February 7, 2018
TSC IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Long Goodbye
Tragically for many in Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State has created long-lasting damage to the human population and the environment. Rampant illnesses from Islamic State tactics of war now proliferate among the region’s people, and polluted air, water, and land have created a slow-moving catastrophe that will continue to plague the region long after the fighting ends.
On February 4, the Washington Post reported on the toxic legacy of the Islamic State in towns such as Qayyarah, Iraq. There, in August 2016, the Islamic State burned oil wells to delay the advance of Iraqi security forces. The fires lasted for months; the damage to those breathing the contaminated air will last for the rest of their lives. The smoke caused severe respiratory problems that scarred lungs and damaged hearts, requiring lifelong care. The severe depression resulting from being the victim of environmental warfare has also taken a significant toll.
There will be no Iraqi or Syrian version of the 1980 U.S. act informally known as ‘Superfund,’ the successful but lengthy, expensive program to clean up and mitigate the negative effects of the most-polluted sites in the United States. Even in the best of cases, with adequate funding and expertise, clean up at these sites takes decades. At most Superfund sites, the scale of the problem has always exceeded initial timeframe estimates. There are now many equally bad or worse environmental disaster sites in Iraq and Syria, but no realistic hope for even adequate containment of those sites. The issues facing these communities are fundamentally local—crop failure, contaminated water supplies, not enough feed to raise livestock—yet on a collective scale, they dwarf previous challenges.
The deliberate environmental damage wrought by the Islamic State is far worse than the ‘incidental’ damage done by the years of fighting. From 2014 to 2016, the Islamic State used natural resources as levers of control: it diverted water supplies; attempted to blow up dams; burned oil wells; and hoarded wheat and other grains. From 2016 on, as the group was slowly routed, it began to use natural resources as an apocalyptic last-line of defense. The burning of oil wells in Qayyarah was followed by the burning of massive stockpiles of sulfur at the Misraq plant south of Mosul in October 2016. The clouds of sulfur dioxide affected thousands and will likely result in long-lasting physical and psychological damage.
The immediate focus of militarily defeating the Islamic State, and the overwhelming need to rebuild homes and basic infrastructure, obscures the longer-term needs that are just as important: environmental repair and mental health care. The toxic chemicals in the ground and water of many areas in Iraq and Syria will remain dangerous for decades or more without remediation.
More significantly, perhaps, is the psychological damage that has been inflicted, especially to a generation of children that spent several years witnessing barbarism firsthand and being indoctrinated to do the same. Taking all of these challenges into account, the scope of the recovery efforts in Iraq and Syria is truly staggering.
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