Civil Society

Source: Gage Skidmore; URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/24480213852

On several occasions throughout her campaign, Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has mentioned that part of her plan to defeat terrorist organization “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) consists of killing or capturing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. She believes that this decapitation strategy will allow the United States to “focus [its] attention [on fighting ISIS],” citing the demise of Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and Afghanistan on the assassination of founder Osama Bin Laden in 2011. By assuming that the ISIS will react in a similar way to Al-Qa’ida after the removal of a leader, I believe that Secretary Clinton is oversimplifying the comprehensive strategy that we need to employ to destroy ISIS.

What is decapitation?

Terrorism expert Audrey Cronin defines decapitation as “the removal by arrest or assassination of the top leaders or operational leaders of a group.” In the study she conducted for her book “How Terrorism Enders: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns,” Cronin cites several case studies where leaders of terrorist organizations were killed: the assassinations of the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the 1990s, of leaders of Chechen groups by Russians in the early 2000s, of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and of terrorist leaders from countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine by Israel. She concluded that there seem to be no cases where decapitation resulted in the halting of a group’s campaign. Instead, the organization may have evolved to have more of a political agenda, for example with Abu Sayyaf; still, groups often remain and may become more prolific and rampant after a ‘decapitation’ attempt.

There are, according to Cronin, many factors that affect the success of a decapitation strategy; for example, the structure of the organization, “the degree to which it fosters a cult of personality, the availability of a viable successor, the nature of its ideology, the political context, and whether the leader was killed or imprisoned.” With this in mind, we can begin to examine more closely Secretary Clinton’s assumption that getting rid of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will help defeat ISIS.

Al-Qa’ida

Founded in the late 1980s, Al-Qa’ida’s core leadership, according to the Wilson Center, does not claim to have direct control over the group’s structure. It instead focuses on messaging, strategy, and daily operations. However, the group’s affiliates do have to consult with the leadership before carrying out an attack. The core leadership is made up of a shura council in addition to committees for finance and information sharing.

Since the death of Bin Laden, former head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has led Al-Qa’ida. The activities of the group have been severely limited from 2011 (and even before that). According to some U.S. officials, the reason why al-Zawahiri has not been as influential as Bin Laden is that he lacks the charisma and combat experience. He has instead, on several occasions, been known as the brains behind Al-Qa’ida.

Source: Hamid Mir; URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamid_Mir_interviewing_Osama_bin_Laden_and_Ayman_al-Zawahiri_2001.jpg

ISIS

Earlier this year, ISIS released a propaganda video that conveniently detailed the organization’s structure, as experts had previously not known much about it. At the top of the hierarchy is the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Directly below him are the Shura Council – all of whom were appointed by Baghdadi and have the power to depose him – and the Delegated Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the Wilayats (provinces), the group’s Offices and various Committees (such as those which are appointed to oversee people’s rights and to enforce punishments). The video states that ISIS is made up of over 30 provinces, in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen.

Previous speculations about the structure of ISIS are very similar. They indicate that Baghdadi is at the top, along with his Shura Council. In these versions, Baghdadi also has two deputies – one for Iraq and one for Syria. Both receive reports from 12 governors, all of whom oversee the eight councils that focus in areas from Media, Finance, Intelligence, and Leadership. However, as a result of US operations in the Middle East, both deputies – Abu Muslim al-Turkemani and Abu Ali al-Anbari, were killed in the last two years. Turki al-Binali and Moussa al-Shawakh are the top candidates.

Al-Binali is the second most influential person in ISIS, he led the organization’s Research and Fatwa Department and served as the negotiator for the freeing of American hostage Peter Kassig. Also known as Abu Luqman, al-Shawakh was appointed as the first governor of Raqqa and was the former emir of the al-Nusra front. al-Shawakh is famous for his brutality, his sadistic torture methods, and for ordering the kidnapping of several members of the Free Syrian Army after he accused its members of working with the West.

Comparison

Although there are many similarities between ISIS and Al-Qa’ida, I believe that using a decapitation strategy on the former will not be as successful for several reasons. First, with regard to successor, is it possible that ISIS will inherit a leader who, like al-Zawahiri, is less charismatic and experienced? It is very much so; however, we also have to consider the possibility of whoever becomes the next “caliph” might think they have something to prove and will thus employ more heinous tactics.

It is important to remember that much of ISIS’ success has also come from its online recruitment and propaganda. Al-Qa’ida was not this successful in inciting so many attacks and only in spreading and inspiring people to follow the sermons of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Even if Baghdadi were killed, there seems to be no evidence that the recent strategies of ISIS to elicit more domestic attacks will fall by the wayside. If one of the two above candidates did succeed Baghdadi, I contend that the group will pursue more aggressive recruitment tactics to seek revenge.

Another pertinent question to ask at this point is: Who has been running ISIS since last year? There have been numerous reports that Baghdadi was incapacitated due to a spinal injury and poisoned. If Baghdadi has not been running ISIS since the emergence of these reports, it is possible that the recent trends in ISIS’ activity – increased online recruitment and limited success in the Middle East – would be the direction of the group after the removal of Baghdadi. This would only further undermine Secretary Clinton’s argument that getting rid of Baghdadi would help the United States focus its attention, as it would be incredibly difficult to focus on the group’s fighters when they could appear anywhere. It would, however, help the United States to start to tackle funding channels and strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

My final question in making the comparison between ISIS and Al-Qa’ida would be: Is it possible that the demise of the core leadership of Al-Qai’da was caused not by the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, but rather the evolving nature of the threat – creation of factions as well as the rise of online recruitment ­– and the birth of ISIS? It can be argued that the core leadership of Al-Qa’ida had, for years before the fall of Bin Laden, not been successful. In fact, most of the coverage of Al-Qa’ida focused on its affiliates, namely the activities of Boko Haram and Al-Shabbab.

I believe that Secretary Clinton’s assumption that going after the leadership of ISIS will devastate the group’s activity is flawed. Though it is possible that it might cause the intended outcome, given the comparison she draws with Al-Qa’ida, it is equally as possible that ISIS will continue to operate and cause chaos wherever their affiliates and fighters are located. If Secretary Clinton does want to go forward with this plan, she must also consider the potential consequences if the targeted killing of Baghdadi were to fail because, as Cronin writes: “the killing of the leader can backfire, resulting in increased publicity for the group’s cause and the creation of a marry who attracts many new members to the organization.”

While I do believe that Secretary Clinton’s strategy is more sound, comprehensive, and feasible compared to Mr. Trump’s, she needs to focus on creating no-fly zones, safe zones, working with allies in the region, cutting off funding channels for the group, and focusing on tackling online radicalization.

Black-Palestinian Solidarity: Acknowledging the Past, Understanding the Present, and Imagining a Productive Future
By Salma Khamis

Columbia University students in favor of prison divestment, April 2015. Source: http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/23/us/columbia-university-prison-divest/

This post is part three of a three-part series. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.

It is worth noting that Black-Palestinian solidarity and the gradual establishment of transnational ties between the two separate movements are not recent phenomena, the product of social media hashtags, and online campaigns. Rather, Anna Isaacs traces the development of this sentiment of transnational solidarity to as early as 1967. Historically enjoying a robust base of progressive Jewish support, activists behind the American Civil Rights Movement tended to recognize the validity of the Israeli state and thus sanction its right to protect itself against so-called Arab aggressors. With the atrocities brought about by the 1967 War, however, this image of Israel as a struggling state fighting for its right to survive began to waver and civil rights activists began recognizing parallels between the injustices committed against Palestinians and those that they face here in the United States.

Within the present context, drawing parallels between the two movements has certainly moved far more into mainstream discourse than it ever was before. Aided by increased access to information from both regions about one another, and thus increased avenues for communication between them, the establishment of transnational solidarity has definitely benefited as a result. As early as 2009, Jimmy Johnson was warning of Israel’s global exportation of law enforcement strategies. In a comparable 2011 study, Max Blumenthal called attention to the disturbing pattern of cooperation between Israeli and American police forces. Dating back to post-9/11 era of counterterrorism in the U.S., this legacy of Israeli-American cooperation in law enforcement is presented by Blumenthal as one of the root causes behind the brutal violence endured by protestors involved with the Occupy movement, from Oakland to New York City.

More recently, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was murdered by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, images of brutal police suppression of the resultant protests prompted observers to point to similarities to the Israeli state’s treatment of (and habitual violence against) Palestinians in Gaza. Further strengthening the validity of these transnational parallels, barely a week after the events in Ferguson, evidence emerged revealing that both the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department received training from Israeli security forces. Soon thereafter, both the Black Lives Matter movement and a number of Palestinian activists issued official statements of solidarity for one another’s demands for justice.

In response to these emergent narratives of Black-Palestinian solidarity, Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu has presented a series of intersections between Ferguson and Gaza, both in terms of their respective historical and contemporary features. From similar tactics of historical land dispossession, to the present-day perpetuation of (decidedly unquestioned) state violence; Palumbo-Liu demonstrates a stark congruence between the experiences of Black communities in the United States and those of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Wary of asserting absolute equivalence between the two systems of oppression, however, Palumbo-Liu closes with a sobering piece of advice for those working to reinforce transnational links of solidarity: “Certainly the two situations are different, and demand different strategies and tactics in response. And yet one should not discount the moral and indeed inspirational value of gestures that reach across those differences to claim solidarity.”

It is precisely this sentiment with which I approach the question of Black-Palestinian solidarity among student activists. As demonstrated above, both movements have traditionally enjoyed a vibrant and often productive legacy on college campuses across the United States. This legacy encompasses a variety of important achievements: successfully enacting tangible reform in university policies, making their demands for justice unavoidably visible among their communities, and resisting the hegemony of oppressive narratives about their respective experiences simply by virtue of maintaining a sustained presence on college campuses, despite mounting opposition.

With that said, as college activists’ aspirations for justice continue to thrive beyond the limits of their individual campus communities, they are often met with the increasingly difficult task of bringing about justice on a larger, more impactful, scale. Whether it is students organizing for the divestment from oppressive systems of mass incarceration in the United States that disproportionately target racial minorities, or their peers making similar calls for the divestment from corporations whose activities directly facilitate and profit off of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the ruthless violation of Palestinian human rights; both groups are united under two core motivations.

Primarily, these students are not prepared to sit idly by as numerous industries thrive off of the oppression of the communities they respectively represent. Secondly, and more importantly, they recognize the efficacy of reallocating university endowments as a strategy for dismantling the oppressive systems of state violence of which these industries are a part. Consequently, one can only imagine how productive an alliance between these two groups could be in their unanimous call for ethical university endowments that do not facilitate the perpetuation of global state violence in its various manifestations, but instead contribute to the realization of justice for oppressed communities the world over. By grounding themselves in a narrative that acknowledges the countless parallels between systems of racial injustice in the United States and Israel’s colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories, student activists associated with either movement will be better positioned to achieve each of their respective objectives. Working within a holistic framework of transnational justice that acknowledges the fundamental similarity between all oppressive systems, whilst still accounting for the contextual nuances defining each of their different manifestations all over the world; a movement of Black-Palestinian student solidarity could pave the way for a whole new era of transnational college activism that is as revolutionary as it is entirely realistic.

On-Campus Activism for Palestinian Liberation and Building on Transnational Ties
By Salma Khamis

Loyola SJP chapter leading an on-campus solidarity protest. Source: SJP Loyola (Facebook)

This post is part two of a three-part series. To read part one, click here. To read part three, click here.

Having endured a longer legacy on college campuses than the Black Lives Matter movement, students organizing for Palestinian liberation have had quite a turbulent history of activism in the American context. Most commonly housed under different chapters of the national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization, students organizing for Palestinian liberation tend to be primarily concerned with the recognition of Israel as a colonial force that perpetually violates Palestinian human rights and breaks international law in its occupation of the Palestinian territories and denial of Palestinians’ right of return. Furthermore, activists point to Zionism’s racist implications on the Palestinian population and how it contributes towards the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories; the disproportionate access to resources and social services afforded to Jewish Israelis over Palestinians; as well as the institutionalized use of excessive force against Palestinians by Israeli police and military apparatus.

Given the funding, institutional support, and strength of pro-Israel groups and organizations all over the country, however, activism for the Palestinian cause is often met with virulent opposition, the likes of which is rarely if ever launched against any other student political campaign of a comparable nature. Nevertheless, students have been able to achieve limited gains with respect to raising social awareness of the Israeli occupation on college campuses. Moreover, despite the extent of the opposition met by pro-Palestine student organizers, the most important of their functions has been their sustained facilitation of spaces for dialogue and activism on Palestinian human rights, politics, and culture on university campuses. Speaker events and annual campaigns such as Israeli Apartheid Week, for example, challenge the predominant narrative in American political discourse regarding the Palestinian population and their right to self-determination. However, as with the Black Lives Matter movement, students’ activism often has little bearing on the impactful reform of institutional and national policies vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation and the merciless violation of Palestinian human rights.

In response to this ‘impact gap,’ recent activism for Palestinian liberation tends to coalesce around the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement. As a means of non-violent protest to the ongoing occupation, BDS seeks to impart pressure on the Israeli state by boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning corporations and institutions that facilitate, legitimize, or profit from the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and violation of Palestinian human rights. In turn, this has prompted students to petition their respective university administrations to divest from these corporations that, either through their direct activity or that of their subsidiaries, contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation.

Increasingly, a similar tactic is gaining ground among activists working for racial justice on university campuses. These activists are attempting to bridge their aforementioned ‘impact gap’ by calling for their institutions to divest from corporations that benefit off of the widely-documented Prison Industrial Complex. Drawing on evidence that categorically proves the racial prejudices underpinning the United States’ ever-increasing prison industry, activists decry the unjust policing of racial minorities, and the vast amounts of profit associated with, and thus incentivizing the continuation of, this system of mass incarceration. By organizing to pressure university administrations into reorienting their investment policies away from private companies that accrue substantial profit from either managing, supplying, or securing prisons; activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups concerned with racial justice have begun pursuing similar tactics of non-violent protest to those once led by SJP groups.

Herein lies the central issue: how can on-campus activists make the most out of this convergence of protest tactics among students working for Palestinian liberation and American racial justice? What thematic parallels can be highlighted in the narrative surrounding both movements that would contribute towards the widening of each of their respective bases? Can we work backwards from these two movements’ shared employment of institutional divestment as a protest tactic to trace further commonalities between their initial causes for protest?

Black Lives Matter and On-Campus Activism for Racial Justice
By Salma Khamis

Angela Davis, as featured in the “When I See Them I See Us” video produced by the Black-Palestinian Solidarity campaign. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsdpg-9cmSw

This post is part one of a three-part series. To read part two, click here. To read part three, click here.

The US-Middle East Youth Network was designed to provide students across both the United States and the Middle East with the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue on issues pertinent, not only to their respective regions, but also to the interaction that occurs between them. In doing so, USMEYN seeks to recognize the powerful potential that arises out of the intersection of three key factors: politically and socially conscious students from the Middle East and North Africa, their American counterparts, and the space and skills provided by university campuses across both regions to both sharpen and express this consciousness. I pride myself in being affiliated with a platform that creates a space for the intersection of all three of these factors and that yields impactful, transnational dialogue in return.

As important as the facilitation of this dialogue has been, however, it has prompted me to reflect on what the intersection of these three factors would look like on the ground. If there really is much to be gained from university students’ cooperation across both regions, why have we yet to see this take shape in a tangible way? What would this cooperation even look like? What possible results can we expect to see from its fruition? Is there really much to “cooperate” on in the first place? By narrowing my focus onto two specific student movements, I argue that there is much to be gained from the cooperation of both U.S. and Middle East oriented student activists. Not only is my contention supported by the historical precedence of transnational activism between the two regions, but also by the commonality between their respective goals and tactics for bringing about sociopolitical reform.

Black Lives Matter and On-Campus Activism for Racial Justice:

One of the main issues defining the nature of contemporary student activism on university campuses has been the Black Lives Matter movement. Founded in 2012 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement was assembled to combat the dehumanization of Black lives throughout American society. Be that through the deliberate mass incarceration of Black bodies, the racial discrimination rampant throughout American political and social discourse, or the discriminatory provision of social services across racially segregated communities in the U.S.; the Black Lives Matter movement assembled to call attention to the persisting legacy of slavery, how it continues to affect Black individuals and communities throughout the United States, and the myth that is a post-racial American society.

On-campus activism has been central to the movement. Just as colleges formed the bulwark of progressive activism in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the South African Apartheid Movement, so too have they returned with a vengeance as outlets of sociopolitical activism. Particularly following the incidents at the University of Missouri in October of 2015, student groups across the United States have been mobilizing in an effort to protest an array of racially discriminatory practices on their respective campuses. Especially given the fate of former University of Missouri President Tom Wolfe, students have been emboldened by the possibility of enacting tangible reform at their own institutions. Open, unapologetic dialogue about issues of racial justice has surfaced and, yes, despite the occasional superficiality of university administrations’ responses to this new environment of dialogue and action, the value of even breaching these issues in lecture halls and on-campus events, protests, and publications cannot be overstated.

With that said, however, not all student groups working for racial justice on campus are limiting their purview to the systematic racism prevalent throughout their own universities. Student activists are also mobilizing to address the system of endemic racial oppression as it functions on the national stage, taking up issues like prison reform and police brutality and thus situating themselves, and their activism, within the larger national debate on racial justice in America. As impactful and symbolic as the inclusion of college students is in this national conversation, however, it goes without saying that little can be done to address issues of racial justice that play out in the larger and more complex national context through on-campus protests alone. The question thus emerges: what can politically and socially conscious university students do to bridge the ‘impact gap’ that exists between university campuses and national policy reform? That is, how can the impact of these students’ activism be directed towards the dismantlement of nationwide systems of racial oppression and injustice?

A delegate at the Supporting Syria conference checks out an immersive story - Clouds Over Sidra - following the life of one young Syrian refugee living in Za'atari Camp in Jordan. Source: UK Department for International Development

The proliferation of social media and smart technology has helped not only raise awareness of refugee’s plight around the world but also to assist refugees by facilitating communication between family members as well as sending remittances. It has also proven to be an invaluable tool in helping refugees navigate their way through countries and to determine displaced population sizes. Recent technological advances have changed the way we view and experience videos and movies. But so-called “new technology” like Virtual Reality and Drones also plays a part in humanitarian issues. It is able to provide an important layer to humanitarian assistance; Virtual Reality and 360 movies, for example, are known as the “Empathy Machines,” as they are able to transform a mere 2D movie into an all-encompassing experience. The hope is that by doing so, policy makers and audiences are more aware of the often-lost nuances of displaced populations and focus not on providing more aid but more effective aid.

With approximately 4.7 million registered Syrian refugees in the world and millions more displaced, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has developed a unique and efficient way of registering the Syrians. Registering people is a necessary means to understanding who’s entering the country and who’s leaving, especially in the current climate with Syria when so many are choosing to leave neighboring host states and leave for Syria or other parts of the world. Until registered, the asylum seekers are not refugees and thus not entitled to any protection or services and assistance, like shelter, food, healthcare and education.  Instead of using photos and pieces of paper that are often lost or damaged, UNHCR has started to employ iris scans, similar to those seen at airports. More than one million Syrians have already been registered using this technology. Only taking 2-3 minutes compared to half an hour for more conventional methods, electronic registering uses a database can help NGOs and other international bodies involved in the response to monitor aid and personnel more efficiently. Using this technology is certainly an improvement from certain past practices, like that of Czech Republic, when officials wrote numbers on the refugees’ arms in order to register them. This was internationally slammed, as it drew comparisons to Nazis registering Jews in concentration camps during World War II.

Zach Ingrasci, Co-Founder of the company Living on One, explained in a phone interview that using biometric registration methods stems from realization by the United Nations that after registering displaced populations in Pakistan, “[the agency] was missing a large part of the population.” However, problems still persist, as diasporas can be not only afraid of the technology but also uncomfortable of the people doing the registration. Therefore, Ingrasci clarified, it is vital that the process has to be culturally sensitive.

“[Virtual Reality] is not a video game peripheral,” declared Chris Milk, the founder of VRSE, a production company that specializes in Virtual Reality spherical filmmaking, during his TED Talk entitled “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine” in 2015. “It connects humans to other humans in a profound way [that has never been seen before] in any other form of media.” In his talk, Milk also describes his work with the United Nations on developing a movie called “Clouds Over Sidra,” about a 12 year-old girl from Southern Syria named Sidra who now lives in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Northern Jordan. The movie documents her life from studying in her caravan, eating with her family and her journey through the camp to school. Milk emphasizes that by viewing this movie through Virtual Reality, it does not just allow you to watch Sidra’s daily life and her struggle, it transports you to her world; you are sitting there with her in her school, in her room and with her family. It is, as Ingrasci explained, “the most immersive experience we see out there.”

Ingrasci and his co-director on “Salam Neighbor” (available on iTunes now), Chris Temple, have also recognized the importance of new technology in refugee situations. Together with the HuffPost RYOT, they created the documentary “For My Son” and a six part series called “Jordan’s Refugee Crisis,” both of which are shot and can be viewed in 360 degrees. They realized that it is important not only to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in camps but also to humanize the extreme journeys people make from their home towns to urban host communities, where approximately 80 percent of the Syrian refugee population live.

By bringing an Oculus Virtual Reality headset on their nationwide tour of the acclaimed “Salam Neighbor,” Temple and Ingrasci have allowed thousands of people to not just learn about the Syrian refugee crisis from watching the news and reading about it but also to experience it. “For My Son” tells the story of Firas, a Syrian from Dara’a, and his escape from the country, his reunification with his family in Za’atari and the birth of his now two-year-old son, Mohamed. Audiences that have watched the movie using the Oculus Virtual Reality are able to feel what it’s like to be in Aleppo that is now a desolate city, filled with concrete buildings destroyed beyond recognition with sniper shots audible in the background (using footage shot by HuffPost RYOT), as well as walking through the bustling main street of “Champs Elysées” in Za’atari Camp.

It can often be easy to forget the normalcy that the refugees faced before the conflict, especially for policy makers and given recent rhetoric. But instead of just producing these films for the wider public, Milk, who has started projects using VR in Liberia and elsewhere around the world, brought “Clouds Over Sidra” to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. By letting those who can really change someone’s life (for example the United Nations) see how people are impacted, the hope is that policy makers are not as disconnected and can gain a more nuanced understanding of the plight of refugees, especially if they are not accustomed to being on the ground helping with the implementation of policies and aid.

So, if people are aware of the positive impact that Virtual Reality and biometric registration can have on humanitarian situations, what is stopping their wider implementation? First, cost. The three pillars of humanitarian assistance are food, shelter and healthcare. Getting people basic necessities to as many people as possible to ensure daily livelihood in an effective way should be at the forefront of every actor in the international refugee regime. While drones can be used to deliver aid into besieged areas of Syria without having to force a ceasefire or bribing officials, the cost of developing sufficient drones should not be the priority. Furthermore, this technology is still new; it is still developing. Ingrasci explicates that, especially when shooting in 360, there can be problems carrying around six Go-Pros and stitching the different videos together. However, the novelty of the technology also makes it exciting; it means that there is so much more experimenting to be done and that the boundaries of storytelling can be pushed even further.

But as much as we should work to use technology to humanize issues, we also have to temper our moral duty to help with mutual respect. As with registration, it is important to be sensitive. Without cultural understanding or approval by the communities we hope to understand, filmmakers could give the impression of being invasive, selfish and merely going into camps for the sake of “refugee tourism.” Ingrasci and Temple have recognized this importance and brought the final version of “Salam Neighbor,” along with VR technology, to the refugees in Za’atari to ensure that everyone involved approves and is comfortable with the product. Rauf – a Syrian boy featured in “Salam Neighbor” – as Ingrasci explains, loved being transported to and exploring areas beyond the confines of Za’atari Camp.

The aim of using new technology in humanitarian situations is to remind everyone that refugees are neither mere statistics, animals in a zoo nor chess pieces whom higher powers determine the future for. Refugees are human beings just like you and me whose lives have been turned upside down because of, most often, political conflict. Rhetoric can sometimes contradict and blur these notions and I believe it is the job and obligation of humanity to remind people that we are all the same. It is our duty to break down the boundaries and obstacles preventing delivery and implementation of effective aid, to tear past the fake preconceptions that refugees are poor and terrorists, to show compassion, to act, to serve and to ensure that nobody has to endure unnecessary hardship and discrimination and using new technology can only help in the process.

By Jesse Marks

Syrian Kurdish refugees cross into Turkey from Syria near the northern town of Kobane in 2014. Photo: UNHCR/I.Prickett
Syrian Kurdish refugees cross into Turkey from Syria near the northern town of Kobane in 2014. Photo: UNHCR/I.Prickett

Background

Swelling conflict in Syria has created one of the most complex multilateral and transnational threats facing the Middle East. With over four million Syrian refugees in the Levant and Turkey and nearly eight million internally displaced persons (IDP), the traditional framework of the Levant is quickly transforming the very fabric of modern-day Syria and Jordan, where new challenges arise in maintaining regional stability. Jordan, a nation whose ethnic Jordanian population has become the minority within a matter of decades, faces various threats to its own economic and social stability with the addition of nearly one million Syrian refugees (630,000 registered with UNHCR and an unknown number of unregistered persons as of December 23, 2015). First, the creation of a no-fly, safe zone, enforced by the US-led coalition for Syrians and refugees in southern Syria, is a necessary strategy to provide protection for vulnerable populations in Syria. Second, the provision of work permits to a sizable percentage of legally registered Syrian refugees in Jordan is necessary in insuring a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship between refugees and Jordan. These migrations in Syria and Jordan, if not addressed by the United States and international community, will have negative long-term impacts on regional and international security, human rights, and the resettlement of refugees.

Following the sharp rise of non-state actors (ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra) in Syria since 2014, large swaths of territory and millions of Syrians have fallen under extremist occupation. Many of those facing oppression within their own borders have fled to the Jordanian border or have been scattered throughout more rural regions of Syria. The involvement of international actors via financial, material, and military support, especially lending from Russian airstrikes, further complicates the IDP situation, as attacks often target areas where civilians congregate: markets, schools, hospitals, and residential areas, among other public hot spots. Since July 2015, territorial shifts between combatant groups have inched toward closer to a stalemate in major battleground cities, spanning Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, rural Damascus, and Dar’a according various humanitarian and research organizations (UNHCR, ACAPS, and IOM). Despite the military stalemate, violence continues to escalate, further exposing Syrians in these sensitive areas of conflict, leading to increased displacement of thousands. Among those also affected are Palestinian and Iraqi refugees living in Syria.

Although the situation has steadily worsened since the start of the uprising in 2012, the world only became aware in 2015, when the increasing Syrian IDP exodus, including hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the Middle East for Europe in search of safety and livelihoods. Increasingly, the option of fleeing to neighboring countries or even risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean became an attractive option for many. There is little doubt that refugees forced to flee to informal camps on the Jordanian and Turkish borders find themselves exposed with minimal access to basic survival needs. Among those are 14,000 refugees currently are awaiting entrance to Jordan’s eastern border just few kilometers from ISIS forces. This highlights the difficulty of accessing refugees and IDP’s who are stranded in informal camps. Because of international borders, negotiations must take place between lead agencies (UNHCR) and governments. These challenges allude to the need of a new strategy to ensure long-term solutions for IDP’s and refugees in Syria.

Safe Zones

The creation of a no-fly, safe zone, enforced by the US-led coalition in southern Syria would provide a long-term solution to meet the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable Syrian populations. Many key factors in southern Syria play a vital role in the conception of such a zone including existing relations between southern tribes and Jordan, the presence of the Free Syrian Army, and a large refugee population in Jordan that originated from southern Syria. These factors make southern Syria the ideal location to secure and enforce a safe-zone. This safe-zone will provide alternative settlement for IDPs, as well as ease of access for humanitarian groups to build a community infrastructure, provide human services (healthcare and education), and revitalize economic trade with Jordan- a pillar of Jordan’s economy is agricultural trade with southern Syria. Additionally, the safe zone alleviates the financial and economic burden on Jordan to provide long-term settlement options for refugees by allowing Syrians in Jordan the option to return to southern Syria (where nearly 60% originated according to UNHCR). Likewise, it would slow IDP migrations to the Jordan’s eastern border where border policies have led to the establishment of two informal camps.

The largest obstacle to the establishment of a no-fly, safe zone is the question of enforcement and security. Securing the zone would require two forms of defense, areal and ground. A no-fly zone would be implemented similarly to the no-fly zone established in northern Iraq from 1992 to 2003 enforced by the US-led coalition. The no-fly zone alleviates the greatest threat in the south, aerial barrel bombs. Large areas of southern Syria are protected by the coalition-backed forces in Dar’a, the Free Syrian Army (who have been supporting refugees in the south since 2012). The FSA is comprised of numerous factions of religious, national, and tribal fighting groups. The connection between the FSA and southern Syrian tribes is a major reason for continued Jordanian support for the FSA because of the tribal ties between northern Jordan and southern Syria. Overseeing the defense and the enforcement of the zone as well as municipalities and daily operations would be a government elected in free, open elections overseen by the Syrian National Council.

Legal Employment for Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Due to relative stability, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains to be a cornerstone of US strategic interests in the Levant. Yet, in last few years, Jordan’s economy has been significantly strained by the addition of nearly one million Syrian refugees. In September, the Kingdom requested $4.5 billion from donor countries to continue providing for refugees. However, the amount of financial support Jordan receives is expected to decrease in 2016 as the EU tries to stabilize member states receiving large numbers of refugees. With limited space outside of refugee camps, urban refugees (refugees who live outside of camps and are 80% of the total) have limited options for shelter, legal employment, and funding for food. Therefore, many are driven to lower income areas of the country to re-establish themselves (Mafraq, East Amman, Irbid, etc). Housing and food prices have risen significantly while water scarcity continues to worsen. Key players like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program are providing refugees with limited financial assistance, but there is still a distinct lack of support.

Nearly 440,000 vulnerable refugees either lost all financial assistance or faced large cuts in September 2015. The best strategy to ensure Jordan’s stability amidst a refugee crisis is providing legal work permits for Syrian refugees. Providing financial stability for refugee communities in Jordan is intrinsic to Jordan’s long-term stability and security. The United States, who has invested over $4.5 billion into Syrian humanitarian response since 2012, has a strategic interest in the stability of Jordan (as stated in U.S.-Jordan Third Loan Guarantee Agreement signed in May 2015) whose further intake of refugees threatens its own security. The threat of instability among refugee populations is linked to various factors including access to legal employment opportunities, lack of financial assistance (from international organizations), and negative host community perceptions. Indeed, in the face of difficulty, there is opportunity. Syrians provide a work force to Jordanian employers, both dedicated and highly skilled. Syrians are willing and skilled to work a greater variety of jobs that many Jordanians refuse. According to the WANA Institute (research institute founded by Prince Hassan of Jordan), most Jordanians are largely employed in public administration and defense and represent only 7% of those working in construction and only 2% of those working in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Because Syrian participation will largely be focused in these sectors, there will not be increased competition for Jordanian jobs. Instead, it provides competition to the large illegal migrant population currently seeking these types of jobs in Jordan. Systematically, illegal migrant workers in Jordan will be replaced with a skilled, legal labor force.

Providing employment for Syrian refugees heavily reduces reliance on the humanitarian sector and international community. It increases financial stability for Syrian refugees thus decreasing the number of refugees requiring resettlement. Employed refugees do not rely as heavily on financial assistance relaxing the burden on international organizations, international donors, and the Jordanian Government. This will have a broader impact and will shift host community perceptions of Syrians as burdens on the economy to active members improving the economy. With increased economy and stability, social development (education, culture, art, and more) can flourish.

In conclusion, certain steps must be taken to ensure the safety of Syrians in Jordan and Syria amidst uncertainty facing the region despite hopes for a peaceful solution in the coming year. Providing safe settlement option is the best strategy that both decreases the number of IDP’s and allows the international community to continue fighting non-state actors. With no solution to the Syrian conflict in sight, intervention must be aimed at lessening the impact of population and refugee migrations in the Middle East and at the international level. Addressing the threat of population movements is necessary for maintaining Jordan’s stability, protecting Syrian IDPs, and slowing the flow of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe.

By Salma Khamis

Egyptian President Abdelfattah El Sisi and his French counterpart François Hollande at the Opening Ceremony of the Suez Canal's Expansion, July 2015. Source: BFM TV

For anyone who has been following Egyptian affairs, this past month’s headlines have provided for a curious case of seemingly implausible coincidences. Coming from a country that sometimes seems to be purposely trying to embarrass itself on the international stage (see: the army-financed AIDS-curing laser machine), I must say that PR mishaps are no stranger to the Egyptian government. Unfortunately, the events of this month only serve to reinforce this fact.

The first case in point: the tragic September 13th accidental killing of 8 Mexican tourists by an army airstrike in the Egyptian White Desert.  In every sense of the word, this event was a domestic and diplomatic catastrophe, and it should have been treated as such. Rather, internally, Egyptian media outlets chose to focus on whether or not the tourists should have been where they were without the army’s authorization. Externally, President Abdelfattah El Sisi, the presumed highly skilled arbiter of diplomacy, chose to congratulate Mexico on the occasion of the Mexican Independence Day, whilst in mid-condolence-speech regarding eight of their nationals who perished on Egyptian soil for absolutely no reason other than institutional incompetence.

Fast-forward to September 23 and France’s announcement that it has decided to reroute its previously Russia-bound Mistral helicopters to Egypt. As any freshman IR student could tell you, this is a decision with profound geopolitical motivations and consequences. On the one hand, increased Russian military intervention in Syria undoubtedly played a role in determining whether or not the weapons made it to Putin. On the other hand, there could not possibly be a more pronounced endorsement of Sisi and the path upon which he is leading his country than an internationally advertised arms deal such as this.

Despite limited French criticism of the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses, it was only during the opening ceremony for the expansion of the Suez Canal (itself a vestige of French influence in the country) that the speculation regarding warming Franco-Egyptian relations was confirmed. Sitting side by side with El-Sisi, French President François Hollande seemed every bit as impressed as Egyptian liberals were infuriated. The visual of a P5 country president sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Sisi served as a loud and clear confirmation, not only of the economic soundness of the canal expansion (a notion widely contested by academics); but of all that Sisi has become notorious for in barely over a year of being in office: forced disappearances, mass death sentences, dwindling academic freedom, and a whole host of other “democratizing” pursuits.

Adding yet another ‘coincidental’ insult to injury, on the same day the French government announced the Egyptian arms deal, the Egyptian government announced that Sisi had decided to presidentially pardon 100 political prisoners. Out of these 100 prisoners, the names of two in particular caught the world’s attention: Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed who, up until their arrest in 2013 on terrorism allegations, worked in Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau. Despite being a Canadian national, Fahmy could not secure his release through diplomatic efforts in what had become an international controversy as the Egyptian government continued to defy foreign pressure to release the Al-Jazeera journalist. Predictably, Sisi was hailed domestically for his act of historically unprecedented benevolence.

I am fully aware of the dangers of having hypothesized a correlation between a set of variables, only to make it seem like there are no two ways about it. This sequence of events could very well be purely coincidental and, as a cynical Egyptian observing events from afar, I could be making an unfair correlation between a number of factors that bear little relevance to one another. It is not like Sisi was subsequently making a trip to the United States the very next day after pardoning these prisoners, attempting to put the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s bad press.

The fact of the matter is, foreign and domestic analysts alike should not be commending President Sisi for the decision to pardon 100 political prisoners who should not even have been arrested in the first place. To commend his efforts is to be complicit in justifying the need for their initial arrest and subsequent detainment under blanket “anti-terrorism” laws that serve only to terrorize an entire population into silence. The decision to pardon these prisoners comes not from Sisi’s newly found conviction in the sanctity of human rights, but from a need to save face after a month of spectacularly unfavorable press. Even if the prospects of being elected for a second term have already been deemed an inevitability in domestic discourse, Sisi still has to salvage his image abroad.

Rather than commending Sisi for pardoning 100 unjustly detained political prisoners, we should question the premise upon which the pardon was issued. Bartering the livelihood of 100 individuals for the acquisition of weaponry or redemption of diplomatic stature is not only irresponsible, but provides room for the future manipulation of domestic affairs to save face on the international stage.

When push comes to shove, what commentators do not want to admit in their analysis of Egyptian affairs is that all of these coincidences, or mishaps, or temporary setbacks, or whatever it is we want to call them; they are but symptoms of an overarching and undeniable institutional failure that needs to be addressed before it morphs itself into yet another global embarrassment… or twenty.

By Kate West

https://www.flickr.com/photos/imsbildarkiv/11086351844/
Source: INDIVIDUELL MÄNNISKOHJÄLP/Flickr.

More often than not, disability rights and issues of accessibility for persons with disabilities (PWDs) are excluded from conversations on peacebuilding and peacekeeping in the Middle East. Perhaps this is because it is a less conventional “frame” through which to view the concept of peacebuilding; nevertheless, these are critical issues to consider if we are to facilitate lasting, sustainable models of peace and development. Efforts to mainstream issues pertaining to people with disability are relatively recent (World Institute on Disability 2014).

Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens comprise 20.7% of the total population of the country; of this number, nearly a quarter (25%) lives with a moderate to severe disability (Jerusalem Post 2013). That’s 425,000 individuals who often lack the knowledge, resources, and legal recourse to advocate for themselves.

Although PWDs in every country face challenges, disability in the Arab world is particularly problematic. This is because for the most part, these societies have not yet moved beyond the medical definition of disability to embrace a social one. Whereas the medical definition perceives disability as a problem to be fixed, the social model understands disability as a neutral condition. In this model, disabled individuals are designated by their physical and or mental difference, but this difference is neither a positive nor negative; it is simply distinct. While the medical model designates “normalization” of the disabled as a remedy, the social model advocates changes in the interaction between the individual and society.

Despite nominal improvements in Middle Eastern governments’ policies toward disabled individuals, social and institutional barriers still largely deny them fair and compassionate treatment. This is where grassroots civil society organizations (CSOs) have come to play a critical role for the Arab society in Israel. Exclusion for one is exclusion for all, and perhaps it is persons with disabilities living in Israel’s Arab communities that understand this best. This is why Arab CSOs lobby at the local and national levels to ensure that Israel, a signatory on the UN’s Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is enforcing the Convention to the fullest extent in employment, education, and the social sphere.

While it is not a common approach, framing disability rights as human rights, particularly in the context of Israel/Palestine, has succeeded in building a broad coalition of stakeholders, invested in civil society sustainability, peacebuilding, and cross-cultural community collaboration.

According to the Center for Disability Studies (2010), approximately 16% of all disabilities are war and conflict related. In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, such disabilities can be made more difficult by increasingly complicated and rapidly changing political circumstances. In the West Bank, road closures, the subsequent restriction of movement of people and goods, tensions with Jewish settlements, and the continued presence of the separation wall along the Israeli/Palestinian are all cited by CSO Diakonia as contributors to a decline in the quality of daily life for residents (2013). When used as leverage for facilitating dialogue between actors on both sides of the Green Line, however, disability advocacy can be used to increase peacebuilding efficacy and authenticity.

The benefit of using disability advocacy in such a way is that disability itself is universal; regardless of how narrowly or widely an individual chooses to define the term, disability touches every community and country in the world. When disability rights are promoted and respected, these conversations can facilitate space for broader dialogue about human rights in general. Social inclusion and accessibility are issues that all sides—Israeli, Palestinian, and international bodies mediating the Conflict—can get behind.

If peacebuilding is defined as a process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict through reconciliation, institution building, and political as well as economic transformation (Alliance for Peacebuilding 2013), then disability advocacy is a more effective, inclusive model for peacebuilding.

A principal reason for the continued conflict in Israel/Palestine is social inequity. Usually, however, social inequity is defined in strict terms: Jewish and Arab. Organizations and governments, by overlooking disability rights as a building block for peace negotiations, are missing out on a golden opportunity to facilitate dialogue and increase cooperation. Social equity must mean equity for all—Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, persons with disabilities and those without. In the currency of peacebuilding, disability advocacy has buying power.

Historically, disability is an issue that has been relegated to the margins, not just in the Middle East, but globally. However, it is this very marginalization in peacebuilding spheres that creates an opportunity for robust human rights work to be undertaken with minimal threat of the issue becoming politically charged. It is this marginalization that can pave the way to a durable peace by introducing social inclusion and addressing social exclusion.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will by no means be solved through disability advocacy alone, it can nevertheless serve as an important and innovative tool to promote cross-border communication and collaboration, and to facilitate meaningful relationships with a broad spectrum of government and non-government actors in pursuit of equity and access for all.

By Kate Moran

A Syrian refugee and her newborn baby at a clinic in Ramtha, Jordan." Photo Credit: UK Department for International Development (DFID), 2013.

Google the words “Middle East” or” “refugees,” and you’ll find no shortage of articles bemoaning the current humanitarian crisis that has seemingly engulfed almost every country in the region. Many of these articles focus on important health-related issues: food security, sexual violence, and the civil conflicts that prevent aid from reaching vulnerable populations. Indeed, there are a great many organizations operating in the Middle East, all seeking to mitigate these problems. Yet, rarely are money or attention directed to one of the region’s greatest crises: the unavailability of, and lack of access to, mental health care.

Perhaps the reason for this lacuna is because mental health is one of the more difficult medical concepts to pin down; opinions vary widely on what the very definition of mental health is, much less how to treat it. Moreover, mental health encompasses a huge range of conditions, some of which appear minor and others that are severe enough to cause significant disruptions to daily life.
Perhaps it is because mental health isn’t as “glamorous” an issue as combatting sexual violence against women and girls in refugee and internally displaced populations. Or maybe it is because the global community doesn’t know where to start—how do we improve the mental health of vulnerable populations if the underlying causes are so vast and seemingly beyond our control?

Make no mistake: mental health is the greatest unchecked public health issue in the Middle East today. The rates of depression and anxiety for the region are greater than anywhere else in the world. We know what’s causing these alarmingly high rates of mental illness: years—and in some cases, decades—of political and social unrest; a seemingly never-ending cycle of economic booms and busts, worsened by global markets; and steady and increasing ‘brain drain’ of doctors and other medical professionals to the West.

Currently, for every million Iraqi citizens, there are only four psychiatrists to service them. In Al-Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp, 32% of all refugees receiving support to prevent and deal with mental health illnesses are children. Yet, in 2013 there were only 34 psychiatrists and 24 psychologists—for the entire camp. It’s clear that the level of need is disproportionately greater than the ability of the Jordanian authorities and NGOs operating in Al-Zaatari to deal with it.

So how do we convince the global community—not just NGOs and governments, but individuals—to invest in mental health care in the Middle East? Simply, we must connect the dots between this care and the broader forces causing mental health conditions in the first place. The soaring rates of depression and anxiety in the region are inextricably tied to the broader social and political milieu in which they exist. These conditions cannot be understood without framing them in the context of civil war, sectarian conflict, political occupation, economic unrest, and rising religious extremism.
These issues, some of which have existed for decades, are the underlying causes of the Middle East’s mental health crisis; many continue to worsen as relations between states, as well as within states, deteriorate even further. Thus, we cannot be advocates for change in the region without understanding the broader forces at play and working to find sustainable social and political solutions. Without recognizing the role of quality mental health care in the overall health of a population and taking steps to ensure access to this care, the underlying issues causing the problems cannot be reconciled. While this might seem like a circular argument, it’s necessary to address the two issues—both the underlying cause (instability) and the symptoms (mental illness) in tandem with one another, so as to maximize long-term impact.

Although there are many other problems in the region that must be addressed, the critical need for mental health care, and a commitment by both local actors and the international community to provide for this care, cannot be overlooked. There must be an investment—rhetorically as well as financially—in both mental health care and creating spaces within existing initiatives to broaden services in this regard.

So when we talk about health in the Middle East, we should talk about food security. We should talk about sexual violence, gender equity, and economic empowerment. Without simultaneously talking about and addressing mental health, however, the region’s vulnerable populations will continue to suffer. They will never move beyond the refugee camps to create new lives for themselves, and the Middle East will never move beyond its endless cycle of instability. Poor mental health unquestionably dampens an individual’s full potential. Without the availability of and access to mental health care, the future generations of the Middle East will not flourish, but languish.

“Discussing Life in Afghanistan” A Psychologist and Department of Defense civilian deployed to Afghanistan as members of the Human Terrain System interview local residents in April 2009. Source: U.S. Army/Flickr.

In 2005, Montgomery McFate, a former defense consultant for the Rand Corporation, and Andrea Jackson, the Director of Research and Training at the Lincoln Group, published a paper entitled: “An Organizational Solution for DOD’s Cultural Knowledge Needs.” In it, they outlined the goals, needs, and cost for the development of a “specialized organization within the Department of Defense to produce, collect, and centralize cultural knowledge, which will have the utility for policy development and military operations.” The article in Military Review was published at a time when policy makers recognized the need to have cultural knowledge of their enemy, especially during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It went on to suggest the establishment of regional combatant commanders (RCC) and regional offices to supplement teams on the ground and to maintain close relationships with local forces and possible other sources of intelligence.  From this paper, the Human Terrain System (HTS), a United States Army, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) support unit costing $726 million, was born.

Units in HTS, known as Human Training Teams (HTT), were supposed to deploy people with social-science backgrounds, such as anthropologists and linguists, to provide military commanders and staff with an understanding of the local population in the area. In 2007, the program was critiqued by the American Anthropological Association, which called the collaboration of social scientists and combat units “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise,” as there existed a moral conflict between studying, for example, Iraqis, and advising troops who might end up killing them. However, the criticisms did not stop there; taxpayers were upset, as were military personnel, who felt that there already existed units that carried out the same function and that HTS was draining resources away from other priorities. The program also came under close scrutiny in 2009, when Staff Sergeant Paula Lloyd, a member of HTT in Afghanistan, was doused with petrol and set alight by a local Afghan. Her death went unreported, despite it being the third researcher with HTT to die on that deployment.

The need to thoroughly understand our enemies and associates is something that has been recognized for a long time. Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” And the need still exists today; General Odierno, the 38th Chief of Staff of the Army and former Commander General, United States Forces – Iraq, acknowledged its necessity during the war. While in Iraq, he recruited Emma Sky, a non-military British expert on the Middle East and who had lived in Kirkuk and dealt with the Iraqi-Kurdistan disputes after the Fall of Saddam and the war, to be his political advisor.

In late June of this year, the press got word that HTS had been terminated quietly in September 2014, as “there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater.” But why was there such a long delay in announcing the end of the program? Many believe that HTS had the potential to change humanitarian missions and reconstruction efforts. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even praised the program and its “alternative thinking” that was key to success for a military that has a reputation of being heavy handed, something that was only emphasized around the world. Secretary Gates expressed how HTS led to less violence, citing a commander in Afghanistan who had worked with Human Terrain Teams and, as a result, had to carry out 60% fewer armed strikes.

So what does the military do now that HTS has been terminated? Major Adam Martin doesn’t believe HTS’s termination left any void for his operations. His fellow soldiers are from diverse backgrounds and are trained in the same way and can, therefore, carry out the same functions as HTS personnel did; he works with reserve soldiers who are anthropologists, state troopers, civil engineers, and environmental engineers to name a few. Maj. Martin has been with Civil Affairs since 2010 and is the HQ Company Commander for the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade based in Philadelphia. His unit is part of the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) (USACAPOC(A)) which was founded in 1985, is comprised of mostly U.S. Army Reserve soldiers and which is meant to carry out five functions: civil information management, population resource control, support to civil administration, foreign humanitarian assistance and nation assistance. I met Maj. Martin when I worked at the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy this year in New York where he was visiting to research how to engage youth in post-conflict areas through creative arts programs, such as the dance and music classes the Academy ran.

He too thinks that understanding your enemy is vital, as you cannot do your job (in this field) without understanding the culture. He added that this applies more to Civil Affairs soldiers who are “expected to understand and to know a lot more than anybody else.” For example, when examining the next Area of Operations (AO), he explained how there are two systems the unit uses to assess various factors: PMESCII – political, military, economic, social, cultural, informational and infrastructure – and ASCOPE – areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people and events. Every minute detail, such as the location of power plants and natural resources, are plotted, analyzed and discussed.

U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.
U.S. Army Reserve Officers from 418th Civil Affairs Brigade work with locals in the Horn of Africa in 2010. Source: U.S. Army Africa/Flickr.

Despite being civilians, HTS personnel wore uniform when deployed, like those in Civil Affairs. Wearing uniform might seem imposing and threatening but Maj. Martin assured that it “can be helpful as it opens doors. There is credibility.” He even mentioned that local interpreters would also wear military uniform but would be covered, as they would not want to be seen, as this may endanger their families – something that the army would try and prevent at all costs. Maj. Martin did explain that Civil Affairs does differ from HTS in its operations, which include advising on infrastructure development projects, water distribution centers, and school and bridge refurbishment – known as Engineering Civil Action Programs or ENCAP – such as those he carried out in the Philippines. Moreover, Civil Affairs personnel can carry out a wide range of programs: Veterinarian Civil Action Programs (VETCAP), Educational Civil Action Programs (EDCAP), and Medical Civil Action Programs (MEDCAP) – Maj. Martin disclosed that through this last set of programs, he has had to carry out circumcision operations with a local doctor.

Understanding our enemies and foreign populations beyond what their military capabilities are, where they could be deployed, what history says and what their tactics are can only tell us so much. It is vital to comprehend and to follow cultural practices to add credibility to the incoming force and to not aggravate what is likely to be an already complex, volatile environment. The United States has, unfortunately, only emphasized its controversial approach to reconstruction efforts in recent history. The Human Terrain System was established to help with this. Although marred in controversy, the program also received much praise so it does not seem to make sense that its termination was abrupt, hushed and muted. However, there is no rush for the country to consider finding and funding another similar program for it seems as if there already exists a unit to help military forces without the assistance of HTS.

Civil Affairs appears to overlap with HTS in many aspects but surpasses it in its capacity with regard to personnel and operations, which beckons the questions: did we really need the Human Terrain System? What would have happened if it were never established?

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