Source: Gage Skidmore; URL:

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.


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:


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.


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.

By Joshua Shinbrot

Kurdish Peshmerga troops take part in intensive security deployment against the Islamic State in January 2015. Source: Flickr/Times Asi (

Yazidi men and women are being massacred. Their girls are being sold as sex slaves. Their boys are being forcibly converted and indoctrinated to form a modern Janissary Corps of suicide bombers and executioners. ISIL (ISIS/Daesh/IS) has been attempting to exterminate the Yazidis for over a year, yet with few exceptions the world has remained silent. All major world leaders know, few care, and none will act. History offers a plethora of examples of the dire consequences of the silence and indifference exhibited by the President of the United States and the leaders of powerful European Countries. This type of apathy allowed for the genocidal murder of approximately 10,000,000 people in the twentieth century: 100,000 in Bosnia, 800,000 in Rwanda, 2,000,000 Armenians, over 1,000,000 Roma, and well over 6,000,000 Jews. ISIL’s ideology seeks to implement a radical seventh century interpretation of Islam by using 21st century weaponry to murder or subjugate all who refuse to embrace their ways. The group most threatened by ISIL is the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who overwhelmingly reject ISIL’s fanatical interpretation of the Islamic faith.

Today, ISIL is stronger than al-Qaeda was on September 11, 2001. It controls more territory, it is better funded, and it is more successful at recruiting westerners. ISIL’s genocide of the Yazidis is just the beginning. If we are to protect ourselves, our allies, the Yazidis, and Muslims threatened by ISIL, the United States needs to destroy the Islamic State and it must do this now. It’s time to level the territory controlled by ISIL and destroy the major transportation routes the group uses to supply and maintain itself.

President Obama has accurately referred to ISIL as a cancer. However, Obama has failed to properly treat the disease. This aggressive radical cancer requires an equally aggressive treatment. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but it kills a lot of normal, healthy cells too. There is no way to destroy ISIL without killing large numbers of innocent people. The Obama administration’s attempts to destroy Daesh have killed many innocent people, but it has failed to make substantial progress in the struggle against ISIL. Drone strikes may kill higher-ups in IS, but it seems that every time this occurs there are plenty of people waiting to take the place of the dead. A 2014 report by The Guardian regarding Obama’s “targeted killing” program indicates that “attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1,147 people.” That means 28 civilians were killed per targeted individual without any substantial strategic gain from their deaths. Those are 28 families who lost an innocent mother, father, brother or sister. Locals lose loved ones, but the terrorists are not defeated.

It is time to take noncombatant immunity seriously. The United States and its coalition partners have a responsibility to ensure that the innocent lives lost during hostilities actually serve to defeat ISIL. If the strategy advocated in this article were implemented, substantial numbers of civilians would be killed. Yet, ISIL would be defeated, the world would know that America will do what it takes to defeat extremism, and international norms against genocide would be strengthened.

Just War Theory demands more than ensuring the proportionality of noncombatant deaths during hostilities. The object of a war with ISIL needs to be the creation of a just and lasting peace. It will not be possible to achieve such a peace without a long-term American presence in Iraq. ISIL is creating a backwards society with apocalyptic aims. The United States and its allies have defeated warped ideologies before. It was accomplished in the post-war occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II.

Unlike in Iraq, the United States never turned its back on Japan and Germany. Even today, there is a massive American military presence in Germany (36,691 troops) and Japan (52,060 troops). If the United States and our coalition partners aggressively work towards post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq, in a few decades, the American military presence in Iraq may look much more like the American military presence in Germany or Japan. There is no simple, fast, or cheap way to resolve the “ISIS Crisis.” Failure to change the strategy for defeating ISIL will only raise the cost of victory over extremism in treasure and, more importantly, in blood.

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


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 Kate Moran

Members of the Free Syrian Army preparing to fight, February 2012. Source: Freedom House.

As of writing, the Syrian civil war has been raging for more than four and a half years—or, to be precise, 1,697 days. Since that time, the influence of various players—Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State in its many forms and reinventions, and any number of rebel and opposition groups—has ebbed and flowed considerably. Who controlled Aleppo today did not necessarily control it yesterday, and will probably not control it tomorrow.

As the conflict wears on and the Middle East becomes even more entrenched in a seemingly endless cycle of political dysfunction and humanitarian crises, power brokers from outside the region have also sought to get involved in what is to date the worst refugee crisis since World War II and one of the bloodiest civil conflicts in recent memory. Foremost among these powers is the United States, which has yet to form a cohesive strategy vis-à-vis Syria and the seemingly unshakable Assad regime. Simply put, U.S. foreign policy in this regard has been a no-strategy strategy. Although the Obama Administration has dabbled in airstrikes and halfhearted threats, it has yet to undertake a clear and comprehensive stance on the civil war, choosing instead to direct its attentions to the symptoms of the conflict, rather than its cause.

This has resulted in increased numbers of Syrians being admitted to the United States under a national refugee resettlement program, and in more money being allocated to humanitarian organizations in Europe working on the ground to provide for those individuals and their families who make the awful calculus to risk drowning at sea in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean and find new life. What the United States hasn’t done, however, is implement a strategy in Syria that both addresses the rising threat of the Islamic State and provides for a viable alternative to the so-called caliphate’s rule.

Last year, the United States launched its first airstrikes in Syria, targeted at Islamic State facilities in its stronghold in Raqqa province. The U.S. military coordinated with five different Arab countries in implementing the airstrikes, a rare display of unity in a region known in recent months more for infighting than collaboration. And by and large, these strikes were successful—taking out strategic facilities and destroying oil reserves key to the Islamic State’s economy. But in destroying these facilities, the surrounding areas have also been affected; civilians have become collateral damage of a conflict they never wanted to take part in, and other infrastructure in Syria has been inadvertently damaged. With the addition of Russian airstrikes in October of this year, targeting not Islamic State but the facilities of rebel groups hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an even greater number of civilian have been affected. Critical resources—like water and electricity, have similarly been affected as a result of the strikes, leaving an already-starved country worse off than before. Ultimately, these airstrikes will only serve to strengthen the Islamic State’s influence in embattled Syria; with no plans to rebuild infrastructure, the United States and its allies are creating a power vacuum that will serve to benefit Islamist extremists and provide opportunities for groups worse than even the Islamic State to establish footholds inside the country. Syria’s masses will be left to languish, and groups like the Islamic State will be the better for it.

Long before “ISIL” rose to prominence in the international media, it was waging its own, local propaganda campaign. Before the brutal beheadings on Youtube, Islamic State representatives were hard at work in Raqqa and in other areas of Syria and Iraq setting up social service organizations, supplying electricity to thousands of citizens who had previously lived without it, implementing media campaigns and winning over supporters. This is not to say that most Syrians genuinely harbored support for ISIL ideology, but rather, that the provision of critical services was an offer too good to refuse.

If the United States truly wants to help Syrians take back their country from the Islamic State, then it is crucial that the country seeks more than a brute-force, military resolution to the conflict. It must also supplant Islamic State’s grip on the social, educational, and financial institutions, and provide an appealing alternative to IS’s rule in Syria and Iraq.

While the Islamic State’s public executions are what the group is best known for today, it has not slowed its social propaganda campaign; in the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria, they are laying power lines, operating bus routes, and beautifying cities. The world must do the same, and better.

In order to end the Syrian civil war and ensure that it doesn’t continue into its fifth, sixth, or seventh year, the United States and all those who care about the Middle East’s stability must abandon their no-strategy strategies. They must provide for refugees, yes, but they must also provide for the Syrians who remain, and who will be the ones that will rebuild the country when the dust settles and the sun sets on the civil war.

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.

By James P. Abate

Yazidis gather to light candles at the holy shrine of Lalish. (AP Photo/Seivan M. Salim)

Last Wednesday (April 15) marked the beginning of the Yazidi New Year. Thirty-six miles northeast of Mosul, Iraq is the small village of Lalish, the most sacred place on Earth to the Yazidi religion. Followers of the faith believe the village, surrounded on all sides by mountains lined with oak trees, to be the center of the universe: the only place on Earth to be saved during the biblical floods. Twelve cone-shaped domes are scattered across the valley as shrines to the Yazidi saints. Each year on this day thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious group located in northern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, gather on what they call Red Wednesday for a time of feasting, repentance, and performing ancient rituals set amid the temple grounds. Worshipers take off their shoes to walk the hallowed grounds and perform fire-based prayer rites. In accordance with tradition, worshipers leave colored eggs outside of their homes on the New Year hoping they will help God identify them.

This New Year, however, is eerily different. When fighters for the Islamic State invaded northern Iraq last summer, they destroyed the villages of the Yazidi people along with the homes of Christians and other Kurdish groups. In a storm of murder, torture, and sexual violence, Islamic State fighters executed and buried in mass graves young Yazidi men. They simultaneously displayed their unimaginable violent ways by capturing young girls and women who were to be used as both sex slaves and pieces of property by the militants. Hala Rasho Hamo, a worshiper at the Lalish temple this New Year said, “We did not paint eggs or hang red tulips on our doors this year: our heart is in pain. We came here to pray to God and the [Yazidi saint] Sheikh Adi to end our misery and bring back our women and children.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report earlier this week revealing some of the most heinous war crimes committed by Islamic State forces against the Yazidi women captured. The detailed report reveals that one girl as young as 12 was abducted from her village and handed over to seven Islamic State fighters who would trade and rape her. The victim recounts her story: “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my arms and legs.” Many of the women have suffered unimaginable trauma and abuse. Many have attempted suicide only to be further physically assaulted when the fighters caught them attempting to hang themselves or cut their wrists. Various reports claim that an estimated 5,000 Yazidis have been killed, abducted, or remain missing.

The United Nations is currently investigating reports from Yazidi men and women who have escaped in an effort to judge whether or not the Islamic State is committing genocide. Iraq currently is not a member of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and therefore any crimes cannot be investigated and tried under international law until the nation joins.

It is almost too overwhelming to comprehend the magnitude of horror that this population has endured. It is even more difficult to comprehend how the United Nations or other international peace keeping institutions have not intervened for these people. It is understandable that these organizations are often just as terrified about the threat that the Islamic State poses in the region. However, I cannot comprehend how the world is able to stand by and watch as this militant organization commits genocide in a similar fashion to that of every other mass killing movement in history. Reminiscent of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocide, the mass killing and capture of the Yazidi people has for almost a year gone unnoticed by most of the world’s population. As a more integrated world, we must not stand by and watch as a minority population is massacred for their beliefs and identity. They too should enjoy the ability to worship in peace on this New Year’s celebration without the grief of reflecting for the thousands that have been massacred or abducted from their friends and families.

By Patrick Lim

Blackwater conducting a test near Kabul, Afghanistan of a new delivery system for getting items to troops on the ground for extended missions. (Source: US Army Spc. John P. Ledington)

Four employees of the private security company Blackwater Worldwide (now Academi) were sentenced in mid-April – one to life and the others to 30 years – for their roles in a 2007 mass shooting in Nisour Square, Baghdad that killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians.

The contractors had maintained that they were shot at by Iraqi insurgents and were merely returning fire; however, the prosecution’s witnesses said the shooting started immediately after the company rolled into the square. Sniper Nicholas Slatten was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life for starting the incident by shooting a young man in the head. One more contractor, Jeremy Ridgeway, has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, has testified against his four colleagues but has not yet been sentenced.

The US government had contracted Blackwater during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to carry out several functions, predominantly protecting diplomats such as Paul Bremer and Hamid Karzai. No private military contractor was more powerful or influential than Blackwater at its peak. This shooting, however, destroyed the company’s reputation and thrust the company (and industry) into a perpetually negative light.

The use of private contractors was so prevalent during these wars partly because it was an option that had not previously existed for policy makers. The companies could act as “multipliers of force” and offered a solution for a smaller political price than deploying the 135,000 more troops to Iraq. As a result, the industry was relied upon heavily, and this is reflected in the numbers: contractors received $138 billion from the Iraq War alone (compared to $63.7 billion for 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations). Furthermore, during the 1991 Gulf War, the ratio of US military personnel to PMC employees was 1:100; however, in Iraq, the ration was 1:10. It is estimated that the number of contract personnel exceed 180,000 at one point, greater than the 160,000 deployed US troops.

Beyond the questionable ethical nature of the industry, the Nisour Square shooting is one of many examples of the controversial use of private contractors by the US government in the Middle East. Everyone remembers Abu Ghraib: the harrowing pictures of naked detainees in stress positions, being stacked in a pyramid and being forced to participate in degrading behavior by the US military. However, what is less well known about is the role of private contractors – CACI and Titan (now L-3) – which were employed to carry out interrogation and translation services. Instead, there are incidents documented in the Fay Report that they directed and carried out some of the torture. Both companies were subsequently sued for their role in Abu Ghraib. In 2013, L-3 agreed to pay $5.28 million to 71 former inmates held in the detention facility and at US-run sites from 2003 to 2007, for conspiring to torture detainees. As regards the case of Al-Shimari vs. CACI, in 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit decided to reinstate the case after a lower court had previously thrown it out. As with Nisour Square, the criminal proceedings of these cases are extremely complicated, not in the least because these violations occurred abroad and contractors are immune from being prosecuted under Iraqi Law due to Order 17 issued in 2004 by CPA head, Paul Bremer.

More commonly during the Iraq War, private contractors provided support from training services to logistics. This is also not without contractor misconduct: Halliburton-KBR was one of the largest firms and was accused of war profiteering, as they are alleged to have sold overpriced gasoline and charged for services that they did not carry out.

Yet, the use of private contractors by the US lies not only with companies, but also with individuals. Raymond Davis was working with the CIA when he shot two people and killed a third as he was escaping in open daylight in Lahore, Pakistan in 2011. Davis, previously a Blackwater contractor, is more talked about than the Osama Bin Laden raid in the country, as it signaled that the US was operating covertly Pakistan. Another example is David Passaro, who is the only contractor to have been prosecuted for torturing detainee Abdul Wali in Asadabad, Afghanistan.

Despite the controversial nature and history of the industry and being an expensive way of increasing presence on the ground, as mentioned, the companies carry less political risk. Furthermore, the contracting government is able to shun accountability if anything were to go wrong with the contract or company. With regard to logistical support, certain jobs in war zones had always been assigned to the military and the need to address this “waste” of personnel combined with the military’s desire to downsize makes contractors an attractive option. Lastly, the government does not have to worry about as much strategic planning and can focus on other aspects of foreign operations or even domestic issues.

The private contractor industry is not new but seems to have recently become a new key component of US foreign policy. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US had a monopoly over this industry and was in the perfect position to shape international norms pertaining to its behavior. The failure to do so could lead to an industry that is even more unchecked: incidents such as Abu Ghraib and Nisour Square will only be the beginning, as many companies are being started all over the world; for example, Erik Prince the famed founder of Blackwater is working on two in the Gulf and China is in building its own. It is the obligation of the international community to introduce new laws or to amend old ones, as previous efforts, such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Montruex Document, are either still vague or ineffective.


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