After the complete American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, observers hailed the end of the war as the dawn of a new era of peace and stability for the country. American involvement had seemed the last barrier to internal harmony, and Iraq appeared poised to usher in an era of long-term internal improvement. Of course, things were not so simple—American involvement in the country had, in fact, deeply undermined the Iraqi government and galvanized extremist groups to seize power, culminating in the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The devastation caused by ISIS and other extremist groups in Iraq represents a humanitarian disaster of untold proportions. Since 2011, violence in the country has resulted in over 70,000 civilian deaths alone, of which more than 50,000 can be directly attributed to ISIS.
Despite the massive death toll, however, the discussion surrounding the crisis revolves not around the thousands whose lives are brutalized, but around politics, military strategy, and high-level analysis of unfolding events. Bombings and combat fronts are assessed by their influence on regional and global geopolitics, rather than on the basis of the visceral pain and damage that they continue to inflict on so many people.
Relegating these developments to dry categorization is certainly intellectually and emotionally convenient. It is easy to pretend that events exist within a clear vacuum of good and bad; Western and non-Western; ideas to support, and ideas to detest—despite a knowledge that it is never really that simple. The only judgment that can be simple is that the experiences of every individual touched by violence are marred by pain and stuck in a circle from which there seems no apparent respite.
Recently, the renewed assault on Mosul has been hailed as an opportunity for the Iraqi government to finally bring the country under a semblance of stability. In the grand scheme of the conflict, however, this transition of power is utterly irrelevant. Despite Western news outlets throwing their support behind different groups and parties, observers should shift their gaze towards the big picture—the human suffering behind the statistics.
A Humanitarian Time Bomb
While geopolitically, the recent actions by the Iraqi government may appear promising, they represent a humanitarian nightmare in the making. Al Jazeera estimates that 1.5 million people will flee Mosul by the end of the siege. ISIS continues to inflict violence on civilians, conducting mass executions and other heinous crimes. Observers in the area have recounted a litany of atrocities; one report from the ground speaks of “hundreds of bodies buried in mass graves,” and the United Nations has recently confirmed reports of civilians being used as human shields in the battle. Throughout this, ISIS has issued a blanket death threat towards anybody who attempts to leave the bloodshed.
Such wanton violence raises the natural question about ISIS control in the region. Some argue that the present carnage in the battle for Mosul, while horrifying, provides an opportunity for Iraq to solidify stable government. According to this line of reasoning, the problem arises not from an inherent instability in the country, but from the rise of ISIS. This indicates that, even if the present battle for Mosul represents a human rights crisis, the civilian bloodshed is worth it for the long-term benefit of eliminating ISIS.
No single battle, however, can hope to reverse the long trend of instability that plagues Iraq. Even if the Iraqi government for now seems likely to establish control over the city, it is still unclear how this achievement will result in long-term improvement and stability. Already, displaced families from Mosul have flooded Kurdish-controlled regions in Iraq, overwhelming the local government’s meagre resources.
Not nearly enough attention is paid to the humanitarian turmoil that each of these actions inevitably entails. Though the Iraqi government continues to make progress in recapturing the city, hope for lasting humanitarian change in the country is distant. Undoubtedly, the immediate effect on life has almost entirely been an increase in human suffering.
Image Source: Wikipedia/Mahmoud Hosseini