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 Kate Moran

Syrian Kurdish refugees entering Turkey. Source: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO).

It has been a little over a month since the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war. Since March 2011, it’s estimated that over one million Syrians have sought asylum in Turkey. Most of them were part of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have streamed across Syria’s northern border with the country, inundating once-sleepy Turkish towns like Reyhanli. Refugee camps like Suruç, Turkey’s largest, with 35,000 residents, are bursting at the seams. More than half of Syrian refugees worldwide are under the age of 18, and thus many of Turkey’s Syrian refugee population are of school age. According to NPR, the education crisis is fueling an epidemic of early marriage, child labor and poor prospects.

Syrians are now a majority in some border towns, like Reyhanli. Although the influx of refugees into Turkey has caused a significant degree of nationalist backlash, some locals are working to bring the country’s burgeoning Syrian population into the greater social fold. Marginalization, an issue faced by refugees everywhere, is especially prominent in Turkey, where a history of cultural heterogeneity and targeted nationalism has pervaded the public and political spheres for more than a century. But marginalization can be dangerous, not just for the marginalized, but also for those who perpetuate it. Like Arab countries in the region, such as Egypt, where high youth unemployment and low educational prospects have fueled social unrest, Turkey will soon have to contend with similar issues.

Refugees left to languish without education or mobility are a threat to both Turkey’s and the region’s stability. Youth unemployment is one of the most pressing threats facing the Middle East today. Unchecked, it has the potential to perpetuate regional instability, augment militant groups’ influence, and further entrench the Middle East in its vicious cycle of economic dysfunction. Rising youth populations makes finding a solution for the region’s economic woes even more critical. Without a sustainable educational model, however, economic prospects will only worsen.

To help close the educational gap, a prominent Turkish educator, Enver Yucel, has donated $10 million to establish an accredited university system where Syrians can take coursework in Arabic, English, and Turkish. Yucel believes that breaking the cycle of exploitation, marginalization, and social inequity begins with education. Investing in refugees’ education, Yucel believes, is an investment in Turkey’s future. It will equip them will the tools necessary to be fully integrated into the social and economic fabric of the country.

180,000 child refugees in Turkey receive school supplies through UNICEF’s No Lost Generation (NLG) initiative, which promotes non-discriminatory access to quality and relevant formal and non-formal education for both refugee and vulnerable host community children. However, the Turkish university system remains largely inaccessible to young Syrians, many of whom were college-bound before the outbreak of the war. Though a significant percentage of Syrian youth are educated, language barriers prevent most of them from pursuing higher education in Turkey, which would in turn, increase their job prospects.

Like Palestinians in Jordan, Syrians in Turkey have irrevocably changed the social, linguistic, and political fabric of the country.  Whether or not Turkey wants them there, many are there to stay. Even under the best circumstances, Syria will take years to recover from the conflict, and prospects for the country’s displaced youth will remain low. Because of this, many Syrians will seek to cultivate new lives for themselves in Turkey. Generations will be born and come of age in a new place, facing the challenge of conflicted identities. They will be both Syrian and Turkish, but perhaps neither fully one nor the other.

Educational initiatives like Enver Yucel’s aren’t just humanitarian; they’re nationalist. Although many Turks resent Syrians for putting undue economic pressure on the government to support them, and for taking jobs away from locals (a common complaint in any society with large refugee/immigrant populations), the full social and economic integration of the Syrian refugees is ultimately critical to Turkey’s well-being and stability. Without such integration, the Eurasian country that has long been perceived as an island of calm in a region of chaos may descend into similar patterns of sectarian violence, religious conflict, and political dysfunction experienced by the rest of the Middle East.

By Patrick Lim

Part of the “Welcome to ISIL-Land” video released by the "Think Again Turn Away" campaign. Source: Youtube, Department of State.

While the international community continues with Operation Inherent Resolve to destroy ISIS, it is also waging a psychological war against the terrorist group’s ideology. What we must also not forget is the millions of refugees in the region whose lives have been destroyed by the violence that does not seem to have a foreseeable end. Thousands of images have been published and retweeted. However, in recent months, the use of extreme imagery has become more prevalent in anti-ISIS propaganda and NGO campaigns—oftentimes, unfortunately, with the same undesired outcomes.

Anti-ISIS Propaganda:

In mid March, a US F-15 jet dropped 60,000 propaganda leaflets over Raqqa, the center of ISIS’ operations. The leaflets contained a cartoon that depicts the terrorist group’s “employment office,” with recruiters as yellow-eyed “men” and fighters being fed into a meat grinder labeled with the derogatory term used in the Middle East for ISIS: “Dae’sh.” The message is simple: for anybody who is thinking of joining, think twice. This cartoon employs extreme graphics to deliver its message, juxtaposing blood-bespattered walls and dehumanized recruiters against the normalcy of potential fighters. As Nicholas Heras, an expert at the Center for a New American Security, explained to USA Today, the cartoon is “trying to set the stage for an internal uprising against ISIS.”

The use of shocking imagery is not new to the US in its campaign to stop radicalization and potential sympathizers. Recognizing that a lot of recruitment occurs online, the State Department launched the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign in December 2013 to combat domestic radicalization on social media. The Twitter account has nearly 22,000 followers and uses two approaches: tweeting counter messaging material and addressing—often in sarcastic exchanges—prominent jihadist accounts, such as those of al-Qa’ida and ISIS. As a result, images of dead children and adults, as well as executions, are sometimes retweeted, so as to “create a compelling narrative that strikes an emotional chord with potential militants weighing whether to join a violent extremist group.” In an attempt to counter violent extremism and to counter propaganda videos from ISIS, the campaign also released a video last year titled “Welcome to ISIL-Land,” in which it tells recruits that they can learn how to blow up mosques and kill Muslims. Graphic images of the terrorist group murdering people and beheading bodies were featured in the video.

A Call for Help:

What we must not forget is the humanitarian crisis that has arisen as a result of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War. Some human rights and anti-government activists in Syria have started to produce videos to draw international attention to the violence of the Assad regime, the death of 200,000 Syrians and the ongoing plight of over 12 million refugees. These people wonder why incidences such as the burning of a Jordanian pilot and the death of American journalists have been quickly answered with increased airstrikes, whereas their daily struggles have not received similar reactions.

Most recently, the advocates herded children, dressed in orange jump suits, into a cage among damaged buildings, while the recorder waves a burning torch in an attempt to evoke the pictures of Moaz Al-Kasasbeh’s death at the hands of the brutal terrorist group. In the video, Baraa Abdulrahman, the recorder and an antigovernment activist living in a Damascus suburb, asks why the world has not responded to the killing of children that happens everyday.

Humanitarian organizations have also shared powerful images to call for a response from the international community. At the beginning of April, two powerful images have taken the Internet by storm, both of young Syrian refugee girls who mistook cameras for guns and held their hands up as a sign of surrender.

What are the effects?

With regard to the propaganda against ISIS, some have criticized the ineffectiveness of the imagery. According to Evan F. Kohlmann, chief information officer of Flashpoint Global Partners, an enterprise that tracks and analyzes militant groups and individuals online, “most of the Westerners trying to join ISIS are actually enthused by videos of executions and suicide bombings, not deterred by them.” This claim is supported by the fact the number of ISIS foreign fighters has risen to more than 25,000 from over 100 nations, a 71% increase from mid-2014 to March 2015. We must also remember that some of the propaganda is not solely aimed at foreign fighters, but also at potential sympathizers in the region. Nevertheless, ISIS does not seem to be slowing down. It has just claimed territory miles from Damascus and, although it is too early to determine the effects of the latest American anti-ISIS pamphlets, if previous efforts are of any indication, we need to rethink our strategy in the fight to degrade and to destroy the group.

The efforts of humanitarian organizations and human rights advocates seem to be similarly ineffective: at a donors’ conference in Kuwait last month, a total of $3.8 billion was committed—almost $5 billion short of the target. Although this may also be a result of donor fatigue, it also seems as if the campaigns by NGOs and activists are doing little to entice the international community to pledge more and hit back at claims that it is failing generations of Syrians.

We may think that extreme, violent, shocking imagery is the only way to appeal to someone’s emotions and get them to react. However, the results have been clear: they do not work. In order to defeat ISIS, we, the international community, must work closely with local communities and religious leaders in person and online, both in the region and internationally, to delegitimize the ISIS ideology through ensuring a deeper, fuller understanding of the Qu’ran. With regard to the humanitarian crisis, we must not always show the problem but to show the solution: alleviate the crisis by opening our borders and public services to those affected by the ongoing violence in the region, especially in places that raise few concerns for our resources. Finally, we must not only prioritize and respond to violent attacks by ISIS but also seek to alleviate the situation for those affected, for I believe that we have a duty to protect.

By Kate Moran

A woman in Madrid, Spain protests the Syrian Civil War and Western military intervention in the country. Source: Adolfo Lujan/DISO Press.

Any pundit worth their salt is familiar with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Signed between the British and French governments in the aftermath of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, this secret treaty aimed to demarcate their respective spheres of neo-colonial influence in the Middle East. It was this agreement that led to the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine and, in the views of many, was a critical component of Israel’s ultimate declaration of state in 1948.

Historians, politicians, and laypeople alike all invoke the language of Sykes-Picot to either voice their justification for, or opposition to, the legality of Britain’s decision to allow for the existence of a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine. Yet, few consider the implications of this agreement for the rest of the region. Indeed, Sykes-Picot remains relevant today and, in light of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, can provide an historical context for understanding how broader political and economic trends in the post-War period have shaped current social realities.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Britain and France rejected Arab leaders’ bid for Syrian independence. Not soon after, the Sykes-Picot Agreement officially partitioned the Middle East into roughly what we know it as today. Territories ceded to French control included Syria, which would remain under European mandate until 1944.

Though the vestiges of colonialism are by no means the only forces at play in the Syrian Civil War, the legacy of meddlesome European—and later, American—intervention cannot be ignored. Sectarian violence is a feature of the conflict often talked about, but rarely with acknowledgement of the ways in which Syria’s colonial past influences this dynamic.

Part of the reason the Middle East seems so endlessly mired in conflict is because its history is likewise enmeshed in it. The geographical boundaries of the region are almost entirely arbitrary; the interested parties of the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Middle East with little to no regard for indigenous social structures like ethnic and tribal affiliations. How can a country and its people—much less an entire region—be expected to identify with, and adhere to, boundaries that they themselves did not determine? Perhaps if the Arab world had been given even minimal say in what their newly-formed, independent republics and states would look like, we would see far less sectarian division today.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has once again pushed Syria’s colonial past to the fore. Now more than ever, sectarian violence increasingly characterizes a country with one of the region’s richest and most extensive histories of religious and cultural heterogeneity. The Islamic State’s Sunni fighters, in capturing cities, occupying territories, and cleansing these areas of “unorthodox” (read: non-Islamic State sanctioned) elements; seem to be attempting to rewrite the history (and map) of the modern Arab world. Their defiant and brutal acts of violence are undertaken with complete disregard for the arbitrary boundaries first established in the 20th century.

Yet, the Islamic State is equally colonialist in its division of, and dominion over, the Middle East. It too is an imported government structure, and therefore is just as unsustainable as the French and British mandates were in the post-war years of the 20th century. It too displays blatant disregard for historically and culturally significant social constructs. It too is seeking to “whitewash” the Arab world, only under the guise of religion, rather than capitalism or imperial ambition.

Make no mistake: the Islamic State’s legacy is one that will leave its mark, just not the one that it intends. Its brutal campaign to “retake” the Arab world in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam will fail. In 20, 30, or perhaps 50 years, the Middle East of today will no longer exist. The region’s colonial legacies—those of Europe, the United States, and even the Arab world itself—will eventually run their course. And when all is said and done, the best form of governance for the Arab world—one cultivated in consideration for, not in exception of, social divisions—will emerge. This form will be the most lasting legacy of the Middle East. Although, at first glance, maintaining these divisions may appear counterproductive to achieving regional stability, in fact, they are the only way that such stability can be achieved.

Rather than conceptualizing ethnic and cultural diversity in the Middle East as a prerequisite for government dysfunction, it would behoove the West, and those who care at all about the Middle East beyond its geopolitical strategic value, to understand this diversity as an impetus for inspiring effective governance. Most importantly, these divisions will inspire social unity when extricated from a colonial framework of suppression and homogenization.

The Syrian conflict is a complicated muddle of individual, national, and international interests. The Islamic State will not be defeated overnight, and solely blaming the European occupation and colonization of the Arab world for its current woes is both shortsighted and unproductive. Rather, understanding this history might help those in positions of influence to make better-informed decisions about how and when to intervene in the region, and how the current sociopolitical realities have been shaped. In this way, we might begin to understand how we might best help—even if it means staying out of it.

By Patrick Lim

Za’atari Refugee Camp in Northern Jordan, the country’s fourth largest “city.” It is home to over 80,000 refugees. Its main road – the “Champs Elysees” – is visible in the center of the picture. Source: State Department.

March 15 marked the fifth year since the start of the Syrian Civil War, a war that has claimed over 220,000 people and displaced millions more. This crisis has resulted in the international aid’s inability to keep up with the growing demand on the ground, sparking criticism from aid agencies and requiring the countries involved to the rethink the actions they should take.

The effects of the war are evident throughout the region: Lebanon and Jordan have welcomed almost two million refugees. In Jordan, a survey of 40,000 refugees found that two-thirds were living below the poverty line and, in Lebanon, half of the Syrian refugee population are living in insecure dwellings. The resources of both countries are being pushed to the limit and it is not certain how many more refugees they can support and for how much longer.

Why is there a lack of aid?

It is not only because of increasing number of refugees, but also the lack of action of the international community. A report entitled “Failing Syria,” which was signed by more than twenty aid agencies including Oxfam and Save the Children, criticizes the actions of states and their failure to implement resolutions 2139, 2165, and 2191 from United Nations Security Council. Resolution 2139’s provisions included: protecting civilians, increased humanitarian access and a comprehensive approach “leading to a genuine political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.” The report calls on all parties to ensure to “go beyond words and ensure that the resolutions are fully implemented.”

However, it is not only the lack of action on behalf of the international community, but also the difficulty of getting aid to the people that has not helped the situation.  According to the report, 4.8 million people reside in areas the United Nations define as “hard to reach.” For example, early March saw the arrival ofthe first aid convoy in Damascus in three months.

What should countries do?

Although it is crucial to meet the basic necessities of refugees now, it is equally as important to think of the future. There is not foreseeable end to the conflict and, as a result, refugee camps are starting to show signs of permanency despite the hopes of millions. Some fortunate families in Za’atari live in caravans, which demand concrete foundations. Furthermore, the main road of the camp is a bustling street with hundreds of shops. Azraq Camp has a well-stocked hospital and supermarket, and includes metal shelters for families.

Two trends should make countries think about distributing more aid to the urban populations. First, certain countries have made it more difficult for refugees to flee across their borders, citing national security reasons, especially with ISIS threatening to send fighters in disguise. As a result, many refugees may seek to escape without being officially registered, although this would deny them many benefits. These refugees would therefore settle in areas with access to benefits, such as cities, which is where the majority of Syrian refugees have settled in Jordan. Second, refugees have recently expressed a reluctance to live in the camps because of the rough conditions, despite having access to daily needs. Coupled with the lack of proper security in camps (Za’atari, for example, had many issues with uprisings and crime in its early days), these trends could cause the urban refugee population to swell even more, putting an ever greater strain on their already limited resources.

Countries must also find different avenues to distribute aid, with a special focus on Syria. Of the thirty-four border crossings in the country, only five are open for humanitarian convoys, nine are restricted, and the rest are closed.  Negotiating with the Syrian government to find more avenues into the country is an option that some countries are not willing to entertain. However, working with government officials, local law enforcement, or more local NGO representatives may open up more channels. This would certainly improve the present situation by limiting regional spillover while simultaneously bringing aid to the people rather than forcing them to flee to receive it.

Finally, Turkey has nearly 1.7 million Syrian refugees – the most of any country – and has spent $6 billion to help them, granting them access to free education and health care. Following Turkey’s lead, providing greater access to necessities and benefits is something more countries have undertaken and other should begin to explore. For example, the Netherlands welcomes thousands of Syrians every month; Canada and Germany are known for funding scholarships, even offering Permanent Residency to lucky recipients in some cases as well.

The refugee crisis that has arisen because of the Syrian Civil War is being called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The world can neither continue to ignore this atrocity nor accommodate the present situation for much longer.  We, the international community, must help those in need and, more importantly, show that we have not given up on them and their future.

By Benjamin Jury

Syrian refugee Mahmoud shown in the underground shelter where he and his family live in El Akbiya, Lebanon, 2013. He shares a tiny room measuring 2.5m x 3.5 metres with his parents and eight siblings. Source: UNHCR/S. Baldwin

When it comes to reporting on the Middle East, the Islamic State has quite literally become the new black. While hundreds of articles flood our Twitter feeds and morning e-mail brief dissecting every inch of the rebel group’s anatomy, readers simply cannot get enough about ISIS, leading to some rather bizarre headlines. The fifth year of the Syrian Civil War rages on, the Houthis continue their occupation of Yemen, and hundreds of migrant workers have died building the World Cup stadium in Qatar amount to footnotes in most major news networks’ Middle East coverage in the United States. Instead, we run endless counterfactual scenarios, playing “Choose Your Own Nuke Deal Adventure” and wondering what Israel could accomplish with Isaac Herzog at the helm.

Indeed, the situation in Syria appears more and more grim every day, with millions still in refugee camps with no hope to return to their homes in the foreseeable future. Just yesterday, Syria’s state news agency boasted that an American drone had been shot down near Latakia. President Bashar al-Assad continues his barrel bombing campaign on rebel-held Syrian cities and children like Mamoud suffer everyday from the lack of stability. In the United States, we maintained near radio silence until someone dropped the “drone” buzzword.

In Yemen, the situation has gone from chaotic to catastrophic. The Pentagon announced yesterday that they believe $500 million worth of weapons and equipment given to government forces have been compromised by either the Houthi occupation forces in the north or al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula in the south. The evacuation of US embassies in Yemen, too, is deeply troubling considering the growing conception of the crisis there as an escalation of the Saudi-Iran proxy war.

Qatar has its own set of domestic problems slowing spilling onto global news radars. The conditions for migrant workers, many of them South Asian, building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup are appalling. According to Qatar’s commissioned DLA Piper investigation, hundreds have died since the beginning of construction while working long hours at temperatures up to 50°C (122°F). Labor law reform, while promised, has been dismally slow.

There are no feature articles on these issues. Instead, we read page after page of “What ISIS Really Wants”, hoping to ‘get inside their heads’ and understand their agenda.

Without unbiased, well-rounded coverage of the Middle East, the United States faces a perpetuation of the same dangerous stereotypes of Islam, the people of the Middle East, and the instability of the Middle East that encourages the occupation of war-torn countries and continued unrest.

No news agency, writer, or blog will ever be able to package and deliver the current events of every region of the Middle East. Those who disseminate ‘hard news’ and op-eds do, however, need to search beyond the hot topics and deliver content that needs to be heard, our own blog included. Let’s work together to make uncovering the truth the new, new black. Until then, I think I’ll just keep tweeting about Macklemore joining ISIS.

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By Salma Khamis
"I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.” – Prime Minister Netanyahu. Source: Caleb Smith/Flickr

The Internet was positively ablaze all two weeks ago following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United States Congress. Analysts from across the political spectrum produced extensive literature on the potential geopolitical implications of Bibi’s controversial speech. What does it mean for the Israeli elections? What does it mean for Obama? What does it mean for the Republicans? What does it mean for Iran? Hell, what does it mean for everyone else in between?

To clarify, this article will not attempt to posit more speculative theories on whether or not the speech will have any consequences on its vested stakeholders, nor will it analyze the potential magnitude of said consequences. Instead, I argue that our knowledge of Geneva negotiations is in and of itself sufficient to determine the long-term effects of Bibi’s speech: minimal.

First of all, as highlighted by a fellow USMEYN colleague, the presumed surprise and shock-factor value of the speech was grossly exaggerated by attendees and observers alike. By committing to address the United States’ Congress, despite Obama’s lack of approval (and attendance), Netanyahu had already signaled the orientation of his remarks. Observing American politicians’ and news outlets’ outcry makes me wonder what they had expected from Bibi? A congratulatory spiel on the strides in global diplomacy made by the United States and Iran as they move ever closer to a deal on nuclear proliferation? Or, better, a renouncement of the extent to which he has thus far portrayed the threat of “militant Islam” on Israeli and global security? Lo and behold, the Israeli Prime Minister did not choose the U.S. House of Representatives as the site from which to declare the conversion of his entire ideological and electoral platform, merely a few weeks before his voters back home head to the ballot!

Setting those fanciful expectations aside, allow me to indulge in a healthy dose of realpolitik. Israel’s stance on an American-Iranian nuclear deal has not exactly been the world’s best-kept secret. Since the 2002 discovery of Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel has been a fervent advocate for total Iranian disarmament. Granted, the provocative nature of Iran’s conservative wing didn’t render Israel’s fears of a nuclear-armed Iran entirely unsubstantiated. However, they must be viewed through the trajectory of an ever-changing geopolitical landscape and, as such, its relevant priorities.

On the one hand, the global allegiances governing the Syrian conflict have been very clearly defined, pitting some of Israel’s neighbors against its officially declared stance on Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On the other hand, the advent of European recognition of the Palestinian state, coupled with the increasing number of anti-Israeli human rights allegations, displays an unprecedented implicit strengthening of the mainstream Palestinian cause. Combine all of that with the developments unfolding in Iraq with the Islamic State, as well as the previously unobserved definitive positioning of several Gulf monarchies, and Israel’s amplification of its age-old victim rhetoric comes as no surprise.

Similarly unsurprising is the fact that a large portion of said Israeli victim rhetoric finds its roots within a highly religious trajectory amplifying historical Jewish persecution. It is within this trajectory that we can place the undeniably influential Jewish American lobby and its role in determining American foreign policy as it pertains to the Middle East. However, having pitted himself against the U.S. President, Netanyahu forced Jewish members of Congress to choose between two opposing allegiances: the Jewish lobby and the Democratic Party (only one Jewish congressman is a Republican). As a result, six out of the thirty Jewish members of Congress announced their boycott of the speech, somewhat detracting from the religious ground upon which the aforementioned victim rhetoric once stood.

The tactical nature of Democratic/Republican attendance insinuates that Bibi’s address was a political issue. As such, it should be considered as one feature within the grander scheme of a series of complex geopolitical circumstances, as opposed to yet another event within the trajectory of traditional allegiances governing the Arab-Israeli conflict to this day.

That said, how does this victim rhetoric (so clearly demonstrated in the speech) have the potential to affect ongoing Geneva negotiations? First of all, both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif signaled clearly to a curious international media that they were both indeed still “working away, productively.” These statements, issued directly following the Bibi speech, affirm both Kerry and Zarif’s adamant assertions of continued negotiation despite Israeli criticism. This proves at least an outward dismissal of any attempts to derail progress towards a final US-Iran nuclear deal.

In addition, the language that emerged out of the Oval Office afterwards complimented these sentiments. President Obama reportedly said that Netanyahu “didn’t offer any viable alternatives” to hinder Iranian nuclear armament. Regardless of whether or not Netanyahu is even invested in offering alternate solutions to the threat he perceives a nuclear-armed Iran to pose, having offered none means little will change in the discussions unfolding in Geneva.

It is interesting to note, however, the way in which the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech was received in Iran. While much of Iran’s media seemed to offer similar coverage to its American counterpart on the left (focusing on the White House’s disapproval and the boycott and/or disappointment of key members of Congress), an intriguing alternate conspiracy-laden storyline infiltrated the country’s conservative establishment. This storyline reads as such: the U.S. and Israel are engaging in a conspiracy whereby, by presenting Israeli rejection of the Geneva negotiations, they are forcing Iran to follow through with a deal (that is perceived to be essentially harmful to the Iranians) out of Iran’s conventional commitment to anti-Israeli foreign policy. Granted, this is not the official position of neither the Iranian government nor the Supreme Leader, but stands to represent grievances regarding the Geneva talks on the Iranian right, similar to those voiced by the Republican Party in the United States.

Thus a new question emerges: can the conservative factions on either side of the negotiating table harness enough leverage to truly influence the talking points governing their respective representatives in Geneva? Has Bibi contributed to an observable increase of this leverage? As of today, little can be said of decreasing either American or Iranian incentive to continue working towards a deal. Perhaps Netanyahu did provide both the Republicans and the hardline Iranian conservatives the rhetorical ammunition with which to synthesize their disapproval of the actions undertaken by their respective foreign ministers. However, I struggle to see the prospect of this ammunition having any lasting effect on the tangible foreign policy concerns on either side.

That isn’t to say that the aesthetic of a spirited Netanyahu practically dictating an alternate American foreign policy to a standing ovation of democratically elected US representatives won’t do him well in today’s elections. Arguably, that doesn’t stray too far from the purpose of the speech in the first place.

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By Vikram Shah

EAF F-16C block 40 flies over Egypt with a USN F/A-18 and a USAF F-15. Source: USAF.

On the dawn of February 16th, the Egyptian Air Force launched an airstrike on the eastern Libyan city of Derna, a stronghold of a local Islamist group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The airstrike targeted 10 targets within the city that were used as training sites and weapons storage. Additionally, reports from Egyptian and Libyan news sources suggest that Egyptian Special Forces carried out a ground assault in Derna and captured over 50 ISIS militants and killed many more. Both attacks were carried out in response to a video the group posted on the 15th of February showing the decapitation of more than a dozen Egyptian Christians. While there are significant ramifications of this bold and decisive strike on Egypt’s foreign policy and security stance vis-à-vis the other Arab states involved in the countering ISIS’s rise, the domestic impact of this strike is also worth considering.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, came to power in 2013 by leading a coup d’état against the democratically-elected Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood faced many problems in their first year in office; chief among them, arguably, was an inability to co-opt Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority into supporting the Brotherhood’s policies. The Egyptian Copts make up close to 9% of Egypt’s population and suffered persecution during the Brotherhood’s rule over Egypt. They were one of the leading voices for regime change in 2013 and the leader of the Coptic community, Pope Tawadros II, issued an open statement of support for Sisi’s newfound leadership role. Ever since becoming President, Sisi has worked to ensure that the Coptic minority is acknowledged and protected in a dual effort to separate himself from the failed policies of the Morsi government and to maintain the support of a significant portion of Egyptian society.

Egypt’s intervention in Libya represents a significant escalation of its role in the civil war raging on its western border. Until now, Egypt has worked with the United Arab Emirates in covertly backing General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to drive out the numerous Islamic extremist organizations and assert secular, albeit authoritarian, rule over Libya. So far, Egypt has remained relatively removed from the battle with ISIS and has focused on combating domestic terror threats originating from the Sinai Peninsula and homegrown extremism. However, the execution of 21 Coptic Christians presented Sisi with the perfect opportunity to not only strengthen his domestic support base but to also help support General Haftar’s efforts in Libya and contribute to the US-led effort against ISIS. President Sisi declared a week of mourning for the slain Egyptian Christians and has vowed to seek retribution for their deaths. Additionally, it is unlikely that Egypt will suffer international consequences for its intervention in Libya because it did so under the banner of combating extremism, even though furthering the goals of its Libyan ally.

Also important to note is the impact that Egypt’s intervention has had on its relationship with the United States. While the White House has vehemently denied backing Egypt’s actions, it has stopped its rhetoric short of blatant condemnation because it realizes that even though Egypt violated Libya’s sovereignty the country is in a state of anarchy and has been a breeding-ground for Islamic extremism for months. Additionally, Egypt has openly joined the US-led coalition against ISIS, which no doubt has improved icy US-Egypt relationships post-2012 coup. Altogether, President Sisi has been able to capitalize on a tragic event and use it to promote Egypt’s interests at home and abroad.

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By Yasmin Faruki

Abdullah II meets with U.S. President Barack Obama. Source: Executive Office of the President of the United States

The world is reeling from recent demonstrations of terror by Daesh (also known as ISIS, or ISIL). In Jordan, citizens are aghast by the brutal immolation of Lt. Moaz al-Kasesbeh, a 26 year-old pilot whose plane crashed during a coalition mission in December. In the week prior, Japanese citizens mourned the loss of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yakawa. The latest string of events has important implications for future of Daesh’s support in the region, as well as the resiliency of the U.S.-led coalition.

The fact that Lt. Kasabeh’s died as a result of immolation is very significant. According to the New York Times, burning someone alive is strictly prohibited in Islam because it is considered an act only punishable by God in hell. Though beheadings of hostages are not at all favorable among Muslims, its application has been at least rarely accepted in certain contexts; Saudi Arabia, for example, uses beheadings as a state-sponsored form of capital punishment. Muslims are already sickened by Daesh’s exclusive focus on takfirism (the belief that the Muslim community has been weakened by deviation in the practice of Islam) and wicked distortion of Islam’s teachings. The first widely publicized immolation of a Muslim hostage has therefore struck a very sensitive nerve in many Muslims throughout the world, and raises important questions for Arab partners in the coalition.

The Jordanian government intends to dial up the ante. Before the release of the immolation video, King Abdullah had considered releasing two Iraqi prisoners affiliated with Daesh – Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli. Within a matter of hours of the video released yesterday morning, King Abdullah ordered the execution of the two prisoners during his visit in Washington in an act of vengeance. Though there remains a small contingency of Jordanians who disagree with their country’s involvement in the coalition, Lt. Kasabeh’s death has brought out a hardened and confrontational attitude in the King, who has vociferously vowed retaliation and continued involvement in the U.S.-led coalition.

Though Kasabeh’s grisly killing has fostered greater acceptance of the war against Daesh in Jordan, some partners are not assured of contributions to the fight.  One country has already withdrawn from the coalition in fear of retaliation by Daesh. This is in fact the United Arab Emirates, one of the United States’ most important Arab partners in matters relating to counterterrorism. Other key countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have been defending their participation in the coalition despite unfavorable public opinion regarding involvement in Syria. Continued vetting and solicitation of support from majority-Sunni Muslim nations is therefore crucial to sustain the coalition and its credibility.

So where does Daesh stand, following the death of Lt. Kasabeh? Daesh’s latest showing of terror will ultimately hurt its movement in the long term. Though the organization might appeal to the most extreme of extremists, this particular killing repels more potential supporters than it attracts them. Given Daesh’s dampened momentum in Kobani, Diyala, and Mosul, it appears foolish to turn away potential recruits. Nonetheless, Daesh maintains controls 50,000 square kilometers of Iraq and approximately 30% of Syria;its presence is far from diminished. The United States’ and coalition members would raise the campaign by publicly exploiting Daesh’s latest strategic miscalculation and supporting each other during the grave loss of human beings.

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By Tyler Abboud

Members of Witness Against Torture blockade an entrance to the CIA in Langley, Virginia. Source: Justin Norman

I remember reading a story about the difference between being taken into custody by the FBI versus being taken by the CIA. In the former case the suspect may have been roughed up but they were ultimately arrested and given a trial, whereas in the latter case that individual was almost never heard from again or placed into one of the now infamous “black sites.” While the story can be dismissed as apocryphal, it does shed some light on the American justice system post 9/11; when the word “terrorism” is invoked it seems that all vestiges of the judicial process are thrown out the window. The recent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on torture confirmed some of my worst suspicions. Not only was our primary intelligence agency violating both international and domestic law with horrendous techniques like “rectal feedings,” it was doing so in a way that can only be referred to as institutionalized rape. Unfortunately, those were just the instances the CIA bothered to document; the untold stories could be much worse.

The lack of oversight of the systematic abuses during the Bush Administration, which carried over to the Obama Administration’s method of combatting terrorism, is rarely discussed. Following his election in 2008 President Obama, made it quite clear that the United States will no longer be torturing detainees under his watch. Instead, President Obama and the CIA implemented the drone campaign that has been focused on three countries: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Unfortunately, the strikes have had little effect in mollifying the situations in any of these countries. In light of the revelations from the SSCI report, this should not come as a surprise.

I can only imagine that some of the rampant abuse that occurred within the torture program has spilled over into the drone campaign. As late as 2013, the head of the CIA John Brennan admitted that his agency did not have the capacity to evaluate whether or not they could objectively analyze the effectiveness of any of their covert programs. He did not just refer to torture. Keep in mind; the torture program only involved 119 individuals, 26 of whom were innocent. The drone campaign is far more all encompassing; nearly 3,500 individuals were killed over the course of the last 13 years. While a scant few missions occurred under President Bush, most came to pass under President Obama. Of the 3,500 people killed, it is nearly impossible to differentiate between civilian and combatant. The Obama Administrations “signature strike” method, whereby an individual could be targeted for living a certain lifestyle, obfuscates the number of innocents killed in any given strike.

On this there should be no equivocating; what the CIA did under the Bush Administration is not only illegal but morally reprehensible. Yet what is occurring under the Obama Administration could turn out to be just as disgraceful, if not worse. One of the CIA’s infamous techniques was to threaten the suspect with harm to his family; this is a daily reality for anyone living in the above-mentioned strike zones. Is it not torture when members of your family die in front of your eyes on a wedding day? Is it not torture when bodies of your loved ones have been so incinerated they resemble cooked meat on the ground, especially if none among you is retroactively found to be associated with Al-Qaeda? I suppose these are questions best left for future analysts. I only hope we do not have to endure more politically crafted terms like “enhanced strike techniques” in the future.


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On several occasions throughout her campaign, Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has mentioned that part of her plan to defeat terrorist organization “The Islamic State...