Attrition: The 21st Century Champion So Far

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November 14, 2021: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is still active, but not nearly as much as it used to be. In Syria the most active ISIL remnants are in the eastern Syrian desert area west of the well-watered Euphrates River Valley. Because the few thousand ISIL members are distributed in rural areas of Suwayda, Deir Ezzor, and Homs provinces. This range extends south to the borders of Iraq and Jordan. This thinly populated area is dominated by Sunni Moslems plus a few Shia Moslems and Druze. This area was controlled by ISIL from 2014 to 2017. Since early 2018 the area has been partly controlled by the Syrian Army and some local militias backed by Iran or, in one case, Russia. ISIL has established many hideouts, usually among local Sunnis which ISIL maintains good relations with.

The targets of ISIL attacks are Syrian government forces and anyone else not native to the area. There is a lot of traffic passing though on a highway stretching from the Iraq border to Damascus. To put this mayhem into perspective, consider that from early 2018 to late 202 (about 18 months) about 1,400 people were killed in this ISIL infested area. That’s about 18 dead a week. Some 60 percent of the dead were government forces, mostly the Syrian Army but about 16 percent of the government losses were among militias. About 35 percent of the dead were ISIL and 5-10 percent were civilians, usually people caught in ISIL attacks on supply convoys or checkpoints along the few main roads. That’s 70-100 casualties a week if you count wounded. The government forces and militias have priority access to what little medical care is available. ISIL has to improvise to care for about ten to twenty wounded they suffered a week.

Medical care for Islamic terrorists has always been a problem. In 2014, when the Islamic state was established in western Iraq and eastern Syria ISIL called for like-minded Moslems to come join them. ISIL specifically called for medical and technical personnel to help essential provide services. That appeal brought some medical personnel but there were never enough doctors and other medical specialists such answering the call. Medical professionals who were trapped in areas ISIL overran in 2014 were assured of good treatment if they continued using their healing skills for other residents of the Islamic State, especially ISIL men wounded in action. If that didn’t work, family members were held as hostages to ensure cooperation. Wounded or ill ISIL fighters were given priority but there was no specialty care for the seriously ill, even senior leaders. Some of these might be covertly moved to Turkish hospitals where cash purchased discreet specialized care. Current ISIL force in southwest Syria miss that access to Turkish medical facilities. For the lightly wounded ISIL has learned to obtain suitable medical supplies for members or friendly locals who know how to act as medics. ISIL still has lots of cash and is believed to have established access to expensive (because of the bribes) medical care across the borders in Iraq and Jordan. This only applies to the badly wounded who can be moved and saved. These borders run through desolate areas and are not patrolled intensively. Local smugglers can get anything or anyone across for cash or other favors. ISIL pays in cash and armed assistance to the smugglers if anyone is bothering them.

Since 2018 there has been a lot less combat in Syria. This is not just because ISIL has lost control of all the territory it once occupied and administered, but because the fighting throughout Syria had declined to levels not seen since 2012. Most of Syria is now back under the control of the Assads, although most of the population is not. In 2011 there were 21 million people living in Syria, now there are about 14 million. Most of the lost population is still alive but outside Syria; mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

At its height ISIL controlled over ten million people. In addition to that several other major Islamic terror groups outside Syria pledged allegiance to this Islamic State and continued killing after ISIL lost its real estate in Syria and Iraq. The still active factions included Boko Haram and al Shabaab in Africa, and many smaller groups in Asia and the Middle East. By 2018 the Islamic state and all its affiliates had killed over 40,000 people directly and many more from secondary effects like starvation, disease and exposure. Most of the deaths attributed to the Islamic State are considered Islamic terrorism but ISIL (and most other Islamic terror groups) insist they are simply enforcing Islamic law, which mandates execution for a wide variety of infractions. This is a contentious subject when it comes to classifying deaths because Islam is a religion where, in its purest form, there is no separation of church and state. “Islam” is a term derived from an Arab word for “submission”. Many religions call for believers to submit to the will of God but Islam is very literal about that, and nations that enforce Islamic (Sharia) law execute people for trying to join another religion or saying or doing a long list of things that Islamic law forbids.

Most of the world considers enforcement of this extreme (or “pure”) form of Sharia a form of terrorism and state sponsored murder. This is not a unique problem and that is why it is customary to ignore (or reclassify) legal (government approved or carried out) terrorism. That has always been a problem, but more of a political than a statistical one. The commonly (but not universally) accepted definition of state sponsored terrorism is “bad government”. A fancy term for the mass murder such bad government produces is “democide”. The 20th century was something of a peak period for democide. Soldiers and police killed over 200 million civilians in the 20th century. For every soldier killed in combat, more than two unarmed civilians were slaughtered in what has been, so far, the bloodiest century in human history.

But it gets worse. Three quarters of those dead civilians were killed outside of a combat zone, and most were killed by their own government. That's simply democide. It is still going on in a big way, and not just with the transitory Islamic State. The Syrian civil war saw the Assad government deliberately attack pro-rebel civilians. Since that included most of the Syrian population the immediate goal was not to kill them, although over 100,000 direct deaths were probably the result, but to get the pro-rebel Syrians to flee their homes and, preferably, the country. About a third of the population did just that. Meanwhile North Korea has been killing its own people in large numbers since the 1990s. That state-sponsored murder has accounted for nearly two million deaths so far. Anything close to the true number won’t be known until the current government is gone and access to the territory and population of North Korea is possible.

While democide is not really a new development, it was never as big as it was in the 20th century. The major offenders have been; Soviet Union (61 million killed), Communist Chinese (38 million), Nazi Germany (20 million), Nationalist Chinese (10 million), Imperial Japan (six million), Cambodian communists (two million), Ottoman Turks (1.8 million), Vietnam (1.6), Polish communists (1.5 million), Pakistan (1.5 million) and Yugoslav communists (one million.) There are a number of surprises on this list. Most people think the Nazis were the worst offenders, but they are really only number three. That's because the communists managed to hide their mass murders for most of the century, aided by the tendency of the free world media to believe a lot of the propaganda regarding the "Worker's Paradise". Even before the Cold War ended, there was a growing pile of evidence that something very bad was happening behind the Iron Curtain. During the 1990s, with the communist government gone in Russia, scholars were able to investigate the communist democides more thoroughly because of access to source documents and witnesses so now we know. Some of the smaller offenders on the list are hardly noticed at all, but this is because after World War II most people were sick and tired of war and the massive deaths that accompanied it. But in Eastern Europe, revenge was in the air. While a lot of fascists got killed, so did a lot of innocents. Even being suspected of anti-communist tendencies could get you killed back then.

The Syrian civil war (2012-present) has been one of most costly, in terms of casualties and economic damage, post-Cold War conflicts. Nearly half a million have died so far, mostly because of democide by the Assad government. The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1970s as a secular dictatorship. The Assads belong to a Shia minority in a country that is over 80 percent Sunni. The widespread outbreak of violence in 2011-2 was not unexpected, only the extent of the fighting plus how the rebels were soon dominated by al Qaeda Islamic terrorists and in 2014 by an even more violent al Qaeda faction known as ISIL. Outbreaks of similar, religion based, rebellions have been a common feature of the Islamic Middle East for over a thousand years. Solutions are being sought but so far have not been found. The persistence of ISIL in eastern Syria and elsewhere is not exceptional but part of that ancient pattern.

 


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