Iraq & Syria: War without end

The rise of ISIS has blurred the lines of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq has reported that violence claimed the lives of 1,103 Iraqis in February and 1,375 in January. Its figures did not include the one third of the country held by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and have certainly been overtaken in the offensive by the Iraqi army and allied Shi’a militias against the group.

ISIS’ rapid expansion in Iraq, seizing Mosul in June, led to a dramatic rise in the death toll for 2014, with the government recording 15,538 fatalities, up from 6,522 in 2013, and the highest annual toll since 17,956 in 2007 during the height of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian killings.

The rise of ISIS also blurred the lines of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. For Syria, the death toll for more than four years of conflict passed 215,000 in March [2015], according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The 2014 total was 76,021 people, up from 73,447 in 2013, 49,294 in 2012 and 7,841 in 2011.

SOHR claimed most victims were combatants, classifying separately in 2014 nearly 16,979 jihadists; 15,488 Syrian rebels; 22,627 government troops and militiamen; and 2,553 pro-regime non-Syrian Shi’a, including 366 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. SOHR said it had documented the deaths of 17,790 civilians, including 3,501 children. But their figures do not include those massacred or executed by any of the forces involved.

Civilians have been the major victims of displacement. Amnesty International has accused the world of abandoning Syria’s refugees, with just 63,170 resettlement places offered by countries other than Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey, who together have accepted 3.8 million. Amnesty has pointed out that the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had accepted none, whereas even by UN figures, which downplay the numbers, Lebanon has taken 1.1 million, 26 percent of the country’s population.

The economic price of the Syrian war is staggering. In December, the World Bank put regional losses, including the rise of the ISIS, at $35 billion. Syria has lost 16 percent of per capita welfare, Iraq 14 percent and Lebanon almost 11 percent due to the war and its impact on trade.

Turkey alone has lost approximately $1.6 billion in potential trade, and Iraq nearly $600 million, according to the bank. Its report, “Economic effects of the Syrian war and the Spread of the Islamic State of the Levant”, said violence had brought “enormous human, social and economic costs and put a halt to the regional trade integration process, thus undermining development with serious implications for the future”.

Valerie Amos, the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, said this March that a Syrian’s life expectancy was 20 years less than it was when the conflict began, that unemployment had risen from ten percent to 58 percent and that two thirds of all Syrians were living in “extreme poverty”.

Neither country shows any sign of reduced international involvement, whether individual volunteers or Washington’s airstrikes and its redeployment of troops to Iraq. Peshmerga fighters of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have passed through Turkey into Syria to assist the Syrian Kurdish militia, Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD), in defending the town of Kobane against ISIS.

A report from the UN Security Council in October estimated 15,000 foreign jihadists were fighting in the two countries, despite action by Gulf countries to stop their nationals from taking part. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and his backers Russia and Iran, have used the presence of foreign fighters to justify the regime’s cause. With Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) active in both Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah, the Shi’a Lebanese group, active in Syria, Tehran has become more embroiled, especially with the growth of ISIS.

In Tehran in late December, thousands of Revolutionary Guards gathered for the funeral of Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, 55, killed by a sniper in Samara and the most senior Iranian commander to die in the Iraqi conflict. Tehran calls its role “advisory” in both Iraq and Syria, although Taqavi’s funeral illustrated its commitment with the attendance of figures like General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the al-Quds brigade, the IRGC overseas arm.

Like Iran, the US says its troops in Iraq – increasing to at least 3,000, with hundreds in Anbar province – are “advisory”. A security consultant told TRENDS he was “moderately amused” by the proximity of American and Iranians. “Sooner or later, they’ll bump into one other and have to either acknowledge each other or pretend the other is invisible,” he said.

Wathiq al-Battat, a leading Iraqi Shi’a militant killed in December, is a striking example of the militias’ links to Tehran. Leader of the Mukhtar Army, al-Battat was also involved, during the US occupation, in establishing Iraqi Hezbollah and – according to the Iranian media – in attacks on American forces.

Born in Maysan province in 1973, Battat defected to Iran in 1993 and received military training before reportedly carrying out guerrilla operations against the Ba’athist forces of Saddam Hussein. He often declared loyalty to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Battat told Iraq’s Sumaria television in 2013 he was a “foot soldier” in Khamenei’s army, praised Assad for “standing honorably with the resistance [against Israel]”, and said that given a war between Iran and Iraq, he would fight for Iran as it was ruled by a “just imam”.

Battat established the Mukhtar Army in 2013, boasting of its links to the IRGC and saying it would take the war to “takfiri terrorists”. Nouri al-Maliki, then Prime Minister, called for Battat’s arrest for inciting sectarianism, but after a brief detention, Battat was released in early 2014, and was eventually killed later.

Khaled Yacoub Oweis, former Reuters Senior Correspondent in both Damascus and Baghdad, and now a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, believes interconnections between conflicts in Syria and Iraq should not be exaggerated.  “The civil wars are intermingled only as far as Syria and Iraq serve as assets to strengthen the different warring parties,” he told TRENDS. “[ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi is a very Iraqi phenomenon – his name, his speech in Mosul [in July, announcing himself as leader of all Muslims] – although the rhetoric about a caliphate hides that. Raqqah [the large Syrian city held by ISIS] was historically a sort of a second capital by the Abbasids, and modern-day Syria provides strategic depth for ISIS along the Euphrates river basin. There are also family links between eastern Syria and Iraq’s Sunni heartland. All this helped ISIS’s move into Syria.”

Oweis believes the fundamental responsibility for the growth of Sunni-Shi’a violence lies with those who resisted the Arab Spring.  “It was Assad who first exploited this link [between Syria and Iraq] by encouraging the recruitment of Syrian jihadists and facilitating their transfer along with foreign fighters to massacre Shi’as in Iraq after the US invasion. As for Syria itself, go back to 2011, when Assad clearly laid the sectarian fault-lines when he reacted to the arrest of children in Daraa, before the peaceful protest movement erupted, by visiting southern Syria on an “inspection tour” in which he went only to Christian and Druze towns. Weeks later, when demonstrators took to the streets in nationalist, non-sectarian demonstrations, demanding an end to four decades of Assad family rule – shouting slogans such as “One one one! The Syrian people are one!” – Assad’s reaction was to shoot them. The security apparatus did most of the killings, and a Sunni backlash inevitably followed.”

Chibli Mallat, the Lebanese law professor whose latest book “Philosophy of Nonviolence*” was published in February, argues that violence across the region has its roots in the failure of democratization. “The etiology of violence in the Middle East is an embarrassment of riches,” he told TRENDS. “The monster is everywhere: It beats Saudi women into place, Palestinians into occupation and Libyans into militia rule. ISIS is vengefully expressing the anger of Sunnis browbeaten by the ruler of Syria, and by the former ruler of Iraq [Saddam Hussein].”

Mallat can see no short-term solutions: “The question is: Why are Middle Eastern societies incapable of preventing extremists from setting the agenda? The answer may be elusive, but not for failure to try. In 2011, the whole region revolted, in a massive nonviolent movement, which succeeded for a while in scaring dictators – and in four countries, in removing them from power. Expectedly, the counter-revolution fought back. While 2011 was a beginning, it will take a generation for nonviolence to prevail.”

Philosophy of Nonviolence: Revolution, Constitutionalism, and Justice beyond the Middle East, Oxford University Press