The US Accuses ISIS of Genocide: Will Obama Step Up the War Effort?
Policy + Politics

The US Accuses ISIS of Genocide: Will Obama Step Up the War Effort?

REUTERS/Stringer Iraq

The Obama administration on Thursday bowed to pressure from Congress and declared ISIS terrorist forces in Syria and Iraq guilty of genocide for their wonton killings and enslavement of Christians, Yezidis, Shia Turks and other ethnic groups caught up in the horrific Middle East conflict.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry made the declaration today in remarks at the State Department. The speech came on the heels of a 383-to-0 vote in the House on Monday in which Republicans and Democrats alike urged the administration and other governments to call ISIS atrocities “by their right names: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

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The House resolution outlined ISIS atrocities against Christians and other groups -- including mass murder, crucifixions, beheadings, rape and torture -- and set a deadline of today for the administration to respond. After indications that the State Department might drag its feet, Kerry made the announcement on time.

“In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims,” Kerry said, using a more derogatory name for ISIS. “Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions – in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”

“The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia,” he added. “This is the message it conveys to children under its control. Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology.”

This is only the second time the U.S. government has declared genocide during an ongoing conflict overseas. The administration of former President George W. Bush declared that genocide was taking place in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004. And while it carries with it long-term legal and criminal justice implications under international law, Kerry’s declaration could have a more immediate impact on the conduct of the war.

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It has been a year and a half since President Obama announced that the U.S. would lead allied forces in air strikes and other tactics to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ISIS forces that had swept across wide swaths of Iraq and Syria in a bid to impose a new Islamic caliphate. And while the U.S. and other allied forces, Kurdish fighters, the Iraqi army and others have succeeded in pushing ISIS out of roughly a quarter of that territory since then, military experts say it may be years before the enemy is defeated.

Many lawmakers and human rights groups enraged by the ISIS carnage believe the genocide declaration may stiffen Obama’s resolve and possibly lead to stepped up drone and jet fighter airstrikes and more aggressive action on the ground to assist the Kurds, Iraqis, moderate Syrian rebels and others in their fighting against ISIS.

“Secretary Kerry is finally making the right call,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ed Royce (R-CA) said in a statement released following Kerry’s announcement. Royce said that Obama “should step up and lay out the broad, overarching plan that’s needed to actually defeat and destroy ISIS.”

“This administration’s long pattern of paralysis and ineffectiveness in combating these radical Islamist terrorists is unacceptable,” Royce added.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), a co-sponsor of the House resolution, said a genocide designation “will raise international consciousness and compel the international community of responsible nations to act.” Fortenberry represents the largest Yazidi community in the United States, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) told reporters this week that the U.S. must step up its airstrikes against ISIS – including strategic targets such as convoys – if it hopes to prevail over the enemy. Right now, those airstrikes are limited by rules of engagement, he said.

However, some U.S. officials have said that Kerry’s genocide findings would not oblige the administration to undertake additional actions against ISIS militants, according to the Associated Press. 

Gordon Adams, a defense analyst and professor emeritus at American University, said in an interview Thursday that “I don’t think it increases pressure on the military side.”

“The declaration doesn’t say, okay, now we have to step in and do this,” Adams said. “That’s a policy choice. No declaration of genocide binds you to military action, to my knowledge. It continues to portray ISIS as the nasty, little, you-know-whats that they are, but I don’t know that it puts more pressure on the administration.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert with the Brookings Institution, generally agrees with Adams.

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“My take is that it doesn’t matter much,” he said in an email today. “People are fairly inured to tragedy in Syria and tragedy by ISIS.  And this is a technical determination more than anything.”

“What could matter more would be evidence of specific large-scale killings, on a much greater scale than we previously knew about,” he added. “But I don’t think we have firsthand information to that effect.”

Kerry’s declaration comes amid reports that while ISIS remains a potent, destructive force, it has lost at least 22 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria during the past 15 months. According to a new study by HIS Jane’s 360, the airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, and more recently by Russian jet fighters, have begun to push back ISIS.

IHS estimated that ISIS lost roughly 14 percent of the territory under its control in 2015 and eight percent more in the first three months of this year. But Adams and other analysts say it is far too soon to say the tide is turning.

“My sense of it on the military side is that the expansion of ISIS has stopped, but the roll back of ISIS has only just begun,” Adams said. “The real battle with ISIS has only just begun.”