SINUNI, Iraq — Sinuni, an overwhelmingly Yazidi town just miles from the Syrian border, is a traumatized town. With the defeat of the Islamic State, it has largely rebuilt. Crowds gather in front of government offices to apply for compensation grants to help fund their rebuilding. Children walk alone to school, albeit overcrowding and a lack of teachers mean they must attend only one of three shifts, and so suffer an abbreviated day. A shiny new police station built by the United Nations Development Programme sits on a hill overlooking the city center and will soon begin operation.
In many ways, the trauma remains. Villagers surrounding Sinuni must contend with frequent Turkish airstrikes on and around their villages and farms. Traveling at night near the Syrian border can be an invitation to death as Turkish drones might strike cars and convoys. The Turks say they are fighting Kurdish terrorists, but do not in practice differentiate between Kurdish farmers and Kurdistan Workers Party fighters.
Compounding the trauma is the legacy of displacement and ISIS sexual violence. Local nongovernment organizations are working to teach children how to be children again. Recently returned refugees and displaced children giggle as they play “Whisper down the lane” in Kurdish. Preschool children dance to “baby shark” in Arabic, as their mothers look on. In the offices of one local organization, myself and a delegation of Washington think-tankers learning about United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees programs met some Yazidi survivors of ISIS violence and local activists coordinating their rescue and return. One sat largely silent throughout the meeting, but an older girl spoke of how she had been contacted in a refugee camp and brought home. She trusted the contact because she had recognized her as a classmate from better days, before the rise of ISIS.
That rescue activist’s little sister was 13 years old when ISIS abducted her. The day we met, a smuggler contacted the activists and provided proof of life — a photo, in fully conservative Islamic burqa but with eyes showing — and the little sister’s own baby, born of ISIS rape. The negotiations will now begin with the girl, who may have been brainwashed by her ISIS captors, and the local community. Yazidis are traditionally conservative, and many rape and slavery victims worry about whether they can be accepted and reintegrate upon their return.
However, what is especially damning is where, two years after the defeat of ISIS and months after the death of ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, many of the nearly 3,000 kidnapped Yazidi girls and women remain. While even the State Department and U.S. diplomats in Baghdad and Erbil appear, from within the isolation of their t-wall and razor-wire surrounded compounds, to have written off the fate of the survival of the missing Yazidis as wishful thinking, locals not only believe their relatives are alive, but in many cases, smugglers have provided recent photos and even voicemails from them and seek to begin negotiations for their return. Demands range from a couple thousand dollars to more than $70,000.
Here’s the problem: As ISIS territorial control has receded, many of the kidnapped Yazidis and Yazidi sex slaves now reside in territory controlled by Turkey inside Syria and some reportedly inside Turkey itself.
In January 2018, Turkey invaded Syria’s largely Kurdish Afrin district and began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, digging up graveyards and forcing Kurdish residents from their houses, farms, and apartments. It forced women to veil. Its Syrian proxies, some of whose militiamen had previously worked for al Qaeda and ISIS, have imposed a local social order not so different from that imposed by ISIS in their short rule. The same pattern now repeats in the towns and cities of northeastern Syria now subject to the Turkish invasion.
That Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an Islamist state is a matter of fact. While Turkey seeks increased international aid to handle Syrian refugees who now reside inside Turkey, the Erdogan regime favors Sunni Arab refugees and has systemically refused to distribute aid and assistance to their Yazidi counterparts. Now, it appears the Turkish influence might be more malign as the proxies it supports continue to enslave Yazidi girls while both perpetuate both the practices ISIS supported and the trauma its Yazidi victims endured.
It is time for Turkey’s partisans and lobbyists in Washington and more broadly across the international community to cease talking about Turkey as a historic ally or a NATO member and unify in a simple call: Erdogan and the forces under his control must release immediately all Yazidi girls and women who remain in slavery or in unwilling child marriages in Turkey or Turkish-controlled territory.
If the White House is serious about religious freedom, the return of 3,000 Yazidis girls and women from de facto Turkish enslavement should be top priority. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should instruct both the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and the U.S. consul-general in Erbil to investigate the reports of Yazidi survival rather than figuratively shrugging their shoulders. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees might exercise their oversight to press the CIA on their knowledge and understanding of continuing post-ISIS sex and human trafficking.
Even against the partisan vitriol of Washington and impeachment, surely this is one issue on which both Democrats and Republicans can agree.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.