Analysis

The War on ISIS Is Over. But in Syria, the War for Survival Has Just Begun

Mosul and Raqqa are now conducting the war after the war, which is no longer interesting to the world and easily forgotten

FILE PHOTO: A boy rides his bike past destroyed cars and houses in a neighborhood recently liberated by Iraqi security forces on the western side of Mosul, Iraq. Six African nations are among the 10 worst in the world to be a child in a war zone, according to a new report by Save the Children released Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018 that looks at factors including attacks on schools, child soldier recruitment, sexual violations, killings and lack of humanitarian access. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)
Felipe Dana/AP

“Dunber” isn’t a word in Arabic, it’s a distortion of “dumper,” a kind of mini-truck that collects waste from city alleys too narrow for regular garbage trucks. In the Old City of Mosul the dunber has become a vital postwar tool, clearing tons of debris after the war against the Islamic State. Dozens of these trucks are operated by young volunteers; some 1.5 million cubic meters of rubble have been cleared out of Mosul’s center and the authorities estimate that a similar amount must still be removed.

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Some seven months have passed since Iraq declared victory over ISIS in Mosul, but hundreds of thousands of residents cannot return to their homes yet. ISIS operatives have left thousands of mines and explosive charges behind, in addition to the massive devastation caused by airstrikes. According to the UN, the city will require at least 10 years to be restored to its prewar situation. The rehabilitation and removal costs are huge and Iraq claims it cannot foot the bill by itself.

Without the social networks and volunteers even the most basic rehabilitation work wouldn’t be carried out. The UN reports that some 80 percent of the health services in the Ninveh district and Mosul are inoperative, many medicines are unavailable and neither are doctors or nurses, most of whom fled during ISIS’s occupation and cannot return home.

FILE - In this July 11, 2017 file photo, airstrikes target Islamic State positions on the edge of the Old City a day after Iraq's prime minister declared "total victory" in Mosul, Iraq.
Felipe Dana/AP

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The wreckage clearing isn’t the only thing holding up the rehabilitation. Bodies estimated in the thousands are still buried in Mosul’s Old City. The government and district administration cannot or will not extract them from the ruins. “We’re first dealing with the bodies of the city’s residents, we have no money to take care of ISIS’s people’s bodies,” said the engineering services director in the Mosul District’s Interior Ministry.

The extraction of the residents’ bodies is frequently halted by the shortage of body bags, stretchers or shrouds. People are forced to extract bodies with their own hands, not knowing for certain if their family members are buried under the debris or in improvised mass graves.

One resident told a reporter of al-Hayat newspaper that he himself buried 50 to 60 bodies during the war without knowing who they were. Some 9,000 people have reported missing relatives and asked for the authorities’ help in finding them. The response is horrifically slow. Many streets are filled with the stench of corpses and children have made a game of abusing bodies apparently identified as ISIS activists.

An Iraqi special forces soldier shooting dead an Islamic State suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq March 3, 2017
\ GORAN TOMASEVIC/ REUTERS

Ahmed Sa’ad, a local resident, told the Iraqi Niqash site that when he entered his house after the volunteers cleared the debris around it, “I found two bodies. I locked the house and didn’t go back. How can I live with corpses?”

Citizens are taking up other initiatives as well. A group of religious law sages has taken it upon itself to reeducate the residents, and especially the children, after three years of ISIS preaching. The group explains on its Facebook page that they intend to provide a moderate religious education and life of partnership, peace and social reconciliation.

In Raqqa, which was also cleared of ISIS rule some four months ago, a young Kurdish woman lectures women’s groups about government structure and women’s rights in the modern state. This is an initiative of the city’s civilian council, a volunteer organization set up after the Kurds conquered most of the city; they’re still fighting against the Syrian regime for its full control.

The council has taken upon itself to run city affairs like renewing the education and health services, clearing the area of mines and bombs, policing, judging and raising consciousness regarding woman’s status. The lecture, which appears on Facebook, is attended by some 46 women in a 23-day “empowering” workshop about democracy, women and politics, critical reading and essay writing. The studies are based on the ideology of the Kurdistan Working Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned in a Turkish prison. According to his doctrine, women are equal to men and can and must bear equal responsibility, including fighting and leadership.

However, like in Mosul, tens of thousands of residents cannot return home because of the large number of mines and bombs, which kill dozens of people daily. According to reports from Raqqa, paying a private contractor to clear mines from a house costs some $100, a huge sum only few can afford and the few mine clearing teams are not up to the task.

TOPSHOT - Syrian boys look at shells and undetonated mines lying on a street in Raqa that were left by the Islamic State (IS) group on January 16, 2018.
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP

Many of the 450,000 residents of Raqqa and its surroundings before the war live in refugee camps near the city, in dire conditions. The UN reported that close to 600,000 people were uprooted from the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor region. They now depend on aid organizations, whose activity was stopped by the Syrian regime in January. Although an agreement was recently reached to resume their activity temporarily, the condition of hundreds of thousands of people who need medical treatment has deteriorated.

Mosul and Raqqa are now conducting what can be described as the war after the war. It’s no longer interesting and easily forgotten, as it lacks the drama of bombardments, shooting and political struggles. It doesn’t generate heroic symbols or suffering icons that mobilize world public opinion. It is “merely” an exhausting struggle for survival of hundreds of thousands.

This war is being handled by local governments, thus becoming a “local” problem. In al-Ghouta al-Sharqiya, west of Damascus, some 300,000 people live underground in shelters or basements, without food or medicine or much air to breathe. Heavy Syrian and Russian bombs continue to pulverize the city’s houses and district’s villages, in a bid to liquidate one of the rebel militias’ last bastions.

Hundreds of people were killed in the last attack, which has been going on for a week. The Western states express deep concern, leaders denounce the carnage and destruction, the UN is calling to stop the bombs. But soon the city will become another “internal” Syrian affair.