Day: July 1, 2017

The mist of peace

I enjoyed, in a manner of speaking, a discussion with colleagues this week about post-liberation security and justice challenges in Raqqa. Then David Ignatius wrote an interesting and hopeful piece about the situation in Tabqa, a town liberated on the way to Raqqa:

To look at people’s wary faces, uncertain but with a trace of hope in their eyes, it’s like they’re waking up from a nightmare.

The question is whether this hope will be realized, or dashed. David’s final line casts a shadow of doubt:

But the Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies are doing the fighting and the dying on the ground, and for better or worse, it’s their vision of governance that will take hold as the Islamic State falls.

Quite right, and quite concerning. Here is my short list of challenges likely to arise:

  1. Revenge killing: All town under Islamic State rule have suffered years of Islamic State brutality. Many people will want justice, and a few will seek revenge. Once revenge killing starts, it is difficult to stop. And in tribal societies the obligation may be a collective as well as an individual one.
  2. Property crimes: A lot of people have been displaced from their homes and a lot of homes have been destroyed. People will want to return, quickly if conditions allow, in order to reclaim their property. Others may be squatting in it, or tilling a field that is not their own. Property records may be lost or destroyed, and in any case settling property disputes in court may not be possible for a long time. When all else fails, violence prevails.
  3. Power contests: Whenever power changes hands, there is a risk of violence as various contestants try to fill a vacuum, assert their authority, and defeat others. Raqqa may see a particularly complicated array of contestants: local tribes, Arab forces from beyond the immediate area, Kurds, Syrian Army, Iranian-backed militias, and Americans among them.
  4. Institutional legitimacy: The Americans are vowing to obliterate the Islamic State in Raqqa, which is now surrounded. They intend to let no ISIS fighters escape, which means physical destruction will be extensive. Whose institutions will replace ISIS? Will Syrian government institutions, including courts and administrative offices return, or will a local council take charge? How will new institutions be legitimized and funded? What will their relationship be with Damascus?
  5. Mass graves and other evidence of crimes: The residents of Raqqa will want  justice for their loved ones who were murdered and abused. But they will also want to recover their bodies. Doing so breaks the chain of evidence and makes it difficult to achieve accountability in court later on. Tussles over mass graves and recovery of bodies can also be a cause of violence.
  6. Stay-behind operations: While the Americans may hope to obliterate ISIS, likely some fighters will survive and go underground to conduct terrorist operations against the population or against whoever establishes authority. Booby traps and improvised explosive devices are hard to defend against. This was a major factor in Iraq after the American invasion, when Saddam’s paramilitary stay-behind forces conducted successful operations to destroy government institutions.

This is just a half dozen possibilities off the top of my head, based on experience elsewhere. There may well be others. These security and justice challenges will be on top of the others: removing mines and rubble, reconstructing homes and shops, re-establishing markets, providing electricity and water, reopening schools and hospitals…

I’m told the Americans have committed $30 million, mainly for clearing mines along the main routes as well as getting water and electricity flowing again. They want to avoid any semblance of involvement in “state-building,” though they have trained a few hundred Arab police and are prepared to pay them for a short time.

There is talk of Central Asian peacekeepers for Raqqa, which would at least avoid the optics of the US turning Raqqa over directly to the Syria government, the Iranians, or the Russians. I suppose Kazakhstan and others might consider the proposition, but it is not clear to me how Stan troops would be received by the Syrians. Nor could they be expected to do much in responding to the above exigencies.

What this means is that someone else will have to do the rest. If it doesn’t get done, ISIS comes back–in one form or another. The Assad government may step up to some of the civilian service delivery, but only to re-establish its authority and on condition that its security forces should return. Whether the people of Raqqa will put up with that or insist on their own institutions isn’t clear. When the fog of war lifts, there may be a “golden hour.” But then the mist of peace descends.

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