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U.S.-Backed Syrian Democratic Forces Celebrate The Death Of Self-Declared “Caliphate”

“The threat remains,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “The fight against terrorist groups must continue.”

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Syria
Smoke rises from a strike on Baghuz, the last of the Islamic State group's holdouts in Syria, March 22, 2019. VOA

For consecutive nights, bombs rained down on the last scraps of Islamic State-held territory, lighting up the night sky over the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz.

By Saturday morning, all that remained was a landscape littered with burned-out vehicles, abandoned campsites and other provisions the last of the terror group’s fighters and their families left behind.

On one of the few buildings that still stood, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces raised their flag and celebrated the death of a self-declared caliphate that inflicted terror and death on the people it tried to rule.

“After five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS and the end of its public challenge over all humanity,” SDF Director General Mazloum Kobani told officials and coalition partners at a ceremony to mark the long-awaited victory, using an acronym for the group.

FILE - Mazloum Kobani, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), speaks during an interview in the countryside outside the northwestern Syrian city of Hasakah, in a province of the same name, Jan. 24, 2019.
Mazloum Kobani, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), speaks during an interview in the countryside outside the northwestern Syrian city of Hasakah, in a province of the same name, Jan. 24, 2019.. VOA

“We announce today the destruction of the so-called Islamic State organization and the end of its ground control in its last pocket in Baghuz region,” he said.

Yet in between the applause and the music of a marching band, SDF commanders and coalition officials paid tribute to the SDF forces, which paid for the victory in blood and treasure — an estimated 11,000 killed in the campaign to roll back IS, which at its height controlled nearly a third of Syria and almost as much of Iraq.

And even until the end, sometime Friday night into Saturday morning, IS put up a vicious defense, using suicide bombers and even children as human shields in an attempt to cling to one last scrap of land over which they could fly their black flag.

The fate of the last of the IS fighters, perhaps several hundred of the terror group’s most hardened and devoted followers, was not clear Saturday.

Observers on the ground said some appeared to have surrendered following the airstrikes that began Thursday night, targeting IS positions next to the Euphrates River and another sliver where IS fighters were backed up against a cliff overlooking the town.

By early Saturday, the airstrikes seemed to focus solely on the area by the cliff, where SDF and coalition officials said the IS fighters might have access to an extensive system of tunnels that helped to hide tens of thousands of people, the last of whom surrendered earlier in the week.

The first indications the fight against IS in Baghuz had ended came early Saturday, said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali, using Twitter to announce the “total elimination of so-called caliphate.”

Only about 12 hours earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump made a similar declaration, telling reporters traveling with him aboard Air Force One that IS had been “100 percent defeated.”

But Trump’s announcement was quickly rejected by U.S. defense officials and the SDF, who said fighting had not yet ended and more airstrikes were being called in.

On Saturday, Trump again hailed the victory over the terror group in Baghuz.

“ISIS’s loss of territory is further evidence of its false narrative, which tries to legitimize a record of savagery that includes brutal executions, the exploitation of children as soldiers, and the sexual abuse and murder of women and children,” he said in a statement.

“While on occasion these cowards will resurface, they have lost all prestige and power,” he added. “They are losers and will always be losers.”

On Saturday, the SDF’s Kobani was careful to note that while IS’s caliphate had finally been brought down, the danger was far from over, with numerous IS “sleeper cells, which continue to present a great danger in our region and the wider world.”

Top U.S. defense and intelligence officials repeatedly have warned that the terror group had long been planning for the demise of its caliphate, and that a clandestine insurgency already had taken root.

“While this is a critical milestone in the fight against ISIS, we understand our work is far from complete,” acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in a statement. “We will continue our work with the Global Coalition to deny ISIS safe haven anywhere in the world.”

One senior defense official warned IS still has, at minimum, “tens of thousands” of fighters and supporters across Syria and Iraq, and that much of the group’s senior leadership, including self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large.

FILE - Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 27, 2019.
Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 27, 2019. VOA

There also are concerns that IS has thousands more supporters and sympathizers — including upward of 60,000 people who have surrendered since the SDF and coalition launched their final assault last month.

So, too, there are concerns about more than 1,000 foreign fighters being held by the SDF, which has asked repeatedly that they be taken back and prosecuted by their home countries.

“These folks are unrepentant,” the official said. “The seeds for a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exist in these large numbers of people who … are looking to reposition for future perpetuation of ISIS in some form or fashion.”

Speaking Saturday at the victory ceremony near Baghuz, the U.S. adviser to the coalition pledged Washington would not abandon the SDF or its other partners, even though Trump has said most of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria will be leaving.

“We will continue to support the coalition’s operations in Syria to ensure this enduring defeat,” William Robak said. “We will do what is necessary in the region, including here in Syria and across the globe, to ensure the defeat of this threat.”

France and Britain also reaffirmed their commitment, though disagreements with the U.S. over the next steps remain.

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“The threat remains,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “The fight against terrorist groups must continue.”

“We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the British people, our allies and partners from the threat Daesh poses,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, using an alternate acronym for IS. (VOA)

 

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“Legalize Torture? It’s Tortured Logic”

Though, The torture could not proceed without medical supervision

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Torture
Torture is admittedly an extremely difficult issue to confront. It is so morally reprehensible that we are understandably reluctant to even consider the possibility that it could ever be justified, under any circumstances. Pixabay

By Sam Ben-Meir 

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2013) starred Jessica Chastain as Maya, a tough, brilliant and single-minded CIA agent who is prepared to use Torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. There was nothing sadistic about her character, and she comes to doubt the efficacy of torture – though in the end she is able to learn the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, which she could not have done, the film suggests, had she been unwilling to employ “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This assertion, that the use of torture did in fact produce useful intelligence that helped lead the U.S. to bin Laden, sparked debate as well as outrage.

The Report (2019) is, among other things, writer-director Scott Z Burns’ answer to Zero Dark Thirty. It is largely about another single-minded individual, Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), lead investigator of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who spent five arduous years doggedly uncovering the CIA’s suspect detention and interrogation program following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His investigation eventually culminated in a 6,700-page report, a damning exposé of the CIA’s methods of “enhanced interrogation” and the psychologists who helped design them – methods which included walling, cramped confinement, stress positions, waterboarding, the use of insects, and mock burial – despite having no interrogation experience. Like Jones, the film is unwavering not only in its moral condemnation of torture, but in its claim that torture is not effective and never produces real, actionable intelligence.

Torture is admittedly an extremely difficult issue to confront. It is so morally reprehensible that we are understandably reluctant to even consider the possibility that it could ever be justified, under any circumstances. The problem is that the world is a messy place – it isn’t morally tidy – and sometimes the right thing to do is not available to us. According to the American Field Manual, rulebook of military interrogators, “The use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” However, if we are to deal honestly with this issue, we must recognize the fact that there is substantial evidence that sometimes torture is effective in eliciting information and, indeed, it has been known to save innocent lives.

In Why Terrorism Works (2002), Alan Dershowitz writes, “There can be no doubt that torture sometimes works. Jordan apparently broke the notorious terrorist of the 1980s, Abu Nidal, by threatening his mother. Philippine police reportedly help crack the 1993 World Trade Center bombings by torturing a suspect.” If, in certain dire situations, something like nonlethal torture may be justifiable then it appears we should at least consider Dershowitz’s suggestion that if and when torture is practiced, that it is done in accordance with law and with some kind of warrant issued by a judge.

“I’m not in favor of torture,” Dershowitz writes, “but if you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval.” His claim is that if we are, in fact, going to torture then it ought to be done in accordance with law: for tolerating torture while pronouncing it illegal is hypocritical. In other words, democratic liberalism ought to own up to its own activities, according to Dershowitz. If torture is, indeed, a reality then it should be done with accountability.

There are, however, significant problems with the reasoning behind torture-warrants. For one, the legalization of torture would significantly distort our moral experience of the world, corroding the very notion of law itself, which does not rule through abject terror: law is, after all, meant to replace sheer brutality as a way of getting people to do things. Indeed, the rule against torture is paradigmatic of what we mean by law itself. In short, to have torture as law is undermining of what we take the very rule of law to signify.

Torture
When Torture is practiced, one should ensure that it is done in accordance with law and with some kind of warrant issued by a judge. Pixabay

Such considerations are closely connected with the following concern which is addressed in The Report: namely, what are the consequences of institutionalizing torture? That is clearly what the introduction of torture-warrants would imply – and once you institutionalize torture you then have to elaborate on all aspects, including the training not only of would-be torturers but also medical personnel. In other words, the legalization of interrogational torture would apparently require the professionalization of torture; that is, the acceptance of torture as a profession.

This normalization is especially disquieting when we stop to consider in particular the role of doctors and medical professionals in torture: for nothing is more antagonistic to what we mean by medicine then its utilization in the prolongation of a person’s agony and brutalization. Sadly, the participation of medical practitioners in torture is nothing new; and we would do well to remind ourselves of that history, for we are now most certainly part of it.

In his book Torture, Edward Peters observes that it was under the Third Reich that torture was “transformed into a medical specialty, a transformation which was to have great consequences in the second half of the twentieth century.” Medical involvement in torture first came to world attention with the disclosure of practices in Nazi concentration camps. The Nuremberg trials revealed that physicians had, for example, placed prisoners in low-pressure tanks simulating high altitude, immersed them in near-freezing water, and had them injected with live typhus organisms.

It is likely that hundreds of doctors and nurses participated in these experiments, although only twenty-one German physicians were charged with medical crimes. What needs to be emphasized is a point that Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. makes with what he calls an “atrocity-producing situation” – by which he refers to an environment “so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people can readily engage in atrocities.” As Lifton observes, many Nazi doctors were engaged not in cruel medical experiments, but directly involved in killing. To get to that point, however, they had to undergo a process of socialization; first to the medical profession, then to the military, and finally to the concentration camps: “The great majority of these doctors were ordinary people who had killed no one before joining murderous Nazi institutions. They were corruptible and certainly responsible for what they did, but they became murderers mainly in atrocity-producing settings.”

Referring to the CIA program, Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author, observed that “The torture could not proceed without medical supervision. The medical profession was deeply embedded in this inhumanity.” In fact, the program was developed by two psychologists, Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who – as the film relates – based their recommendations on the theory of “learned helplessness,” which essentially describes a condition in which an individual, repeatedly subjected to negative, painful stimuli, comes to view their situation as beyond their control and themselves as powerless to effect any change. The crucial point is that medical professionals were an integral part of the program. Referring to American doctors that were involved in the torture at Abu Ghraib, Robert Lifton points out, “Even without directly participating in the abuse, doctors may have become socialized to an environment of torture and by virtue of their medical authority helped sustain it.”

We can hardly underestimate the significance of the process of socialization in facilitating participation in torture. Certain factors are decisive in terms of weakening the moral restraints against performing acts that individuals would normally find unacceptable. Following Harvard University professor of social ethics, Herbert Kelman, we can identify three forces that are particularly important. Kelman was particularly interested in what he described as “sanctioned massacres” – such as occurred at My Lai during the Vietnam War – but his observations are relevant to the torture setting as well.

The first factor is authorization: rather than recognizing oneself as an independent moral agent, the individual feels that they are participating in a mission that relinquishes them of the responsibility to make their own moral choices. The presence of medical professionals helps to lend a sense of legitimacy to the enterprise.

Routinizaton is another factor, which speaks directly to the establishment of torture as a profession – so that the torturer perceives the process not as the brutal treatment of another human being but simply as the routine application of a set of specialized skills; or as Kelman puts it, “a series of discrete steps most of them carried out in automatic, regularized fashion.”

Finally, dehumanization, whereby the victim is deprived of identity and systematically excluded from the moral community to which the torturer belongs: it becomes unnecessary for the agents to regard their relationship to the victim as ethically significant – in short the victim is denied any inherent worth and therefore any moral consideration.

Torture
For one, the legalization of Torture would significantly distort our moral experience of the world, corroding the very notion of law itself, which does not rule through abject terror. Pixabay

Medical personnel who act as advisors, as it were, on torture techniques are directly implicated in the practice of torture. But if we were to follow Dershowitz’s suggestion and effectively institutionalize torture, this medical involvement would be an inevitable result – for it was present already when torture was being practiced clandestinely. It seems strange that Dershowitz, who finds the current hypocrisy so outrageous, would attempt to remedy the situation not by eliminating the hypocrisy but rather legitimizing it. For what could be more hypocritical than doctors, sworn to do no harm, taking a more or less active role in the systematic and scientific brutalization of another human being? But such would be the unavoidable outcome of legalizing torture through “torture-warrants.”

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In closing, institutionalizing torture would have very bad consequences – far worse than the hypocrisy that so troubles Dershowitz. Not only would the practice of torture likely metastasize – instead of being limited to one-off cases – its professionalization would contribute to the formation of “atrocity-producing situations,” and we have seen how this relates in particular to the complicity of doctors in the torture situation. Physicians, nurses and the medical establishment itself would be severely ethically compromised by the institutionalization of torture. All of which is to say that the legalization of torture should be avoided. Best to then uphold the absolute ban on torture, even if that ban will be subject to violation under extraordinary circumstances.

Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.