Let’s start with a number. On any given day, more than 17 million barrels of oil pass through what is known as the world’s most important chokepoint.
Those 17 million-plus barrels constitute about 20%, give or take a few percentage points, of world oil consumption daily.
The waterway in question is the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf to the north. It is 33km wide at its narrowest – where its “chokepoint” shipping lane measures just 3km across.
This is barely enough space for supertankers to pass.
Any interruption to seaborne oil-trade through the strait in the world’s most volatile region would immediately push up oil prices, add to risks of a global recession and prompt concerns about a wider conflagration in the Middle East.
The Strait of Hormuz is not simply a chokepoint. It would become a flashpoint in the event of military confrontation between the US and Iran.
It is hard to overstate the dangers of unintended consequences from an escalation of American military pressure on Iran that risks bringing the region to the brink of war and severing an economic lifeline to the rest of world.
This scenario hardly bears thinking about. Yet Donald Trump has seemed determined to push Iran to the brink by re-instituting punitive economic sanctions that are causing real hardship to Iranians.
What is at stake for the regime in Tehran is its survival. It will not yield to crude American pressures which reflect a certain mindset in Washington that appears to believe that regime change on the cheap is achievable.
At the heart of an escalating dispute between the US and Iran is the US withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions, notwithstanding that Iran was complying with its obligations. Iran is now threatening to resume production of low-enriched uranium beyond amounts specified in the deal.
This agreement was negotiated over many months by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Washington’s abrogation of it ranks as the most irresponsible act – among many – of the Trump administration.
America’s stringent sanctions that penalise entities that do business with Iran, allied with risks of conflict in the Gulf, are exerting enormous stress on the Western alliance.
American leadership in this case is perceived to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian specialist at the International Crisis Group, warns of a mistake or a miscalculation. He told The New York Times:
President Trump may not want war, but he will get one unless he balances coercion with diplomacy.
At this point, there is not much sign that American diplomacy provides a real prospect of an easing of tensions.
This week, the US announced it was deploying another 1,000 troops to the region to join more than 6,000 already in place. It has sent an aircraft carrier battle group to the Gulf, and has positioned B-52 bombers on bases in proximity to Iran.
All this is feeding high levels of anxiety in the Gulf region and across the Middle East. Further afield, markets across Europe, Asia and North America are nervously watching developments.
Whatever Washington’s strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran is, it is not working. It is also not clear whether there is a plan B.
America’s avowed aim is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to force concessions on the nuclear deal. The US also wants the Iranians to scale back what Washington perceives to be their destabilising behaviour in the region.
This includes allegations Iran is behind a series of attacks in the Gulf on shipping tankers and oil pipelines in recent weeks. Iran denies involvement.
Circumstantial evidence of Iranian involvement is fairly compelling. But such is the damage done to Western intelligence credibility by mistakes in the lead-up to the Gulf War in 2003 that anything Washington says based on its own intelligence is questioned.
Let’s put forward another figure. The 17 million barrels passing through the Strait of Hormuz daily represent 30% of the world’s seaborne-traded oil.
Those shipments account for the bulk of oil shipped by the world’s major oil producers and OPEC members – Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
There’s another figure that is relevant. About 25% of the world’s traded liquefied natural gas (LNG) also transits what is arguably the world’s most strategically important waterway. Qatar, which matches Australia as the world’s largest exporter of LNG, sends almost all of its LNG through the strait.
In other words, this is a crowded energy superhighway by any standards.
The strait connects the Arabian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman to the south and the Arabian Sea beyond.
It is bounded on the eastern perimeter by Iran and to the west by the oil-rich Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia.
Tehran is certain to have a roster of retaliatory options starting, no doubt, with a further disruption to shipping in the Gulf. American naval forces could be deployed to keep Gulf sea lanes open, but this would come at a cost.
The most immediate cost would be felt in the world’s energy markets. What could not be discounted is another war in the Middle East and the destabilisation of the entire region.
These are dangerous moments.
Eleven years after the U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, triggering a war between Islamic State militants and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, Iraq has finally achieved some measure of stability.
But the Iraqi government isn’t taking any chances that this terrorist organization, commonly known as “IS,” could regroup.
Over 19,000 Iraqis suspected of collaborating with IS have been detained in Iraq since the beginning of 2013, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, according to reporting by Ben Taub of the New Yorker. Sunnis are members of the sect of Islam from which IS predominantly recruits.
Suspected terrorists are often tortured into offering confessions that justify death sentences at trial. According to Amnesty International, common forms of torture include “beatings on the head and body with metal rods and cables, suspension in stress positions by the arms or legs, electric shocks, and threats of rape of female relatives.”
The government’s crackdown on Sunnis – even those with no evidence of ties with Islamic militants – sends a troubling signal about Iraq’s prospects for peace.
Our research into conflict zones shows that when post-war governments use violence against citizens, it greatly increases the risk of renewed civil war.
Repression following civil wars
The period after an armed conflict is fragile.
Citizens traumatized by violence wish fervently for peace. Defeated armed factions may have their sights set on revenge.
It is a risky strategy.
We studied 63 countries where civil war occurred between 1976 and 2005, including El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The results, which were published in the academic journal Conflict, Security and Development in January, show a 95 percent increase of another civil war in places where governments engaged in the kind of torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances that Iraq’s government is now undertaking.
Civil war is most likely to break out in former conflict zones if civilians believe they will be targeted by the state regardless of whether or not they actually support an insurgency.
Often, our results show, people respond to indiscriminate clampdowns by arming themselves. That is easy to do in conflict zones, which are home to many former rebels with extensive battlefield training and access to weapons, including both active militant groups and the remnants of vanquished insurgencies.
Assessing the risk of renewed war in Iraq
Sadly, Iraq has been down this road before.
In 2007, the U.S. military surge sent more than 20,000 additional American troops into combat in Iraq to help the government of Nuri al-Maliki – which came to power after Hussein’s demise – fight Al-Qaida and other Islamic militants.
The U.S. enlisted Sunni insurgents to help them find, capture or kill Al-Qaida operatives during this period of the Iraq war, which is often called “the surge.”
That decision inflamed the centuries-old sectarian divide between Iraq’s two dominant religious groups, Sunni and Shia Muslims.
During former Iraqi President Hussein’s rule, Sunni Muslims controlled the country, and his government actively repressed Shia citizens. Since Hussein’s ouster, however, Iraq’s government has been run by Shia Muslims.
After the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011, the U.S.-backed al-Maliki government began a brutal campaign to consolidate its authority. From 2012 to 2013, he expelled all Sunni officials from Iraq’s government and silenced opponents using torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances.
At the time, our study of renewed fighting in conflict zones had just begun. The preliminary findings made us concerned that al-Maliki’s use of violence to assert control over Iraq could restart the civil war by pushing angry Sunnis into the arms of militant groups.
Unfortunately, we were right.
Starting in 2014, the Islamic State began moving swiftly from Syria – where it was based – to conquer major cities across neighboring western Iraq.
Iraqi Sunnis, who were excluded from politics after Hussein’s overthrow and fearful of government repression, did little to stop the incursion. Islamic militants increased their recruitment among Iraqi Sunnis by promising a return to Sunni dominance in Iraq.
Many Sunnis took up arms against their own government not because they supported IS’s goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East but because they hated al-Maliki’s administration.
By June 2014, the Islamic State had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just 250 miles north of Baghdad. It took three years of fighting and the combined force of Iraqi, U.S. and Kurdish troops, as well as Iranian-backed militias, to rid the country of this terrorist organization.
In September 2017, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Abadi claimed victory over IS in Iraq. The international community turned its focus toward Syria, where Islamic militants were continuing their war on citizens and the government.
What’s next for Iraq
Still, the Islamic State remains a persistent and legitimate threat to both Syria and Iraq, with some 30,000 active fighters in the region. Its commanders have reportedly buried large stockpiles of munitions in Iraq in preparation for renewed war.
American intelligence officials have warned against President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying it will give IS more freedom to regroup there and in Iraq.
The Iraqi government’s crackdown on Sunnis is, in part, an effort to eliminate this threat, since IS could draw renewed support from disaffected Sunni Iraqis across the border.
But many observers think Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi is also exacting revenge on Sunnis for previously joining IS in armed warfare against Iraq’s government.
Rather than prevent more fighting, our research suggests, Iraq’s clampdown on Sunnis may spark another civil war.
Eric Keels, Research Associate at One Earth Future Foundation & Research Fellow at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee and Angela D. Nichols, Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University
December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.
Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.
Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.
Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.
Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.
Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.
The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.
One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.
Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.
The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.
The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.
These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.
An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.
Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.
Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.
The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.
Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.
Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.
Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.
IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.
Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.
The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.
The 193 signatory nations to the convention will assemble from November 19 this year at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for the latest periodic review of the chemical weapons convention.
As reported today in Science, this is an important opportunity to get some key things back on track.
The chemical weapons convention is a legacy of the end of the cold war. The collapse of the Soviet Union reinvigorated the long-dormant chemical weapons control process. This culminated with most nations signing and ratifying the chemical weapons convention, which came into force in 1997.
Each nation is responsible for the destruction of its own stockpile of weapons (either alone, or with the help of others), with compliance monitored by OPCW. So far about 96% of declared stocks of chemical weapon agents have been eliminated, including all of Russia’s declared stockpile.
Fit for the mid-21st century?
Most nations accept that chemical weapons are an anachronism, with only limited military value against an enemy of similar technological sophistication.
But there has been a rise in recent years in the use of chemical weapon agents against civilian populations, as in the Syrian civil war, and as tools of assassination, such as in the murder of Kim Jong-nam and the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in the UK.
So are chemical weapons climbing out of the grave we thought we had consigned them to?
What is a chemical weapon?
It’s important to clear up a common misconception about the chemical weapons convention and how it handles lethal chemical agents.
Under the convention, the use of the pharmacological effects (what the chemical does to the body) of any chemical to achieve a military outcome (death or permanent disability) makes that a chemical weapon.
This means that novel agents, such as the Novichok (or A-series) chemicals alleged to have been used against the Skripals, are illegal, not because of their structure but due to the attempt to use them to kill.
This definition can create some complexities. If we take as a given that many chemicals are potentially lethal – it’s the dose that makes the poison – how do you regulate compounds that are likely to be used as weapons?
How should these be distinguished from those that could be fatal, but aren’t typically applied for ill-purpose? For example, the anticancer drug mustine – also known as nitrogen mustard – is a schedule 1 weapon under the chemical weapons convention (under the codename HN2).
Police action or short cut to new weapons?
Riot control agents are those such as pepper spray, 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (better known, slightly erroneously, as CS-gas). These compounds are designed to cause the victim discomfort. But the effects dissipate soon after the victim is removed from exposure – similar to if you get capsaicin in your eyes while cutting chillies, you can wash the compound away with lots of water or milk.
These agents are only lightly regulated under the chemical weapons convention. Their use is allowed as part of normal law enforcement, but prohibited in war.
Different to these, incapacitating agents are defined as those that cause the victim to lose consciousness, or otherwise become systemically incapacitated – but the effects of these are not reversible by removing exposure.
Examples include chemicals that cause massive sensory hallucinations and prevent the victim from recognising reality.
There is much debate about the ultimate safety of riot control agents, but in general they are seen as safe unless incorrectly used. On the other hand, a Russian incapacitating agent is believed to have caused many of the fatalities during the 2002 Moscow theatre siege.
So how can these agents be legal, while the agent used in Salisbury is immediately considered illegal? What is an appropriate level of chemical force that should be acceptable when applied to a person as part of civilian policing?
What level of research into, or stockpiling of, such compounds would suggest the goal is no longer to develop countermeasures, but is part of an offensive chemical weapons program?
The CWC was written to outlaw these things, but has its success only moved the goalposts? These are open questions that the review should address.
Responsibility of scientists
Questions about how responsible a scientist is for the use of their work probably go to Fitz Haber and beyond. The 1918 Nobel Prize winner is generally considered the father of modern chemical warfare for his suggestion that the Imperial German Army use chlorine, the first lethal chemical weapon of World War I.
Today there are several questions about how scientists should interact with the world, using their knowledge to educate the public through the media, while avoiding drawing attention to possible misuses of that knowledge (or allowing their messages to be manipulated to cause panic).
Is it a greater good for society for me to explain that nitrogen mustard (from the example above) treats cancer, than the risk that someone will now try to steal some mustine from the oncology clinic to misuse it?
There is also the problem of dual use technologies. These are techniques that can equally be used develop a new pharmaceutical, or could be applied to develop a new nerve agent.
How much regulation of day-to-day research and commerce is acceptable to prevent those who would do us harm having access to materials and knowledge?
In the 20 years since the ratification of the CWC, we have made discoveries and improved access to technologies that may make it easier to create a truly effective improvised chemical weapon.
The chemical weapons convention has almost reached the initial goal of the signatories, the elimination of chemical weapons. Now the convention needs to move with the times, to prevent backsliding from the prevailing culture that considers chemical weapons to be unspeakably barbaric.
As the war in Syria comes to its final stages, the future of the country and the whole region hangs in the balance. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad consolidates his power by defeating all opposition, resistance runs the risk of transforming into a new wave of organised terrorism.
My analysis at the beginning of 2018 predicted an imminent end to the conflict, with Assad victorious over the rebels. The final stage of the war was foreseen to be fought over the critical city and province of Idlib, the stronghold of the rebel groups. The capture of Idlib would cement Assad’s control of Western Syria demarcated by the Euphrates River.
Idlib and Daraa were the first places where the civil war broke out back in 2011. Daraa fell to Assad’s forces in July 2018. Inevitably, Idlib was next in line.
Since 2015, Idlib has served as a repository of insurgents escaping Assad’s forces. The strategy of Assad was clear: to overwhelm opposition forces in every city with Russian air support; destroy as many of the armed rebels as possible; allow remaining armed rebels to move to Idlib as a temporary safe haven and then launch a final attack on Idlib to wipe out all armed opposition. The plan followed exactly this path, and worked.
Millions of displaced civilians have also moved to Idlib, escaping the war elsewhere. The United Nations has warned an attack on Idlib could be “the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century”.
In July 2018, the world and the US administration waited nervously to see what the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit would bring for Syria. But the Syria issue was overshadowed by the issue of Russian meddling with the 2016 US elections and Trump astonishingly choosing to believe Putin rather than his own intelligence aides over the matter.
The relative insignificance of Syria during the summit, coupled with Trump’s lack of strategic insight, must have reconfirmed with Putin that the US was continuing to take a back seat in Syria. Soon after the summit, Assad and Russia intensified their preparations to attack Idlib.
Other key people in the US administration were not as uninterested as Trump. Security adviser John Bolton, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as well as other European powers issued repeated warnings against the use of chemical weapons.
In response, Russia has launched a PR campaign claiming that the US and Western bloc countries used a staged chemical attack as a pretext to strike Assad. At the same time, Russia was busy reinforcing its naval forces in the Mediterranean by adding 10 more battleships to its sizeable fleet.
Having pacified the US and its Western allies, Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Tehran in early September to decide the fate of Idlib and its inhabitants. Putin publicly rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for a ceasefire.
About a week later, Putin and Erdogan met. Putin announced an agreement between Russia and Turkey to create “a demilitarised zone of a depth of 15-20km, with the withdrawal from there of radically minded rebels, including al-Nusra”.
No-one is sure who the “radically minded rebels” are, but Turkey will act as a guarantor in the demilitarisation process, relying on its significant influence over the rebel groups.
Turkey had no choice. It was facing the real possibility of another wave of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians adding to the 3.5 million Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey. More importantly, escaped jihadist operatives were likely to regroup in Turkey, creating a massive internal security threat to that country.
As the first group started to leave the demilitarised zone on September 30, a small group of refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon. These are certainly good signs, but they don’t mean the war has ended. There is not even an official ceasefire in place, and the UN continues to issue warnings that Syria is still too dangerous a place to live and operate.
What is certain is that all parties, including Turkey, the US and some opposition groups, have now accepted the inevitability of Assad staying in power as the only legitimate government in Syria. This reality will have two main ramifications.
Firstly, once totally free from armed opposition, Russia through the Assad regime is likely to challenge the US presence in Syria. Russia is not in Syria for a benevolent reason, but chiefly to ensure the permanence of its access to the Mediterranean Sea. A permanent US presence in Syria clashes with this objective.
By the end of 2018, and certainly in 2019, demands for the US to leave Syria will intensify – an eventuality that Trump clearly articulated back in April 2018. The US is likely to withdraw from Syria on the condition that Iran’s influence in the country is contained. Russia and Assad will make promises, but once the US is out, Iran will come back in.
Secondly, the biggest issue facing Syria is the deep feeling of resentment within a large segment of the population. They will question why the war was fought, creating 5 million refugees, displacing 6 million and killing more than 400,000, given that Assad is still in power in the end and Syria is no closer to being a democratic country advancing human rights and progress.
For some, the resentment will remain inward. But for a significant minority, the resentment will brew and turn into an unstoppable rage, perhaps manifesting in the familiar form of suicide bombing squads. They will reorganise themselves and launch a campaign of terrorism focusing mainly on easy civilian targets. This will only serve Assad’s narrative that fighting terrorism has reinforced his claims to legitimacy in the eyes of Syrians and increasingly within the international community.
The campaign of terrorism may inevitably spill over to Russia for staunchly supporting Assad, and to the US and its Western allies for allowing Russia to take the upper hand in Syria, subverting all attempts to get rid of Assad.
Civil war in Syria may be coming to an end with Assad firmly in power, but the resentment it generates is likely to evolve into a new wave of terrorism.
The belief that we must not let our soldiers “die in vain” dates back to ancient Athens. During the Peloponnesian War, Pericles delivered a funeral oration in which he urged his compatriots to see themselves in the heroism of recently deceased fighters. Honouring these heroes, he argued, required continuing the struggle with Sparta. The living could prove themselves worthy of the sacrifice of the dead only by fighting for what they fought for and embodying the virtues (such as courage) they embodied.
In modern times, political scientists have argued that it is “important to say of those who died in war that they did not die in vain”. This notion was echoed by US President George W. Bush when he suggested that the people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks “did not die in vain”.
And, just like Pericles, Bush suggested the best way to prove that deaths in the so-called war on terror were not in vain was to continue the conflict. In this way, war becomes an end in itself. The fighting may never cease because there is always one more soldier to honour, one more civilian casualty to avenge.
Through a glass, darkly
The way people talk about the dead and the traits they hope to manifest by way of honouring them tell us what counts as a virtue in their community. In my previous research, I’ve show that different communities celebrate their dead in different ways. Most of my work has focused on civilians, but I recently began to investigate what is said about combatants killed in action.
One interesting and troubling comparison is between the obituaries of Western soldiers who have been killed in the Middle East and those of Islamic State fighters.
Here’s a little quiz: which of the following traits are associated with IS “martyrs” and which with Australians recently killed in action in Afghanistan, Iraq and nearby countries?
- a leader
The truth is that most of these traits are associated with both populations. To establish this, I coded every obituary published by the Islamic State in its two online magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, along with a matching sample of obituaries published in Vale by the Australian Department of Defence.
I then mapped out the patterns of co-occurrence among traits to see which virtues are associated with combatants in each community. Here’s what the Australian Department of Defence and IS have to say about their war dead:
Both the IS and the Australian data are available for examination. What these texts tell us is that ISIS and the Australian government speak of their dead in similar ways. And both use the occasion of martial grief to motivate the continuation of conflict. In so doing, they place death in the context of an ongoing narrative or trajectory that points to further violence as the only acceptable option.
There are, of course, some differences. Australian soldiers are more likely to be remembered as professional, easygoing and larrikin. IS fighters are more likely to be remembered as ascetic, deceitful and harsh (towards enemies – not in general). Their obituaries tend to refer to religious concepts such as aqidah (adherence to correct creed), manhaj (theological insight), and taqwah (pious humility).
These terms refer to values of the local community just as much as “larrikin” does for Australians. And IS fighters are praised not just for their religious or theological virtues but also for traits we find more familiar and congenial. Even someone as the bloody-minded as “Jihadi John” (Mohammed Emwazi) was praised in his obituary for his sense of humour.
Moreover, just as the obituaries published in Dabiq and Rumiyah tend to call others to continue the struggle, so the obituaries published in Vale often include and even conclude with calls to action. In one, the deceased soldier’s commanding officer declares:
We will honour his sacrifice by finishing what he helped us to start.
In another, the decedent’s family concludes that he “would want his colleagues to keep fighting the cause”.
From monuments to memorials
The philosopher Arthur Danto has suggested we “erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget”. Monuments express a community’s pride and commitment to victory; memorials express a community’s remorse and commitment to redress.
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Monuments to those who die in battle also encourage and sometimes demand the interminable renewal of conflict. Even if it makes us queasy to recognise our shared humanity with killers as deeply evil as Jihadi John, perhaps a shift from monumentalising our war dead to memorialising them is necessary. Otherwise, we stand the risk of becoming what we rightly despise.