The letter released on Aug. 7 from Louis Raphael I Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and the World, could not have been any plainer: Christians and other minority religious and ethnic communities now in flight across the plains of Nineveh are barely escaping a “real genocide.”
The rapid collapse of Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city, was a surprise to many who had perceived the battle-hardened Kurdish Peshmerga forces as a possible bulwark against the ISIS militants sweeping across northern Iraq. But refugees reported that Kurdish troops simply abandoned Qaraqosh as ISIS approached. ISIS militants now threaten the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil and have apparently seized control of a dam in northern Iraq that provides both water and electricity to Baghdad.
According to the patriarch, a mortar attack on most of the remaining Christian villages of Nineveh during the night of Aug. 6 sent more than 100,000 into a desperate flight with “nothing but the clothes on their backs.” Sako said the people were on a real via crucis “walking through Iraq’s searing summer heat” in a desperate effort to escape the ISIS militants, “the sick, the elderly, infants and pregnant women among them.
“They need water, food, shelter,” he said. “We appeal with sadness and pain to the conscience of all, and all people of good will and the United Nations and the European Union, to save these innocent persons from death,” he said. “We hope it is not too late!” Patriarch Sako wrote Iraq’s central government is “incapable of enforcing law and order in this part of the country” and worried that Iraqi Kurds will not be able to stand against “the fierce advance of the jihadists.”
He called for international support and “a professional, well equipped army” to protect Iraq Christians and other citizens from ISIS attacks.
In a letter to Pope Francis just the day before, Sako demanded an urgent international intervention, arguing mere condemnations and demonstrations against ISIS violence were no longer enough “because we are before a crisis of our very existence, confronting the fact that ‘we will be or we will not be.’”
But will the international community respond?
Writing to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, “on behalf of the thousands of displaced Christians of Iraq—the children, women and elderly—and on behalf of those who have already paid with their lives and the blood of their necks for their faith,” His Holiness Mar Dinkha Khanania, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, implored the United Nations “to take concrete and statutory action…against the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity.
“I implore,” he wrote, “the Security Council to take a positive vote in favor of these persecuted Christians who are suffering a new and modern genocide. The lives of this persecuted and oppressed people depend upon the moral decisions of the United Nations in favor of protecting human life and the right of each and every person to Worship God and follow his/her conscience.”
According the AP and AFP reports, the situation has become so dire that the Obama administration is considering immediate U.S. air strikes against ISIS targets and humanitarian air drops to help the fleeing Christians and other besieged religious minorities.
Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert and an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University expects events to develop rapidly this week in response to the crisis. He said lives are in imminent peril, especially among the Yazidis, a tiny Iraqi minority representing an ancient religion that is linked to Zoroastrianism, who now face an “existential threat.” Thousands of Yazidis have fled into the Sinjar mountains without food or water, where Sullivan said young children are already dying of thirst.
Commenting on the crisis, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters today that the situation in northern Iraq “is nearing a humanitarian catastrophe," adding that the administration was “gravely concerned” for the health and safety of the communities threatened by ISIS. Earnest stopped short of announcing any U.S. military action, and by the afternoon of Aug. 7, no plan had apparently emerged from high-level discussions, but Earnest reminded reporters that President Obama had launched an air war in 2011 against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi to prevent a threatened bloodbath in Bengazi.
"There are times where the president has taken military action, sometimes in consultation with our allies, to protect innocent, vulnerable civilian populations from slaughter or other dire humanitarian situations," Earnest said.
Like Iraq’s tiny Yazadi community, Sullivan believes Iraqi Christians are now directly threatened in a manner which constitutes genocide under international law. All the same he doubted that the United States has the temper or treasure left to return ground troops to Iraq in any emergency effort to restore order. Indeed, Josh Earnest reiterated a White House position that "there are no [U.S.] military solutions to the very difficult problems that exist in Iraq.” He told reporters, "The failure of Iraq's political situation early on is what led to this situation."
But in addition to humanitarian drops Sullivan suggests Europe and the United States can help by “opening up doors” and extending asylum to the threatened communities. Of course that presupposes some way to extract large numbers of people out of harm’s way and quickly.
Sullivan said that the crisis requires "nuance and alacrity," or he expects conditions to deteriorate into something far worse than we've already seen. Inaction, he explained, is an invitation to ISIS to accelerate and expand their campaign of conquest. Unless the "world wakes up," ISIS is bound to expland from a regional to a global threat. Sullivan said the ISIS militants—“I won’t call them ‘Islamic State,’ because there is nothing remotely close to Islamic in their behavior”—threaten just about every religious community in Iraq, not just the nation’s beleaguered Christians, and also endanger any moderate Sunnis who stand in their way. Sullivan cautioned against misunderstanding the conflict in Iraq as primarily religious. “Don’t confuse the behavior of these sociopaths with the 99.9 percent of all other Muslims around the world,” he said. “This is a barbarism cloaked in a religion.”
Sullivan added, “The last thing this world needs is a major religious conflict. That is what ISIS is hoping to spark; we cannot allow this to happen.
“We need religious cooperation now, not antagonism.” He credits Pope Francis for setting an example for the world to emulate in this regard. "Pope Francis is trying to mend fences even in this horrible environment," Sullivan added.
Trying to make sense of the brutality and indifference of the ISIS foot soldiers is difficult, Sullivan allowed, but he attributes it to partly to “brain washing” and partly to a vast trauma experienced by a generation in Iraq and Syria who have come of age knowing nothing but violence. He suggests the United States must take a share of the responsibility for creating the region’s trauma. The lesson? “If you are going to intervene [in another country], make sure you are not going to cause this kind of psychosis,” he said.