Matthew Ansell considers the legacy of ISIS’ three-year presence in Iraq and the steps the Iraqi government must now take to re-build a fractured society
As 2017 draws to a close, the military defeat of ISIS is looks increasingly in reach. Iraq’s President announced this month that the terrorist group had been cleared from the countries borders.
However, as fighting begins to wind down Iraq will face a different challenge. Following three years of ISIS rule, the scale of the destruction wrought on the country is unprecedented. Its second largest city, Mosul, lies in ruins and millions of Iraqis have been displaced.
Many of the most significant impacts of this period are psychological. During the three years of ISIS rule many Iraqis worked and lived under the watch of an extremist and totalitarian regime. Children attended ISIS schools, men and boys were conscripted into its forces, and all Iraqis who found themselves living under the group’s control had to abide by the its laws and regulations.
Since Iraqi and Kurdish forces began to retake ISIS territory, the impact of these experiences has become increasingly apparent. Children and adults alike have witnessed untold horrors, facing the realities of war on a daily basis.
The Iraqi government now also faces a huge number of social problems; in the Nineveh province they have been labeled “overwhelming”. With a steady stream of orphaned children arriving from areas formerly controlled by ISIS and limited plans for reintegrating them, local bodies are struggling to muster up the resources necessary to deal with them.
Yet the obstacles to the reintegration and rehabilitation of these children, as well as the many adults who lived under ISIS, go beyond financial constraints. ISIS divided Iraqi society and those who accepted its rule now face resentment and rejection from the wider community. There are even reports from some orphanages of the babies of ISIS fighters being separated and kept apart from those of other Iraqis.
In a country with a legacy of sectarian violence, such practices threaten to entrench further divisions in society. If children, in particular, are classed as being of “ISIS” this will define their identity, sowing the seeds of future conflict.
Thus, if Iraq is to escape its violent pass and finally achieve a lasting peace, an effective policy to bridge these divides will be essential. More than just paying lip service to ideas of national unity and reconciliation, a concerted effort will be required to reintegrate children and adults alike. Similarly, psychological and psychiatric treatment will be required to address the experiences of war and destruction faced by so many Iraqis.
This is not to say that those who committed crimes shouldn’t be punished, they should, and justice must be offered to all who have suffered. However, if Iraq is to truly confront the legacy of this bleak period in its history this justice will have to be undertaken within a transparent and considered judicial process.
In particular, the government must take steps to address the limited nature of victim participation in cases against ISIS fighters. As highlighted in a recent Human Rights Watch report, victims are rarely invited to appear and testify in trials. If the country is to move forward, it is essential that the group’s victims get their day in court.
Steps towards reconciliation are not without their difficulties, not least because so many families understandably seek revenge after facing the unimaginable terror of ISIS rule. However, if Iraq is to finally move beyond the conflicts of recent years, its leaders must reject the draw of summary justice in favour of a more considered approach, involving a concerted effort of reintegration as well as a transparent judicial system that is able to separate genuine criminals from those who committed no crime other than to live in ISIS controlled territory.