In a world in which military power is heavily concentrated in Western states, especially America, which have professed a post-World War II international consciousness that ostensibly prioritizes action against unchecked sovereignty—and its ultimate excess, genocide—there is a belief that the cries of the suffering can rise through the apparatus built on that consciousness, and reach decision makers with global interests, power, and reach. Genocide exists at the extreme end of a spectrum—at the other end is a universal ideal of civilized and humane politics that Western states, many of which have a history of genocide they have sought to transcend, purport to exhibit. Just as innumerable people living in poverty, tyranny, or chaos yearn to migrate to these states, both the suffering and their advocates believe that, given our seemingly ever-growing consciousness of—and capacity to identify—atrocity and genocide, in David Rieff’s words, “international law should be upheld as strenuously as the domestic laws of democratic states.”
The anti-genocide interventions of the 1990s, rooted in an era of domestic and systemic confidence and prosperity, gave way to astonishingly costly and ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tied to unprecedentedly ambitious democratization projects. The bold but brief shift toward a full fusion of war and democratic nation building under the Bush administration changed the course of an American foreign policy tradition that had “pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East, and achieved neither,” as then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it in a 2005 Cairo speech. By the Obama era, the American public was exhausted with increasingly unconvincing arguments for remaining deeply involved in a flailing, baffling region. “The war in Iraq,” David Rieff writes, “seems to have put the final nail in the coffin of the dream of global citizenship that began more than half a century ago with the founding of the United Nations.” “It is unwise and unsustainable,” said President Barack Obama in his final foreign policy speech at the end of 2016, reflecting an attitude that guided his decisions in the face of mass atrocities in the region, “to ask our military to build nations on the other side of the world, or resolve their internal conflicts.”
As questions of population and territory come to dominate European and American politics, the increased background peril of a world that no longer feels safely divided—even in theory—into states where genocide happens and states that might act against it, is being felt. The story of American policy in the face of genocide in Iraq and Syria is partly one of withdrawal—a direction that might once again change, but has in those places wrought damage that will last for generations. It is about deep continuities in policy, as well as short-term political calculations that came at great cost to distant peoples. It is about new realities: a post-invasion Iraqi state, evasive of models or precedents, that generated hostility within and against itself; ISIS, which emerged like a tumor from that Iraqi state; and a Syrian state that took customary repressive tactics to their logical extreme in the form of mass murder and destruction. But it is also about the old reality: that, in Rieff’s words, “the world remained the same tragic place it had always been, as unredeemed by international law as it had been by religion or Marxism or liberal capitalism.” With the failure of that system of international law unmasked, the reality of America as a state both ordinarily self-interested and extraordinarily empowered is being revealed even more painfully.
With the end of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, Assyrians—a Christian people indigenous to Iraq and neighboring areas—overwhelmingly believed that a long century defined by genocide at the hands of their neighbors, and the failure of international appeals in response to it, would yield to better times. But the invasion immediately strengthened the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) capacity and scope for land grabbing in the north, while in Baghdad, militias began to target Assyrians with violence seemingly unlimited in its potential. Unlike ISIS later on, these militias—both Sunni and Shia—were frequently networked within the Iraqi state.
The American occupation of Iraq seemed to create new possibilities for advocacy. The sizeable American-Assyrian community, the product of earlier genocide and continued persecution, hoped they could gain access to an American political system tied to the vast bureaucracy of the occupation. Calls by Assyrian leaders and the transnational Assyrian public for a degree of self-administration in the Nineveh Plain—their historic heartland in northern Iraq—accelerated as Sunni and Shia militias emptied Baghdad of its Assyrian population.
Michael Youash, a Canadian-Assyrian scholar of governance design, was project director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, a Nineveh Plain advocacy organization, and also represented the Iraqi Minorities Council in Washington. The Nineveh Plain project ISDP represented was not an initiative of separatism. It was deeply attached in principle to the American project for Iraq, and sought to use legal mechanisms within the new Iraqi constitution in order to create a province in the Nineveh Plain, the most crucial aspect of which would see local security forces defend Assyrian towns.
In Iraq, the proposal was primarily being pursued by the Assyrian Democratic Movement, whose leader, Yonadam Kanna, was the only non-Muslim in the provisional Iraqi government under the Coalition Provisional Authority in the year following the invasion. Kanna was so deeply convinced by and committed to the American project that he was notable in responding positively to the American call to disband non-army militias in Iraq, disarming the storied 5,000-strong armed wing of his party even as other leaders expanded their own forces.
In 2003, then-State Sen. Barack Obama stood in front of a crowd at the Assyrian National Council of Illinois (a state that, along with Michigan and California, contains the highest number of Iraqi voters) and said that he opposed the war, and was particularly concerned that the United States had no plan for the aftermath of the invasion. The crowd, mostly convinced that the new Iraq signaled a new dawn for their people, reacted negatively.
U.S. commitments to Iraq in the final years of the George W. Bush administration intensified expectations. “During the surge in 2007-8,” Youash told me, “we were saying: If you’re going to commit this many troops, if you’re clearly doubling down on Iraq, if you’ve got the political will—now is the time to carve out a minority policy that will protect the most vulnerable citizens of Iraq.” Instead, the U.S. government extended its status quo response: insisting that as Iraq stabilized, the condition of Assyrians would improve with the rest of the population. “But even as renewed U.S. commitment led to reduced violence between Sunni and Shia Arabs, things continued to get worse for minorities, and there was silence from the United States.”
The United States did nothing to stop violence against Assyrians in Baghdad (and other places with significant Christian populations like Mosul) so severe that in 2007, they represented 40% of Iraqi refugees, at around 4% of the population. The Nineveh Plain was often the only remotely safe destination for internally displaced Assyrians fleeing violence elsewhere, underscoring the claims of the province project to legitimacy as a solution to the burgeoning genocide of Assyrians. But the United States also did nothing to secure a future for Assyrians in the plain, where de facto KRG annexation entailed the violent targeting of dissenters, the blocking of development, and dismantling the political agency of inhabitants. “The U.S. decision to treat Baghdad and Erbil as mutually legitimate spheres of contestation in the Nineveh Plain,” said Youash, “ultimately resulted in the destruction of Iraq’s most vulnerable populations.”
Awareness that genocide was either present or imminent in Iraq was widespread in American intellectual and political circles. In a 2006 Time magazine article, Samantha Power observed “genocidal intent” in the actions of sectarian militias. In 2007 and 2008, Obama wrote letters to Condoleezza Rice expressing concern that Christian, Yazidi and Mandaean communities “appear to be targeted by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militants,” to the extent that they faced “potential extinction from their ancient homeland,” and asking what steps were being taken to protect them.
A 2007 State Department report, only issued because the situation was dire enough that Congress required recommendations, acknowledged a range of abuses—from KRG interference in the political affairs of the Nineveh Plain, including mass electoral fraud, backed by violence, that effectively disenfranchised residents politically altogether, as well as the expropriation of aid money. But the report concluded that: “on the basis of relative need … it would be inappropriate to single out this group [Assyrians] for special attention.”
The self-indicting clarity in this assertion—that American policy effectively permitted the targeting of Assyrians—from a redacted report, was extremely rare. It took the insertion of a reporting requirement from Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, who was ranking member of the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, which appropriates and oversees USAID funding, and a call to USAID to insist that the requirement be met after it originally was not. “The great work it took to extract the admissions in that report only calls into focus the greater silence surrounding American policy in the Nineveh Plain,” Youash said.
Following years of advocacy, led by specialists like Youash and supported by community and youth organizations, pro-Assyrian language was finally passed by Congress. This legislation ranged from nonbinding resolutions that expressed concern, to an actual bill supporting local security forces passed into law in 2011.
“Creating language really was a struggle, and involved an ambitious mobilization by the Assyrian community, who played the domestic American game effectively,” Youash said. “And nothing resulted from that language.” No action followed the legislation, and no subsequent process of accountability unfolded. Years after the activist mobilization network that had been constructed by Assyrian organizations dissolved, the same pro-Assyrian language recurred in passed legislation. As Assyrians endured genocidal persecution, text continued to be recycled through the legislative machine, entirely disconnected from the responsibility to protect. It appears to have been too inconsequential to require alteration.
In her celebrated 2003 study of genocide A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power noted: “In most of the cases of genocide documented in this book, U.S. officials who ‘did not know’ or ‘did not fully appreciate’ chose not to.” Power, before joining Obama’s administration, expressed fears that without bold shifts in policy, extending the U.S. presence in Iraq would merely “preserve a status quo that is already deteriorating into wholesale ethnic cleansing.” In a 2007 piece titled “How to Stop Genocide in Iraq,” she lamented the fact that “many of those who favor a U.S. exit have recklessly waved off atrocity warnings.” The solutions she offered extended to a form of “voluntary, peaceful evacuation” of Iraqis into “religiously homogenous neighborhoods” in order to “pre-empt genocide in advance of our departure.” But the administration she joined in 2008 did nothing to advance any policies that would have helped make Assyrians more robust to the genocide she acknowledged could well be awaiting them.
These policies existed, and were legal and actionable. Then Congressman Mark Kirk of Illinois described a plan for local security in the Nineveh Plain created by Assyrian MPs in Iraq and Assyrian scholars in America, including Youash, as the most detailed security proposal of its kind he had seen. The Iraqi Ministry of the Interior issued an order to put the proposal into being. By April 2008, Kirk was wondering aloud why the order, which was backed by CENTCOM, had not materialized on the ground.
The Kurdish Democratic Party-controlled government in Mosul blocked the Interior Ministry order. Even though this blockage was temporarily overturned, in April 2008, the Interior Ministry branch in Nineveh, controlled by the KDP, issued an order reforming and relocating the Nineveh Plain-based force and ultimately leading to their nullification after they refused the order. The United States did nothing in response. Following years of neglect as a result of this approach, the Kurdish peshmerga forces occupying the plain confiscated the weapons of Assyrians (even their own proxies) weeks before ISIS attacked, then tactically withdrew at the final moment of ISIS’ approach, without warning residents or firing a single shot in their defense.
“After ISIS happened,” Youash said, “the most haunting counterfactual for me became: What if these security forces had been allowed to develop to their full proposed capacity starting in 2008?”
The United States was aware of the particular reality and status of Yazidis as a threatened non-Muslim minority well before ISIS. It was Yazidi separateness and weakness that led to American forces enjoying a smooth relationship with the Yazidis during the occupation. As Yazidi advocate Nadia Murad wrote in her autobiography: “The Americans trusted us because we didn’t have any reason to be loyal to anyone they considered an enemy.” Yazidis served, for example, disproportionately (and with great cost) in pivotal roles as translators for American forces. And yet American policy toward Yazidis chose not to reflect their understanding that the same fragility that made them a useful minority could lead to genocide.
Since 2003, America has endorsed—as it has in the Nineveh Plain—the “disputed territory” status quo in Sinjar, the Yazidi homeland, which is also in the Nineveh governorate. After the invasion, the KRG immediately sought—and still seeks—to annex it through familiar tactics. Baghdad, weighed down by bigotry and near unlimited levels of self-interest, failed to extend its hand. The perilous nature of Sinjar’s political and security status, combined with the material and political weakness of Yazidis, left it highly vulnerable to conquest. On Aug. 3, 2014, after Peshmerga forces abandoned their posts in Sinjar at the last minute—having encouraged and even threatened Yazidis to remain in the town in preceding, tense days, under the promise of protection—ISIS entered and launched a campaign of mass murder and sexual abduction.
Yazidi, Kurdish, and international forces liberated Sinjar in November 2015. But it remains in a materially ruined and existentially suspended state. Beyond ad hoc private efforts, no major work has been undertaken to rebuild or repopulate the town. Rubble has not been cleared and reconstruction and building efforts, obstructed by “severe access restrictions,” have not taken place. These conditions, and the politics behind them, have impeded the return of inhabitants.
Amy Beam, an American researcher with experience in international development, is one of very few foreign residents in Sinjar. She describes returning Yazidis as living “like pioneers,” with no reliable source of drinking water and sparse medical services. Beam has published images of the disconnected, tokenistic work that has taken place, which includes a Chinese government donation of 300 pine trees and yellow paint for curbsides on abandoned roads. The Iraqi government has installed a particular kind of round steel arch at the checkpoint to the city, as part of a broader policy in every Iraqi city.
The question of why Sinjar has not been rebuilt exists at the nexus of several failures, which have conspired to condemn the Yazidi homeland to a quarantined and abandoned state, and the majority of the Yazidi population—around 300,000 in March 2019—to camps. The question of who controls Sinjar is the key piece. Long-term concern over the security and control of Sinjar remains the pivotal Yazidi anxiety when contemplating a future in Iraq. Fear of another genocide is paramount, as is the question of protection from it.
Baghdad has licensed Yazidi forces, who currently patrol most of the Yazidi villages in Sinjar (the checkpoints from Mosul to Sinjar are mainly manned by the Iraqi army), and has used that policy to make a case that the predominantly Shia “popular mobilization” forces assembled to fight ISIS are in fact nonsectarian and pro-Iraqi. But Iraq has displayed no principled or serious commitment to empowering Yazidis: Their support has only gone as far as occasionally using the minority as a card against the KDP, and suspicion toward Yazidis in Baghdad remains high.
In the absence of a practical political utility for them, and a form of international intervention that would finally prioritize their existence, survival is not the status quo for the Yazidi people. Both Baghdad and Erbil have effectively halted attempts to repatriate them for the past four years. The majority of Yazidis are still in camps in the KRG, in poor conditions, amid disease. Kurdish leaders refuse to upgrade these temporary camps into towns—to install street lights or pave sidewalks—because that would affirm the loss of Sinjar as a political project, as well as rendering the unwanted presence of Yazidis in the KRG proper permanent. The security and political impasse over Sinjar has also led to massive problems with aid and reconstruction.
“The United States should be supporting Yazidis and Assyrians, who have shown they are capable of defending their own towns, to stand up for themselves,” Noor Matti, an American-Assyrian broadcaster based in Erbil who runs Shlama Foundation, a local aid organization in the Nineveh Plain, told me. From the perspective of Yazidis and Assyrians, the desire for some degree of self-administration post-ISIS is not a question of “fragmentation within fragmentation,” as Michael Stephens of RUSI described the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian force with a local mandate created under the “popular mobilization” law, but of preventing a likely terminal conquest or genocide. House Resolution 259, which has passed committee and is going to the House floor to be voted on, reinforces the pre-ISIS security status quo that led to genocide. By calling for the full integration of forces into the Iraqi army and peshmerga with no qualifications reflecting either the success of local Yazidi and Assyrian forces long-sought by those communities, the resolution lacks any sense of how ISIS only made the need for these groups to part from the security status quo even clearer.
According to a 2006 U.S. government program of Special Immigrant Visas, Iraqis who served the United States or U.S. companies—such as Yazidis who served as translators—and faced persecution as a result were eligible for American citizenship through asylum. But according to Beam’s research, only 6% of Yazidi SIV applicants who applied for U.S. citizenship received it. Following the Supreme Court decision in February 2017 that blocked President Donald Trump’s travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries, Trump took Iraq off the list of banned nationalities, but added security checks so onerous that almost no one has met the standard. As Pari Ibrahim, who lost many members of her family in the genocide and is founder and executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, told me: “Perhaps everyone wants to leave Iraq and Syria, but some have more reason to leave than others. Being targeted for genocide based on religion is a special circumstance that is different from other needs. But we have not seen that fact reflected in the immigration policy of the United States and Europe.” America accepted five Yazidi refugees in 2018, and 20 in 2019.
Nadia Murad, the 26-year-old Yazidi from the village of Kocho, was forced into sexual slavery by ISIS, who killed her mother and six of her brothers. After escaping, she began to give testimony regarding her experiences, soon rising to prominence. Her efforts culminated in her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. And yet governments have done almost nothing to support Yazidis in response to her advocacy. As Murad wrote in a recent article commemorating the five year anniversary of the ISIS attack on Sinjar: “If the international community refuses to exchange platitudes for swift action, the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign against Yazidis will prevail.”
On Her Shoulders (2018), Alexandria Bombach’s astute documentary, is an account of how Murad’s astonishing bravery and strength was met with indifference and co-option by the “international community.” Bombach captures the grueling routine that Murad undergoes, as political figures and radio hosts ask her to document the gruesome details of her captivity repeatedly. Murad constantly seeks to direct her meetings toward material and practical solutions for Yazidis. The powerful figures she presents her case to constantly move in the opposite direction: treating Murad’s experiences as personal traumas, celebrating her personal achievements, and obfuscating any sense of responsibility to stop her people from disappearing entirely from their homeland. In an embarrassing encounter with Trump in the Oval Office last month, the president appeared to know nothing about Sinjar, or Murad, and in fact seemed nearly incredulous she could have won the Nobel.
Consoling others—from Yazidis in desperation to powerful and influential figures—becomes a kind of bodily reflex for Murad, as she shoulders the burden of an entire people by expressing her private pain in civic and media spaces. In the documentary, Canadian MP Michelle Rempel breaks down privately after Murad’s testimony in Canadian parliament. “I’m sorry,” Rempel explains tearfully as Murad embraces her, “that was very difficult to listen to.” Rempel later tells Murad: “We just want you to be healthy and happy, that’s the main thing: you, personally.” At the U.N., Murad is introduced as “the first U.N. goodwill ambassador who is herself a survivor,” as if representation existed as a good separate from responsibility. “I’ve been in a lot of Security Council meetings, and people don’t clap,” says Samantha Power after Murad’s speech at the first Security Council debate on human trafficking. “But they’re clapping for a remarkable young woman.”
What Ibrahim tells me corroborates the critical perspective of the film: “There has been a morbid fascination, which verges on objectification, with Yazidi women, and there is a very serious danger of turning advocacy into some sort of game or show for the international community.” Genocide advocacy now shares much with pitching—Murad is constantly encouraged to hone her message in order to trigger responses—without the equivalent of a market to provide the possibility of a better message yielding a higher chance of success. Washington Post reporter Jonathan Randall’s quip that “Kurdistan exists as much despite as because of the Kurds” is less an indication of a rancorous, madcap mountain people having their wishes unexpectedly granted than an affirmation that deep geopolitical interests have yielded interventions even when the group empowered by them is not up to the new responsibility. Despite this reality, Assyrians, Yazidis, and the Syrian opposition have routinely been told that they are too divided to receive support, and some advocates have internalized this assessment in a form of self-flagellation—of perceived unworthiness in relation to imagined standards.
No serious political or military intervention took place in response to Murad’s advocacy tour despite its massive public impact. (The night she won the Nobel, Murad flew to Iraq before the celebratory dinner in order to petition the Iraqi government to open an important road to Sinjar that had been closed since ISIS attacked.) Murad climbed the ladder set up by the international system, and nothing happened for her people at the top. To this system, her Nobel Prize was recognition of how powerfully she represented her struggle in a universal, symbolic, professional, and potentially replicable sense, disconnected from the material and political reality of her people and of genocide. The U.N. prizes indigeneity as an aesthetic, romantically linking a centralized, internationalized bureaucracy with an enlightened and sensitive approach to the loss of cultural particularity. Yet the Yazidi case shows that it remains, in David Rieff’s words, “a body comprising—and with a secretariat responsible to—the world’s states, not the world’s peoples.”
Appearing to respect Yazidi suffering took the place of acting to stop it. That Murad is so courageous and extraordinary, so resonant and instantly iconic, has made it even more powerful for governments to host her, imagistically salving a global conscience, and making her advocacy stand in for—rather than lead to—changes in policy.
The exterminationist projects of Turkish nationalists and Nazis led Polish-Jewish scholar Raphael Lemkin to bring the term “genocide” into being—in an era of race murder, the language caught up to the crime—but scholars have since sought to expand the scope of the term to include political groups. That expanded understanding moves emphasis to the state, and away from the “purer,” more ancient yearning to murder a race.
Bashar Assad’s story is not free from ethnoreligious elements and considerations. But his response to the challenge to his absolute authority that emerged in 2011 fundamentally had one goal: the liquidation of the entire class of Syrians opposed to his rule. Assad has provided an illustration of how a state can be mobilized to destroy a country and nation. Around half a million Syrians have been killed in detention, conflict, siege, or bombardment; and more than 10 million have been displaced or become refugees. But Assad remains. And his policies following his “victory,” including monopolization of aid and reconstruction and persecuting returning Syrians, are further strengthening his vision of a state entirely defined by and through his rule.
The son of an iconic actress and author of a novel, Syrian advocate Ammar Abdulhamid was changed by his time in America in the 1980s and ’90s. The Federalist Papers helped him turn away from an early infatuation with Islamism: He was inspired by how the founding fathers “wrote a constitution and a bill of rights that was meant to correct their own failings, and their own mistakes.” He fled Syria in 2005 after calling for Assad’s downfall.
In 2008, Abdulhamid became the first Syrian citizen to testify in U.S. congress, predicting that Assad’s “heavy-handed tactics” in “dealing with popular challenges from a security angle … might just engender the very thing they are meant to contain.” As protests became conflict in 2011, Abdulhamid became an advocate for the Syrian opposition in Washington, D.C., where he still runs his own foundation.
Abulhamid’s advocacy succeeded according to the internal criteria of that enterprise: reaching the height of power. He briefed President George W. Bush in the Oval Office and met several key Obama advisers at important points. In 2012, Abulhamid engaged Robert Malley, who became Obama’s adviser on Syria in early 2014, with a report “intended as a call-for-action,” as he put it to me, which eventually became used “much more successfully as a call for inaction and disengagement.” He stopped advocating in mid-2013, when by his own admission it became clear he had failed to have any influence on American decision-makers. “There is a common trait,” he told me, “between the Obama and Trump administrations with regards to Syria, and that is the almost complete irrelevance of input and pressure from activists and lobbyists.”
Abdulhamid’s principled appreciation of the American process makes his comments regarding the country’s foreign policy failures especially poignant: “As different parties try to reshape America exclusively in their image, and redefine it exclusively in terms of their values and ideology, every development across the globe is getting exclusively tackled from the perspective of its immediate impact, real or imagined. Its unique significance, and potential long-term cost, even as far as the American domestic scene is concerned, is underappreciated.”
Bassam Barabandi became a diplomat in the Syrian Embassy in Washington in 2008, months before Obama took office. When the brutality of Assad’s response to the uprising became apparent, he began to use his position to secretly give support to civil opposition activists targeted by the regime. He left office in July 2013 after suspicion toward him by the regime made his work untenable; he currently lives in Washington and is seeking political asylum.
“From the start of his administration,” Barabandi told me, “Obama reached out to Assad and tried to build ties. When the revolution started, the White House continued to push for Bashar to become a ‘reformer,’ and to make peace with Israel. Syria was America’s best option among the Arab Spring cases, even though it was deemed as far less important than Egypt, for example.” Obama’s message at this stage was clear: He did not want to take Assad out, and America no longer had an appetite for regime change. As Samantha Power asserted in 2006, “The arc of humanitarian intervention has already been killed by Iraq for at least a generation.”
Even though Obama did not necessarily conceive of his stance as permission for Assad to commit mass atrocities, Assad interpreted them as carte blanche. Following his decision in March 2011, Assad gave his first public speech in parliament following the uprising, describing the protest movement as a “conspiracy” that needed to be “buried,” and declaring that every element of society needed to be marshaled toward that end, with no room for compromise. His policy ultimately fused authoritarianism with war, expanding his regular tactics of suppression—mandated under an “emergency law” in place since the Baath coup in 1963, but replaced in 2011 after the crisis began—to the level of mass violence and destruction.
Obama’s background policy orientation was commitment to ending an era of American intervention. (To quote Emma Sky, the British academic who advised the U.S. military in Iraq, Obama’s focus regarding Iraq “was domestic … he was never focused on Iraq per se, he was focused on ending the war.”) Especially given that commitment, Assad understood the president’s position as a mandate of impunity. The actions Assad took based on the premise of his fundamental security in power were finally vindicated by the lack of measures Obama took in reply to them.
When Obama said in August 2011 that Assad should step down—against the wishes, says Barabandi, of Turkey, who urged a more cautious approach at the time—regional allies took this as a cue to open channels of intervention. “When the Americans didn’t do much,” said Barabandi, “each party started to try and take the lead.” These interested parties—the Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—supported particular groups and militias according to short-term, shifting calculations of influence, with a background expectation that America would ultimately organize Assad’s downfall. Fundamentally offset by his desire to get closer to Iran, however, Obama’s intermittent support for opposition forces only contributed to local, indecisive victories—and crucially sought to prevent sending weaponry that would decisively shift the tide against Assad.
“I would describe Obama’s stance on the war as ‘defensive,’” Barabandi said. “He invoked the need for help from partners, but with limits. The effect was to prolong the war without an end goal, and to transform the revolution, through increased outside influence, in a more Islamist direction.” That transformation ultimately served Assad well, undermining the original character and aims of the uprising, which had a much greater chance of threatening his legitimacy than disparate and increasingly extremist armed groups. Authors Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write that Assad, drawing on a “ruling dynasty of Syria” tradition of using terrorism as “a nuisance that was easily repurposed into an opportunity,” sought to “lure [the West] into a counterterrorism-based entente cordiale with his regime.”
“The chemical weapons situation in 2013 was a critical turning point,” Barabandi continued. “At that time, the regime and Russia were open to any offer from the United States. They could have effectively demanded the release of political prisoners, the cessation of the mass bombardment of Syrian cities, or enforced the start of a political process to resolve the conflict. With America escalating its rhetoric, Russia and Iran made it clear they were ready to distance themselves from Assad. U.S. forces were primed. I told [Secretary of State John] Kerry at a public event in D.C. that he was making a monstrously selfish decision by limiting their focus to chemical weapons. That Obama didn’t even see this as an opportunity to at least limit the carnage and suffering in Syria indicates his priorities clearly.”
When Wolf Blitzer asked Obama on CNN whether this was Assad’s “last chance,” Obama did not respond affirmatively, but defended the nobility of eliminating chemical weapons as a goal: “It is important that Assad understands that the chemical weapons ban is one that the entire civilized world, just about, respects and observes.” (Assad has used chemical weapons many times since the disarmament deal in September 2013.)
The risible 2014 Train and Equip Program—which took a reported $500 million to produce a handful of anti-ISIS fighters—was, according to Barabandi, “designed to fail.” Obama used that failure as proof that his arguments against the opposition’s potential capacity and efficacy were valid all along—and by extension, that forms of more robust intervention, including options mainly aimed at preventing mass atrocity and displacement, were bound to fail. Even when Obama tried something, it was not the limitations of the program—mainly the fact that its goal was confined to anti-ISIS missions in line with short-term American goals rather than the long-term goals of Syrian fighters—but the basic unworthiness of the opposition that led to its failure.
Ayman Abdel Nour was an early critic of Assad, and continues to be involved in advocacy in Washington on behalf of the opposition. I spoke to him just after the State Department ministerial on religious freedom, which was attended by Nadia Murad as well as Assyrian advocates among many other representatives of religious persecution. “Obama and his administration was worse than anyone can imagine,” he told me. “The Syrian regime put Robert Malley in their pockets. It was very difficult for the Syrian opposition to secure meetings with top officials. They were not listening. They sold the Syrian case in order to win the Iranian case.” Dima Moussa, vice president of the Syrian National Council, echoed this view. “To be able to get this nuclear deal,” she told me, “Obama had to keep Iran happy and satisfied, which meant turning a blind eye to all the violations and crimes committed by the Assad regime in Syria and against the Syrian people. This was a trade of basic values and the lives of innocent Syrians for illusory benefits.”
Abdel Nour contrasted the advocacy of the Syrian opposition with the professional, state-led diplomatic approaches—backed by militaries attached to territory—of Iran and Syria. “They can deliver something tangible; the Syrian revolution cannot. Ultimately even the ‘Syrian opposition’ became comprised of representatives of other states pursuing their own interests, and not those of the Syrian people.” Barabandi also lamented this loss of agency: “We no longer see many people that represent Syria as Syria. Too many of those who negotiate on behalf of Syria—whether at the U.N. or in the U.S.—are controlled by their funders, and Syrians themselves are mainly waiting to see which foreign party will come to dominate the others.”
As for Trump, Barabandi shares Abdulhamid’s concerns regarding the dominance of short-term thinking: “He is a dangerous person, willing to make any deal just to create differentiation from Obama. He leaves us with a big question mark, even though his team—who are not real decision-makers—are better than Obama’s.” Abdel Nour was optimistic about Trump, and is currently working on legislation that seeks to advance sanctions against members of the Assad regime. A 2016 version of the legislation, named the Caesar act after a Syrian who documented Assad’s crimes in photographs, would have required Obama to report to Congress on the “potential effectiveness of and requirements for” a no-fly zone and safe zones.
In November 2015, Obama administration officials emphasized that any recognition of an ISIS genocide would be for the purposes of “historical memory” and “accountability down the road.” The administration was also unsure as to whether ISIS attacks on Christians met “the high bar set out in the genocide treaty,” with no reference to pre-ISIS persecution of the group.
It was only in March 2016, 19 months after ISIS committed genocide, that the administration issued recognition, after Congress passed the relevant resolution unanimously. But Obama administration officials immediately made it clear that the recognition would not “trigger something new”—in other words, would have no effect on policy or action—while asserting that their “willingness to step in and prevent acts of genocide” had already been “proven.” They also hoped that recognition “could galvanize” an anti-ISIS effort from other states, as if the American “finding” of genocide—which merely affirmed nakedly observable facts and analysis compiled by thousands of observers worldwide—was more significant than America wielding unparalleled material power to combat genocide. Using the language of genocide to signal moral seriousness became a means to justify and absolve inaction in response to it.
The U.S. declaration of genocide underscored ISIS crimes at the expense of a full understanding of the groups victimized by them. ISIS sought to commit genocide against Shia Muslims, who were not listed as a targeted group in the original House resolution, although Kerry described them as such in his declaration. (They were added to the list of ethnic and religious minorities in a Senate resolution that July.) But they are the majority in Iraq, and faced no existential threat as Yazidis did. Turkmen were listed in the designation even though (Sunni) members of that group also fought within ISIS. Kurds, another group who fought both within and against ISIS, were listed as a genocidally targeted minority in a preceding House concurrent resolution, but removed in the March declaration. Sunni suffering was absent in the original resolution text. But in his accompanying comments, Kerry said: “Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, directed at [the recognized groups] and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.” Mandaeans, who were so ruthlessly targeted by extremists and gangsters after 2003 that their numbers in Iraq had dropped by around 80% by 2007, barely survived the new Iraq long enough to be targeted by ISIS, but were acknowledged as a target of the group in the resolution.
The resolutions state that ISIS “and associated extremists” committed genocide, with no elaboration to confirm that groups earlier active in Iraq were also committing genocide. The distinctions here—both in terms of perpetrator and victim—have much to do with loyalty, and relation to, the Iraqi state in its myriad components, apart from traditional categories of race murder. America’s genocide designation was an awkward fit onto the parts of Iraq because the internal logic of the new Iraqi state—whereby violence is generated through the state and against the state by actors working within the state but not in favor of its monopoly on violence—evades a satisfying external frame. The alien singularity of ISIS became a scapegoat for the congenitally genocidal post-2003 Iraq, as well as a means for the Obama administration to make Assad’s actions look comparatively legitimate, further justifying inaction against the regime.
In the contemporary Middle East, under America’s increasingly remote watch, genocide has ceased to be an exceptional and extreme act and has been woven into the fabric of ordinary political conduct. That ISIS became a territorial phenomenon allowed the United States to frame itself as being “at war” with the group. But we are in an era, as David Rieff writes, “when most conflicts are within states, and have for their goal less the defeat of an adversary’s forces on the battlefield than either the extermination or expulsion of populations.” ISIS was fertilized within a new state purging itself of its old structures and personnel. In the conditions of the American occupation, Sunni leaders banished from the Baath Iraqi state and unable to envisage a way back, responded by creating a parallel state to get back into power. Extermination and expulsion was central to that project: ISIS used notions of population and territory in order to progress from terrorism to an attempt to build a center of power. In a form of Islamic rule both atavistic and contemporarily sophisticated, and its manifestation in a “caliphate,” ISIS state-planners devised an ideology and method that severed outsiders and enemies from the beginning, and sought to capitalize on the sectarian context of Iraq and the assault on Syria’s Sunni population.
The model of ISIS borrowed much from the traditional nation-state, including a bureaucratized enforcement of in/out groups and the homogenization of identity and territory through genocide. But it was implacably hostile to the international system of nation-states, which meant it became a lightning rod for Western states to grandstand through politically correct discussions over whether the group was “truly Islamic” or what to call them, and context-devoid condemnations of their spectacular extremity that avoided the material and political realities that led to the group’s emergence and deeper concomitant responsibilities. Assad’s engine of mass atrocity is far more powerful than ISIS’. But his policies pursue a form of goals—the centralization of power, the pursuit of national security, anti-terrorism—that are shared by the system of nation-states. That system relies on establishing normative, mutually supporting international and interrelational standards, while maintaining, in Samantha Power’s words, a “consistently hypocritical … view of—and use of—sovereignty.” It is through this hypocritical view that America has allowed genocide to happen in Iraq and Syria.
Mardean Isaac is a writer and editor based in London. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he has written for publications including the Financial Times, Lapham’s Quarterly and New Lines magazine.