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From War to Hunger: The Refugees in Syria’s Civil War

Syrian Refugee Camp (Photo courtesy of Huffington Post)

Since the start of the horrendous civil war attempting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the neighbors of Syria—Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey in particular—have seen endless lines of refugees cross their borders seeking safety. Many travel night and day to reach these countries. Their faces tell the story of war; fatigued, exhausted, broken, these refugees arrive in overcrowded camps that are unprepared to deal with the vast numbers of people fleeing Syria.

What is heartbreaking is that many of these refugees will be left without the aid needed to deal with the hurdles and challenges that they had overcome to get to these camps.

On December 1, 2014, the World Food Programme (WFP), a subsidiary agency of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian agency geared toward fighting hunger, announced that it was going to cut aid to Syrian refugees due to a lack of funding. Earlier this year, the organization reduced food rations to those in need and has stated that many may not receive any food due to the fighting in Syria. The cuts are expected to hurt as many as 1.7 million Syrian refugees.

Refugees crossing the borders will be forced to make do with already strained resources and government services. An estimated 3.2 million Syrians have fled the country and another 7.6 million are displaced. Countries such as Lebanon, with a population of 4.4 million, have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of refugees, taking in nearly 1.1 million Syrians. The mass influx proves to be problematic for regional governments, as many are now reducing the flow of refugees or closing their borders.

The Middle East: A Re-evaluation of American Strategy

us, airstrikes, strategy, islamic state, isis, isil, syria, assad

By now you may be familiar with the Islamic State and their mission to create a caliphate under Sharia law. You may also be aware that the US’s strategy of conducting airstrikes to halt their advances is not going too well.

Recently I attended an event at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University (of which I am a graduate student) concerning the inevitability of a change in US strategy towards IS and Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The event featured distinguished experts such as Stephen Biddle, who has previously worked for General David Petraeus, and Marc Lynch, who is the director of the Middle Eastern Studies program at the school and frequently writes for a myriad of foreign policy news outlets.

The Complexity of Turkish Inaction

kobane, syria, turkey, is, islamic, isis, isil, NATO

If you’ve been keeping up with the news about the Islamic State (IS), you know that there is a strategic battle taking place in Kobane, a Syrian city close to the Turkish border. Currently, local Kurdish forces are doing their best to repel IS militants from the city with the aid of Western air support. The battle is far from over, as the Kurdish forces and the Turkish government have said that more ground troops would most likely be needed to repel IS. This then begs the question of why the Turks aren’t doing anything to impede the progress of IS, as surely Turkey could be their next target.

In quite a childish back-and-forth scenario, the Turkish and US governments have each been prodding one another to take a more active role in the battle for Kobane. We are all well aware of the US’ reputation for intervening in crises such as this, so US involvement should not have shocked anyone. What might surprise some looking in from the outside is Turkey’s seemingly carefree attitude towards a strategic border town, which, if lost, could devestate them.

How to Deal with the Islamic State

President Obama and Vice President Biden Meet with National Security Council to Discuss ISIL

Almost the whole world community agrees that the barbaric Islamic State (ISIL) terrorists should be resisted by everyone. Even the often veto-plagued UN Security Council has unanimously passed two relevant resolutions. Resolution 2170 (Aug. 15) aims to cut off financial assistance to that group and sanctions its leaders. Resolution 2171 (Sep. 19) expresses outrage at ISIL's brutal activities and urges international support for the Iraqi government's efforts against ISIL.

The UN Security Council could also help to deal with the civil war in Syria by resolving to send humanitarian aid to the nations sheltering Syrian refugees; putting Assad’s chemical weapons under UN control; and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court to hold accountable those who have committed atrocities. 

To confront ISIL in Syria, however, the view of the US Administration and others is that more support must be given to the moderate rebels in that country. But precisely which rebel groups should be helped, and can we be sure that they won't become enemies in the future?

How will the various national governments in the area which are on opposite sides be encouraged to participate in the international effort against ISIL? Will any national governments provide the needed "boots on the ground" and might they eventually start fighting one another?

Why Wait? Multilateralism and the Islamic State

ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Syria, Iraq,

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is continuing to gain both territory and vital resources in their quest of religious cleansing and spreading the control of their caliphate. Consequently, pressure is mounting on President Obama and the rest of the world’s leaders to step up and extinguish the violence in the area. The US has successfully conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. However, it is clear that it is going to take an international coalition to eliminate the threat that they pose.

US military forces have been unable to enter Syrian sovereignty due to the bloody civil war that continues to rage on, having already killed 100,000 people. Furthermore, the situation is escalated by Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s close ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Putin has vehemently warned against any US invasion into Syrian territory, in part because Russia exports arms and resources to Al-Assad’s forces. Currently ISIS’ stronghold is located in Raqqa, Syria. For any substantial work to be done, a coalition force must be able to conduct operations within Syrian territory.

UN Peacekeeping in Syria and Iraq: Why not?

UN Peacekeepers at Work

"Do you see UN Peacekeeping as a viable option to help solve the humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq?” I asked Hervé Ladsous, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. Couldn’t UN Peacekeepers help remedy the enormous humanitarian dilemma that has resulted from these two crises-- with millions now suffering from a shortage of food and clean water?

“The answer to your question is no,” stated Mr. Ladsous, without even the slightest hesitation. “We wish we could help the people suffering, but the magnitude of the two crises is simply much too large for the UN to handle.”

It was at that point I found myself disagreeing with one of the world’s leaders in peacekeeping. For if we wish to help solve two of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, UN Peacekeepers must be involved.

They must be involved because they are undoubtedly the best and most well-trained peacekeeping group in the entire world. They are experts at delivering supplies to those who need them, and quickly. They are adept at helping to mend differences between ethnic groups, often healing situations that many had previously thought were beyond repair. They remain 100 percent committed to their missions no matter the circumstance--some even paying the ultimate price in a concerted effort to help make the world a better place.

Now, I understand that some of you may be looking at me sideways at this point, and are thinking of the various studies that have recently come out declaring that UN Peacekeeping is only marginally effective, if that. You probably want an answer for some of the UN Peacekeeping’s failures--like the Rwanda catastrophe in 1994 or Kosovo’s bloody civil war in 1999, and you deserve one.

UN Should Deliver Humanitarian Aid Without Assad's Consent

A Syrian refugee girl sits on humanitarian aid boxesin the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, Sept. 8, 2013 - Reuters

The number of people needing humanitarian aid in Syria has reached nearly 11 million - half the country's population. Yet with Syria's ongoing civil war, the only way for aid to reach those in need is for the government of Bashar Assad to allow aid workers into affected areas.

To say the least, this is a poor system for ensuring the basic needs of millions of people. With the country in tatters, people must have unfettered access to food, water, medicine, and other necessities: life shouldn't be held up by checkpoints and constant threats. With mounting evidence that Assad has used food and aid access as a weapon of war - to maintain and demand loyalty of Syrians wherever they might be - the international community has clearly needed some way to take control of humanitarian aid away from those who might use its access arbitrarily or maliciously.

In recent weeks world leaders have started work on plans to begin routing access around Assad and the rebels. The UN Security Council has been drafting a resolution in which aid workers, possibly with the legal protections of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, would be able to cross into Syria without consulting the Syrian government. That way people would have access to the resources they need and neither Assad nor the opposition would be able to use access to aid as a weapon of war.

Assad has vehemently protested the news of this resolution, claiming that any such cross-border aid deliveries would be a violation of Syrian sovereignty and would amount to an attack on the Syrian state.

This brings up two important points.

Iraq: What Does One Do with the Broken Pieces?

Refugees fleeing from Mosul, Iraq

There is typically a sign in shops selling china and porcelain that reads, “Do not touch; If you break it, you buy it.” Rather than portraits of Saddam Hussein, a sign like this should have been hung at the entrance to Bagdad.

With Iraq in armed confusion as sectors of the country change sides and the Iraqi government seemingly incapable of an adequate response other than to call for military help, as concerned world citizens, we must ask ourselves: what can we do?

The forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have broken down a wall on the frontier between Iraq and Syria as a symbol of abolishing national frontiers to be replaced by a community of the Islamic faithful − the umma. In some ways, we are back to the early days of the post-World War I period when France and England tried to re-structure the part of the Ottoman Empire that is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Turkey and an ill-defined Kurdistan.

During 1915, Sir Mark Sykes, a Tory M.P. and a specialist on Turkish affairs and Francois Picot, a French political figure with strong links to colonial factions in the French Senate negotiated how to re-structure the Ottoman Empire to the benefit of England and France. Although these were considered “secret negotiations,” Sykes reported to Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, and Picot had joined the French Foreign Ministry as war service.

However, both operated largely as “free agents”. Today Sykes and Picot are recalled for no other achievement than their talent in dividing. The agreement between them was signed in January 1916 but kept in a drawer until the war was over. In April 1920 at San Remo, France and England made the divisions official.

The Expansion of the Syrian Civil War into Iraq: What Should the US Do?

ISIS in Iraq

It is undeniable that Iraq is in major trouble. Dozens of cities once thought to be impenetrable to jihadists have suddenly been overrun by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), a militant group so violent that even Al Qaeda refuses to be associated with them. Gory videos have emerged on the Internet showing militants executing vast numbers of captured Iraqi soldiers in cold blood. Images of abandoned Iraqi troop posts have become commonplace on news networks, as many Iraqi soldiers have made the decision to escape with their lives rather than fight.

As a result, all eyes have turned to the White House and how the President of the most powerful nation in the world will respond. Indeed, many people have begun to wonder: what will Obama do?

Nobody truly knows the answer to this question, but we may have gotten some hints during the last few days. For instance, Obama recently declared that the option of “boots on the ground” is off the table, to the chagrin of many Republicans. Additionally, we have learned that Obama is considering authorizing US air strikes against ISIS, a measure that the head of the Iraqi government has requested.  

In my opinion, however, Obama must respond in more ways than one if he wishes to end this recent reign of terror in Iraq. He must begin by addressing the roots of the problem, which lie in the two warring factions in Syria: the Sunnis and the Alawites. Obama must work with our allies to help end the conflict between these two ethnic groups, one that has allowed ISIS to seize control of unclaimed land and use it to further grow their terrorism base.

Syria: Back to Square One for Good-Faith Negotiations

With the resignation of Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi as the UN-League of Arab States mediator in the Syrian conflict, I fear that we may be “back to square one” in terms of negotiations in good faith.

After the failure of Geneva II, where the Syrian government representatives and those of different armed opposition movements were unwilling to deliberate seriously—often refusing even to meet in the same room—the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi was openly discussed by participants, including Brahimi himself.

Brahimi had to walk between the two rooms in the UN Palais des Nations − one where the government representatives sat and the other filled with some representatives of the armed opposition. (Fortunately, the rooms were on the same floor). However, despite Brahimi’s skills and experience as a negotiator and help from the UN Secretariat, Geneva II negotiations went nowhere.

Although an NGO representative does not have the standing of official mediators, I have been involved since the early days of the armed uprising in Syria in discussions with some members of opposition groups in Paris and Geneva. I have also worked at some length with the Syrian Ambassador to the UN to find ways to encourage negotiations in good faith.

My hope was to find issues that were negotiable and thus create a sort of agenda for face-to-face negotiations. I knew from the start that there were certain issues that were not negotiable. The departure of President Assad and the creation of a transition government on the Yemen model always seemed to me to be a “non-starter,” although the Geneva I negotiations, which were only between US and Russian diplomats, had pushed for such a transition.