ISIS has been defeated militarily in Syria – but victory over the terrorist group has come at a considerable cost. Countless civilians lost their lives and thousands will probably remain unaccounted for, thanks to the group’s relentless brutality and the US-led coalition’s refusal to conduct a proper tally of the number of civilians killed in the thousands of airstrikes it carried out.
At its height, the terror group reigned over about half the country, as part of a so-called caliphate spanning Iraq and the Levant. Much blood has been spilled in the battle to expel it from Iraq and, most recently, its last stronghold in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia that conducted the ground campaign and is likely to be abandoned by the US as it begins withdrawing from the region, lost a staggering 11,000 fighters in the fight to beat back ISIS.
It is evident to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Middle East’s modern history that declaring total victory over the group, as US President Donald Trump has already done, is premature. The injustices that created the vacuum in which ISIS thrived – the totalitarian rule of the Assad regime, and disenfranchisement and corruption in Iraq – have not been resolved.
Already, ISIS loyalists are making a resurgence with killings and bombings in the group's name. On Tuesday, seven SDF fighters were killed at a checkpoint in Manbij in northern Syria, apparently by an ISIS sleeper cell. In January, 19 people, including four US soldiers, were killed in a suicide bombing claimed by ISIS. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says hundreds of SDF fighters have been killed in attacks by ISIS sleeper cells since August last year. Across the region, many of these cells are being reactivated. The extremists are biding their time and will strike again. We have seen the group reinvigorated and revived before.
There is a narcissistic tendency by western powers to centre any debate about the future of ISIS on their own obligations and exposure to its violence. The implication in much of the commentary seems to be that an eternal American presence somehow consolidates the gains against ISIS by virtue of simply being there. If the US withdraws its 2,000 troops, warns the bipartisan foreign policy consensus, ISIS will metastasise and resume attacks against the West.
This western-centric focus is evident in the debate about foreigners who joined the group and now appear remorseful about their life choices. Many of those claiming to want to return to their home countries claim to have been cooks and cleaners, raising the question of who was carrying out the killings.
When the US and its allies intervened against the barbarians of ISIS, they did so because the latter threatened western interests. It did not matter very much that they had usurped a revolution that attempted to overthrow a hereditary, totalitarian republic in Syria. It didn’t matter that they had beheaded their way to dominance, enslaved, murdered or exiled political opponents and religious minorities, and destroyed priceless heritage. The war against ISIS was never about the suffering of Syrian or Iraqi civilians.
Western countries are now debating whether to take back some of their citizens who joined ISIS, after the last stronghold of Baghouz was reclaimed. The UK has already revoked the citizenship of one of its subjects, teenager Shamima Begum, currently in a camp in refugee camp in northern Syria. US-born Hoda Muthana has been banned from returning there after joining ISIS in 2014. France has said it will only take back militants on a case-by-case basis. There are an estimated 1,000 foreign fighters and another 4,000 of their family members, including wives and children, currently being held in SDF camps. Yet there is a breathtaking absence of awareness or responsibility from western powers when dealing with their citizens, who tormented Syrians for years. They want to wash their hands of the destruction their nationals wreaked in the region, as well as denying responsibility for the people themselves.
Instead of ruminating on the plight of these foreign fighters, I want to focus on the stories of some of ISIS’s victims in Syria and Iraq. They and their sacrifices should be remembered.
There was Naji Al Jerf, a journalist and mentor who helped found Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a collective of citizen journalists who documented the terror group's atrocities in its self-proclaimed capital. He was shot dead in Gaziantep, Turkey, in December 2015 by the extremist group.
We should remember, too, the 150 Assyrian Christians abducted in February the same year in an ISIS offensive in northeastern Syria in the town of Tal Tamr, where they had lived near the Khabur river since the 1930s, after fleeing widespread slaughter in Iraq.
And we should remember the 250 members of the Druze community in the southern province of Suweida, killed in July last year in the worst atrocity in months in a savage pre-dawn assault.
Then there were the 800 members of the Shaitat tribe in Deir Ezzor, killed in August 2014 in retribution for their opposition to ISIS. Some of the bodies were later discovered in mass graves. In the eastern province bordering Iraq, ISIS set up kangaroo courts prosecuting numerous civilians.
Let us not forget Khaled Al Asaad, Palmyra's chief archaeologist, beheaded for refusing to reveal the location of hidden artefacts after ISIS seized the ancient city of Palmyra. The terrorist group staged a mass execution of Syrian soldiers in the ancient Roman amphitheatre, helped by a throng of children, who shot the captives in the back of the head and earned the dubious title of "cubs of the caliphate".
Nor is it Syria alone that has suffered. In Iraq, ISIS carried out systematic crimes against humanity. They presided over the ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide of the Yazidi minority and the exile of Christians from their ancient homeland in the plains of Nineveh. They raped and abducted Yazidi girls and sold them into slavery.
In Camp Speichre, they summarily executed up to 1,700 Shia army cadets in the worst single atrocity. The group also carried out chemical attacks using mustard gas against rebels in Syria and Kurdish forces in Iraq.
The suffering perpetrated by ISIS has impacted the world. But in the land where they and their foreign acolytes established their state, the victims whose communities and nations have been shattered are quickly being forgotten. They were there, before the foreign fighters came, and had their lives and dreams usurped.
Let’s do them the courtesy of remembering the sacrifices they made when we declare the battle won.