Civilian Blood in Iraq and Syria

Commentary | September 17, 2014

EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin discusses the strategic need to protect civilian populations in the upcoming military campaign against the Islamic State. Austin highlights a 2007 EWI report that argues for the moral obligation to protect civilians as essential for any effective counter-terrorism strategy.


As a powerful coalition of states gears up to degrade and defeat the barbarous Islamic State forces, we need to prepare for the deaths of civilians caught in the cross-fire over the many years that this campaign may be in place. In its recent incursion into Gaza, Israel used leaflets and other means to warn civilians to abandon certain areas. While not effective in important ways, consideration of similar intent must now be displayed by the new coalition toward the civilian population of Iraq and Syria. How can this new alliance help them escape or avoid death and injury at the hands of the attacking coalition forces? Or from reprisals by Islamic State fighters?  

The defence of civilians from such attack by either side in coming months and years cannot be isolated from a strategy for the defence of civilians today. Sadly, the coalition partners now assembling to attack ISIL have not been engaged with such a mission in recent years. There have been good reasons for that, the most important being the reality that for all of their power, these external actors have been able to offer little protection to the citizens inside Iraq or Syria.     

There is another explanation. The external powers, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, have focused most of their attention on the state interests under threat since the Arab spring began and have paid too little attention to the humanitarian catastrophe that it has unleashed. This catastrophe has been a breeding ground for recruits to the extremist cause, as Hilary Clinton warned it would be. 

The heavy United States and allied focus on countering violent extremism, so evident and arguably quite effective for a decade after September 11 2001, appears to have faded in the more recent past. There are reasonable explanations for that. The policies became routinized and the threats became localized. The leadership of Al Qaeda had been killed, neutralized or otherwise hemmed in. Offshoots such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were fought to something of a standstill. Not so in Iraq.

By June 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) was declared and a caliph formally named, its fighters were in control of score of towns and cities in Iraq and Syria, including a number of major population centres. These include Fallujah, only 70km west of Baghdad, the scene of heavy fighting against coalition forces after the 2003 invasion and home (normally) to around 370,000 people.  

Islamic State fighters are now concentrated in urban areas with a total population numbering in the millions. How will the new coalition target the IS forces in these cities and towns without a large number of civilian casualties? The answer is it can’t. In addition to its military strategy, the coalition urgently needs a civil defense strategy for the people now under IS control. In 2007 and 2008, EastWest Institute authors offered a number of guidelines on the defensive measures and civilian mobilization needed to protect civilians while countering violent extremists. None of the papers quite anticipated the situation we see today but a short manifesto, Protect Civilians and Civil Rights in Counter Terrorist Operations (2007), asserted the centrality of a moral obligation of states to protect civilians in such circumstances. That principle now needs to inform a coalition strategy for defense of civilians in the new war.

This strategy would have to be formulated in consultation with community representatives and executed largely by civilians (on the assumption that there is no over-supply of uniformed personnel). Can we please see this strategy? It will be a lot more difficult than the military plan. Who will lead on that? 

Read the piece here on New Europe