What jihadists are doing in Syria and Iraq while Gaza grabs the headlines


An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014, by al-Furqan Media allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State  jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a.k.a Caliph Ibrahim, adressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul.  (AFP PHOTO/HO/AL-FURQAN MEDIA)

The world is transfixed by the conflict in Gaza, as the death tolls of both Palestinians and Israelis killed in the fighting continue to rise. It has animated global public opinion and sparked protests in myriad far-flung cities.

But as the rockets and bombs fall, a deadlier war next door rolls on. The Syrian civil war has claimed 170,000 lives in three years; this past weekend's death toll in Syria was greater than what took place in Gaza. By some accounts, the past week may have been the deadliest in the conflict's grim history. Meanwhile, the extremist insurgents of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), have continued their ravages over a swath of territory stretching from eastern Syria to the environs of Baghdad, Iraq's capital; the spike in violence in Iraq has led to more than 5,500 civilian deaths in the first six months of this year.

Over the weekend, Islamic State militants battled forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over a gas field in central Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 700 people have died in just two days of fighting, including employees working at the facility.

Hundreds of miles away in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, activists and observers report a ferocious campaign against religious minorities waged by the Islamic State, which earlier declared the establishment of a "caliphate" in the lands it controls. The jihadists, who espouse a puritanical, intolerant brand of Sunni Islam, have instituted strict sharia law. According to the Associated Press, the militants have even forced shopkeepers in Mosul to place veils over the mannequins in their storefront windows.

Their other activities are far less amusing. On Thursday, a UN official told the BBC that the Islamic State had issued a fatwa, ordering female circumcision for all girls and women between the ages of 11 and 46. But according to at least one journalist, who spoke with residents in Mosul, that report may be false.

Even then, the Islamic State has moved rapidly away from earlier proclamations encouraging coexistence. They ordered all Christians to either convert or leave towns and cities where the Islamic State holds sway by July 19. Otherwise, they would face execution. That edict triggered a sad exodus of Christian minorities in Iraq's embattled Nineveh plains, once the heartland for some of the world's most ancient Christian communities. The militants have defiled historic tombs, seized monasteries, kidnapped nuns and killed other minorities.

In total, more than 600,000 Iraqis were driven from their homes in June alone, a direct result of the Islamic State's dramatic advance through the country. (See the map below to get a sense of how Iraq's many upheavals have shaken its population since the 2003 U.S. invasion.)

Two Million Iraq Displacement v4
Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee.

A report from Human Rights Watch published last week documented recent murders, abductions and attacks suffered by religious and ethnic minorities in and around Mosul:

Since capturing Mosul on June 10, 2014, the armed Sunni extremist group has seized at least 200 Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis, killed at least 11 of them, and ordered all Christians to convert to Islam, pay “tribute” money, or leave Mosul by July 19.

On June 29, ISIS abducted two nuns and three Christian orphans, whom it held for 15 days. Around that same time, ISIS issued orders barring Yazidi and Christian employees, as well as ethnic Kurds, from returning to their government jobs in Mosul, two regional government officials and a priest told Human Rights Watch.

Virtually all Turkmen and Shabaks – tens of thousands of families – have fled their communities near Mosul as a result of ISIS raids, in which the fighters seize local men and pillage homes and places of worship, residents of those villages said. Mosul’s few remaining Christian families also have fled, local priests said.

On Sunday in Baghdad, the country's foremost Christian cleric, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, lamented in a special sermon the fate of his flock. "How in the 21st century could people be forced from their houses just because they are Christian, or Shi'ite or Sunni or Yazidi?" he asked. "Christian families have been expelled from their houses and their valuables were stolen and ...their houses and property expropriated in the name of the Islamic State."

He went on to make a chilling, grand historic proclamation: "This has never happened in Christian or Islamic history. Even Genghis Khan or Hulagu didn't do this," he said. Hulagu Khan was the Mongol warlord whose horde swept through Mosul en route to sacking Baghdad in 1258, a bloody slaughter that snuffed out the proud Abbasid caliphate that had flourished there since the 8th century. Baghdad would take hundreds of years to reemerge as a political center. Sako may be indulging in hyperbole, but he echoes the sense of fear and uncertainty now gripping the region.

In the face of these traumas, some construe the heated attention on casualties in Gaza to reflect a kind of anti-Israeli bias. That's a bit much: the thorny Israeli-Palestinian crisis is at the heart of regional geopolitics and polarizes the conversation in ways the upheavals further east just don't. No one, for example, is trying to make excuses for the loss of civilian life in Iraq or Syria. But many more should be aware of how alarming the situation has grown.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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