In recently-liberated regions of Iraq, Human Rights Watch has documented how thousands of people are prevented from obtaining identity documents on the flimsy pretext of possible family links to Daesh. Considering that, under Daesh’s “caliphate,” identity papers were systematically destroyed, this is an urgent problem as documentation is required for access to food, moving around and, crucially, being able to vote.
Even if someone is believed to be the aunt of a Daesh suspect, punishing the wider family is illegal under international law. Yet such allegations are exploited to disenfranchise a huge swathe of people, including those with no proven links to extremists. The recent death of a relative is taken as proof that the deceased must have been a combatant; yet few families in Mosul have not lost relatives. Even lawyers trying to represent families have been threatened and accused of being Daesh sympathizers. As Human Rights Watch warned: “Unless this collective punishment stops, the authorities will be further destabilizing the situation in Mosul and other former (Daesh)-held cities.”
The May 12 elections are a primary motivator for these punitive policies. Even if such restrictions are eventually struck down, it will be too late for the hundreds of thousands of mostly Sunnis who, through loss of identity and dislocation, will be prevented from having their say in the future of Iraq. The same sectarian paramilitaries that are ensuring western Iraq remains a warzone unsuitable for holding elections are the forces hoping to gain an outright majority in May. Indeed, the only time sectarian Shiite factions won more than 50 percent of the vote was 2005, when a high proportion of Sunnis either could not or would not vote.
With the goal of political hegemony, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary forces have implemented a scorched earth policy across central Iraq, burning hundreds of villages and forcing returnees back into exile. A significant proportion of Iraq’s three million displaced persons are forced to remain in squalid camps under spurious accusations of Daesh sympathies. This toxic amalgamation of sectarian cleansing and collective punishment is sowing the seeds of future sectarian conflict, teaching a generation of young people that the Iraqi state and its allied forces are their enemies.
A second manifestation of collective punishment is Eastern Ghouta, where Bashar Assad and his allies are blitzing the civilian population with missiles and chemical munitions. Untold hundreds have died, with children torn to pieces by shells. Doctors describe the heartbreaking scenario of stitching babies back together, but with no surviving parents left to claim them: Nobody even knows who these infants are, or what future awaits them in the hell into which they have been born. Airstrikes against at least five Ghouta health centers in recent days is an integral part of this policy of collective punishment, aimed at destroying morale in this district that houses about 400,000 people.
The horrors of Ghouta are not qualitatively different from dozens of other localities across Syria. Yet nobody still seriously talks about holding Assad and his enablers to account. Indeed, US-backed Kurdish forces, while fighting Daesh and confronting the Turks, have effectively found themselves fighting on the same side as Assad. As these Kurdish forces abandon the fight against Daesh and rush to confront Turkish proxies, Daesh enjoys the opportunity to lick its wounds and regroup.
By turning a blind eye to collective punishment, sectarian cleansing and crimes against humanity, we are nurturing the perfect climate in which new strains of terrorism and radicalism can proliferate.
Multiple factors give cause for optimism among Syria’s extremists: Rival factions are once again finding common ground; a weak and divided Syria will remain a benevolent environment; their enemies are distractedly fighting each other; and there is a fertile recruiting ground among dislocated and traumatized youths whose only prospects are through preying on those weaker than themselves. Systematic killing and displacement of Sunni communities by Iranian proxies furthermore creates a sectarianized and radicalized environment where future coexistence and statehood become impossible.
By pounding Daesh and the civilian population to smithereens in Mosul, leaders like Donald Trump can portray themselves as strong against “radical Islamic terrorism.” But such military strategies alone only serve to create a breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists. “Strong against terrorism” should mean creating stable and integrated societies where terrorism cannot gain a foothold. The 17 years since President George W. Bush declared his “war on terror” in the wake of 9/11 has instead seen us go backwards, with a dozen new failed states acting as terrorist incubators.
The extremist movement’s biggest strategic error was trying to hold large expanses of territory with the entire civilized world aligned against it. In defeating Daesh, we are allowing its fighters to retreat back to the wastelands where they are strongest and best able to wreak havoc around the world. Indeed, there has been an uptick in Daesh attacks in Iraq in recent weeks. The international system’s failure to support disintegrating states offers a vast expanse of virgin territory from Africa to South Asia that extremists can call home. Daesh has never had it so good.
The West learned the wrong lessons from the catastrophic 2003 Iraq intervention, and today it is taken for granted that all direct overseas involvement is bad. Thus, it was better to let local forces lead any necessary fighting — even when those forces were Iranian proxies with a long record of sectarian cleansing and war crimes. Likewise, America’s tepid support for Syrian rebel factions first encouraged Vladimir Putin to create his own foothold, and then led to Turkey invading against forces armed by the West. The desire not to get involved has recurrently led to untold chaos, as these conflicts accumulate global ramifications. For example, the post-2014 backlash against the mass displacement of refugees into Europe fueled the rise of freshly-empowered white supremacist political movements. These fascists threaten to extinguish the flame of liberal democracy and cast us into a new political dark age.
Meanwhile, the UN-based system for conflict prevention and upholding international law has been so fundamentally undermined that it ceases even pretending to be relevant. Security Council members shook off their lethargy for a rare bout of exertion in response to the killing in Ghouta. Yet Assad didn’t even pretend to respect the declared cease-fire, and Russia and the US had no intention of imposing consequences. The flagrant use of chemical weapons before the eyes of the world represents a calculated provocation against an impotent and discredited global peacekeeping infrastructure. Extremism thrives on such blatant injustices and international dysfunction.
The Middle East straddles the southeastern approaches to Europe and its inestimable oil reserves constitute the reservoir for global energy security. If this critical mass of humanitarian catastrophes can’t goad the world into action, then perhaps pragmatic realism and base survival instinct will force us to think twice.
By turning a blind eye to collective punishment, sectarian cleansing and crimes against humanity, we are nurturing the perfect climate in which new strains of terrorism and radicalism can proliferate — from the malevolence of the far-right to the nihilism of Daesh and the sectarian provocations of Tehran’s proxies. Daesh’s “caliphate” may be no more, but terrorism has certainly not been defeated. This is merely the calm before the storm.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.