A few months ago, not many Americans, in fact Europeans as well, knew that a Yazidi sect in fact existed in northwest Iraq. Even in the Middle East itself, the Yazidis and their way of life have been an enigma, shrouded by mystery and mostly grasped through stereotypes and fictitious evidence. Yet in no time, the fate of the Yazidis became a rally cry for another US-led Iraq military campaign.
It was not a surprise that the small Iraqi minority found itself a target for fanatical Islamic State (IS) militants, who had reportedly carried out unspeakable crimes against Yazidis, driving them to Dohuk, Irbil and other northern Iraqi regions. According to UN and other groups, 40,000 Yazidi had been stranded on Mount Sinjar, awaiting imminent “genocide” if the US and other powers didn’t take action to save them.
The rest of the story was spun from that point on. The logic for intervention that preceded the latest US bombing campaign of IS targets, which started in mid-June, is similar to what took place in Libya over three years ago. Early 2011, imminent “genocide” awaiting Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi was the rally cry that mobilised western powers to a war that wrought wanton killings and destruction in Libya. Since NATO’s intervention in Libya, which killed and wounded tens of thousands, the country has fallen prey to an endless and ruthless fight involving numerous militias, armed, and financially and politically-backed by various regional and international powers. Libya is now ruled by two governments, two parliaments, and a thousand militia.
When US Special Forces arrived to the top of Mount Sinjar, they realized that the Yazidis had either been rescued by Kurdish militias, or were already living there. They found less than 5,000 Yazidis there, half of them refugees. The mountain is revered in local legend, as the final resting place of Noah’s ark. It was also the final resting place for the Yazidi genocide story. The finding hardly received much coverage in the media, which used the original claim to create fervour in anticipation for Western intervention in Iraq.
We all know how the first intervention worked out. Not that IS’ brutal tactics in eastern, northern and central Iraq should be tolerated. But a true act of genocide had already taken place in Iraq for nearly two decades, starting with the US war in 1990-91, a decade-long embargo and a most destructive war and occupation starting in 2003. Not once did a major newspaper editorial in the US bestow the term “genocide” on the killing and maiming of millions of Iraqis. In fact, the IS campaign is actually part of a larger Sunni rebellion in Iraq, in response to the US war and Shite-led government oppression over the course of years. That context is hardly relevant in the selective reporting on the current violence in Iraq.
It goes without saying, US policymakers care little for the Yazidis, for they don’t serve US interests in any way. However, experience has taught that such groups only become relevant in a specially tailored narrative, in a specific point in time, to be exploited for political and strategic objectives. They will cease to exist the moment the objective is met. Consider for example, the fact that IS has been committing horrific war crimes in western and northern Syria for years, as did forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and militants belonging to the various opposition groups there. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and wounded. Various minority groups there faced and continue to face genocide. Yet, somehow, the horrifying bloodshed there was not only tolerated, but in fact encouraged.
For over three years, little effort was put forward to find or impose a fair political solution to the Syria civil war. The Syrians were killing each other and thousands of foreigners, thanks to a purposely porous Turkish borders were allowed to join in, in a perpetual “Guernica” that, with time, grew to become another Middle Eastern status quo.
Weren’t the massacres of Aleppo in fact genocide? The siege of Yarmouk? The wiping out of entire villages, the beheading and dismembering of people for belonging to the wrong sect or religion?
Even if they were, it definitely was not the kind of genocide that would propel action, specifically western-led action. In recent days, as it was becoming clear that the US was up to its old interventionist games, countries were being lined up to fight IS. US Secretary of State John Kerry was shuttling the globe once more, from US to Europe, to Turkey, to Iraq to Saudi Arabia, and still going. “We believe we can take on ISIL (previous name for IS) in the current coalition that we have,” he said. But why now?
In his speech on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Obama declared war on IS. Obama’s tangled foreign policy agenda became even more confused in his 13-minute speech from the White House. He promised to “hunt down” IS fighters “whenever they are” until the US ultimately destroys the group, as supposedly, it has down with al-Qaeda. IS, of course, is a splinter al-Qaeda group, which began as an idea, and thanks to the US global “war on terror”, has morphed into an army of many branches. The US never destroyed al-Qaeda; but it inadvertently allowed the creation of IS.
“That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” Obama said. Of course, he needed to say that, as his Republican rivals have accused him of lack of decisiveness and his presidency of being weak. His democratic party could possibly lose control over the Senate come the November elections. His fight against IS is meant to help rebrand the president as resolute and decisive, and perhaps create some distraction from economic woes at home.
That same media has also cleverly devalued and branded conflicts, and acts of genocide in ways consistent with US foreign policy agendas. While the Yazidis were purportedly stranded on mount Sinjar, Israel was carrying out a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Over 2,150 were killed, mostly civilians, hundreds of them children, and over 11,000 wounded, the vast majority of whom were civilians. Not an alleged 40,000 but a confirmed 520,000 thousand were on the run, and along with the rest of Gaza’s 1.8 million, were entrapped in an open-air prison with no escape. But that was not an act of genocide either, as far as the US-western governments and media were concerned. Worse, they actively defended, and, especially in the case of the US, UK, France and Italy, armed and funded the Israeli aggression.
Experience has taught us that not all “acts of genocide” are created equal: Some are fabricated, and others are exaggerated. Some are useful to start wars, and others, no matter how atrocious, are not worth mentioning. Some acts of genocide are branded as wars to liberate, free and democratize. Other acts of genocide are to be encouraged, defended and financed.
But as far as the US involvement in the Middle East is concerned, the only real genocide is the one that serves the interests of the west, by offering an opportunity for military intervention, followed by political and strategic meddling to re-arrange the region.
The US experience in Iraq also taught us that its effort will only succeed in exacerbating an already difficult situation, yielding yet more disenfranchised groups, political despair and greater violence.
Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People’s History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).