The 'defeat' of Daesh will lead to a rebirth of Daesh that could make them more dangerous, and harder to fight.
As the US-backed and terrorist PKK-linked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) move in on Baghouz in north-eastern Syria to clear Daesh extremists out of their last remaining enclave, it may be worth casting our gaze to what the future might hold for the radicals and the rest of the world.
Once part of a sprawling “caliphate” that, at its peak, ruled over 10 million people across both Iraq and Syria, Baghouz is all that remains of the “territorial caliphate”, and it seems on the verge of collapse.
On Wednesday, hundreds of Daesh fighters were reported to have surrendered to SDF forces, and the town is under continuous aerial and artillery bombardment. Considering the forces arrayed against it, it is a foregone conclusion that Baghouz, as the last outpost of an illegitimate and failed caliphate, will fall sooner rather than later.
Before the world erupts in celebration, however, we must consider the “ideological caliphate” that transcends physical borders and towns and cities that were formerly under Daesh’s control.
Already there are signs that Daesh is far from finished in Iraq, mounting deadly attacks across the country. Has the international US-led coalition, in conjunction with Iran, Russia and other actors, simply won the battle while thinking they have won the war?
Atrocities in the name of ‘fighting terror’
Iraq is perhaps the best-known case of what happens when violence is inflicted upon innocent people, or when disproportionate force is used to fight terrorists or insurgents. The first to throw a match into the tinderbox of extremism was the United States, who succeeded in radicalising many of the Iraqis they fought, as well as those observing their suffering from around the world.
It is undeniable that the root causes that led to the rise of Daesh in the first place have yet to be dealt with and have arguably become more deep-rooted than ever before. Since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003, for example, it has always seemed to be Iraqi government policy to snuff out any resistance with extreme violence.
When peaceful and unarmed protesters – mostly Sunni Arabs – took to the streets and demonstrated against the sectarianism of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the unchecked violence of pro-Iran Shia militias in 2012, they were met with massacres.
Years later, and as Shia militants and Iraqi security forces attempted to push Daesh out of Hawija, human rights groups again reported that they had again perpetrated sectarian abuses, including the forced disappearance, torture and murder of Sunni Arab villagers, fellow Iraqis they were supposed to be rescuing from Daesh.
The war against Daesh in Iraq was peppered with a grim litany of sectarian atrocities perpetrated by government forces and allied Iran-backed fanatical militants. Aside from war crimes documented in Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, Jurf al-Sakhr and the aforementioned Hawija amongst countless others, the battle for Daesh’s Iraqi capital of Mosul was a terrible sight to behold.
Almost as soon as the operation began, videos emerged of Iraqi militiamen and soldiers torturing children, with some victims being repeatedly hit with sledgehammers on their heads and knees. Other videos showed more “merciful” field executions as people were shot in the head at point-blank range, no judge or jury required.
This level of sectarian violence should not have been surprising, as virulently sectarian leaders such as Qais al Khazali, commander of the Iran-linked Asa’ib Ahl ul Haq militia, openly stated that the battle for Mosul would be an opportunity for bloody vengeance for the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, a key figure in Shia theology, 1,400 years ago.
Just across the border in Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has also been busy perpetrating atrocities and war crimes against the Syrian people, having now directly led to the deaths of half a million people.
Assisted by Russia and Iran, the Assad regime has used deadly nerve agents against its own people, destroyed hospitals and civilian shelters with the civilians still in them, and inflicted the most horrific torture and murder of thousands upon thousands of dissidents as documented by a former regime military photographer who defected.
All of this blood spilt, pain caused, and damning misery was committed in the name of “defeating terrorism”.
Evil begets evil
One thing Palestinians and their supporters are fond of chanting at protests against Israeli abuses is “no justice, no peace”. That is precisely the correct diagnosis for the state of Iraq and Syria today, and why Daesh will inevitably rise again from the mire of darkness that feeds its despicable ideology.
With the terrifying violence, we see every day in Iraq and Syria increasing, we must bear in mind the psychological trauma that results from witnessing and experiencing so much physical suffering. Many people look at the horror occurring in Iraq and Syria from afar and feel a sense of unease and queasiness. However, by and large, especially in the West, they are sheltered by the distance and remoteness of the savagery that they witness.
A minority will feel pushed to take some action to try to stop what they see, and not all are radical extremists. Let us not forget heroic, brave and wholly human examples of people sacrificing their comforts in the West to alleviate suffering elsewhere. For such symbols of humanity that have been tragically snuffed out by Assad, look no further than British medical doctor Abbas Khan who went to Syria to treat the sick and wounded, and ended up murdered in a regime prison.
Nevertheless, for those directly impacted by atrocities committed under the misleading premise of the fight against terrorism, the potential for radicalisation and extremism is far greater. This risk is compounded by the silence of the international community, who shy away from condemning – or are even complicit in – violations.
A lack of justice means the victims may one day decide that they have had enough of being prey to sectarian, murderous predators and will take matters into their own hands, conflating vengeance with justice. Just as Daesh was a more extreme, mutated version of Al Qaeda born out of the brutality of the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, I predict a far worse monster emerging out of the current war.
That monster will be Daesh version 2.0, and may carry a different name – but its methods, reach and ability to turn the Middle East and the broader world into a paranoid den of insecurity, fear and division will be more advanced than anything we have yet seen.
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