A congressional measure will soon require Secretary of State John Kerry to make a judgment on whether or not ISIS has been undertaking a campaign of genocide against Syrian Christians. Such a label carries important ethical, legal and political obligations, which is why the Obama Administration is right to take a cautious approach in applying these terms.
The issue was first raised in November 2015, when the Obama Administration considered weighing the ‘genocide’ label for a different group ISIS is also targeting: the Yazidi, an ancient population of between 500,000 and 700,000 followers who practice a religion incorporating elements of Christianity and Islam, Yahoo news reports.
In the case of the Yazidi, ISIS has made deliberate attempts to not only forcibly remove them from their lands, but also to exterminate them. ‘Genocide’ is an entirely appropriate label here.
But when it comes to other, larger religious minorities which have suffered repression at the hands of ISIS, opinions within the Administration are fiercely opposed on the issue. Some argue the kidnappings, killings, destruction of churches and other acts of violence toward Christians are enough to label ISIS' actions as a campaign of genocide, while others see brutal, if not more slightly complicated relations between ISIS and Christians living in territories controlled by the group.
ISIS’ sickening attacks against Christians are well-known and have been publicized on the Internet.
But the reality of ISIS’ ‘jihad’ means the group cannot necessarily treat Christian ‘subjects’ as indiscriminately as the group wishes it could. The group follows a rigid interpretation of Islamic law in which Christians living in ISIS territories are ‘dhimmis’ who have to pay the ‘jizya’ tax which is not imposed upon Muslims.
When ISIS took the city of Raqqa, Syria as its headquarters in 2014, it gave Christians three options: pay the jizya tax, convert to Islam, or die. There’s no question as to the brutality, repression and totalitarianism implicit in this threat, but it falls short of describing genocide.
The other aspect of declaring ISIS’ campaign of atrocities a genocide is that using the term requires the Administration meet the standards of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. As of November, the State Department felt it was not legally prepared to make this case, according to the Fiscal Times.
A successful argument that the ISIS attacks constitute genocide would legally bind the U.S. to act more directly to assist the victims of genocide, as Genocide Watch notes. But in this case, ‘assisting the victims of genocide’ also means broadening the campaign against ISIS and establishing a greater U.S. presence in Syria and Iraq.
This all sounds agreeable to many people, but then there are the very thorny issues of how Russia and Bashar al-Assad may react to (and perhaps try to undermine) expanded U.S. presence in the region, as well as the bigger question: How do we do it?
It is clear the current status quo cannot hold, especially for those who have been living in ISIS-controlled territories since 2014. The solution requires the large powers present in the region -- the U.S., Russia, and Turkey -- to work together at a critical time to defeat ISIS and to seize territory from the group. Designating the group’s attacks against religious minorities as genocide and committing the U.S. to act on a policy with this explicitly in mind puts the U.S. in a policy straitjacket.
However, with every moment of delay in providing other forms of assistance and forming a policy which the great powers in the region can agree to, genocide becomes more likely and a declaration of genocide will become more necessary.