A glimpse into the Post-Daesh
A recent news story might on the surface seem relatively inconsequential, but it likely is one of the first of many of its kind to come. It marks a transitionary period, one that has yet to begin in many places, that of areas conquered by Daesh being liberated and attempting to return to normal. In the case, an American man who defected from Daesh is facing charges from federal prosecutors in the USA for “material support of terrorism.” The man, Mohammad Khweis apparently fled Daesh of his own accord and handed himself over to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. So far, he is not connected to acts of violence or terrorism while a member, yet he faces charges nonetheless.
The Guardian article which brought my attention to this raises interesting questions, but they’re entirely framed inside of the present: how should this be handled so that it can be of benefit for deterring others from joining Daesh? Is that done by prosecuting him, as federal officials seem convinced, or will that potentially deter some who have joined Daesh from defecting, or push them into defecting without handing themselves over to other forces? There are no clear answers.
As more and more battles play themselves out, many may fight to the death, but what of those captured alive, or who refuse to fight? Will all remaining members be incarcerated in their countries of origin? Given the instability in Syria it seems far more likely that Iraq may actually be in a position to use its justice system for former Daesh fighters- but Mohammed Khweis, pictured above, wasn’t a fighter by most accounts. Since merely going to Daesh territory is illegal for Americans, he is being prosecuted. I certainly wonder how effective putting him in prison can be, given that radicalization inside prison remains a troubling phenomenon we don’t know enough about (and one I wrote about in my last post, btw). It is very possible that Khweis would be welcomed by radical jihadis inside prison and venerated for his role fighting with Daesh. One could also see why he might not want anything to do with them given his choice to leave and reported arguments over ideology with other Daeshis, but the harsh realities of prison often force people to embrace groups they’d otherwise want to avoid. This question- how to deal with surviving members of Daesh and the manners in which these issues are resolved will have a lasting impact on the societies in these areas of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and others.
Rupture and Transition
As pointed to above, different areas are already experiencing the rupture of Daesh rule, I’ll call it sovereignty here for more clarity, and the immediate attempts to (re)impose the sovereignty of other actors over those areas. In parts of Iraq, Kurdish forces are the ones seizing control, while in Anbar as we’ll see below, it’s the Iraqi government and the Hashd militias that are imposing their rule post-Daesh. As Juan Cole noted recently, “(Y)ou have nationalist Kurds, hopeless Sunni Arabs and militantly nationalist Shiites. The Shiites, at 60% of the country, probably have the social and economic weight to keep at least the Arab areas together. But it could be a sullen, cold-shoulder unity.” Just as there was tremendous instability and uncertainty when the United States overthrew the Iraqi government, there lurks here the possibility of renewed instability and different, more chaotic forms of violence.
Daesh had formed what can be called a “network of violence,” a term I take here from Samer Abboud’s work on Syria, and arguably even became a state. This involved moving to monopolize the use of coercive force, something Daesh largely if not completely succeeded in doing. By this, I mean that violence was pushed to its borders- the sites of confrontations with other militias, and that inside the territories Daesh was the only organized actor using force to coerce or enforce law. That raises the question- what laws will be enforced post-Daesh? How will this be done? And until a complete monopoly on coercive force is achieved, which may take some time, who will enforce law? As readers might already have surmised, the struggles to (re)establish sovereignty can themselves be prolonged, violent, and usher in major changes, the nature of which is almost impossible to foresee.
To begin to venture answers to these questions, a recent VICE news report showed fascinating footage I expect to become an important part of Iraq’s history. Militias working for the Iraqi government moved into villages and towns surrounding Fallujah in the Anbar Province after Daesh fighters had been forced out. What the video shows, however, is dealing with the remnants of Daesh. Soldiers remove their flags, paint over their graffiti, and allow some residents to return to their homes that Daesh had seized. Most interesting and important, by far, were the open-air tribunals carried out by these militias. They had rounded up a number of men who were accused of being Daesh supporters in various ways. They brought these men before a gathering of village elders and local leaders (all men from what I can see), and asked in front of everyone- was this man with Daesh? Different people speak up affirmatively or negatively and are asked to provide evidence-how do you know? What did you see him do? Those determined to be Daeshis- some of whom are more easily spotted because they’re foreign and their accents give them away- are taken into custody and we are not privy to their fate.
(screenshot taken from VICE News video linked below)
The manner in which these tribunals are carried out will have long-term implications for stability and reconstruction in areas Daesh controlled. One can see there is hesitation at times, people are either unwilling to speak up or gauging the tone of others before doing so. One can only imagine how tense those present must feel- they know the man’s fate and freedom hang in the balance. There are clearly power dynamics, potentially never voiced, but understood- about who is condemning whom and who does or doesn’t speak on a man’s behalf. This manner of extracting “truth” through public denunciation not only leaves the formal judicial hierarchy but remains highly questionable as we can see. In another scene, the Iraqi Colonel is notified of where men who collaborated with Daesh live, and we see him sitting in what I presume is their house, chastising them for what he says they did- they meekly deny it, but their guilt is presumed. Given the ad hoc and informal nature of these proceedings, combined with the very real and long-term nature of the results, those potentially wronged in this process will struggle to reverse them or prove their innocence.
This brings us to a point where I would like to draw on a basic framework for transitional justice drawn up by the ICTJ. They outline the four most important aspects of transitional justice to be criminal prosecutions, reparations, institutional reform, and truth commissions. We’ve already touched on the prosecutions above, with a hint of truth commissions, but reparations and institutional reforms are yet to be addressed. What might they look like? I imagine that reparations will have to deal with the large number of displaced citizens, though I fear addressing all the refugees forced to flee outside of their countries because of Daesh may prove too large. They will also have to happen in a much more formal and systematic manner than we see in the video. Addressing the needs of internally displaced citizens could be a means to make sure that the homogenization and sectarianisation do not cement in place. Those familiar with Lebanon after its Civil War know just how much the composition of so many neighborhoods changed, and how those neighborhoods are very different places today because undoing all that displacement proved too difficult. I think the state will have to do more than the ad hoc truth commissions it has taken so far, and doing so without some form of amnesty will prove very difficult.
All this being said, I certainly understand the desire to carry out this transitional justice quickly and efficiently, removing whatever remaining elements of support Daesh has. This is not the exclusive path forward. As my colleague Onur Bakiner pointed out while reading a draft of this piece, Turkey, for example, offered a form of amnesty to PKK fighters who were not implicated in crimes. Yet, the Iraqi state pursues a complete military victory. In this sense, the state, insecure because of prolonged weakness and crumbling sovereignty, reasons that no mercy can be shown to Daesh. Onur likewise pointed out to me that the combination of seeking complete military victory, no amnesty, and quick ad hoc trials on the ground comes dangerously close to victors’ justice. Combined with the factors I cited from Juan Cole above, this may undermine the very gains the Iraqi state sought by acting quickly.
Waiting to carry out this transitional justice, on the other hand, is not without pitfalls. Carrying out high-profile trials, especially ones where there may be domestic or international elements supporting those on trial, can test the strength of any state. How many of these would the state have to carry out? My guess is easily more than 2,000, depending on how many former Daesh fighters were part of each case. It would not be unforseeable for remaining elements of Daesh to attempt attacks on courtrooms, on institutions more broadly, to attempt to interrupt or stop trials in progress. The failure to achieve justice in those trials could mobilize thousands against the state. Lebanon, for example, could not carry out the trial of Rafiq Hariri’s accused killers on its own; Iraq managed to with Saddam Hussein but his trial saw a judge replaced for appearing too soft on defendants. Thus it is far from certain the Iraqi state is strong and stable enough to carry out the necessary trials against accused members of Daesh.
In summation, neither of the broad paths forward I sketched here is without problems; it will be a question of mitigating the downsides of whichever path is taken. The fighting that might bring an end to the war is sadly far from the end of the conflict. Major dimensions of Iraq and Syria’s futures remain undecided even after Daesh is defeated militarily. While Iraq remains fragile and the topic of partition is once again on the lips of many, Syria remains torn (to say the least) about Bashar al-Assad’s rule. If Iraq is seen as corrupt, inefficient, and weak, Assad is tainted with the legacy of his war on Syrian society and has no legitimacy to lead the country through the painful postwar transition and rebuilding, assuming he is potentially still in power. If he isn’t, Syria can move past his brutal rule but will have its own very painful transition period before that can be finalized.
On the upside, videos like this one show us the joy that people express once they’ve been liberated from Daesh rule. It is truly beautiful to see their happiness and cheer. This happiness can be a tonic for now in light of all the uncertainty, but sadly there’s much more still to be done.
I would like to thank Onur Bakiner for his insightful comments on a draft of this blog:)