Escaping ISIS, the new documentary from PBS’s Frontline, is gut-wrenching in its images of slavery and sexual violence in the ISIS-occupied territories of Syria and Iraq. The story pieced together by British producer and director Edward Watts, focuses on the plight of the dwindling and oft-misunderstood Yazidi minority. Emerging into the public eye last summer during their exodus from ISIS fighters on Mount Sinjar in a remote part of Northern Iraq, the appearance of US and UK Special Forces to shepherd the Yazidi refugees to Kurdish territory marked the first salvo of Western confrontation with the Islamic State and the beginning of a new struggle for Yazidi survival. Click here for a link to the video from PBS.
Who are the Yazidis?
Yazidi faith intertwines elements of the Abrahamic religions with Persian mysticism and local tradition. With uncertain origins- although commonly thought to have begun in Kurdistan in the 12th century- and introverted communal practices, the Yazidis have long drawn undesirable attention from outsiders that have viewed them as devil worshippers and polytheists. Neither of these accusations are true. The Yazidis share a beautiful oral tradition that incorporates Christian and Muslim practices with the belief of transmigration and the indirect worship of one supreme god and his angels. Their faith is a mosaic of the ancient traditions of the region, that doesn’t proselytize, and seeks gradual enlightenment and purification through peaceful worship. Practicing as a minority in a chaotic region, there are estimated to be anywhere between 70,000 and 500,000 adherents remaining in the world.
The documentary picks up some months after Western and Kurdish operations on Mount Sinjar in August 2014. It is the aftermath of the ISIS onslaught and some refugees have been saved, many slaughtered, and many women sold into slavery to act as concubines to ISIS fighters. ISIS does nothing to hide the fate of those who challenge their perverted ideology and Escaping ISIS pulls no punches in showing or detailing the gruesomeness- mass execution, stoning, and sexual violence are common. Escaping ISIS, as its name implies, tells the stories of those who have escaped ISIS captivity and of one Yazidi lawyer, Khalil al-Dakhi’s network to rescue others.
Armed with cellphones, a database of the thousands missing and believed captured, and crude Google maps, al-Dakhi and his underground network are nothing short of heroic in their forays into ISIS territory. While Escaping ISIS shocks the soul of any viewer with its depiction of violence, it strikes a resilient tone that resonates with a slither of hope.
Where is the United States?
As an American watching Escaping ISIS, there is no escaping a sinking sense of culpability for the bedlam- regardless of how you apportion the blame across administrations. The cavernous wound torn into the Middle East with the deposing of Saddam Hussein fundamentally shifted the balance of power in a region that was fragile from its Sykes-Picot origins. The great author and former-Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks studiously documented the Fiasco that was the administration of post-Baathist Iraq and famously warned that the real war for Iraq had yet to be fought. Sadly, he was right and the U.S., justifiably or not, will likely play a marginal role.
Ignoring domestic political considerations, two key historical lessons color Obama administration policy against ISIS: (1) the arms supplied to un-vetted rebel groups in Afghanistan in the 1980s were used to kill Americans in the 2000s and (2) Western ground troops in the Middle East (Lebanon 1983, Iraq 2003) can’t pacify a population they don’t understand and can’t communicate with- to say nothing of the cost in lives and dollars. The Obama administration, with the best intentions, was prepared to strike a fresh path of soft power and diplomacy rather than directly manage the fallout of the Arab spring and the rebuilding of Iraq. Unfortunately, what has manifested, rather than the likely worst-case scenario of local sectarian war, is a regional and apocalyptic menace seeking to lay national foundations for international terror.
Belated attempts by the Obama administration to organize and arm a rebel force for Syria have resulted in comically bad early performance- with less than 100 of the 5000 desired fighters trained. While airstrikes have stemmed advance in some areas and eliminated some influential leaders, ISIS continues to advance in Syria and Iraq and acquire ‘emirates’ in Africa and the Caucasus.
This year, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff published a manifesto advocating negotiation with terrorists. While I admittedly haven’t read it, and it is a better strategy for the Taliban than for ISIS (the latter with whom I wouldn't advocate it now), I applaud any outside the box thinking on a path forward. In the mean time, I can only pray that U.S. intelligence services are providing financial and strategic resources to the likes of Khalil al-Dhaki and others that are willing to confront ISIS, not as proxies, but as pillars of reason and peace.
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