The Yazidi Plight and the Struggle against the Islamic State

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The people of Iraq have been hit hard by the Islamic State (IS), particularly the Yazidi population in northern Iraq. IS solidified their control in Iraq when they took the city of Mosul in June[i], and the Mosul Dam in early August 2014.[ii] Iraqi and Kurdish forces were able to recapture the dam from the Islamic militants by mid-August.[iii] However, constant fighting continues from western Iraq bordering Syria, over to central and northern Iraq. The Islamic State remains a dominant force in the Anbar Province up to the city of Mosul, nearly reaching the Turkish border.[iv] Since mid-August thousands of Yazidi refugees have been fleeing throughout the Nineveh Province, which is directly north of the Anbar Province, as Islamic State fighters have been targeting this minority group and conducting mass executions.[v]

The Yazidi community has been targeted due to their difference in culture and religion, as many are ethnically Kurdish and practice Yazidism, opposed to Islam.[vi] Yazidism is an ancient religion commonly misunderstood, and its followers demonized as “devil worshippers” due to their belief in fire being representative of God’s light.[vii] The origin of their religion is somewhat disputed, as some believe there are elements of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, along with Christianity and Islam.[viii] A core aspect of their religion, and a leading contributor to their marginalization, is their praise of the angel Mel Tawwus, or the Peacock Angel, one of the seven angels they worship.[ix] They have been denounced as infidels by extremist Islamic State militants, and have experienced near genocide through mass executions and enslavement of women and children in the past several months.

IS conducted raids on the Yazidi people starting in August of this year, forcing them to flee north to Mount Sinjar, where they were then trapped by surrounding by IS fighters. The Yazidi refugees were placed in a dire situation as they faced starvation by staying, or death by fleeing.[x] Though U.S. air drops helped to an extent, Mount Sinjar is still surrounded by Islamic State militants, and many people have been forced to flee or attempt to fight off the IS fighters. As of late October, nearly 700 Yazidi families were still surrounded.[xi] They rely on Kurdish and Iraqi fighters for support, and air defenses from the United States to help prevent the continued expansion of IS into the Sinjar region.

Reports of IS incursions on Yazidi communities, include accounts of families and villages being divided up based on gender. The men and boys, ages ten and over, are forced together and  executed, while the women and girls are separated from the elderly.[xii] The women and children are then transported to various locations; largely in the cities of Mosul, Tal Afar, and different areas in the north and Anbar Province, to be sold into sex slavery and forced marriages to Islamic State fighters.[xiii] Thousands of women are currently believed to be enslaved; however due to the constant fighting, fleeing, and those in hiding, the exact numbers are unknown.

Accounts keep arising from those who were able to escape. Human Rights Watch reports that forced religious conversions, marriages, rape and slavery are all being carried out.  Live accounts from those able to briefly contact their family members, detail the trauma that these women and children are suffering in the various places they are being held. Women and children as young as age 12, are known to have been married off to Islamic State fighters in retribution for their fight in the war.[xiv] As for the young boys that have been taken, they are being forced to convert to Islam and fight with the IS militants in Iraq and Syria.[xv]

The international community has taken notice of the horrific offenses in Iraq and Syria. On August 15th, the United Nations Security Council blacklisted the six additional members confirmed to be IS militants, including Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the spokesman for the Islamic State.[xvi] The leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was omitted from Resolution 2170, as he has been blacklisted since 2011. This movement placed a travel ban, economic sanctions and called on all member states to suppress the terrorist group though various actions.[xvii] By September 10th, the United States announced its’ intent to increase air power over Iraq and Syria.[xviii] The increase in air power is an effort to support the Syrian Rebels, as well as the Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting on the ground. This effort was furthered when Turkey agreed to open its borders to allow Kurdish fighters to pass through into Syria, to help with the fight in Kobane in October 2014. On November 7th President Obama authorized the deployment of 1,500 U.S. troops to be sent to Iraq to set up training sites for Iraqi and Kurdish forces.[xix] The following week, on November 11th, the U.S. announced that an additional 50 troops would be sent to the largest air force base, Ain al-Asad, in the Anbar Province.[xx] According to the U.S. government, these soldiers will act as advisers to the forces fighting the Islamic State, and are not to engage in combat.[xxi]

Unfortunately, the atrocities on the Yazidi people have not been alleviated, and the international community has not found a way to combat the mass human rights abuses. The Yazidi women and children still face horrors every day, families remain separated, and communities devastated. There have not been any proposals to bring back those who have been kidnapped. The Islamic State was originally seen as an amateur force. However, as of September 2014, the Central Intelligence Agency estimated that IS forces could be anywhere from 20,000 to 31,500 forces in Iraq and Syria. The acts that they have committed have proven atrocious. The international community needs to develop a far more comprehensive plan in order to prevent a complete genocide of the Yazidi people, and establish order back into the regions.[xxii] In 2014 close to 12,000 people have been killed, and 22,000 injured. The United Nations announced December 1st, that 1,232 people were killed in Iraq alone during the month of November due to the incredible violence, at least 936 of those deaths being civilian.[xxiii] The Islamic State is a force that needs serious action and a comprehensive plan to dismantle them in Iraq and Syria. This in turn will prevent their expansion into surrounding countries, or those that have vulnerabilities and allow for extremist influence.


[i] Daniel Solomon. 8/28/2014. “The Yazidid Crissi and the Future of the Responsibility to Protect”. Aljazeer, America. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/8/iraq-s-yazidi-u-shumanitarianinterventionresponsibilitytoprotect.html.

[ii] Alan Duke, Hamdi Alkhshali. 8/4/2014. “ISIS Claims Gains, Takes Control of Iraq’s Largest Hydroelectic Dam”. CNN World. http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/03/world/meast/iraq-crisis-isis/.

[iii] Spencer Ackerman. 8/19/2014. “Recapture of Mosul Dam from ISIS a Major Step Forward, says Obama”. The Guardian, Iraq. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/18/obama-iraq-mosul-dam-isis-recapture-praise.

[iv] Helen Cooper, Kareem Fahim, C.J. Chives. 9/7/14. “US Launches New Airstrikes on ISIS to Protect Dam in Iraq”. New York Times, Middle East. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/world/middleeast/iraq.html.

[v] Ehab Zahriyeh. 8/6/2014. “Yazidid Community Under Attack – Again”. Aljazeera, America. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/6/yazidis.html.

[vi] News Magazine Monitor. 8/7/2014. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607.

[vii] 10/02/2009. BBC, Religions. “Worship, this page looks at Zoroastrian worship and prayers”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/worship/worship.shtml.

[viii] Raya Jalabi. 8/11/2014. “Who are the Yazidis and Why is Isis Hunting Them?” The Guardian, Iraq. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/07/who-yazidi-isis-iraq-religion-ethnicity-mountains.

[ix] Raya Jalabi. 8/11/2014. “Who are the Yazidis and Why is Isis Hunting Them?” The Guardian, Iraq. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/07/who-yazidi-isis-iraq-religion-ethnicity-mountains.

[x] Daniel Solomon. 8/28/2014. “The Yazidi Crisis and the Future of the Responsibility to Protect”. Aljazeer, America. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/8/iraq-s-yazidi-u-shumanitarianinterventionresponsibilitytoprotect.html

[xi] Ahmed al Hamadani, Al Arabiya. 10/20/2014. “ISIS Besieges 700 Yazidid families in Mount Sinjar”. Al Arabiya News, Middle East. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/10/20/ISIS-besieges-700-Yazidi-families-in-Mount-Sinjar.html.

[xii] Richard Spencer. 10/14/2014.”ISIL Carries Out Massacres and Mass Sexual Enslavement of Yazidis, UN Confirms”. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11160906/Isil-carried-out-massacres-and-mass-sexual-enslavement-of-Yazidis-UN-confirms.html.

[xiii] Ivan Watson. 11/7/2014. “Treated Like Cattle: Yazidi Women Sold, Raped, Enslaved by ISIS”. CNN World. http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/30/world/meast/isis-female-slaves/.

[xiv] Human Rights Watch. 10/12/2014. “Iraq: Forced Marriage, Conversions of Yezidis”. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/10/11/iraq-forced-marriage-conversion-yezidis.

[xv] Ivan Watson. 11/7/2014. “Treated Like Cattle: Yazidi Women Sold, Raped, Enslaved by ISIS”. CNN World. http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/30/world/meast/isis-female-slaves/.

[xvi] Security Council.8/15/2014. “Security Council Adopts Resolution 2170 (2014) condemning Gross, Widespread Abuse of Human Rights by Extremist Groups in Iraq, Syria”. United Nations. http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11520.doc.htm.

[xvii] Security Council.8/15/2014. “Security Council Adopts Resolution 2170 (2014) condemning Gross, Widespread Abuse of Human Rights by Extremist Groups in Iraq, Syria”. United Nations. http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11520.doc.htm.

[xviii] Tom Cohen. 09/10/2014. “Obama Outlines ISIS Strategy: Airstrikes in Syria, More US Forces”. CNN Politics. http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/10/politics/isis-obama-speech/.

[xix] Ilene Cooper and Michael D. Shear. “Obama to Send 1,500 More Troops to Assist Iraq”. 11/7/14. The New York Times, Middle East. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/08/world/middleeast/us-to-send-1500-more-troops-to-iraq.html?_r=0.

[xx] BBC News, Middle East. 11/11/2014. “Islamic State Crisis: US Troops Sent to Iraq’s Anbar”. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30003441.

[xxi] BBC News, Middle East. 11/11/2014. “Islamic State Crisis: US Troops Sent to Iraq’s Anbar”. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30003441.

[xxii] Jim Sciutto, Jamie Crawford, Chelsea Carter. 9/12/2014. “ISIS Can Muster between 20,000 and 31,500 Fighter, says CIA”. CNN World. http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/11/world/meast/isis-syria-iraq/.

[xxiii] UN News Centre. 12/1/14. “Violence in Iraq Kills at Least 1,232 people in November – UN”. United Nations. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49476.

Image credit: Alliance/AA

About Author

Caitlin McFall

Caitlin McFall is a contributor for the International Security Observer. She is a 2012 graduate from the University of Oregon, where she attained a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies and Political Science. Her concentration focused on Counter Terrorism in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Whilst in school she wrote for the international school newspaper, the “Yallah” where she developed her enthusiasm for research and analytical work. After graduating Caitlin worked for the United Nations Refugee Agency assisting with the promotion and awareness for refugees from Syria, Mali and South Sudan. She recently relocated to Washington DC and works for a Brokerage Firm. Caitlin has a strong interest in the understanding of terrorism and its effect on international security. She is a native English speaker and proficient in Italian.

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