There is a general consensus about the barbarity of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), and the threat it poses. Differences emerge, however, over who is doing most to counter this barbarity, with political point-scoring and competing agendas emphasising the division.
The consensus over Isil is fuelled by its unashamed publicising of such atrocities, in contrast to the vehement denials by its various enemies when similar accusations are levelled against them.
Yet this barbarity is undermining Isil’s cause as it fosters the view that parties fighting the group must, by mere virtue of their opposition to it, be benevolent in their intentions and actions, or at least represent more palatable alternatives to it.
This impression belies the reality on the ground. The fact is that all the warring sides in Iraq and Syria are guilty of flagrant abuses against civilians.
The inability or refusal to acknowledge this is hindering the hearts-and-minds component of the fight against Isil, which must be an essential factor in its eventual demise.
Just as the uprising by Iraqi Sunnis against Al-Qaeda years earlier led to that group’s defeat in their country so too is it crucial to encourage those living in Isil-controlled areas to reject its medieval rule.
The likelihood of this, however, is greatly reduced by the many documented abuses committed against them by forces that capture territories from Isil.
These ‘revenge’ attacks are fuelled by suspicions of local support for the group, or at least acquiescence in its rule. Even if these suspicions were valid, it would not justify abuses against civilians, but they are often predicated simply on the absence of local revolt, or on the mere fact that residents are Sunni, like Isil fighters.
Such thinking ignores the countless abuses committed by Isil against Sunnis – who typically constitute the majority of the victims of jihadist groups – and fundamentally misinterprets local sentiment.
Firstly, people are fearful of rising up against Isil, which has carried out massacres against those who have done so – including Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria – and has executed its own members who try to desert, sometimes en masse.
Secondly, residents have little faith that the forces that replace Isil will treat them any better. There is a solid basis for this mistrust.
Amnesty International said militias “enjoy total impunity”, and “are ruthlessly targeting Sunni civilians on a sectarian basis”, committing “war crimes and other gross human rights abuses”.
It was reported last week that Russian air strikes in Syria have killed more than 1,000 civilians, including more than 200 children, since they began less than four months ago.
Meanwhile, between 332 and 498 civilians in Iraq and 364 and 498 in Syria were killed by US-led coalition air strikes between August and December, according to a conservative estimate by the organisation Airwars, which tracks and archives the air campaign against ISIL. There are reports of up to 2,104 civilian deaths in total from coalition air strikes.
The Syrian regime is by far the biggest killer of Syrians, and its Iraqi counterpart is a serial human rights abuser that, while being ever-more reliant on militias, is consistently accused by Sunni tribes of not providing them with sufficient support to take on Isil. This adds to resentment over the unfulfilled promises of integration and opportunity that encouraged Iraqi Sunnis to rise up against Al-Qaeda.
With an array of parties displaying a disregard for the welfare of civilians under Isil rule, and even under their own, they are alienating a vital component in the group’s demise. That is not only morally reprehensible but counter-productive – assuming that their intentions are genuinely to defeat Isil, rather than use the spectre of its expansion to further their own agendas.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Civilian suffering undermines anti-Isil campaigns’.