Not a day passes without talk of ISIS’ atrocities in Iraq and Syria. Their persecution of minorities has been enough to possibly “amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” and recent reports of their systematic killing of members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe have again shocked the international community. The tribe has opposed the jihadist group in their advances in Anbar province and the massacre was part of ISIS’ strategy to ensure control over Iraqi territories. These tactics have alarmed the West and form a large motivating factor for the current intervention in Iraq and Syria.
Yet the barbarism of ISIS is not the only evil we must guard against. We must equally condemn the vengeful crimes being committed by government backed Shiite militias. These militias, including the notorious Badr Brigades, have “abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians” and “enjoy total impunity for these war crimes.” Bodies of civilians have been recovered which bear the hallmarks of execution-style killings – handcuffed with gunshots to the head. Furthermore, the militias are demanding crippling ransoms of thousands of dollars for their prisoners. Even if the victim’s family can deliver such a sum of money, the militias often execute the prisoner anyway. The story of Salem, a “father of nine from Baghdad” is particularly horrifying – his body was discovered in a Baghdad morgue two weeks after his family paid $60,000 in an attempt to secure his release. His head had been crushed and his hands were cuffed.
Alongside these abductions and executions, Shiite militias have engaged in forced relocations of entire Sunni communities. In Yengija, a village near Kirkuk, the Khorosani Brigade (no relation to the Al-Qaeda affiliated group bearing a similar name) reduced the settlement to a “scene of utter destruction.” In some towns, the Peshmerga, the de facto military force in many northern cities, are unable to enter militia-controlled areas.
What may scare observers is the fact that these militias are armed by Baghdad. They receive weapons and other materiel from the central government, which relies on them to stem ISIS’ advances. With the (American-trained) Iraqi army in its present condition, this policy of equipping militias will be an important aspect of any coalition campaign against ISIS. However, civilian atrocities and so-called reprisals will make the fight against ISIS far more difficult. The jihadist group demands the acquiescence of Sunnis – any atrocities committed by the very people who should be helping these tribes will only drive them into the hands of al-Baghdadi.
We must end these crimes because we need Sunnis on our side. If Iraq and its partners are to push ISIS back, and have any prospect of removing them at the root, the Sunni tribes, ISIS’ prospective ideological base, must disavow the group. They must disavow them not only on an ideological level, but also on a practical level. For if they do not, and if tribal elders believe that they will be safer under ISIS than under the central government, the fight against ISIS will prove impossible. The Iraqi government, and its coalition partners, must make it easy for tribes to stand up to the militants. Al-Abadi must gain their trust and loyalty, something that he will never obtain while events like the razing of Yengija continue.
Government-backed atrocities also play into the hands of ISIS’ propaganda masterminds. ISIS are sickening in their ideas and actions, but they do not massacre Sunni tribes wholesale. The aura of fear surrounding Shiite armed forces provides ISIS with a tremendous sectarian propaganda tool – submit to us, and you won’t be killed. We will even protect you from these marauding Shi’as. If Baghdad creates a climate in which ISIS morphs into some form of protection for Sunnis, they create a very dangerous climate indeed. It legitimizes ISIS and makes them more appealing to tribes that may be undecided about aiding the government in the fight against the jihadists.
So, how can the coalition prevent these terrible militia acts? For one, militias’ access to government supplies should be contingent on their good conduct. This policy may be a thin line for al-Abadi to walk – too much limitation and he runs the risk of hamstringing militias in their fight against ISIS. Too little limitation and they will simply continue as before. Restrictions like these may be tough for the Iraqi prime minister to stomach, especially with Mohammed Salem al-Ghabbani as his interior minister, a man with strong ties to the Badr Brigades. Nevertheless, many tough decisions will have to be made in the campaign against ISIS. Hopefully al-Abadi has the foresight to control his fighters.
America and its partners could also play a role in reining in groups like the Khorosani Brigade. Military officers could be embedded in militia groups, playing the dual role of military advisor and humanitarian observer. Although this would require deployment of frontline personnel, it may prove to be a powerful restraint on the militias. If Western states, together with their Arab allies, increase their involvement in Iraq, this would be a good measure to prevent sectarian escalations.
It is easy to talk in lofty terms about counterinsurgencies and war crimes, but we must never forget the people on the ground in this quagmire. ISIS is characterized by their disregard for the rights of many – we must prevent ourselves from becoming that which we seek to destroy. If this virulent sectarian violence continues, any intervention will only put ISIS into remission. Violence marginalizes groups and fuels attitudes that will allow ISIS to spread its insidious fingers once again.
Alex Davies is pursuing an independent major in International Relations and Computer Science at Cornell University.