United States

By Veronica Baker

Protestors wave the Moroccan flag during the 20 February protests in 2011. Source: Hasna Lahmini

The Arab uprisings of 2011 yielded diverse results: Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in states of violent disarray; the Gulf monarchies crushed dissent and carried on as usual; Egypt saw its revolution crumble with the ascent of Al-Sisi; and Tunisia has risen as a cautious, yet promising, example of democratization done right.

The results of the protests in Morocco and Jordan, on the other hand, are less clear. Their governments reacted quickly, acknowledging the legitimacy of their citizens’ complaints of economic trouble and rights violations. In the past four years, Morocco and Jordan have passed reforms: some real, some symbolic.

Abdullah II of Jordan pledged to promote the role of citizens in political life and the decision-making process. Initiatives included the creation of new elections laws, a constitutional court, and a national integrity commission. However, little change has actually materialized. The monarchy has so far succeeded in preserving power by using instability on the country’s borders to justify maintaining the status quo.

Mohamed VI quickly gave Moroccans the opportunity to elect a new parliament and promised modifications to the constitution, effectively pre-empting the revolution. Constitutional reforms gave parliament the ability to pass laws on most issues, took steps towards protecting the independence of the judiciary, and increased the role of a number of independent commissions. However, these reforms are hollow: while they appear to shift power away from the king, there are plenty of ways still available for him to circumvent the parliament and judiciary to pursue any policy he wants.

On Friday, July 1, Moroccans  voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left yes, "Yes to the Constitution". Source: Christopher Rose
On July 1, 2011, Moroccans voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left reads, “Yes to the Constitution”. Source: Christopher Rose

Models of reform?

Some academics and journalists have expressed support for Morocco and Jordan’s respective strategies of “reform.” Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi made news in 2014 when he declared Morocco and Jordan “successful Arab Spring models.” Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, The Tower, Brookings, and others have echoed the idea that the Moroccan and/or Jordanian responses to the 2011 uprisings could serve as examples for the rest of the Middle East to follow.

Such positions are rooted in idealistic notions of what Morocco’s and Jordan’s kings have done, and not in the reality these countries now face. The reforms in Morocco and Jordan have been overwhelmingly symbolic and have not truly bestowed upon the people the rights they fought for in 2011.

Morocco and Jordan are the unfinished stories of the Arab Spring. The economic and human rights situations in both countries remain troubled. The instability surrounding Jordan will only serve as a successful excuse for police state-type activity for so long; such an approach is simply unsustainable. Morocco, while in a less precarious state, still has plenty of problems left to face, especially concerning everyday violence, the contested state of the Western Sahara, and terrorist organizations within and directly outside its borders.

Legitimizing the so-called reforms made in Jordan and Morocco will only result in further instability in the future. The shifting of political powers, edits to the constitution, and changes to the penal code mean nothing if new laws are not enforced and human rights do not become a priority. To maintain peace in Jordan and Morocco, more legitimate reforms must be made.

Neither government has transferred significant power away from the royal establishment and into the hands of democratic institutions. Economic and social conditions in Morocco and Jordan will not improve without an independent and accountable judiciary; a truly free press and internet; a strong network of NGOs that protects the rights of women, minorities, and other at-risk groups; a massive overhaul of both countries’ inhumane prison and detention center conditions; and the legitimate implementation of laws that enshrine the rights of individuals to express themselves without fear of abduction or arbitrary arrest.

Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon
Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon

Opportunities for change

At their core, reform movements in the Middle East are calls for human rights. In the West, democracy is often seen as the vehicle for attaining those, but it is not the only option.

Supporters of Moroccan and Jordanian-style reforms have a valid point. If the pathway to rights is more likely forged through a stable political system, then perhaps a revolution is not necessary.

However, both countries have a long way to go. Both are signatories to such conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Despite this, the Jordanian and Moroccan governments are both frequently caught in the headlines for violating human rights, such as by restricting freedom of association, deporting refugees, trying civilians in military courts, and failing to respect freedom of expression.

Citizens in Morocco and Jordan do not have the political leverage to effectively demand their rights be taken seriously. The kings have little reason to shift the status quo themselves. Thus, influence must come from the outside. Morocco and Jordan are two of the greatest allies of the United States in the region. This provides a unique opening for dialogue and positive pressure for human rights.

Just as the United States needs Jordan and Morocco, they also need the U.S. Through the fiscal year 2015, total U.S. aid to Jordan and Morocco has amounted to approximately $15.83 billion and $2.7 billion respectively. The U.S. should exercise influence on the governments to which it supplies aid to support the well-being of that country’s people.

It is in the interest of the United States to support the will of the Jordanian and Moroccan people pressing for peaceful change. In the face of extremism (ISIS in the Levant, as well as AQAM and other militant groups in West Africa), it is necessary that the citizens of Morocco and Jordan continue to feel connected to and empowered by their state. Marginalization of citizens, particularly youth, will only serve to further destabilize the region.

As the U.S. successfully supported Tunisia in its transition, it must now turn to Morocco and Jordan and stand as a supporter of human rights. In doing so, we have the ability to shift the dying legacy of the Arab Spring.

In its current trajectory, the legacy of the “Arab Spring” will be of Tunisia’s singular success story all but overshadowed by the death and destruction in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It is essential that we, as a prominent economic and political actor in the region, do what we can to turn that around. By holding the Jordanian and Moroccan governments accountable and pressuring them to enact real, not symbolic, reforms, the United States has a chance to serve as a positive and enabling force in the Middle East.

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By Tyler Abboud

Protestors march in Oakland on May Day, 2015 in solidarity with those protesting the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

In a vicious cyclical example of what constitutes news in this country, the tragic Nepalese earthquake is now out and the events in Baltimore are now in. The typical reactions associated with any circumstance involving sour Black-American and police relations have now arisen from their temporary and ugly slumber. A plea for the rights of property, appeals to Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, and then the more denigrating racial dog whistles. All of this is so expected as to follow script at this point. But what are its origins? The Atlantic journalist and social commentary writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in this brilliant essay why the calls for non-violence are quite absurd given the circumstances of the situation in Baltimore. However, even he did not fully address what I feel is the missing theme within these calls and others like them. Implicit is the assumption, and a dangerous one I might add, that the State is superior and wholly above frivolous concerns like rights.

To see this I urge you to scroll no further than the nearest Facebook feed or cable news program. Those condemning the rioters generally lob up a recently Google-searched MLK quote on non-violence, conveniently forgetting for a moment that were it not for 620,000 dead in the Civil War then there would be no MLK; or they will ask rhetorically “what is wrong with these people?” (Emphasis added). They assume that the State’s violence is somehow more legitimate than that of the bottle and brick throwing of the protestors. They plea for non-violence, but only in one direction; in Baltimore that was after a man’s spinal cord was snapped in State custody. However, their condemnations and protestations are not limited to this, in fact it is a theme that dominates American political thinking at all ends. Its lessons in foreign policy, where some of the most barbarous of State violence occur, are even more apparent.

In light of that I have to wonder, where are you, beloved sharer of MLK quotes? After all he said that the US is the great purveyor of violence in the world. Surely you cannot feel that way when only the state can save you form those angry black faces. I suffice it to say that you probably just did not care what the state does, because the state in your mind is infallible when its violence is directed towards them. If it happens to do wrong you circumvent this with easily applied “bad apple theories” that require no recourse. Of those calls for non-violence, did they not apply to the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children massacred by US sanctioned starvation? Or what of the weddings, parties, social events, or just plain lives in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan? Innocent bodies incinerated from a hellish blaze, the State high up above. Let us not pretend that the State has no discriminatory excuse too, it just executed two of its citizens in Yemen. Oh yes, all that property lost too, destroyed by the State, here or there, most of it forever. Yet you remained silent.

Could it possibly be that you care not about the ubiquitous value of property and instead care only that the state remains above the law and general morality? Like a pig feeding from a trough you eat up the propaganda on “just war” and “collateral damage,” ideas that never apply to the people the state deems unworthy. As long as it is they and not you, you so callously figure. Your positions on government, whatever ideology you desperately cling to, are no different than the statists of old. That is the state, in all its wisdom, has more rights then the individual and is not bound by law: more rights to utilize force against innocents with impunity, more rights to desecrate property, and more rights to evade responsibility. All of this creates an immoral situation that makes it hard to listen to those angrily posting on Facebook or complaining on the street about how much they hate those people. Until their frustrations are pointed at the larger of two evils, and the one they actually have some control over, my sympathies will lie with those protesting instead.

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.

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.

By Josh Donovan

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Sean Hannity speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the wake of September 11, the United States was reeling from the worst attack on American soil in its history. Among the changes wrought by the tragedy was a fundamental reframing of American policy. Finally, it seemed, American foreign policy made sense again. President Bush drew clear battle lines, vowing to “win the war against terrorism.” Fourteen years later, the world is every bit as scary as it was before. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught us something: there are limits to the long-term political changes that the American military can impose. The lines are blurred.

Recognizing this, President Obama has been treading a careful line in dealing with ISIS: tactical support and limited arms, rather than flooding the region with weapons; thousands of airstrikes, but no boots on the ground; and cautious diplomacy with Russia and Iran. To be sure, this lacks the “grand vision” many may be familiar with. But rebuilding Syria will not come solely, or even primarily, through a military solution. While some hawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have specifically called for American boots on the ground, many politicians—and most Americans—are too war-weary to consider this palatable. American military leaders, too, seem skeptical about deploying troops.

Enter the prospective Republican presidential candidates. As 2016 draws closer, many Party favorites are speaking out on foreign policy issues—including ISIL. Naturally, they seek to draw contrast between themselves and President Obama. However, given the complexity of the current crisis, this has proven to be somewhat difficult (with the exception of those calling for ground troops).

Take Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), for example. When asked by Sean Hannity at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention how he would deal with the threat of global terrorism if he were president, Sen. Rubio took a page out of Obama’s book: the United States needed to send intelligence and logistical support, launch airstrikes, and build a coalition of Middle Eastern states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, etc.) to combat ISIS. Despite tacitly admitting that Obama was on the right track, the Senator simultaneously accused Obama of “not putting in place a military strategy to defeat ISIS” because he is afraid of upsetting Iran—despite the fact that Iran has been heavily involved in combatting ISIS and has called on other nations to join in the fight.

In a recent interview, another likely presidential contender, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused the Obama administration of failing to adequately arm the Kurds (despite the fact that the US has sent over 3 million pounds of ammunition to the Peshmerga) and accused the President, who authorized over 2,100 airstrikes on ISIS targets, of “leading from behind.” Rand Paul, in anticipation of Hilary Clinton’s likely run for the White House in 2016, recently said he “blamed her for a lot of this”. Paul argued that the United States’ 2011 intervention in Libya created a “breeding ground for terrorists” and voiced opposition to the Obama/Clinton plan to provide arms to Syrian rebels. Remarkably, in the same interview, Paul did an about-face on arming rebels, suggesting that Obama needed to arm Kurdish militias and “do much more.” Perhaps the most embarrassing 2016-fueled response to ISIS came from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who assured Americans that his experiences in “dealing with” peaceful Wisconsin protesters made up for his lack of experience and an actual plan.

Fortunately, the GOP rank-and-file seems largely unwilling to obstruct or interfere with the President’s response to ISIS, for now. Further, many Republicans who are not running for President in 2016, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, seem ready to engage in a serious debate about what form the United States’ continuing struggle against ISIS should take. With the serious exception of sending a controversial letter to the leaders of Iran in an attempt to undermine the United States’ uneasy relationship with a now critical regional partner (like it or not), we must hope that if Republicans participate in foreign policy making (as they should), they set aside election politics and do so in a responsible and constructive way.

By Annabelle Timsit

Prime Minister Netanyahu concludes his third address before a joint meeting of Congress. Source: Caleb Smith

Much like the snowpocalypse that was supposed to hit Washington a few weeks ago, Bibi’s speech to Congress came and went, but had very little overall effect. Far from the cosmic seizure some predicted in US-Israeli relations and bipartisan relations in Congress, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech came off as a skilled orator’s very successful use of the world’s best reelection platform, namely the United States Congress, rather than as an earth-shattering attempt to change the course of the Iran nuclear peace talks. The speech boiled down to some admittedly scary predictions of a nuclear Iran, a religious warning not to ignore the past, and some very complimentary remarks towards the ever-enduring US-Israeli relations, but with very little substance. That doesn’t mean it was a bad political move, however.

The main criticism leveraged against his speech was the lack of content or of any substantial alternative to talks with Iran. Short of calling it a “very bad deal” and warning the Congressmen and women of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Ayatollah (whom he equated with the Nazi regime of WWII), he didn’t offer any options other than maintaining nuclear restrictions on Iran until it stopped promoting terrorism, trying to annihilate Israel, and attacking its neighbors in the Middle East. This begs the question: if nuclear restrictions could stop Iran from doing these things at any given point in time, why are we still in this dire situation?

Another criticism levied against him was his use of Congress as a reelection platform. It is no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu faces a tough reelection campaign at home. Some (including the leader of the Labor opposition, Isaac Herzog) have criticized him for using the Republicans’ invitation to speak before Congress to showcase his tough stance on security and his good relations with the US administration. In all fairness, however, the line is often blurred when an incumbent faces a reelection. Where do official duties end and campaigning speeches begin?

Those who expected anything different were naïve at best and ignorant at worst. If Israel had a viable solution to the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran, it would have presented it to the P5 +1 nations (or had the US present it for them) a long time ago. If Netanyahu came to the US to boost his reelection campaign, then the images of his standing ovation in Congress will indeed accomplish just that; he can go home and reward his PR team. Those, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who found his speech “condescending” because of its lack of respect for US intelligence, are grasping at straws to criticize him without appearing to do so. As Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) said after the event, “Every speech contains passages which remind the audience of facts they already know, and conclusions with which they already agree…That is not condescension; that is oratory.”

The Israeli prime minister will now wait and see if his rhetoric scared enough Congress members to override a presidential veto of legislation which would beef up sanctions against Iran should it fail to sign an agreement. Obama previously warned that any such legislation could kill the talks. Bibi’s clear lobbying efforts for just that outcome will certainly weaken an already fragile relationship with the Obama administration. With President Obama’s term ending in a year, it wasn’t very likely he could have exerted enough influence to prevent Bibi from accepting the Republicans’ invitation in the first place.

The speech caused some bruised egos, as its boycott from close to 60 Democrats in Congress showed, and it definitely caused a rift in the relations between the direct Israeli and American leadership for now. Apart from the “near tears” of Nancy Pelosi and the fact that Obama will probably be cheering for the other side on March 17th, however, Bibi’s speech accomplished little and changed nothing.


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