This weekend, I was on a Dutch current affairs radio show to talk about ISIS’s prison outbreak and the subsequent week in which the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with US allies eventually successfully brought the situation back under control. A few hundred ISIS members died, the rest are locked up again, which is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, including the risk that in time, a new uprising will erupt. But most of all, it is bad from a justice point of view. Despicable crimes have been committed by ISIS and they need to be brought to justice, preferably there where they were committed.
In the radio show (anybody who knows Dutch can listen to the interview here ), we discussed the possibility that Syrian president Assad’s intelligence service was involved in strengthening ISIS sleeper cells – after all, his army still has a presence in Haseke and would love to see the autonomous administration weakened. Assad of course wishes to take control of the whole of the country again. What would then happen to the ISIS fighters? Either Russia would bomb them to death, or they would end up in Assad’s dungeons and be tortured to death, like so many thousands of others.
But as the autonomous administration isn’t internationally recognized as legitimate and the regime in Damascus is, wouldn’t it solve the problem if the SDF handed the prisoners over to Assad? One of the two presenters likes to ask provocative questions, obviously, which was good because I could answer that the SDF would like to solve the problem of ISIS members in a more respectable way then having them tortured to death.
Then I saw a tweet of Murad Ismael , president and co-founder of the Sinjar Academy and co-founder of Yazda, the organisation of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad. He said what is needed is a ‘Nuremberg-style court’, and that for me triggered another sequence of thoughts. Imagine that after the Second World War, the Nazi war criminals hadn’t been brought to trial but had been tortured to death. Or that they had been locked up in filthy sub-standard jails, from where they would organize outbreaks regularly, supported by Nazi sleeper cells. And that the unofficial resistance against the Nazis had brought them back under control with the help of a couple of allied helicopters. Meanwhile Italy, which in this thought experiment would still be fascist and liked Nazis more than the resistance, would regularly bomb leaders of the unofficial resistance to death with nobody really objecting.
That’s the huge clusterfuck in Northeast-Syria in brief. Yes, we need a Nuremberg-style court. The victims of ISIS need it in order to heal. And the international community needs to show that the genocide that ISIS carried out, the war crimes, the crimes against humanity, are not accepted, and that these crimes can’t go unpunished. If there is anything that enables ISIS to make a comeback and other genocidal groups to perpetrate similar atrocities, it is impunity.
The ISIS members whom I saw in footage and photos this week, who were caught and forced to undress, may have looked utterly pathetic, weak and devoid of any remaining dignity, but make no mistake: if they were given the chance, they’d swiftly impose their horror rule again and finish the genocide they started.
After the Second World War, an official genocidal regime was defeated and a court could be set up in the country responsible for the Shoah and other crimes. To do the same in Syria and Iraq would require a bigger change to the region’s status quo than the international community is willing to accept. It is there for (relative) grabs: recognize the autonomous administration and install a serious commission with a proper mandate to investigate how an internationally recognized tribunal could be set up. I don’t know exactly what it takes but there are plenty of dedicated experts who would be honoured to contribute to the set-up of a tribunal to prosecute one of the biggest crimes of our times. It is a matter not of judicial possibilities, but of political will.
The provocative questions presenter asked me why this isn’t done, if it is needed? The international community – a rather vague term that basically encompasses the bunch of lousy governments we should finally vote out of office – prefers dictatorial maniacs over justice. They think that ISIS crimes are in fact acceptable, and can remain unpunished. It makes them all complicit.