Civilian suffering undermines anti-ISIL campaigns

All the warring sides in Iraq and Syria are guilty of flagrant abuses against civilians.

Kurdish peshmerga forces stand near detained men, who they suspect of being linked to an attack on the outskirts of a town northwest of Kirkuk [REUTERS]
Kurdish peshmerga forces stand near detained men, suspected of being linked to an attack near Kirkuk [REUTERS]

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.

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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.

Many documented abuses 

Just as the uprising by Iraqi Sunnis against Al-Qaeda years earlier led to that group’s defeat in their country – something US forces and Iran-backed Shia militias could not achieve on their own – 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.

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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.

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...


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.

Burning Arab villages

A United Nations report last week “documented alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law” by Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and Kurdish fighters. 

Kurdish forces are often touted as among the most reliable and accountable against ISIL, with frequent calls to increase support for them.

However, last week Amnesty International accused Kurds in northern Iraq of bulldozing, blowing up and burning down thousands of homes in Arab villages.

“The displacement of Arab communities … appears to be used to punish them for their perceived sympathies with [ISIL], and to consolidate territorial gains and establish control over ‘disputed areas’ of the country,” said Amnesty.

Kurdish Peshmerga recapture villages in northern Iraq [EPA]
Kurdish Peshmerga recapture villages in northern Iraq [EPA]

Three months earlier, the human rights organisation highlighted “the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages … amounting to war crimes” by Syrian Kurdish forces allied to the US-led coalition against ISIL.

Also last year, Human Rights Watch said Iraqi Kurdish forces had destroyed Arab homes in areas captured from ISIL that they want to incorporate into the Kurdish autonomous territory.

They also “confined thousands of Arabs in ‘security zones’ in areas of northern Iraq” captured from ISIL since August 2014, barring displaced Arabs from returning to their homes, “while permitting Kurds to return to those areas and even to move into homes of Arabs who fled”.

Shia militias

Iran-backed Shia militias are portrayed by their allies as a vanguard against ISIL on the ground. However, Human Rights Watch has highlighted “numerous atrocities” and “repeated abuses” by these militias against Sunni civilians, “killings and abductions” that “mark a serious escalation in sectarian violence”, and “mass extrajudicial killings” that “may be evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity”.

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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 Shia 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.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.