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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 49 New Delhi November 28, 2015

From Paris to Beirut: Is the War Against ISIS Losing Sight of its Humanitarian Objectives?

Friday 27 November 2015

by Sanjal Shastri

From the recent string of terror attacks in Beirut to the (alleged) bombing of the Russian airliner in Egypt and the carnage in Paris—all these clearly point to a strong ISIS link. It has now been more than a year since the International Coalition Against the ISIS started their bombing campaign. The debate over escalation of airstrikes and widening the scope of the operation is of great relevance today.

The events of the past week have pushed international public opinion into believing that the ISIS poses a similar security threat to that posed by the Al-Qaeda post-9/11. If we rewind the clock back by a year, the discourse surrounding the ISIS was a lot different. A year back the international community had not completely comprehended the magnitude of the security threat that the ISIS posed. The threat was mainly confined to aid workers in Iraq and Syria and at the most the danger of ‘lone wolf’ attacks. What captured everyone’s attention was the humanitarian threat posed by the ISIS. One can recall the strong media coverage given to the plight of Yazidi minorities stuck on the Sinjar Mountains. The discourse was more about saving civilian populations from the ISIS and defending basic human rights.

Naturally, a significant part of the mandate of the International Coalition Against the ISIS included protecting basic human rights and saving the minorities from the ISIS. More than a year later, and especially after the events of the last one week, there seems to be a clear shift of focus. The question arises as to what happens to the humanitarian objective of the operation? The ISIS still controls large segments of territory in Iraq and Syria with many civilians and minorities still trapped. Who is going to defend the basic rights of these people?

The danger we face today is that the ISIS is increasingly being looked at as the Al-Qaeda of the 2000s. There is a fundamental difference between the ISIS and Al-Qaeda, which is being overlooked. The Al-Qaeda was ‘hosted’ as guests in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Similarly, in Yemen they were guests of local tribes. The Al-Qaeda may pose a security threat but human rights violations committed in Afghanistan were by the Taliban. The security threat and the threat to human rights were two separate entities. The ISIS, on the other hand, is different because unlike the Al-Qaeda, it controls territory in Iraq and Syria. Therefore in this case, the security threat and the human rights threat are posed by one and the same entity.

As a direct consequence of the Paris attacks, the French President has indicated his willingess to increase air strikes. Obama and Vladmir Putin have also echoed similar views. In the eyes of Hollande, Obama and Putin, the ISIS’ defeat is important to defend national security. A linked element is the need to protect the minorities trapped in Syria and Iraq. The operation against the ISIS should not lose sight of its humanitarian objectives. One can recall, counter-terror operations in Afghanistan and Yemen have brought with them significant collateral damage. If a similar operation is replicated against the ISIS, the collateral damage will undermine the humanitarian objectives of the operation. After the recent wave of attacks there is always the temptation to increase the scope and intensity of the military operation, similar to what happened after 9/11. We need to remember here that, unlike in Afghanistan, there is a significant humanitarian component to the latest operation, which cannot be ignored.

The events of the last one week have highlighted the security threat the ISIS poses. To add to that, one needs to take into account the fact that the returning ISIS fighters are a serious national security threat. As serious as the danger is to those living far away from Iraq and Syria, the ISIS is a far greater threat to civilians living in regions in their control. The need of the hour is for a proactive strategy that balances the security concerns on the one hand and the humanitarian concerns on the other. Though the threat they pose is similar, the ISIS, one must remember, is not the Al-Qaeda. Along with national security, the well-being of civilians in the ISIS-controlled territory is of vital significance. That is why the War Against the ISIS must not lose sight of its humanitarian agenda.

The author has completed his M.Sc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and is currently on a UN internship in Chile. He can be contacted at sshastri93@gmail.com