS’s ideology as are terrorist attacks against Western targets. The genocide will only be stopped when ISIS is defeated.
William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and executive director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin.
This piece was originally authored on May 5, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.