Islamic State, Iraq and Syria: Considering non-violent solutions

Christine Schweitzer

In the wake of the NATO summit in Wales in early September, the United States forged a new “Coalition of the Willing” to conduct aerial operations against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria. Almost 60 states heeded the Americans’ call. Some, like the US, Britain, Australia and France, are conducting bombing raids; others, like Germany, are supporting operations by training the Peshmerga or supplying them with arms.

Yet again, both measures are claimed to be justified on “humanitarian” grounds and by the “global war on terror”. Pleas by aid organisations that it was humanitarian aid that was needed, rather than “humanitarian weapons”, fell on deaf ears. And yet again, like in Kosovo, it is the people on the ground who are doing the fighting and the dying – the Western states aren’t risking the lives of their own soldiers but bombing from a safe distance high in the sky (and probably also using drones like those deployed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia). Many countries are exporting arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga, ignoring the concerns voiced by many observers. Throwing more weapons into a situation like this – where no-one can say for sure that they will not fall into enemy hands or be turned against opponents other than those which the Western governments now have in their sights, isn’t simply playing with fire – it’s much more than that. We shouldn’t forget that the very arms which IS is using came from military aid for an Iraqi government which a similar Coalition of the Willing installed after the devastating war against Iraq in 2003, and that it has been the non-inclusiveness and general behaviour of this government which led to the creation of IS. The German peace organisation Federation for Social Defence (Bund für Soziale Verteidigung, or BSV) published a lengthy paper on this topic back in August in which it shared its thoughts on possible non-violent alternatives to engaging IS militarily. The following is an extract from this paper.

·         IS is reportedly very amply funded. Does it carry its money around in sacks? Perhaps it does, occasionally. Or has it stashed this money, together the wealth it now commands in Mosul, back into bank accounts? Assuming this is the case, who do these banks belong to? Is there any way of pulling the financial plug on IS, sullying its reputation in the international weapons market? This is a conclusion which the UN Security Council has also arrived at – Resolution No 2170 dated 15 August 2014 threatens action against anyone funding IS, calling the organisation an associate of Al Qaeda.

·         Another source of revenues which IS is said to have opened up recently is the sale of crude oil. Who are the buyers? And here, too, do these buyers carry their money around with them in sacks? Do they magically beam the barrels of oil to their destination – or do they use conventional means of transport like roads or the sea, or perhaps even a pipeline?

·         Reports broadly agree that IS enjoys backing from a variety of Arab countries, first and foremost the Gulf States. Even if it is not these countries’ governments but individuals and families there who are supporting the extremist groups, there really must be some way of intervening here.

·         What about the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation? These two international bodies could potentially play a constructive role in addressing different facets of the wide-ranging conflicts in the region, of which IS is merely the most violent manifestation. Topics range from the question of the future Iraqi government, to re-engaging with Iran, through to developing new initiatives for mediating in Syria.

·         IS is aggressively recruiting new personnel – which is hardly surprising given that it must have sustained huge losses, even if no mortality figures are available. Is this not an angle which could be addressed? What makes youths and young men want to join a jihadist organisation? A thirst for adventure, delusions of grandeur, financial difficulties, fear of reprisals against family members? The fact that IS appears to have forcibly recruited many children, or has done so in Syria at least, would suggest that it has no option but to brainwash its personnel on a massive scale in order to keep them on board, not unlike the Lord’s Resistance Army in eastern Africa and other militias which to this day count child soldiers among their ranks.

·         IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a self-proclaimed caliph, which in Islamic theology means he believes himself to be a successor of Muhammad. Nearly every Muslim outside IS disputes this assertion. Many in IS circles, too, are likely to feel a little uneasy. So reaching out to devout Muslims and encouraging them to publicly declare that what IS stands for has nothing to do with most Muslims’ understanding of the Islamic faith is another way to drain support for IS over the medium term. (This is frequently already happening.)

·         Inevitably, there will also be some IS fighters who turn their backs on the organisation and quit. There is already talk of infighting. Is there no way of supporting these deserters, either financially or by granting them immunity from prosecution? Currently, most governments only seem interested in either barring their way back into society or treating them as criminals, unaware that by doing so, they are also closing the door on those who may wish to escape from IS, having rued their decision to join the organisation in the first place.

·         There are communities and organisations in Iraq and in Syria, too – indeed, Rojova is an entire (Kurdish) region in Syria – which are striving to create a different, non-violent society based on the idea of building bridges between communities and interest groups. The full version of this article mentions some of them by name. Stories and communities like these are beacons of hope showing that even in war-torn regions, there are ways and means of acting in a non-violent manner. It is admittedly highly unlikely that hostilities in the region will cease overnight, but we in the pacifist movement can nonetheless made a tangible difference right now by throwing our weight behind humanitarian and political initiatives of the sort mentioned in this article.

Another point is worth making here. At the time of writing, the Peshmerga and their international supporters appear to have achieved some initial modest military success, opening up a route for Yazidi refugees to escape from the war. Of course, saving these people is something to be welcomed. But it is nonetheless a minor success, and there are still no real signs that IS will be vanquished by military means any time soon. President Obama himself has warned that this operation may be a protracted one lasting many years. In the meantime, the mere fact that IS is holding its own against the US-led coalition, which, for many Muslims, is an anti-Islamic initiative, is burnishing the appeal of IS and its campaign of anti-civilian terror among extremist groups around the globe. The “war on terror” has yet again helped to give birth to new generations of terrorists.

It can also be assumed that the “war on terror” will only strengthen the utter ruthlessness of IS’s reprisals against anyone who refuses to join them – war always makes extreme human rights violations easier to justify, and makes it harder for people to resist IS. Resistance like this has been seen on a small scale in Syria, as journalist Julia Taleb describes in an oft-quoted article ( It may well be that, at the end of the day, it will indeed have to be the people on the ground – those living where IS operates – who overcome it. But not by military means, or at least not just militarily, but through non-violent resistance. In the longer term, IS will not be able to thrive without the cooperation of the people in the areas it controls – the larger these territories are, the more difficult this becomes. This makes for a setting where strategies of non-violent resistance (or civilian-based defence) might take root.

In Syria, the two years preceding the arrival of IS showed just how instable the armed Islamist groupings were, how quickly people moved from one group to the next, and how easily they started fighting each other. The same goes for the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The current perception of the stability of IS may be short-lived as well. In the meantime, the “international community” should focus on delivering humanitarian aid to the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and refugees from the stricken countries, and it must stop adding fuel to the racist and anti-Islamist sentiments which are growing so quickly in many Western countries.

Christine Schweitzer, 20 December 2014

The original German article, which was written by Georg Adelmann, Stephan Brües, Ute Finckh-Krämer and Christine Schweitzer in August 2014, can be downloaded from the BSV’s website:….

 Translated from the German by Ben

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