Why the U.S. Is Taking Such Serious Steps to Aid Iraq’s Yazidis

The World
How It Works
Aug. 7 2014 1:11 PM

Why the U.S. Is Taking Such Serious Steps to Aid Iraq’s Yazidis

An Iraqi Yazidi family that fled the violence in Sinjar sits at a school where they are taking shelter in the Kurdish city of Dohuk on Aug. 5, 2014.

Photo by Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Update, 10:55 p.m.: President Obama has authorized airstrikes on ISIS militants in Iraq if needed to protect American personnel.

The Obama administration is reportedly considering a number of actions, including possible airstrikes, in response to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq. Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians are currently stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq without food and water, having been driven out of the town of and surrounding villages by ISIS earlier this week. Dehydration is rampant, and dozens have already died.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Most of those stranded are Yazidis, members of a small sect whose religion combines elements of Zoroastrianism and Sufi Islam. They’re considered apostates by ISIS and other groups like it and would likely be killed if they descended from the mountain. The situation facing the Iraqi Yazidis—a group with fewer than 600,000 adherents worldwide, mostly in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria—looks like a potential genocide. George Packer of the New Yorker called it that in a widely read essay yesterday. In a heartrending appeal to the Iraqi parliament this week, a Yazidi lawmaker exclaimed, “Mr. Speaker, We are being slaughtered, we are being exterminated.”


The Yazidis aren’t the only group at risk due to ISIS’ advance. Up to a quarter of the country’s Christians have reportedly fled. Bobby Ghosh of Quartz notes other groups, including the Shabak sect and Iraq’s Turkmen population, that have been targeted. And of course, Shiites have been killed in large numbers in areas taken over by ISIS.

But the immediacy of the crisis facing the trapped Yazidis has caught the world’s attention. In addition to the measure being considered by the White House, which could include humanitarian aid drops as well as airstrikes, the U.N. says it has managed to extract some civilians and is working to get aid to those remaining.

It may seem cynical to point this out, but a specific imminent massacre is more likely to spur international action than ongoing violence, no matter how devastating. Contrast the international community’s response to prevent Muammar Qaddafi’s planned assault in Benghazi in 2011 with the slow-moving reaction to the continuing nightmare in Syria.

The Obama administration has so far been reluctant to use military force in Iraq, hoping for a more inclusive Iraqi government—preferably one without Nouri al-Maliki in charge—to be formed first. Today’s reports may just be a trial balloon from the White House, but if the U.S. does end up ordering airstrikes on behalf of the Iraqi government, it looks like the grim events on Mount Sinjar may be the turning point.

Packer wrote yesterday that there’s “barely any public awareness of the unfolding disaster in northwestern Iraq, let alone a campaign of international support for the Yazidis.” That has changed very quickly. Now, we must wait and see if anything will be done to stop it. And, if something is, what the unintended consequences will be.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.