Concerned over ISIL's push in Iraq and Syria
“We are deeply concerned about the last month’s advancements of ISIL on Iraq and Syria and the lack of international engagement,” says Secretary General of Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), Liv Tørres.
Since mid-June, Iraq’s northern provinces of Nineveh, Salah al-Din and Diyala, along with al-Anbar in the west of Iraq have been controlled mainly by ‘The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’ (ISIL). Encouraged by their recent successes in Iraq - as well as increased access to weapons and money - ISIL has been able to expand its presence in Syria, where it has developed into a major military force since April 2013.
In particular, ISIL has managed to establish a contiguous area from the Iraqi border, through the regions of Deir Az-Zour and Raqqa, all the way to the vicinity of Aleppo, possibly an area of 50 000 square kilometres. Furthermore, Islamist groups in Syria in other areas around Aleppo and close to the Turkish border have pledged their allegiance to ISIL. This seriously threatens non-Islamist controlled areas in the north and further complicates relief efforts in Syria.
Fighting has taken place between ISIL and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as ISIL aims to control the Sunni provinces in central Iraq and threatens to take Baghdad, while Kurdistan Region’s peshmerga forces alone are defending Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. In Syria in recent months, ISIL has rarely attacked the Syrian army and other forces loyal to President Bashar al-Asad. Rather, its expansion has come in the opposition-held territories in the east and the north of the country. Currently, some of the fiercest battles are fought between ISIL and various Kurdish armed forces in Syria.
Since the June offensive started in Iraq at least 1600 civilians has been killed and more injured. 1.4 million are now internally displaced in Iraq and 850 000 of these only since June. The death tolls in Syria related to ISILs military activity are not verifiable. In addition ISIL deliberately targets civilians through large scale killings, suicide operation in public areas, Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (VIED) etc.
“NPA is deeply concerned about the suffering inflicted on civilians in Iraq and Syria. The development in the last months related to ISIL’s expansion and increased territorial control in both Iraq and Syria has further exacerbated the situation. We condemn particularly ISIL’s deliberate targeting of civilians where the aim to kill as many civilians as possible”, says Tørres.
Observations from NPAs partners with contacts in ISIL held areas underpin recent UN-reports documenting war crimes and human rights violations in Iraq where minority groups and women are in a particularly vulnerable situation. In June ISIL declared a new rule of law, Watheqat al Madina ( Edicts/rules for the City) in Mosul, Iraq, where members of minorities were given an ultimatum that by July 19, to convert, pay a tax, leave the city, or face execution.
The UN reports on this are also confirmed by observations by NPA partners in the area. Civilian Shiites are in general seen as apostates and thereby legitimate targets and groups like Christians, Yezidies, Shafaks, Kurds and Turkomans are under direct threat. The bulk of the recent IDPs in Iraq thus belong to minority groups.
Also in Syria, ethnic minorities - and in particular the Kurds - have taken some of the heaviest blows from the ISIL expansion. In the last two days ISIL has captured the Kurdish protected border crossing with Syria of Rabiyah. Talafar and Sinjar in the Kurdish disputed areas on the Syrian border have also been taken over by ISIL, causing displacement of nearly 300,000 people, fleeing for their lives as ISIL kills those who do not adhere to their version of Islam. The Kurds are attempting to fight back with limited resources. This underscores several recent reports that ISILs military capability is generally underestimated and that the group now operates with the capacity of an army which the Kurdistan peshmerga can difficult withstand alone with their light weaponry.
The Kurdish controlled areas both in Iraq and Syria are providing sanctuary for large numbers of minority groups and IDPs from other parts of Iraq and Syria where the government has failed their duty to protect its citizens. Currently the Kurdistan region of Iraq provides protection for 1.2 million Iraq IDPs and Syrian refugees. The Kurdish controlled enclaves in Syria similarly protect approximately 400 000 IDPs, many of whom are also minority communities.
“We are alarmed by the threat to ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria,’ says Tørres.
“While the current situation is a result of the Iraqi and Syrian governments’ and the international society’s failed policies, ISILs persecution and deliberate targeting of groups of a different faith constitute war crimes and most certainly amount to crimes against humanity,” she continues.
The June offensive in Iraq has dramatically strengthened ISIS control of key resources. Since April ISIL’s control of the Falluja Dam in Iraq has severely affected water levels in Iraq's southern provinces. The governor in Diyala province in Iraq warned that ISIL’s battle for control of the Hamrin Dam close to Baquba could threaten water supplies both to Baghdad and Baquba. The Baiji Refinery, the biggest in Iraq and crucial to Iraq’s economy and power supply to northern Iraq, is subject to heavy fighting, and power supply to northern Iraq has been halted in the last month. In Syria reports indicate that the ISIL’s increased military capacity has amplified the threat to key infrastructure and installations. The group already controls 60% of Syria’s oil with a total production rate of 180, 0000 barrel per day (Yamin Al-Shami in Ministry of Energy in the interim Syrian opposition government). The consequences for the population are already dire. With the capture of Mosul dam, the biggest in Iraq, this weekend, the situation has become even more severe.
With the city of Sinjar (Iraq) fallen, there are indications that military ISIL is much stronger than anticipated.
“We don’t know is if ISIL is prepared to govern the areas under its control. If they cannot provide for the populations we fear that the humanitarian crisis in these areas will escalate. As the ISIL expansion is combined with de facto ethnic cleansing of populations, a possible scenario is also that a rule based on long term loyalty among the population remaining can be established. ISIL finacnes and military might last longer than expected ,” Tørres says.
“It is clear that the international community, included Norway, has long disregarded Iraq’s role for ensuring regional stability. While focus has been on Syria and the role of the neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Iraq’s role has been underestimated. The combination of the failed policies of the Iraqi government to come to terms with its Sunni population and the lack of international attention towards Iraq has allowed Iraq to become a back yard for ISIL in a way which is now posing a serious threat both to Syria and the democratic opposition and consequently to the entire region,” Tørres adds.
She says that it is now vital to see the developments in Syria and Iraq as a whole, where stabilizing Iraq will ease the dramatic humanitarian situation.
“It is also important to fully appreciate, support and recognize the very positive role which has been played by the Kurdish Regional Government in both providing protection to refugees and IDPs and in defending areas from ISIL’s expansion. In spite of all the rhetoric it seems our governments, both the Norwegian and the international society in general, do not know what to do with ISIS, and are not engaging effectively and courageously with the democratic forces that exist in the region,” she concludes.