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The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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The role of oil in the Syrian refugee crisis

By Sarah Ben-Moussa

The recent influx of refugees into Europe and neighboring states can be traced back to a number of causes—civil unrest, ethnic power dynamics, and the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East to name a few. While the Syrian conflict is both nuanced and complex, a significant aspect of the most recent increase of refugees can be traced to the growth of the Islamic State (IS) in the area.

The IS in Syria is unlike any large-scale terror operation that has come before it. Part of what distinguishes this group from its predecessors is the organizational and financial success the group has achieved. In assessing the factors surrounding the financial foundation of the IS, it is imperative to first look at the role of oil, both in sustaining and advancing the success of the IS.


In a presidential statement in July 2014, the United Nations Security Council condemned any form of trade with the IS, either directly or indirectly, by member states. Most notably, they reminded states of their obligation to ensure that nationals and those within their territory do not commercially engage with the IS.

The significance of this language by the Council stresses the importance of individual state responsibility in going beyond traditional inter-governmental economic responses, and taking actions against private companies and individuals whose actions directly or indirectly, as the case may be for many private financial institutions, support the IS.

The Council also stressed the importance of member states preventing private donations by nationals and members within their territory to the IS. U.S. officials have criticized Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for their failure to curb private donations to the IS.


While the international community has condemned any financial engagement or transaction with the IS, they have not addressed the more nuanced issue of trade sanctions on Syria and how the sanctions affect the oil trade in the region, especially with the IS.

In an Executive Order issued in April 2011, President Obama expanded trade sanctions on Syria in response to documented human rights abuses committed by the Syrian government, with the hopes of weakening the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Later, in December 2014, the U.S. targeted private companies based in Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Netherlands and Syria found to have trade ties to the Assad regime. The U.S. introduced measures that included issuing financial penalties, barring them from benefiting from American trade and freezing the American assets that the companies held. Although the effect of cutting off oil trade with Assad regime may have aided rebel groups in the short term, it has yielded an unforeseen result: the strengthening of the IS.

The vacuum left by recent trade sanctions has made the import of oil across the Syrian border difficult, causing the Syrian government to rely on alternative sources of fuel. As of Sept. 7 of this year, the last remaining oil field under the control of the Syrian regime fell to IS, further exacerbating the situation. Notably, reports have surfaced that the IS has been selling back barrels of oil seized in the eastern part of Syria to the Syrian regime through third party business intermediaries with close ties to the Assad regime. Some sources have even traced oil from the IS to Turkey, where smugglers sell the oil for roughly $350 a barrel, which is approximately triple the price of local Turkish oil. With such large profit margins, oil is a lucrative illicit industry for the IS.

Engaging in the oil trade with the Assad regime may have the effect of strengthening government forces, allowing for regime to perpetuate violence on its own citizens. However, cutting off ties with the regime opens up trade avenues that may produce much more disastrous results. As highlighted by former oil executives and energy experts in Syria, the IS is able to generate roughly $2 million in oil revenue a day from the sale of crude oil. Reports of recent clashes with rebel groups in the area have led to the IS using fuel as a means of political control, often resulting in disastrous results for citizens who are unable to fuel their homes, clinics unable to treat the wounded, and first responders unable to perform their duties. The ability of the IS to sustain itself through its oil revenue has made them an even more dangerous third party factor in the Syrian conflict.


The inevitable victims of this catch-22 are the Syrian citizens. With no better alternatives, their only remaining option is to leave their homes. Syria has become a political minefield, caving to the political interest of multiple state parties and private individuals. It is not enough to condemn the financial transaction of states with the IS—that much is evident. It is a complex and nuanced situation, which demands an international response that is catered to its specific set of circumstances. The refugee crisis cannot be addressed from a lens of migration, or counter-terrorism or state responsibility to protect refugees alone. Addressing the source of the conflict requires a solution that is as multi-faceted as the situation on the ground.

Sarah Ben-Moussa is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Baron Reznik/Creative Commons

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The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: alternative lenses, imperialism and colonialism (part 2 of 2)

By Chris Beall

In my previous article, I discussed the normalization of flagrant human rights abuses inherent in forced historical analogies between the Middle East and Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. However, this does not mean that history is unimportant in attempting to understand today’s conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. While the deployment of the Thirty Years’ narrative seeks to cram today’s sectarian conflicts within the interpretive boundaries of a very different place, from a very different century, a far more productive methodology would explore the history actually relevant to these conflicts: that of the Middle East itself. Rather than succumbing to the ignorance—perhaps willful ignorance—wrapped up in the Thirty Years’ model, the Middle East’s own past events (political, social, and economic) shed light on the complexity and nuance crucial to the fight for peace and human rights in the region.

In a rare and refreshing article by Shireen Hunter, Director of the Carnegie Project on Reformist Islam at Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, writing for Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Hunter combats the Thirty Years’ narrative. Such “commentaries convey a sense of inevitability and permanency about Sunni-Shia conflict, not only in Iraq but also elsewhere in the Muslim world where there are substantial Shia minorities,” Hunter writes. Prefacing her argument with the fact that Sunnis and Shiites have lived aside one another, overwhelmingly in peace, since the original Islamic schism, Hunter points to modern history (post-1979) and regional politics to explain the current escalation of sectarian conflict. Of particular note, Hunter highlights the unsupervised aftermath of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent “Western strategy of instrumentalizing sectarian differences to forge a regional alliance against Iran.” This seems important. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, Hunter’s analysis allows us to realize that both the U.S. and “the West” possess a share of ownership in these crises. Whatever shortcomings we face in influencing combatants on the ground, this recognition leaves us plenty of space to alter our conduct—operative space within our direct control.

I would add to Hunter’s analysis that the Western interventionist policies that have fueled these conflicts in fact run more deeply than modern history alone. Centuries of European colonialism did a number on the world, and the Middle East is no exception. As the Ottoman Empire gradually declined at the end of the 19th century, European focus increasingly shifted toward the Near East. By the turn of the 20th century, there was an almost obsessive fear in colonial circles, who were worried about the threat “pan-Islam” posed to European colonial holdings, notes Middle East scholar Zachary Lockman in his book Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. Lockman cites a 1901 French colonial journal, quoting one orientalist who wrote, “Although Islam as a religion was basically finished, the colonial powers still faced a serious threat from pan-Islam, which might foster anticolonial revolts in a number of Muslim lands at the same time. Therefore the goal must be ‘to weaken Islam… to render it forever incapable of great awakenings.’ ‘I believe,’ this scholar wrote ‘that we should endeavor to split the Muslim world, to break its moral unity, using to this effect the ethnic and political divisions… In one word, let us segment Islam, and make use, moreover, of Muslim heresies and the Sufi orders.’” (Notice, by the way, that while these fears were always overblown, they represent the exact opposite of our current fears regarding essentialized sectarianism).

This was not just some colonial conspiracy, either. When Britain and France inherited large Ottoman territories at the end of World War I, such intentionally divisive policies were carried out into practice. Much has been made of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which essentially plotted today’s boundaries of the Middle East according to the logic of Empire, rather than any social or demographic accord with the populations actually living there. But equally important are colonialism’s less talked about “divide-and-rule” administrative strategies. In the same way that Britain ossified the Indian caste system and popularized the Hamitic Hypothesis among Hutus and Tutsis, colonial administrators looked to amplify existing divisions within Islam in the Middle East. Colonial powers used these divisions to elevate minorities into domesticated positions of docile power. It was not so much that these sectarian divisions actually mattered, but that figures like Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence forced them to matter.

And so Britain placed a Sunni Hashemite king on the new throne of Shia Iraq, while the French loaded the military in Sunni-majority Syria to the brim with minority Alawites. These inverted sectarian power structures have seen much turbulence, and are still to this day under violent contestation. Such colonial inversions might not have been a source of violence themselves. The whole area had, after all, been relatively peacefully administered by foreign Ottoman Turks for a couple of centuries. But along with inversions of political administrative and law-making power came new, near kleptocratic concentrations of economic power in the form of Western-modeled capitalism. Whatever your feelings on Marx, it seems clear that such material hierarchies tend to self-perpetuate and exacerbate over time. Through violent post-colonial periods of both monarchy and authoritarianism, sectarian minorities often held dominating control over society’s means of production. To take just one consequence: it was, in large part, the radical and unadulterated redistribution of these economic hierarchies in post-2003 Iraq, which convinced enough Sunnis to don black balaclavas and call themselves ISIS.

The point is not that the West is the root of all evil in the region—another common narrative, as problematic as forced allusions to the Thirty Years’ War. Rather, my point is that if we cannot even realize our own equity in these contemporary sectarian disasters, then it seems intuitively less likely that we will recognize and properly navigate the contours of equity belonging to the region’s indigenous shareholders. This, unfortunately, is the exact substance that eventual peace will be forged of. If the roots of these conflicts are political—as opposed to immutable and religious—then their solutions can also be politically crafted. Both the United States and the wider West do have important interests in the region, not the least of which involve protecting human rights and promoting liberal values. For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the West does not play some eventual role in extinguishing this sudden rise of sectarian tension. We should seek ways of understanding what’s going on over there.

But calling today’s Middle East the Thirty Years’ War is both ideologically self-serving, and immensely counterproductive. It entirely muddles the possibility that this is all just senseless bloodshed. The possibility that each life lost is not one step toward peace and sectarian reconciliation (à la Westphalia), but rather a step in the other direction: a senseless prolongation of hostilities that only ratchets up the cycle of violence, deferring peace and planting the seeds of tomorrow’s human rights disasters in the collective memories of all parties involved.

Heuristics are great when they facilitate understanding. Really. But here, blind acceptance of this Thirty Years’ War narrative is more like taking a shortcut through a swamp. As long as we opt for this route, chances are that peace will come later, not sooner. One can only hope that this realization does not take thirty years.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Alessandra Kocman/Creative Commons


The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: forced analogies and human rights (part 1 of 2)

By Chris Beall

With the recent escalation in Yemen between Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Arab coalition forces, journalists, commentators and policymakers have resurfaced a popular story to explain the latest wave of fighting in the Hadramaut. It goes something like this: whatever the particular circumstances of this individual conflict, what we’re really witnessing in the sectarian warfare across the contemporary Middle East is a theological realignment and reformation of Islam itself—a prolonged umbrella conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that resembles the scope and significance of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.

Whatever its original source, this story has gained remarkable traction over the last few years. With the rapid ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the virtual unraveling of Syria and Iraq along sectarian lines, commentators from a variety of backgrounds have deployed this narrative to explain the truly horrific bloodshed that has unleashed in the region. Whether one looks to the easing of Iranian sanctions or the implosion of the Arab Spring, 17th-century European history seems to be on everyone’s tongue. For the last three centuries, the Thirty Years’ War has never been more in vogue.


I’ll leave a detailed exegesis of this old European conflict to the historians. Essentially, the series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 were fueled by Catholic-Protestant tensions, resulting from unsustainable post-Reformation political arrangements throughout the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. What was planted as structural insufficiencies in the Peace of Augsburg sprouted into the violent fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire, and then, through the vying international interests of competing great thrones, blossomed into devastating decades-long warfare that was truly continental in scope. Although the protracted conflict saw its share of opportunism and side-swapping, the course of the internecine bloodshed basically played out along Christianity’s sectarian boundaries.

In today’s discussions, there are two important takeaways from the Thirty Years’ War. The first concerns the Peace of Westphalia, which brought an eventual end to hostilities, and is commonly cited as the birth of the modern nation-state international system. The idea, crudely, is that subjects no longer paid sometimes-competing allegiances to the throne and the clergy, but instead envisioned themselves as discrete social units (or “imagined communities”) paying undiluted loyalty to an authorized sovereign administering specified and legal territorial borders. On one hand, 30 years of shifting war fronts earns you territorial boundaries that reflect at least some demographic and socio-religious logic, while on the other hand, the passions and ferocity of religion itself are subdued and partially supplanted by nationalism.

The second important takeaway from Thirty Years’ War is how three decades of combat truly ravished the continent, killing an estimated eight million people. In Germany alone, one-fifth of the population was lost to violence, disease and starvation. The war also devastated Europe’s early 17th century economy, leading marauding armies to loot and prey on civilians, thereby inviting atrocities perpetuated by all sides of the conflict.


Considering the first lesson above, there are tempting reasons to want to believe that the current sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites is a development that mirrors the Thirty Years’ War. To do so endows an undercurrent of nationalist sacrifice to all of this violence— that whatever blood might get spilled in places like Iraq and Yemen, it’s all for the greater good as this long-troubled region earns its own Peace of Westphalia. At which point, of course, peace and stability will undoubtedly flourish.

However to accept this idea inherently implies an acceptance of that second above point as well, and this inseparability plays out in the commentary. For example, Richard Haass, in his July 2014 article for Project Syndicate: “Policymakers must recognize their limits,” Haass writes. “For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.” Such nonchalance is nothing short of chilling, when you consider that the “condition” Haass so casually mentions takes the form of mass executions, kidnappings, beheadings, sexual enslavement, sectarian cleansing and literally lighting people on fire in cages. It should also distress us that Haass is not exactly making these comments from his mother’s basement: he is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of America’s most accomplished diplomats and an active advisor of both Democrats and Republicans.

Many onlookers, including myself, have argued that military intervention—especially U.S. military intervention—in Syria and Iraq would do more harm than good. I, for one, still believe that. But to confuse this with the idea that today’s Middle East involves any less of a “problem to be solved,” and that both the US and the international community should sit idly by (with, out of all fairness to Haass, an occasional drone strike) and await some naturally occurring grand peace is an absurdity. A far more reasonable course of conduct would involve using diplomacy and American soft power with the intensity and resources we seemingly devote only to hard power—but such a policy argument is beyond my scope here.

My point is simply that to mindlessly compare today’s sectarian wars in the Middle East to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War both normalizes and practically endorses the rampant human rights abuses that such conflicts have wrought. While it is certainly tempting to accept this analogy, and keep our hands clean in the process, realize that to do so involves a political decision, and an impulse forged more by ideology than any facts on the ground. It’s one thing to connect dots and recognize patterns. Surely, there are commonalities between Sunni-Shia and Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, or any sectarianism, for that matter. But it’s something else entirely to enslave our thinking to our own forced analogies, out of nothing but the desire for heuristic simplicity and cookie-cutter interpretive models. Recognize also that when we allow such limited thinking to bleed into our policymaking (and considering the comments of both Haass and Leon Panetta, I think that we do), there will be monstrous consequences for human rights in the region.

In the second part of this series on the Thirty Years’ War narrative and the Middle East, I’ll look at more useful interpretive models to analyze the recent conflicts.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Palamedes Palamedesz/Public Domain

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Women and ISIS: debunking the myth of gender and violence

By Zahava Moerdler

Men are squarely at the center of the popular image of wartime violence. They are cast as the instigators and inciters, while the women are relegated to the relatively two-dimensional role of passive bystander or victim. This is a gross misconception. In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower tells the stories of women who perpetrated violence under the Nazi regime. She writes, “these women displayed a capacity to kill while also acting out a combination of roles: plantation mistress; prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over her slave laborers, infant-carrying gun-wielding hausfrau.” These women were not sparse outliers working in concentration camps. More often than not mothers, they were involved in violent attacks against women and children. While Lower’s work is focused on the atrocities committed during the Nazi regime, the portrait of female violence she paints is not limited to that time or place. She notes, “Terror regimes feed on the idealism and energy of young people.” While disturbing, it is not surprising that Western women are flocking to ISIS controlled territory.

There are a variety of narratives on what becomes of the women who join ISIS. According to Malaysian sources, women are joining ISIS to serve “sexual jihad” or “jihad al-nikah.” These women become comfort women when they enter ISIS territory. This may seem obviously anathema to Muslim teachings, but it is in fact a model that has been in use since the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Such women had to be careful to maintain their services despite the specter of Taliban raids and execution. The militiaman would come to the brothel, “marry” the woman, bed her and in the morning he would say “I divorce you” three times, pay a small alimony and then leave, according to news outlets. In this way, operations in the brothel maintained a semblance of religious normalcy. Although it is unclear how many women have traveled to ISIS territory, some have estimated approximately 600 Malaysian women and 100 British and Australian women. There are concurrent reports of forced sexual jihad, rape and sexual slavery.

Yet, there is another narrative that portrays the women who travel to ISIS territory as women excited and prepared for a domestic role in a state they wholeheartedly believe in. These women, known as the muhajirat (“migrants”), are drawn to the role of women in the caliphate, as outlined in a recent manifesto released by ISIS on the role of women in the caliphate. In the article “Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS,” Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frenett present the findings of a study that examined the social media postings from a cohort of women who had migrated to join ISIS from Western countries. The study found that many of the women who are traveling alone to ISIS (rather than with a husband and children) do so because of “grievances, solutions or personal motivations.” They are motivated by three primary beliefs: (1) the world is overwhelmingly against Islam, leading to the rigid binary characterization of the world as consisting of those who are either with or against them and their Muslim faith; (2) a desire to construct an “ideologically pure state,” and, accordingly, the imperative to build a community based on strict Shariah law; and (3) that it is incumbent on all individuals to help realize such a new world order. Once they reach ISIS territory, they partake in domestic roles, uphold Sharia law through all-women patrol brigades and engage actively in online recruitment. While they may not participate directly in violence, the muhajirat certainly glorify and justify it through religious texts and teachings.

Despite these feelings of duty, one of the most difficult challenges the muhajirat face when preparing to migrate is the decision to leave their families, according to the study. Many posts talk about homesickness, love for the women’s mothers and the difficulty of the final goodbye and phone call home before entering ISIS territory. While there is clearly emotional difficulty in leaving family, families can also act as obstacles to women leaving in practical ways, such as holding onto their passports and withholding money. The authors suggest that policymakers should help families prevent migration through intervention, and support.

Though familial intervention may be helpful, deeper solutions to combat alienation, marginalization and inequality are necessary. After all, women flocking to ISIS territories are an indication of dissatisfaction and lack of integration at home. The muhajirat frequently write about a sense of camaraderie and friendship that permeates the community, in contrast to the fake western relationships they had before. The authors of “Becoming Mulan” write, “This search for meaning, sisterhood and identity is a key driving factor for women to travel.”

While the muhajirat idealize ISIS as a community of sisterhood and righteousness based on Shariah law, there are many disturbing reports that ISIS has “released a guide to the capture, punishment and rape of female non-believers.” The guide also outlines using the captured women as sex slaves and justifies child rape. About 2,500 women have been kidnapped and around 4,600 are still missing, according to reports. These are staggering numbers. Although there is no indication that the muhajirat interact with these women, it seems implausible that they do not know about the rape and kidnapping. Additionally, although the muhajirat claim that life is normal and peaceful in ISIS territory, ISIS pamphlets describe a very different treatment of women. Some reports indicate that the muhajirat know about the horrors ISIS commits and live in this horror but instead choose to pretend that life is peaceful and idyllic.

Whether migrants to ISIS do so for purposes of jihad al-nikah or to become a muhajirat and join the community, one clear fact remains: there is a disconnect between perception and reality. Migrants to ISIS see the creation of a fundamentalist state as returning to the principles and precepts of tradition. In truth, however, it is the creation of an extremist state comfortable with the use of murder and rape to realize its goals, neither of which are endorsed by the fundamental teachings of Islam. Will these women become “Furies” involved in the violence, and even perpetrating it themselves? During World War II many women were sent to the Eastern front to support their husbands, run plantations or work in secretarial work. Some of these women perpetrated acts of violence and murder. Embedded within a culture of extreme violence and destruction, will it be possible for the migrants to ISIS to maintain a distance from this influence? Do they even want to?

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann/Creative Commons

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On military intervention, ISIS and human rights

By Chris Beall ISIS

On Feb. 11, President Obama submitted a draft proposal to Congress, seeking to “authorize the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” (ISIL, otherwise known as ISIS and the Islamic State. Following John Kerry’s recognition of the immense power of symbols in this conflict, I will also choose to employ, Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIL.). On one hand, President Obama’s latest Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) request is little more than symbolic. As every reader will know, we’ve been flying sorties over Iraq and Syria for a good six months now, raining war from the sky, casually aiming to “degrade and destroy” Daesh from above. By the White House’s own logic, the President has two perfectly good and non-expiring AUMFs leftover from the previous administration with which to legally combat the latest Sunni insurgency in Mesopotamia.

But on the other hand, Obama’s new AUMF request is surely a sign of further escalation regarding the US role in the regional fight against Daesh. The fact that the President seeks to endow a bipartisan aura on future intervention in the region amounts to, perhaps cynically, a political hedge and risk-sharing exercise with his Republican counterparts. With his hands freed of potential partisan fallout, Obama may finally confront Daesh in a way that properly addresses the situation in Iraq and Syria.

However, partisan politics is just one shallow layer of the constraints involved in adequately confronting Daesh. At a more foundational level, one might reasonably ask whether or not anybody in the administration (or elsewhere) has the slightest idea what properly addressing the Daesh catastrophe should actually look like. Beyond the relatively easy military component, what does our strategy look like diplomatically? Does it conform to the social and political realities of the region? What does it mean to the Middle East’s wider, ongoing power struggles? Who, exactly, are we trying to help? What, exactly, are our ultimate goals? And presuming we do have such a plan, presuming we do possess a comprehensive and well thought-out strategy which addresses these and other concerns, perhaps the most damning question of all: does the United States posses the political maturity to carry out such a strategy?

I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s talk about Daesh.


Clearly, the horrors unfolding daily in Iraq and Syria prove that these are troubling times for human rights in the region, both substantively and discursively. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the violence itself. Beyond the usual tragedies inherent to armed-conflict, displaced populations, sectarian strife and failed states, Daesh represents a particularly brutal malignment to the state of human rights in 2015. Summary executions, ethnic cleansing, mass kidnappings, mass rape, enslavement, beheadings, immolation: these sorts of things make the headlines, so I’ll say little about such barbarity here.

But, as alluded to above, Daesh has also raised a conflicting state of unease in the human rights discourse more generally. Given the movement’s ruthlessness and special mastery of atrocity—captured on film, nonetheless, and waved in our faces through a savvy social media campaign—it is now incredibly easy for even the most ardent pacifist to find him or herself tempted by the prospect of asymmetrical military intervention or any military solution to this grotesque and intense violence. If there’s ever been such a thing as an “evil adversary,” Daesh has put forth a compelling audition for that notorious role. If there’s ever actually been a “good fight,” this feels pretty close.

And yet, we should ask ourselves what is accomplished in these sorts of conclusions. What are their consequences, and what might they obscure?


In what might be called a positive byproduct or very small victory in nearly fifteen years now of a U.S.-led War on Terror, our past conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have birthed a compelling and insightful body of academic literature, related to the role of human rights in the public mobilization for war, including the work of Lila Abu-Lughod, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. To take just one quote, their basic premise goes something like this: “In the crusade to liberate Afghan women from the tyranny of Taliban rule, there seemed to be no limit of the violence to which Americans were willing to subject the Afghans, women and men alike.”

Now, clearly, Daesh is not the Taliban of Afghanistan, and I don’t mean to reinforce the problematic and all too common practice of thinking of these sorts of movements as some essentialized and monolithic radical Islamist monster identity. But the lessons learned retroactively in 2001 and 2003 are lessons that human rights advocates would be wise to keep in mind proactively, as we think about intervening on behalf of those currently suffering under the brutality of Daesh.

On one level, we should ensure that our well-intentioned motives are not used to overlook America’s past failures in Iraq and our very real hand in making the region’s current human rights crisis. The destabilizing force of the U.S. intervention in 2003 unleashed decades worth of pent up Sunni-Shia divisions within Iraq, previously held in check only by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Ba’ath Party. After thirty-some years of disenfranchisement and routine state violence at the hands of Sunni Ba’athists, Iraq’s majority Shiites (and Iran, for that matter) unsurprisingly viewed 2003 as their turn at the helm.

Seemingly oblivious to the fact that this social dimension even existed in Iraqi society, or perhaps sick and tired of our own unpopular war, the U.S. stood by silently while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki extolled revenge on the nation’s previous power wielders. Watching their rights and livelihoods erode under their feet, Iraq’s Sunnis, naturally, began to look for alternatives. Hence the support base that Daesh currently thrives on.

To think that the U.S. has magically gained the ability to better navigate Iraq’s sectarian landscape, as we talk about returning to the region, is, frankly, an optimism that I cannot share with our president. As such, it feels incredibly naïve to think that our presence can offer anything beyond further destabilization to an already destabilized region.


Cue, also, Rumsfeld’s old “unknown unknowns.” Beyond our hand in stoking sectarian tensions generally, we should also note that we quite literally birthed Daesh within the walls of our occupation-era military prisons. According to The Guardian, just about every senior official in Daesh—including self-appointed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—are all alumni of the U.S.-administered cells of Camp Bucca. After meeting and brainstorming jihad together during their early-occupation periods of confinement, members of the future Islamic State practically left American prisons with Sunni insurgency phone books smuggled out on the waistbands of their underwear. While this raises obvious policy questions concerning how the United States administers occupation, it also emphasizes our disturbing ability to make a bad situation worse, without our even realizing it.

While our role in creating this monster might itself give weight to the notion that we hold some moral obligation to combat Daesh—to quell the brutality that we have unleashed in the region—I return to the idea of political maturity, mentioned above.

In an article by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, Roth poignantly recognizes that there cannot be a feasible U.S. military solution to the Daesh crisis, without simultaneously addressing “the other side” of this bloodshed: both murderous Shia militias in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing civilian massacres in Syria. Simply put, any intervention that fails to consider the legitimate security concerns of all sides of this conflict has little chance of achieving meaningful or lasting results.


The United States has demonstrated an unsettling track record, when it comes to these sorts of gray areas. We like good guys and bad guys, Manichean struggles that break down along the lines of “with us” or “against us.” Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria and Iraq fails to fit in such neat and clean boxes.

And so if tackling Daesh requires an equal pressure applied to Iraq’s Shia militias and Assad’s own Alawite regime, as Kenneth Roth suggests, it starts to appear that there can be no military solution here, short of drastic U.S. cooperation alongside the Shia/Alawite benefactors in Tehran. To actually pull off a meaningful military intervention against Daesh would require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with Iran, which would itself require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with the State of Israel, at least in its current form under the Likud. For all of our bombs and brute force, we simply lack the seriousness to see through this kind of reevaluation.

If we cannot take seriously the necessary conditions of a successful military intervention in Iraq and Syria—one that seeks to achieve a political balance and sustainable peace in the region—then it seems that anything short of this can only prolong and increase the suffering of all sides wrapped up in the conflict. With the latest official numbers of foreign fighters standing at 20,000 recruits flocking to the banners of Daesh, the U.S. does nobody any favors by bolstering their ranks with a new deployment of force in the region. Such a move would only provide Daesh with a propaganda victory in their ongoing struggle for legitimacy across the Islamic World.

Providing them with this victory, in exchange for an actual military-based rescue of human rights in the region, might hypothetically be very well worth it. Unfortunately, such a solution in today’s Syria and Iraq will not prove so easy. If a military rescue of human rights is beyond feasibility, then what can possibly be gained in any half-hearted attempt?

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Day Donaldson/Creative Commons