What To Do About ISIS

What To Do About ISIS

A Moral Perspective

By Professor Saba Bazargan-Forward (University of California, San Diego).

November 05, 2016         Picture: Umit Bektas/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s November/December 2016 Issue “The Great War Series Part (III): Defeating ISIS”.

I. Introduction

The United States along with the other countries that participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 unwittingly and unintentionally laid the foundations for the birth and rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State in Syria’ (ISIS), also known as the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL). Accordingly, the United States bears no small measure of moral responsibility for the destruction that ISIL has wrought. This in no way diminishes ISIL’s moral responsibility for its own monstrous acts [See Calder on how to understand the ‘evil’ of ISIS]. Nor does it mean that the United States is as morally responsible as ISIL for those acts – far from it. But it does means this: the role that the United States played in enabling ISIL generates substantial reparative duties which morally informs how the United States should proceed in the current conflict in Syria.

To understand why the United States bears a substantial measure of moral responsibility for ISIL’s existence, it is necessary to investigate the events that led to its inception. Doing so reveals that though destabilizing the region by overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime was essential to ISIL’s inception, this result was hardly a fait accompli at the time of George W. Bush’s now infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech on May 1st, 2003. Rather, destabilizing the region combined with post-invasion policies in Iraq enabled ISIL’s rise. This dual explanation will prove morally important.


II. A Short History of ISIL

ISIL is essentially comprised of various small insurgent and so-called jihadi-groups which conglomerated over a number of years. In 1999, The Jordanian Salafi jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded the militant group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Following the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq, during the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency, al-Zarqawi’s group launched suicide attacks on Shia Islamic mosques, civilians, Iraqi government institutions, and soldiers participating in the United States-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’. Al-Zarqawi’s group officially pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network in October 2004, which became known unofficially as ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’. In a letter to al-Zarqawi in July 2005, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri outlined a plan to expand the Iraq War beyond its borders to its secular neighbors with the ultimate long-term goal of establishing an Islamic authority as a caliphate.

To bolster its credentials as a homegrown Iraqi organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq joined with several smaller Iraqi insurgent groups. The resulting umbrella organization, the Mujahideen Shura Council, in turn united with several smaller groups and six Sunni Islamic tribes, forming the Mutayibeen Coalition, just after Al-Zarqawi’s death in an United States airstrike on June 7th, 2006. The following October of that year, after the Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri succeeded al-Zarqawi, the Mujahideen Shura Council swore “to rid Sunnis from the oppression of the rejectionists [Shia Muslims] and the crusader occupiers […] to restore rights even at the price of our own lives […] to make Allah’s word supreme in the world, and to restore the glory of Islam”.

One day later, the group founded the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI). It announced Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its emir and al-Masri as its Minister of War within its ten-member cabinet. This aspirational state residing within the state of Iraq was comprised of Iraq’s six Sunni Arab governorates. It planned on seizing power in central and western Iraq with the goal of establishing a Sunni caliphate. But the combination of the United States ‘troop surge’ in Iraq and a backlash from Sunni Arab Iraqis led the ISI into severe decline. On April 18th, 2010, al-Baghdadi and al-Masri were killed in a joint United States-Iraqi raid near Tikrit. By June of that year, only eight of the ISI’s top 42 leaders remained at large. Cut off from its al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, the organization seemed all but defeated.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi succeeded Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the new leader of the ISI – such as it was by that stage. He replenished the group’s leadership by appointing former Ba’athist military and intelligence officers who had served during Saddam Hussein’s rule. In July of 2012, al-Baghdadi announced ISI’s intention to return to its former strongholds from which it had been driven out five years earlier. Within a year, violent fatalities in Iraq exceeded 1,000 per month for the first time since April 2008.

Meanwhile, during March of 2011 in Syria, a civilian uprising against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad began to take shape. Violence between demonstrators and security forces gradually militarized the conflict. The chaos in Syria presented an opportunity for al-Baghdadi. He seized upon it by sending ISI members experienced in guerilla warfare across the border into Syria with the aim of recruiting fighters and establishing cells throughout the country. In January of 2012, ISI members in Syria founded Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl as-Sham – or what came to be known simply as ‘al-Nusra Front’. It expanded quickly into a proficient fighting force, enjoying popular support among Syrians opposed to the Assad government.

In April of 2013, al-Baghdadi officially announced that the al-Nusra Front had been established, financed, and supported by the ISI – and that the two were merging under the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” – better known as ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’. Al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri rejected the merger, but al-Baghdadi subsequently released an audio message declaring that the merger was to proceed anyway. In February 2014, after an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda disavowed any relations with ISIL. Since then, al-Qaeda has been attempting to present itself as a “moderate” alternative to the “extremist” ISIL.

Following the split between the two groups, ISIL drove Iraqi government forces out of key cities in its Western Iraq offensive, after which it captured Mosul – Iraq’s second largest-city. On June 29th of 2014, ISIL proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate, with al-Baghdadi as Caliph. The group renamed itself ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah – the “Islamic State” – a proto-state with Al-Raqqah in Syria as its de facto capital. It controlled at its height vast territory in Iraq and Syria, with an estimated population between 2.8 million and 8 million people, and with an estimated fighting force of 60,000 (half of whom are foreign to Syria and Iraq).


III. What Caused ISIL: Destabilization and De-Baathification

Had it not been for the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is highly unlikely that ISIL would exist today. Even high-ranking American and British officials acknowledge this. David Kilcullen, America’s “Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism”, in charge of formulating counter-insurgency strategies in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and South East Asia, said that “We have to recognize that a lot of the problem is of our own making.” He admitted that “there undeniably would be no ISIS if we had not invaded Iraq.”

Likewise, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband concluded that the 2003 invasion of Iraq destabilized the region leading to the rise of ISIL. “It’s clearly the case,” Miliband said, “that the invasion of Iraq, or more importantly what happened afterwards, is a significant factor in understanding the current situation in the country”, referring to ISIL’s dominance there.

Crucially though, it was not just the destabilization of the region that led to ISIL’s inception. It was also the result of the policies that United States and Iraqi governments adopted during the post-invasion insurgency. In particular, the de-Baathification law put forth by Paul Bremer – the second Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq – is now infamous for its role in galvanizing insurgents. The law, in one fell swoop, prohibited 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army from government employment and from collecting pensions – while allowing them to retain their firearms.

Colonel Joel Rayburn, a senior fellow at the National Defense University who served as an adviser to top generals in Iraq suggests that the United States military failed in the early years to recognize that their policies virtually handed Baathist officers to what would become ISIL. The United States military was aware that former Baathist officers were providing tactical support to Al Qaeda in Iraq, but did not anticipate that these ex-Baathists would make the transition to leadership positions. Rather, the American officials preferred to blame foreign fighters for the success of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Ex-Baathists from the disbanded Iraqi security forces proved instrumental in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s goal of re-populating leadership positions in the ISI following the devastating defeats of the troop surge. He embarked on an aggressive campaign to persuade former Baathist officers who were now either unemployed or who had joined other insurgent groups, to join his cause. Nearly all the ex-Baathists who ultimately assumed leadership positions in what became ISIL were formerly incarcerated at Camp Bucca – an American prison in southern Iraq. There, ordinary citizens, ex-Baathists, and insurgents were detained together – a climate conducive to radicalization. Ex-Baathists ended up composing about one third of al-Baghdadi’s top 25 commanders, according to scholar Fawaz Gerges. These individuals included, notably, Samir al-Khlifawi, also known as Haji Bakr, a former colonel under Saddam Hussein, who became the designated military commander of ISI. His leadership was instrumental in the growth of what eventually became ISIL.

Brigadier General Hassan Dulaimi described the sort of situation in which many ex-Baathists found themselves. He was an intelligence officer in the Iraqi army prior to the United States-led invasion; he was recruited back into service by United States troops in 2006 as a police commander in Ramadi. But within months of the United States withdrawal, he and 124 other officers who served alongside the Americans were dismissed, losing their salaries and their pensions, leaving them ripe for ISIL recruitment. “The crisis of ISIS didn’t happen by chance,” Dulaimi said in an interview in Baghdad. “It was the result of an accumulation of problems created by the Americans and the [Iraqi] government.” He added, “the people in charge of military operations in the Islamic State were the best officers in the former Iraqi army, and that is why the Islamic State beats us in intelligence and on the battlefield.”

A former Iraqi general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said to an interviewer that when it came to ISIL’s success in recruiting former Baathists, that “the Americans bear the biggest responsibility.” He added: “When they dismantled the army what did they expect those men to do?” When United States officials disbanded the Baathist army, “they didn’t de-Baathify people’s minds,” he said, “they just took away their jobs.”

Of course, United States and Iraqi government policy regarding ex-Baathists did not alone promulgate ISIL. A variety of other factors did as well. According to a Dubai-based analyst, the marginalization of Sunni Iraqis by the Shia-dominated government partly explained ISIL’s ascendency. But what is notable about the treatment of ex-Baathists is that the reckless policies the United States and Iraqi governments adopted ultimately provided ISIL with precisely what it needed to flourish – an influx of capable military commanders and strategists.


IV. Responsibility for ISIL

 Both the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, in combination with the post-invasion policies Iraq adopted at the behest of the United States (most notably those pertaining to the treatment of ex-Baathists) enabled the birth and ascendency of ISIL. Put simply, to echo David Kilcullen, ISIL would not exist – or at least not exist with anywhere near the reach it has today – had the United States refrained from invading in 2003, or had the United States directed post-invasion Iraqi policy more wisely. If ISIL hadn’t existed, presumably – though of course we cannot know this for certain – the region would be far better off than it is now.

Thousands of those whom they have killed would likely be alive. Countless more whom they have oppressed and immiserated, raped and tortured, would likely have avoided those hardships. Irreplaceable ancient archeological monuments and holy sites would likely still exist. Therefore, were it not for the reckless blunders that the United States committed both in its decision to invade Iraq and in the policies it directed after the invasion, all of these incalculable harms would likely not have occurred. This partly grounds the responsibility that the United States bears for those harms. As stated earlier, this does not mean that ISIL is any less responsible – nor does it mean that the United States is as responsible as ISIL. Rather, it just means that the United States bears some responsibility for what has happened as a result of the decisions it made in Iraq.

Still, the fact that the decisions the United States made in Iraq are a sine qua non of the harms ISIL has committed is not enough to pin responsibility for those harms on the United States. It must also be the case that those harms were a foreseeable outcome of the decisions the United States made. Accordingly, it might be argued that there was no way, given the evidence available at the time, for the United States to have predicted precisely the consequences – especially the rise of ISIL – of invading in 2003.

But the ability to predict exactly what will happen is not necessary for an individual to be responsible for the consequences of what he or she does. The United States was in a position to recognize that invading Iraq would seriously risk destabilizing the region. This was evident given the facts available at the time: the region was comprised of multiple tribal, ethnic, and religious factions harboring deep-seated and forcibly suppressed animosity toward not only the West but each other as well, both in no small part due to the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement imposed upon them in 1916. (One expert writes that “In part, ISIL was able to expand so rapidly in 2014 because it provided an opportunistic means for groups to settle longstanding scores.”)

We needed no soothsayer to recognize that invading under those conditions risks both internecine conflict among these factions some of which might avail themselves of the opportunity that the ensuing chaos affords – an opportunity to wage war at last against secular and Shia regimes in the region, the United States, Israel, and the West. The United States might not have been able to reasonably predict in 2003 the rise of ISIL specifically a decade later – but the United States was in a position to predict that invading such a volatile region seething with forcibly suppressed animus might very well lead to catastrophe, which is exactly what has happened. Accordingly, the United States bears some responsibility for these consequences because, broadly construed, they were eminently foreseeable.

In response, one might point out that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 ostensibly with the intention of locating nuclear weapons which might be used against the United States. It might accordingly be argued that given the evidence available at the time, invading was morally justified: even though doing so risked catastrophe, inaction would risk much worse consequences. This, in turn, might be thought to substantially diminish United States responsibility for the actual catastrophe that it unleashed by invading Iraq. The underlying moral principle at work here might be put more generally: when someone commits a wrongful act that the evidence suggested was permissible at the time, it might seem unfair to impose the burden of righting that wrong solely on that individual, because it seems to impose a cost on that individual for acting in precisely the way that the evidence suggested that he or she should have acted.

This seemingly unassailable principle has an important caveat though. Sometimes we gamble with the lives of others for our own benefit. In such cases we impose risks of harms on others to secure a benefit for ourselves. Doing so is often morally permissible. But even in such cases, if the gamble goes awry – if their lives our lost and we fail to benefit – it is unfair to insist that we should bear none of the costs of that gamble’s loss. After all, we are the one who chose to undertake that gamble, and we were gambling with the lives of those who did not antecedently stand to benefit from that gamble. For these reasons, it is incumbent upon us to take on a share of the costs we imposed even when we act in the way that the evidence suggests to be permissible.

That is what happened in Iraq. The United States undertook a moral gamble where the potential benefits would accrue mostly to Americans (by potentially averting a nuclear attack) and the potential costs would accrue mostly to the Iraqi people (by catastrophically destabilizing the region). The United States gambled for its own sake, and the Iraqi people lost. It is on these grounds that the United States can be fairly asked to bear the costs of righting the situation, even assuming that the initial invasion was merited given the evidence available at the time.


“The United States gambled for its own sake, and the Iraqi people lost”.


Against this, one might point out that there was more than one aim behind the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Among them was the goal of benefitting the Iraqi people by freeing them from Saddam Hussein’s oppressive and murderous regime. So it is mistake to claim, it might be argued, that the potential beneficiaries of the gamble excluded Iraqis. According to this argument, even though the Iraqi people ultimately did not benefit from the invasion, they antecedently stood to benefit.

But imposing a gamble on someone else frees the gambler of compensatory responsibility should the gamble go awry only if the potential beneficiary consents (or, more controversially, is disposed to consent) to the gamble. If I impose upon you contrary to your wishes a gamble in which there is a 95% chance that you will win a hundred thousand dollars but a 5% chance that will suffer a broken arm, and you get unlucky, I will bear the costs of righting the harm you have suffered. Since there is no indication that the Iraqi people consented to the gamble imposed upon them – i.e., the American-led invasion of Iraq – and because they ‘lost’ that gamble in that they were left substantially worse off, it is incumbent upon the United States to bear a substantial portion of that loss.

Suppose, though, that all these arguments in favor of the view that the United States has a responsibility to bear a substantial portion of the wrongs it has engendered are mistaken. Suppose that the initial decision to invade Iraq was justified given the evidence available at the time and that hence the United States should not be held responsible for the harmful consequences of that decision, which includes ISIL’s ascendency. Recall, though, that it was not only the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 that resulted in ISIL. That decision combined with the reckless post-invasion policies Iraq adopted at the behest of the United States – most notably those pertaining to the treatment of ex-Baathists – were instrumental in ISIL’s success.

Though some people (implausibly at best and disingenuously at worst) suggest that the initial decision to invade Iraq was sound given the evidence at the time, there are virtually none who say the same of the post-invasion policies the United States directed Iraq to adopt, such as those pertaining to the treatment of ex-Baathists. The moral here is that a) even if (implausibly, in my view) ignorance regarding the consequences of invading Iraq in 2003 was at that time nonculpable, and b) even if (implausibly, in my view) nonculpable ignorance precludes responsibility for risk-imposing gambles of which the invasion of Iraq is an example, there is still ample basis for holding the United States responsible for the consequences of the recklessly mistaken decisions it and Iraq made in the post-invasion period – mistakes instrumental to ISIL’s rise.

One might still have the following worry. One might maintain that each person (or group) is responsible for his or her own actions. The philosopher HD Lewis once said: “If I were asked to put forward an ethical principle which I considered to be especially certain, it would be that no one can be responsible, in the properly ethical sense, for the conduct of another.” Accordingly, it seems ISIL is responsible for the wrongs it commits – not the United States. There is at least one sense in which what Lewis says might be correct. You can only be morally responsible for the upshots of what you do (or what you fail to do). But the wrong that someone else commits – such as a robbery – can be an upshot of what you do if you culpably enable him or her to do it – by giving her a firearm knowing that she is likely to use it in a robbery.

None of this is to say that the person who commits the wrong is any less responsible for what she does. Responsibility is not a zero-sum; we can hold the enabler responsible without simultaneously ‘taking responsibility away’ from the actual wrongdoer. Likewise, none of this is to say that the enabler is as responsible as the actual wrongdoer is. After all, by hypothesis the actual wrongdoer commits a wrongdoing intentionally, whereas the enabler merely recklessly enabled that wrongdoing. That affects the degree of responsibility that each party bears for the harm. But the sheer fact that what the enabler did foreseeably risked the harm itself grounds some responsibility for that harm.


“Responsibility is not a zero-sum; we can hold the enabler responsible without simultaneously ‘taking responsibility away’ from the actual wrongdoer”.


The responsibility that the enabler bears might manifest in various ways. It might be that the enabler has a special obligation to take on the costs of preventing the actual wrongdoer from committing further enabled harms. Or it might be that the enabler has a special obligation to compensate the wrongdoer’s victims if the party who bears more responsibility – i.e., the actual wrongdoer – cannot be apprehended.

An upshot is that as a reckless enabler of ISIL, the United States bears substantial responsibility for what ISIL has done, where this responsibility might manifest itself as a special obligation to prevent ISIL from committing further wrongdoing or a special obligation to compensate ISIL’s victims. Note that I am not suggesting that those who recklessly enabled ISIL should be retributively punished. Rather, the claim is that because the United States recklessly enabled ISIL, it is incumbent upon the United States to shoulder some of the costs of righting the wrongs ISIL is committing. But before considering what form such responsibility should take, it is important to briefly review what the United States bears at least partial responsible for – ISIL’s iniquities.


V. ISIL’s Wrongdoings

The UN Commission on Human Rights stated that ISIL “seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey”. The various massacres and atrocities ISIL has committed in both Syria and Iraq (and by its affiliates, especially in Yemen) are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria likewise has stated that ISIL is committing crimes against humanity. Amnesty International has charged the group with ethnic cleansing on an “historic scale”, specifically of Yazidis in northern Iraq, though more generally ISIL directs violence against Shia Muslims, Alawites, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac and Armenian Christians, Druze, Shabaks and Mandeans.

ISIL’s rampant brutality includes sexual slavery and rape as a weapon of war. Though ISIL has increasingly come to be viewed as a proto-state with its own militia rather than just a terrorist group, it was originally designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations, the European Union, and states as ideologically and politically varied as the United States, Russia, India, Indonesia, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. Islamic religious leaders and scholars worldwide have overwhelmingly condemned ISIL’s ideology and actions.

The monstrous wrongs ISIL has committed are not limited to harms inflicted on human bodies. Because ISIL considers worshipping at graves tantamount to committing the sin of idolatry, it has used bulldozers to crush buildings and archaeological sites. In July 2014, ISIL destroyed: the tomb and shrine of the prophet Yunus (known to Christians as Jonah), the 13th-century mosque of Imam Yahya Abu al-Qassimin, the 14th-century shrine of prophet Jerjis (known to Christians as St. George), and most notably, the 13th-century BCE Assyrian city of Nimrud.

In addition to burning thousands of ancient manuscripts gathered from convents and other holy sites, ISIL has burned or stolen collections of books and papers from the Central Library of Mosul (which they subsequently destroyed with explosives), the library at the University of Mosul, a 265-year-old Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers, a Sunni Muslim library, and the Mosul Museum Library. Some destroyed or stolen works date back to 5000 BCE.

UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova warns that ISIL is committing what she calls “cultural cleansing” by destroying the cultural heritage of Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities in the region. By destroying historical artifacts and sites, and by utterly suppressing the expression of cultural beliefs, values, and practices, ISIL is thereby able to annihilate the cultural identity of these peoples, which is a goal of genocide. “Along with the physical persecution,” Borkana says, “they want to eliminate – to delete – the memory of these different cultures.” Echoing this view, Saad Eskander, head of Iraq’s National Archives said, “For the first time you have cultural cleansing… For the Yazidis, religion is oral, nothing is written. By destroying their places of worship … you are killing cultural memory. It is the same with the Christians – it really is a threat beyond belief.”


 VI. Military Solution?

So far I have argued that because the United States recklessly enabled ISIL, the United States has an obligation to right ISIL’s wrongs. There are various ways that this obligation might be discharged. The most obvious is by defeating ISIL, thereby preventing it from doing more harm, since ISIL is unlikely to disappear on its own or as a result of local forces. British security expert Frank Gardner, concluded that absent Western-backed intervention ISIL will continue to rule an area “the size of Pennsylvania for the foreseeable future.” ISIL has replaced corrupt governance with functional local authorities and in so doing they have maintained basic services crucial to governance and popular support, including 40% of Iraq’s wheat production. As a result, ISIL is in the words of Gardner “well entrenched”; Iraqi and Syrian forced are unlikely to eliminate ISIL from the region.

It might seem that one obvious way to for the United States to fulfil its obligations is to assist in eliminating ISIL from the region, thereby preventing it from perpetrating further harms. The United States is currently involved in an international effort to do so. The Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also referred to as the ‘Counter-ISIL Coalition’ or ‘Counter-DAESH Coalition’) is a United States-led group of nations and non-state actors committed to “work together under a common, multifaceted, and long-term strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL/Daesh”. According to a joint statement issued by 59 national governments and the European Union on 3 December 2014, participants in the Counter-ISIL Coalition are focused on:


  1. Supporting military operations, capacity building, and training,
  2. Stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fighters,
  3. Cutting off ISIL’s access to financing and funding,
  4. Addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises, and
  5. Exposing ISIL’s true nature (ideological de-legitimization).


The Combined Joint Task Force ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ is a joint task force set up by the United States Central Command to coordinate military efforts against ISIL. It is comprised of United States military forces and personnel from over 30 countries. Their stated aim is to “degrade and destroy” ISIL.

Even as I write, a military push to recapture Mosul and the rest of Nineveh Province from ISIL is underway. To the extent that the United States shoulders the costs of eliminating ISIL, it will have at least partially discharged the obligations it incurred as a result of enabling ISIL in the first place.

The problem, though, is that even if such a campaign is successful, it is unlikely that it will resolve the circumstances that originally gave rise to an extremist insurgency. Ramzy Mardini, of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Center for the Middle East, has traveled through Iraq, including areas recaptured from ISIL. He reports that in such areas, there are no signs of any central authority. Instead, ethnic, tribal and religious militias have filled the vacuum. For example, in the liberated parts of Sinjar, where the Yazidis were massacred, the territory is now controlled by various militias backed by different Kurdish factions, which are in turn backed by a different regional power. This sets the stage for renewed conflict.


“If the campaign to recapture Mosul is successful, it is unlikely that it will resolve the circumstances that originally gave rise to an extremist insurgency.”


Mardini points out that the army poised to retake Mosul is comprised of “an array of armed groups (…) each driven by its own parochial interests”. This includes Sunni Arab tribal militias aiming to expand territory prior to provincial elections, Shiite Turkmen militias aiming to cleanse Sunni Turkmens from the area, Shiite Arab militias aiming to expand influence in government; and Kurdish groups aiming to control territory of their own – all of which will likely remain armed after the conflict. “Any rushed victory,” Mardini writes, “would most likely prove pyrrhic” in that it would result only in “a new, and perhaps more deadly, civil war”. He argues that the very same “false assumptions, misplaced confidence, and poor foresight” that characterized American decision-making at the outset of the invasion in 2003, and during the post-invasion insurgency, again characterizes current decision to prioritize the narrow, short-term military objective of militarily defeating ISIL.

If this view is correct, warring against ISIL – including the campaign to retake the city of Mosul and Nineveh Province – fails to satisfy the just in bello constraint of effectiveness, according to which the war must be sufficiently likely to achieve its just aims in order to be just. If the campaign to defeat ISIL merely reintroduces conflict with different warring parties then the campaign to defeat ISIL will have failed to achieve its principle goal.

One way to avoid the pyrrhic victory Mardini describes is by warring against ISIL using only United States, NATO, or UN troops, which would remain in the region to prevent the reemergence of militant groups, and to aid in the reconstruction of the country which is necessary for the kind of stability without which the country risks collapsing into renewed internecine conflict. This would likely require that United States troops remain in perpetuity.


“If the campaign to defeat ISIL merely reintroduces conflict with different warring parties then the campaign to defeat ISIL will have failed to achieve its principle goal”.


Obviously, the United States lacks the political will to engage in this kind of nation-building. (This is another casualty of the United States-led invasion in Iraq. British Foreign Secretary Miliband admits that a consequence of the Iraq war is that it has left the majority of the public in the United States and the UK unwilling to support interventions in the Middle East, even to prevent humanitarian catastrophes). But this fact notwithstanding, some commentators point out that direct United States military engagement is precisely what ISIL wants. Their goal on this view is to draw the “crusaders” from a proxy war into a quagmire of direct military conflict.

Following the plan of al-Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji, ISIL hopes that terrorist attacks on Western interests through the world will eventual draw the United States into a direct fight with ISIL while also drawing new recruits. According to Jason Burke, a journalist writing on Salafi jihadism, terrorist attacks achieve this goal in three ways. Such attacks put political pressure on governments “to make rash decisions that they otherwise would not choose”. Spectacular terrorist attacks on enemy soil also serve to galvanizes ISIL’s supporters. Finally, terrorism drives Muslim populations – particularly in the West – away from their governments, thereby increasing the appeal of ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate among them. Once the “crusaders” are drawn into direct conflict, they will be “worn down” militarily.

The fact that it is ISIL’s plan to draw the United States into a direct military conflict does not itself provide a decisive reason to do otherwise. It often makes tactical sense to do exactly what your unjust enemy wants. Suppose a hostage taker asks for a sum of money in exchange for the lives of hostages; it might make moral and practical sense to do exactly what they want. Normatively speaking, we can conclude very little from the fact that ISIL wants to draw the United States into a direct military conflict. (Indeed, the argument can be run the other way. Imagine a discussion at the top level of ISIL leadership regarding their strategy. One detractor points out that open warfare is precisely what the conservative hawks in the United States want. It is unclear what they ought to conclude from this fact). A proper evaluation of a candidate course of action – especially one as important as a resort to war – will depend on its moral and practical merits.


“It often makes tactical sense to do exactly what your unjust enemy wants”.


So what are the merits of the United States warring directly against ISIL, followed by re-occupying the region? They are not edifying. A permanent United States troop occupation in the country would likely generate an insurgency. Members of this rebellious group would target not just United States troops of course, but Iraqi civilians, since doing so would simultaneously expose the weaknesses of and punish perceived collaborators participating in the United States-organized security and reconstruction apparatus. This is of course precisely what happened after the 2003 invasion. A renewed United States-led occupation of Iraq will likely repeat the ongoing catastrophe of the first decade following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It seems, then, that a military campaign by the Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve is likely to achieve a pyrrhic victory at best; alternatively, a renewed invasion and occupation of the region will likely repeat the bloodshed of the post-invasion insurgency. Both options run an altogether too great a risk of immiserating the very population we have a special obligation to assist. A military solution to ISIL seems, then, morally unavailable. What then, ought the United States to do?


VII. The United States Obligation to Aid Refugees

Since a military solution is not morally viable, the United States can instead discharge the duties it owes to the people in the region – duties resulting from having recklessly enabled ISIL – by caring for the refugees fleeing from ISIL’s aggression. ISIL is estimated to have has displaced over 3.3 million people in Iraq alone since 2014, with millions more fleeing Syria. In 2015, the UN estimated that the Kurdish region of Iraq is hosting 900,000 refugees; 233,000 have fled from Syria and the rest from elsewhere in Iraq. In particular, more than half-a-million Yazidis were forced to flee their homes.

According to the UN, 3.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, as a result of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad ongoing military conflict with insurgents and Islamic militants, including ISIL. Presumably, many of these refugees would have been displaced even absent ISIL’s involvement purely as a result of al-Assad’s war against Syrian separatists. But ISIL’s involvement has certainly contributed to the refugee crisis.

Funding shortfalls have made it extremely difficult for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to care for the increasing numbers of refugees, particularly in in northern Iraq. In 2015, the UN agency reported that it received only 53% of the $337m required to care for displaced Iraqis in the Kurdish region.

The refugee crises will certainly worsen following the attempt to retake Mosul and the rest of Nineveh Province. Bruno Geddo of UNHCR says that the military attempt to retake Mosul “has the potential to be one of the largest man-made disasters for many, many years.” More than 1 million people could be displaced by the campaign to retake Iraq’s second largest city, which has an estimated population of 1.2 to 1.5 million. “We are planning for at least 700,000 who will be in need of assistance, shelter food, water, everything that you need in a situation of humanitarian disaster,” Geddo said. The UNHCR has already begun building camps in anticipation of the crisis, but even if the plan works, an estimated 430,000 refugees would be left without accommodations, save “emergency camps” in which the displaced persons could reside for only very short periods of time.

The moral responsibility for caring for these millions of refugees falls to the United States, not because United States has a general duty of charity or a duty of beneficence to those in need. Though such considerations might augment the reasons to care for these refugees, the duty that the United States bears is chiefly compensatory – the United States owes it to those refugees to care for them because the United States shoulders a substantial portion of the responsibility for their current plight.

To be clear, the United States alone is not solely responsible for ISIL’s rise; accordingly, it is not the United States alone that shoulders the responsibility for caring for ISIL’s refugees. The United Kingdom shares a significant portion of that burden given the prominent role it played in the 2003 invasion. But so does Turkey, which has long been accused by regional experts, Syrian Kurds, and even United States Vice-President Joe Biden, of aiding and abetting ISIL. David L. Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, writes that these allegations “range from military cooperation and weapons transfers to logistical support, financial assistance, and the provision of medical services”.

Journalist Patrick Cockburn said in 2014 that “Turkey has been a vital back-base for ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra by keeping the 820-kilometer-long Turkish-Syrian border open.” In July of 2015, United States special forces raised a compound housing ISIL’s “chief financial officer” Abu Sayyaf; he revealed evidence that officials in Turkey dealt directly with ranking ISIL members. According to a senior Western official, documents seized during that raid revealed links “so clear” and “undeniable” between Turkey and ISIL “that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara”.


“The United States owes it to those refugees to care for them because the United States shoulders a substantial portion of the responsibility for their current plight”.


It is, unfortunately, unlikely that the United States will act in accordance with the duty that it has to care for the refugees whose current plight is a result of the reckless policies the United States adopted in Iraq since 2003. A failure to abide by this duty means that the United States has wronged these innocents twice over – both in recklessly enabling their persecutors, and in culpably failing to accept the reparative responsibilities for having done so. The good news though is that in spite of the intractable morass in Syria and Iraq, compounded by the self-serving and short-sighted involvement of Russia and other regional powers, there remains a clear path forward for the United States – one which both alleviates massive human suffering and discharges the duties the United States has for wrongdoing in the region. We cannot as of yet defeat the monster we helped create. But we can and must take on the cost of caring for the millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing that monster.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Saba Bazargan-Forward
Saba Bazargan-Forward is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He works primarily in normative ethics, with a focus on the morality of defensive violence, the morality of war, and complicity. He also works on a variety of other issues in normative ethics, including: the moral analysis of coercion, the bases of compensatory liability, and the morality of mediating agency. He was awarded the Philosopher’s Annual Top Ten Papers of 2014 for his article ‘Moral Coercion’. He is currently authoring a book on complicity and the morality of war, and is co-editing the forthcoming Oxford University Press volume ‘The Ethics of War: Essays’.
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A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "Caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a statement posted on jihadist websites said on Sunday. The group, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, has renamed itself "Islamic State" and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi as "Caliph" - the head of the state, the statement said. REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)  FOR BEST QUALITY IMAGE ALSO SEE: GF2EAAO0VU501 - RTR3WBPTGhazal, 4, (L) and Judy, 7, carrying 8-month-old Suhair, react after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus May 6, 2015. The shelling happened during the visit by a Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy to deliver medical aid to their center in Douma, activists aid. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1BTUZ