Iraq/Syria Genocide Info Guide

How to Use This Guide

Iraq and Syria represent a new focus region for STAND Canada for 2015–16. This short guide has been designed as a ‘handbook’ on STAND’s newest and most important focus region for the organization’s university volunteers. It provides a background and overview, Frequently Asked Questions, links to additional resources, as well as STAND’s policy recommendations for the region. It is to be used as a reference and discussion launch point for our volunteers.

For STAND Canada’s official policy recommendation on Iraq/Syria leading up to the October 2015 federal election, please see this document.

This guide was written by Nabiha Chowdhury and Sho Shibata, Policy Researchers, and was revised by Katarina Todic, Policy Co-Director.
Back to the top

Background & Overview

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria), known by the acronyms ISIL, ISIS, or IS, finds its origins in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. ISIS grew out of the militant Islamist group, Jamaat al-Tahweed wa al-Jihad, formed in the 1990s by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In 2004 al Zarkawi’s group took on the new name of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Through mergers with other like-minded organizations, AQI became known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. Following the deaths of the group’s leaders in an American operation in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader. Al-Baghdadi is currently the leader of ISIS and is styled by his followers as Caliph.

ISI remained dormant until 2011, when it re-emerged following the American withdrawal from Iraq. In early 2014 ISI ended its affiliation with al-Qaeda, and became known as the Islamic State. Following its expansion into Syria in 2014, the group became known as ISIL or ISIS.

The group’s efforts center on the creation of an Islamic theocratic state, or caliphate, in the Middle East, which would act as a beacon for the global Muslim community. Its membership derives largely from the Sunni sect of Islam, and its religious zeal is reflected in its narrow interpretation of the the Qur’an and strict implementation of Sharia Law. Its principal ideological enemy is the West, whose ‘destruction’ it seeks, as well as Israel, given the West’s support of it and the history of sectarian violence between the Zionist movement and Muslims.

Canada has responded to the crisis in a number of ways, including providing humanitarian aid, supporting stabilization and development, resettling refugees, stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, cutting off ISIS’s funding, and “exposing ISIS,” that is, launching counter-propaganda. Most recently, on July 30, 2015, Canadian Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson – along with high-ranking officials from 20 other countries – attended an anti-ISIS Coalition Political Directors’ meeting that convened in Quebec City. This meeting produced a pledge of $7 million in humanitarian assistance from Canada, in addition to the $403 million that Ottawa has committed since 2012 to the crisis in Syria. More directly, Canada is contributing Operation IMPACT, providing air support and special forces advisors, to the multinational Middle East Stabilization Force (MESF).

The number of people affected by the rise of ISIS ranges in the hundreds of thousands to millions, and definitive figures cannot be ascertained given the internal chaos. The most reliable report for Iraq, put forth by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggests 15,000 dead and 30,000 injured in Iraq alone since January 2015.  A 2014 UNHCR report states that 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, while 7.6 million remain internally displaced. This is currently the world’s largest case of IDPs.

While the amount of territory it maintains remains confined to areas in Syria and Iraq, the presence of ISIS on the Internet speaks to its global influence. While their hard power, or material capacity, is quite clear, what is more ominous is their soft power – for instance, their appeal to young disaffected men. Countries with ISIS activity include Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, and Egypt. However, a great number of ‘foreign fighters,’ almost half of ISIS’s total forces, originate from Western European and North American countries.

ISIS has undoubtedly established itself globally by way of the Internet and presents a major threat to global security. CSIS director Michel Coulombe has revealed that of the 130 Canadians who travelled abroad to join in terrorist activities in 2014, only 80 have returned to Canada. According to The National Post, jihadists have motivated existing radicalized elements in Canada to perpetrate attacks on Canadian soil. However, in the wake of the attacks on Parliament Hill and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in October 2014, it is important that the Canadian people and their nominated representatives engage in a public debate on how Canada should respond threats and acts of terrorism at home and abroad.

Human rights violations abound and are committed daily against anyone ISIS deems an ideological or theological enemy. Approximately 3,500 Yazidis at risk of being killed, as are other ethnic and religious minority communities in ISIS-held territory. As many as six  mass graves have been found in ISIS-held territory to date. While no official statement has been issued by the Canadian government or any major international institution labelling the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS as  genocide, international scrutiny of ISIS’s crimes is mounting. If ISIS maintains its foothold, the situation will undoubtedly continue to deteriorate.

Back to the top

Frequently Asked Questions

What is ISIS and what are its goals?

ISIS is a terrorist organization, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that branched from al-Qaeda in Iraq and came to international attention in 2014. Its membership primarily consists of Sunni Muslims and jihadists from all over the world, including Western recruits. ISIS has established a theocratic state in Iraq and Syria, guided by a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings and the desire to establish the Islamic State, or caliphate, as a beacon for the global Muslim community. ISIS relies on violence and the control of Syria’s vital assets, including electricity and oil, to maintain power.

What is the Canadian Government doing about this situation?

On October 7, 2014, Canada joined the American-led Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Canadian Government initially made a six-month-long commitment to participate in air operations in the Middle East. In March 2015, the Canadian Government extended its role in the fight against ISIS for another 12 months, until March 2016. Although the coalition effort has helped to slow down ISIS’s territorial expansion, the organization’s global threat remains.

Canada has also provided humanitarian aid to Syria and Iraq. Since 2012, Canada has provided more than $400 million in aid – including food, shelter, and school materials – to Syria and Iraq. In addition, Ottawa has also pledged to help resettle 10,000 Syrian and 20,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of 2015.
Back to the top

What is the human toll in Syria and Iraq?

ISIS has taken advantage of the Syrian civil war (which began in 2011) and the problems faced by the Iraqi state in the wake of the Iraq War and has used these conditions to unleash systematic and widespread terror, including suicide attacks, systematic rape, forced marriages, sexual slavery, beheadings, and the mass murder of religious and ethnic minorities (including Christians and Yazidis). To date, more than 2 million Iraqis and 3 million Syrians have been displaced (although in the case of Syria that figure includes people displaced by the civil war before the rise of ISIS).

In addition to human suffering, the conflict has also severely disrupted the economies of

Iraq and Syria, which has in turn affected regional trade and the economies of the other countries of the Levant (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey).

Back to the top

Is ISIS’s power expanding?

ISIS obtains revenue from the illegal sale of oil from the oil fields in Iraq and eastern Syria, which it seized in 2014, as well as through the drug trade and the sale of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts on the black market. Before the fall of Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014, the total cash and assets of ISIS were estimated to be around $875 million. Since the fall of Mosul, ISIS’s assets are estimated to be around $2 billion. It is expected that the drop in international oil prices will lead to a loss of revenue for ISIS; however, it is unlikely that this will lead to a significant weakening of the Islamic State, either politically or militarily.

Although the United States had initially underestimated the threat and power of ISIS as the organization began to capture territory in Iraq and Syria, US-led airstrikes have led to a partial rollback of ISIS (by some estimates, ISIS lost close to 10% of its territory in the first half of 2015). However, ISIS is as much a political problem as it is a military one, and military operations alone will not destroy it.

Back to the top

Does ISIS pose a global security threat?

No longer just a terrorist organization but now a powerful ideologically-fueled army, ISIS is a m ajor global threat. ISIS doctrine rejects the idea of a nation-state and condemns nationalism, democracy, and secularism – the cornerstones of Western society – as idolatry. This is the crux of ISIS’s hostility to the West which, coupled with the organization’s uncompromisingly black-and-white worldview, poses a major security threat to the United States and other Western countries. Further, ISIS has made prolific use of the Internet to spread its potent message and recruit tens of thousands of fighters from around the world, including Western Europe and North America.

The flood of refugees from Syria and Iraq, as well as refugees and economic migrants from other parts of Asia and Africa, into Europe presents an additional security challenge due to fears of jihadist infiltration.

Back to the top

Does ISIS pose a security threat to Canada?

Canada is fighting alongside the United States in a coalition to defeat ISIS, which makes the country a target for the organization. According to Thomas Juneau, former Middle East strategic analyst in the American Department of National Defence, the likelihood of ISIS attacking Canada is very low for now. However, ISIS’s recruitment of fighters from around the world, including Canada, does pose a threat of “lone-wolf sympathizer attacks,” especially from those who return to Canada. In response, the Government of Canada recently passed the controversial Bill C-51 which gives government the power to seize the passport of any Canadian suspected of planning to travel abroad to engage in terrorism, as well as to revoke the citizenship of any dual citizen who is convicted of terrorism.
Back to the top

Is there a risk of genocide in Iraq and Syria?

According to the United Nations, over 6 million people have been displaced from Iraq and Syria, and more than 200,000 have been killed. Victims of ISIS atrocities include Christians and Yazidis who have refused to convert to Islam, as well as Shia Muslims and other religious and minority groups.

In destroying the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, ISIS has also engaged in what the United Nations has termed “cultural cleansing,” or the attempt to erase histories and identities that do not conform to its ideological worldview. Sites destroyed by ISIS include pre-Islamic archaeological sites, Christian churches (including the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor, Syria), and Shiite and Sufi mosques, shrines, and temples.

Although the international community agrees that there is a threat of genocide in the region, as of August 2015, neither the United Nations nor the United States has proclaimed the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria as genocide (possibly because doing so would require greater international action to stop ISIS).

Back to the top

Links and Resources

The Origins and Goals of ISIS

Back to the top

Canadian Government Response

Back to the top

The Threat of ISIS to Canada

The Human Toll in Iraq and Syria

Back to the top

The Spread of ISIS Beyond Iraq and Syria

Back to the top

Additional Information

Back to the top

Maps & Infographics

Back to the top

Contact Information

Name Position Contact Information
Priya Ramesh and Katarina Todic Policy Co-Directors

By Sho Shibata, Blog Writer A majority of public dialogue around the ongoing crises in the Middle East condemns the aggressive geo-political expansion of ISIS’ (or ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Levant) strategies and goals. This expansion has spurred a humanitarian crisis in the region and in particular in Northern Iraq.… Read More