One of the worst wars in the history of human civilization puts the great Nazi-Allied conflicts of the 1930s-1940s to shame. The scope of the atrocities played out in the reigning West Asian war – the protracted and ongoing clash of diverging political, social and religious interests in Syria and Iraq is nothing less than cleansing of a quarter of the human race that helped draw the demographic parameters of the Asian landmass over the centuries. In the crosshairs is the citizen on the street jammed between the army and the militias – more than 475,000 dead and over 100,000 missing in Syria alone in the last five years and more than 65,000 in Iraq since 2014 when the civil war tore apart the fragile socio-economic machinery rebuilt after the 2003 war that felled more than 500,000 in the Levant region (including civilians and the armed forces).
The numbers cutting across the swathe of the Asian conflict zone – from Iraq to Afghanistan in the last decades – address the scope of the human tragedy that refuses to ebb despite interventions by the big powers that be. According to the Cost of the War Project- a stock-taking platform of 35 scholars and legal experts working since 2011 – in the last 15 years, US involvement in the region have cost more than 600,000 military and civilian lives – ousting over 700,000 people from their homelands – at tabs running up to nearly $ 13 trillion in financial costs and still counting. The coordinator of the project Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute of International Studies, Brown University says “on an average for every person killed in fighting, four other people have died because of the indirect consequences that can be felt for months and years later”.
In Iraq alone, more than 215,000 deaths were documented between 2003 and 2017, says Statistica, a portal that disseminates war deaths across conflict zones. The period between August 1 to August 11, 2017 witnessed more than 11,000 documented deaths in Iraq resulting from stray assaults and suicide blasts on civilians by “jihadis” and those caught in the crosshairs of army operation. The number of undocumented deaths is almost as high as those registered in the government and army logs. Analysts say civilian deaths in the wars raging in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan can be slotted into categories – those caused by direct confrontation between the army and the marauders (in this case the radical Islamic militias) and the regime forces in which civilians bear the burden of the bullets and loss. The second and the more protracted kind is rooted in vendetta- ensuing guerrilla raids after full-scope conflicts. The maximum collateral damage unleashed by the 2003 conflict and the ongoing war in Iraq since 2011 has been wrought by the stray explosions and the suicide attacks by “jihadi” cells in busy public spaces – except for areas like Mosul where the government forces are locked in a two-edged battle with the radicals and “indirectly the civilians” in the populous areas of the urban habitats where the militants are holed up among civilians – using them as human shields against the firing squads.
Rough estimates say more than 200,000 people are still trapped in Mosul despite the official victory of the government forces in July – and the United Nation warns that civilians are still paying the price of carpet air strikes on the Islamic State posts. The city is a virtual crematorium- gutted, dismantled and buried under mounds of rubble. Sporadic airstrikes continue to haunt civilian enclaves as the battle moves beyond the borders of Mosul.
“We feel that civilians are in an increasingly dangerous situation as the air strikes and the ground conflicts intensify, possibly resulting in many more casualties as well as retaliatory assaults by the IS in densely populated civilian areas,” UN high commissioner for refugees Prince Zeid Bin Rand said. A report in the Iraqi News says the Iraqi government plans “to swivel its firepower to other Islamic State havens in Anbar, Kirkuk and Salauddin – and last IS outpost in Iraq, Nineveh, which can be invaded any time”. The Iraqi Defence ministry said the army was waiting for orders to enter Nineveh, a historical city. Operations by the pro-government militias, the Popular Mobilisation , isolated the town from Mosul and from the Syrian borders. The militia has already taken over several border villages, holding the residents at gunpoint
Iraq is a victim of a protracted civil war like Syria and Palestine – unlike many other west Asian and Gulf nations, where conflicts have been short-lived following in the cue of intense civil wars or internecine strife. One example of this is Yemen, where a war between the regime, coalition forces and the Shia rebels or the Houthis – allegedly backed by Iran- has wiped out nearly a quarter of its population in a span of two years. The war which began in March 2015 is now being waged across multiple spaces – drawing in the Islamic State and the al-Qaida militant organizations which are fighting for space against the Shi’ite Houthis – and a hostile regime – harvesting the milieu of political breakdown (with a president in exile) and control vacuums. The consequences have been devastating. As the civic infrastructure crumbled with continuous aerial strikes by the Riyadh-led coalition forces – deployed to bring the government back to the helm – and dwindling flow of aid, citizens have been put to the mat by outbreaks of epidemics. The foremost among them are cholera and malnutrition.
The first outbreak of cholera was reported in October 2016- a bout that could be contained. The scourge witnessed a resurgence in April 2017 – and by June, the UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the total number of cases had exceeded 200,000 with 1,300 deaths and 5.000 new cases each day- with a quarter of the deaths among children who are still dying for want of medical care.
Iraq has been in the crosshairs twice – in 2003 and in 2011 – and onwards till this day. One of the reasons for the ongoing war is that it is being waged on the native terrain of the IS – the Levant region – where it began as a backlash against the regime and western occupation forces in the early years of the decade of 2000 when Abu Musab al- Zarqawi began to train extremist militants under the banner if Jama’at al- Tawhid wa’al. After swearing allegiance to the al-Qaida, it shifted focus to Syria besieged by retaliatory strikes by the regime armies. The group remained muted till 2013 – involved in covert operations through various front organizations till in 2013, it changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The “jihad” that the soldiers of the “caliphate”- as the Islamic State describes its rank and file– is fighting to establish a Islamic hegemony (historical caliphate) has long ceased to keep its spotlight on the government and the forces of establishment. The war in the name of religion and political power grab has spread across as tools of mass terrorism intimidating and killing innocent civilians – to whip up psychosis of fear in the society as a ploy to bend political wills and turn international attention to the civilian excesses in an organized publicity initiatives by owning up to “mayhems” in formal official communiqués. In the past three years – since 2014 – civilian pogroms have been accorded official legitimacy in the conflict zones of west Asia (and in the middle-east).
The American military acknowledges in private – as insiders in the defence point out – what non-government monitors have been trying to highlight for years. The United States coalition and the government (Iraqi, Syrian, and Saudi axis) fighting the Islamic State and other rebel forces like the Houthis and al-Qaida since 2014 has been killing “civilians at an astonishing rate – more so in the months since President Donald Trump assumed office” and pulling powerful players like Russia, a pro-regime ally in Syria – into the middle-eastern conflict. It has drawn a contiguous geopolitical map of conflict from Afghanistan, where new alignments are making the pitch difficult for the Taliban with the presence of Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Haqqani forces aided reportedly by Pakistan and by proxy China, locked in a conflict with India and on hostile engagement with the US because of Trump’s aggressive stand on North Korea and the South China Sea conflict. The result has been a staggering loss of civilian life, says the United Nations Independent Commissions of Inquiry into the civil war in Syria.
The civilian toll has shot up because the battle has moved deeper into the populated areas of rebel towns like Raqqa- the centre-stage on the current war between the Syrian regime forces, the coalition forces, the US-aided Kurdish militias, the Russians and the Islamic State- and earlier in Mosul.
Over the decades, the wars in the middle-east have changed dynamics – beginning with faith as in the Israel-Palestine conflict between the Arabs and the Jewish people – to terrorism and proxy wars by the big powers to dislodge tyrannical regimes detrimental to bilateral defence engagements, manoeuverings and commerce between the west Asian & middle eastern nations and the global power blocs led by the US, Russia, the European Union with its trade interests, the NATO with its agenda to maintain an armed status quo in the Atlantic, Suez and the Baltic regions and the recent entrants – China and an east Asian caucus. The change in the nature of regional conflict that has raised alarm in the fraternity of international rights monitors, political observers and the corridors of the power capitals across the east and the west is the human cost of the middle-eastern and west Asian conflicts.
Armed conflicts with conventional warheads – ground assaults – have been pushed to the fringe with the high incidence of carpet air raids which have often gone haywire as in the recent bombings by the US-led coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, use of killer chemical agents, strategic cutback and destruction of essential infrastructure like food and medical aid necessary to keep the civilian population out of the war lines – alive – to the maximum extent possible- in a throwback to the World War eras.
The war on radical Islamic terror – the chief driver of the West Asian and the middle eastern conflicts since 2011 and even before – (since 2003 after the overthrow of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain and the ensuing birth of ISIL in the aftermath of the Iraq war) – has metamorphosed the strike patterns from planned assaults by terrorists on stragetic targets of vital importance – like on world leaders, key military establishments, business hubs like the 9/11 carnage of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre by the al-Qaida, public venues and commercial utility capacities – to guerrilla hit-and-run raids on civilians to enhance the scope of civilian damage, triggering public outrage and fear among the softer targets of insurgency. The car bombings of Iraq, serial bombings in market places and crowded urban hubs, the stray assaults on civilians, beheadings and mass killings in Syria – and even in Israel where the assailants have picked up smaller weapons like knives and pocket firearms to kill in public spaces in an attempt to rivet maximum eye shares – and elsewhere across the world in Europe (auto-attacks on civilians), suicide attacks in Africa, the market bombings of Turkey, and even in US (like the mass shootings of civilians in utility and entertainment facilities) point to a concerted change in the tactics of “jihad” emanating from the middle east and West Asia. The ‘jihadi’ warriors are moving away from macro to micro-level conflicts –precision, small and serial – to kill the man on the streets- unwitting, unprepared and unprovoked victims of a war fought among a complex praxis of forces – operating beyond the portals of everyday haunts, access and concerns (like faith) removed from the struggle of livelihoods.
On a sweeping estimate, a quarter of the civilian infrastructure in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan (where the Taliban is fighting The establishment and the spillage of Islamic State militancy desperate to acquire greater footprint in the Muslim bloc and South and East Asian turfs to form greater linkages with west Asia and middle eastern jihad) has been wiped out in the last two decades. A report in the media says 11.5 per cent of Syrian population (according to Syrian Centre for Policy Research) have been exterminated since the beginning of the conflict in 2011). Nearly 13.8 million Syrians have lost their source of livelihood.
A World Bank estimate (for 2016) says the cost of rebuilding war-ton Syria may touch $ 180 billion – a figure that is likely to notch northward by several billions in the years to come. Analysts say it could cost “anything between $ 84 billion to nearly $ 500 billion to rebuild Iraq- ravaged by two decades of conflicts.
Aid, say observers, is hard to come by despite entreaties by the United Nations fending off cuts in fundings by hostile nations like the US and Israel and an internal power tussle among the “big five” – and the governments concerned. All civilian advocacy measures to propagate de-escalation of conflict in civilian zones and ensure safety of the citizens have foundered in west Asia and middle-east with players – the coalition, regime and the enemy “jihadi” forces intent on holding out till the fall of the bastions to either side like in conventional warfare. Citizens in Mosul and Raqqa have been used as human shields by terrorists – in the old quarters of the city – either to ward off regime forces or as hostage walls to flee the strongholds.
A section of the regimes – like in Syria, Iraq and proxy superpowers like Russia, US and even Britain – believe that terrorists (jihadis) have spilled over into the civilian mosaic in a manner making the dividing line very thin and blurred. Any crackdown on the radicals – who have sought shelters in crowded residential neighbourhoods to dodge precision raids on hideaways- takes its toll on the civilian population despite intents to the opposite. The terrorists melt into the throng with strategic meticulousness to divert counter-insurgency drives that put civilians in the crosshairs. The “grand” magnitude of the human tragedy in west Asia and the middle east – and the growth of the culture of jihad – has transformed the geopolitics and polarized the demography of the region – early hinging on clash of faith (conflict of civilizations) to a sectarian and internecine pockets of discords with the wars diminishing in ideology to target Shia-Sunni and ethnic animosities (like between the Turks, Iraqis and Kurds) with the superpowers arming one against the other.
The prospect of contiguities appear to recede to the misty margins – as the desecration of cultures and history of the ancient lands rage on in a construed attempt to wipe out the lineages that crafted the geo-boundaries of the middle-eastern nations and its living cultures to put in place polity blocs and commercial swathes engaged along the alignments of the new cold wars being fought over economy, oil and territories to push trade agendas. Religion – the preserve of the common man as an emotional and cultural pivot – is a tool of subversion by the “jihadi” (soldier of the caliphate) and their world coalition alike to deepen the fissures in a multi-polar world – where each order or rather dispensation jostles for space. In an irony, the dispensations of the smaller power blocs are directly or indirectly aligned in trade or bilateral cooperation with the “big five” – or the handful of rogues (like Iran or north Korea – which too have proxy alignments) as the media observes that vetoes in global comities of trade, commerce, and geopolitics. In the crosshair- is the dishevelled Muslim, the Semite or the odd Christian – the conflict zones of Asia – for whom the search for food and medicines transcend the greater implications of the politics of the conflict and the “jihad”. The warring regimes are mute to this simple code of existential dilemma – who is the enemy, the protector and the target segments. The common man. A middle east or west Asia without adequate number of people – an estimated 11 million people have fled Syria alone since the outbreak of the war – and urban infrastructure is a dead-end; wastelands on the global map useless in its geopolitical relevance to the superpowers.
(Former Editorial Consultant
The Statesman, Kolkata)