How ISIS Changed History’s Cultural Landscape

By Sarah Taylor

Palmyra, Syria used to be a city of magically stoic Roman ruins, steeped in ancient history: a city that bore the scars and wrinkles of a storied civilization. The landscape of ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia was once the pinnacle of civilization, home to the most ancient cities and the dawn of humanity. Palmyra itself represented the fluctuating artistic and architectural influences of the major imperial powers of antiquity, as it went through various periods of independence and control under the Roman Empire. Today, the land is marked by destruction and stands not only as a monument not of historical significance but also of the tragedy that the Islamic State has brought upon Palmyra. One example is the Temple of Bel, a structure that is almost two thousand years old, and was the last remaining early Roman pilgrimage complex. It was completely razed in 2015, as it represented the polytheism of Roman pagan religion. There are countless other examples of destruction that have swept across the Middle East. The library of the Great Mosque in Aleppo was burnt down, causing it to lose rare religious manuscripts. The once-well preserved porticoes and Byzantine mosaics of Apamea in Western Syria have been replaced by complete desolation. ISIS has taken up a program of destroying historic and once-sacred sites in order to clear the area of symbols that go against their Islamic extremism, hiding behind their radical interpretations to justify the destruction of ancient cultures in Syria and Iraq.

Dura Europos is considered the oldest and by some accounts the first, true Christian city of the ancient world. It represented a blending of cultures and religions, with Christianity, Judaism, and Roman paganism influencing each other and producing unique works of antiquity. It is home to not only the world’s oldest synagogue but also the first Christian house church, the predecessor to the development of churches and cathedrals throughout the Roman Empire. Once a truly sacred site to the Christian community, the house at Dura Europos has been taken under control by the Islamic State. ISIS has ransacked over 70 percent of the city, destroying archaeological evidence, and reaping the profits of their looting. Perhaps what is most devastating about the destruction of Dura Europos is the loss of future excavation. When the city was co-opted by ISIS it was still relatively unexplored, having been abandoned in the third century AD and re-discovered in the twentieth century. The future hope to uncover more about how the ancient civilization led to the development of a greater Christian culture is now lost.

Mosul is another example of the extent of the destruction wreaked by ISIS on cultural landscapes. Once standing as an exemplar of rich cultural heritage and some of the oldest historical sites in the world, the city now lies as Iraq’s Ground Zero, the most devastating destruction at the hands of ISIS.  In Mosul, they have not only destroyed Christian communities, but also Sufi and Shia temples and mosques, demolishing archaeological sites from the Ottoman imperial period. Mosul also sits at the crux of ancient civilizations; at different points in time, it was the heart of the Assyrian, Parthian, and Sumerian empires. The Nouri mosque, built in the 12th century, was the seemingly indestructible soul of the city as it withstood regime changes and civil unrest. In June 2014, ISIS declared its capture of Mosul from the mosque. Three years later, the mosque ceased to exist and was replaced by rubble, fear, and a fierce realization of the new reality. ISIS’s destruction, in this case, was spurred by political rather than historical motivations. Since the mosque was a landmark of the city, destroying it would effectively destroy the cultural epicenter of the city, sending a message of authority to the citizens of Mosul.

Rebuilding these cities will be no easy task. The landscape that once stood as the backdrop for the development of all humanity is now irreparably reduced to rubble. These projects are often mismanaged by the governments attempting to restore what once was, as corruption, financial mismanagement and waste, and the existing political and social conflict, prevent them from focusing on rebuilding these lost cities. The rubble and ash marks stand as permanent reminders of the new reality of the remaining citizens now living in fear. Their houses of worship, an institution needed more than ever in this time of despair, have been ripped from the ground. Archaeologists have asked experts to refrain from acknowledging ancient sites, as it will only attract the attention of ISIS to another site to demolish. These sites are also subject to bombing from the powers fighting ISIS, namely the United States and Russia. The new field of “cyber archaeology” is working to create digital reconstructions of lost artifacts, hoping to create digital renderings of not only lost items but entire museums and cities. Though these strides bring us closer to restoring the evidence of such sites, it will never repair the damage done to the landscape itself, which has now lost its uniqueness. The unbroken history of humanity that once stood at sites like Palmyra has been broken by the inhumanity and radicalism of ISIS.

Sudanese Sanctions Lifted

By Javan Latson

For much of the nineties Sudan was very much an international pariah. The regime of President Omar Al-Bashir and the National Islamic Front tested the patience of its neighbors and the global community. The Islamist party was connected to various terror groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Jamaat al- Islamiyya. Sanctions were imposed by the UN Security Council after the Sudanese government provided refuge for individuals who tried to assassinate Egyptian President Mubarak. This action, in addition to the regime’s support for armed rebels in Eritrea, Uganda, and Ethiopia, made other African states loathe any engagement with the Sudanese state. However, the action that sealed Sudan’s isolation was granting Osama Bin Laden refuge in 1991 following his expulsion from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda associates were ideologically similar to the government in  Khartoum which had recently imposed Islamic law upon the citizens. Under the protection of President Al-Bashir, Al Qaeda flourished as it conducted bombings against US troops in Yemen as well as embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.This led to the Clinton Administration placing Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terror in 1993 and a trade embargo being created in 1997.

Twenty years after the creation of economic sanctions, the Sudanese government has reason to celebrate. President Trump officially terminated the embargo on October 12th marking the final stage in a diplomatic thaw that began during the Obama Administration. The gradual normalization of relations between the two states can be seen even further in the revised travel ban which no longer features Sudan. Proponents of this course of action argue that the sanctions have failed to drive any significant change and that the government has made significant strides in combatting terrorism in the region. However, this does not consider the possibility that ending the embargo will simply embolden a regime that frequently violates human rights.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir is president in name only, and has ruled the country since he took power in 1989. He is not the only autocrat in the region nor is the only government leader that imposes authoritarian rule. The thing that differentiates Al-Bashir from the others is the fact that he is the only head of state in the world that is wanted for genocide. A warrant for his arrest was issued by the International Criminal Court back in 2009. In addition to genocide, he is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. These allegations stem from the role President Bashir played in the tragic Darfur Conflict which killed over 300,000 and displaced over a million. The situation was so dire that then Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to it as genocide back in 2004, marking the first time the US Government has used this term in reference to a conflict. With Al-Bashir’s permission and support an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Sudan’s black Christian and Animist tribes. Torture, subjection of women to rape, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and the intentional contamination of water supplies in non-Arab villages, are all crimes that fill President Al-Bashir’s resume. Human rights doesn’t seem to be a part of the African leader’s vocabulary as he frequently violates international norms without any fear of repercussion. Most recently Amnesty International published a report documenting the use of chemical  weapons by the government throughout 2016 that killed more than 200 people. More concerning should be the revival of the Janjaweed, which was rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces. An act of total defiance, this revival goes directly against a 2004 UN Security Council resolution that called for the militia to be disbanded. Instead, the name of the group was changed and it was incorporated into the state apparatus to personally serve the president.

It would be inaccurate to describe Al-Bashir as the only one responsible. Other prominent regime officials such as former minister of the interior Abdel Hussein and current governor Ahmad Harun currently face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their support and funding of the Janjaweed during their time in office. Without international sanctions in place there is a new opportunity for Al-Bashir and his cronies inflict more damage unless certain regulations are reinstated. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, a part of the Treasury Department, has a list of individuals and companies referred to as Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) . Under US law companies are prohibited from conducting business with anyone on the list making this an effective mechanism for targeting the wallets of key officials without negatively harming the populace. Some of the more notable names on the SDN list include Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. However if one were to search for President Al-Bashir they would not find his name listed on the sanctions list nor would they find Abdel Hussein. Two international criminals that are charged with crimes against humanities are somehow not listed. The removal of the embargo allows US companies to export goods to Sudan and make investments in the nation’s economy. On the surface it is hard to see how this is could have negative effects. Ironically, Sudan still remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror, which makes it hard for the regime to obtain foreign aid, blocks arms imports and exports, and restricts the importation of goods that could be used for military purposes. Though these measures are in place, the ability for the Sudanese government to earn revenue and reclaim frozen assets will likely just put money into the hands of the regime. Afterall Sudan was ranked the 6th most corrupt nation on earth out of 176 in the 2016 by the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Unless the aforementioned individuals are included on the SDN list they will likely receive a financial windfall that tightens their grip on society.

Sudan may not be exporting extremism as much as it did during the nineties, but the government is certainly creating an atmosphere of terror domestically especially in Darfur and the southern regions. Though the flames of the Darfur conflict have fanned out a bit Sudan is far from a pluralistic society. Freedom house has declared the African nation not free and Open Doors ranks Sudan as the fifth worst place in the world for Christians due to the Arab supremacist policies enforced by the government. The winners of this deal are not the people of Sudan but the government and companies that stand to benefit from the removal of restrictions. There’s a reason why Khartoum hired D.C. law firm Squire Patton Boggs LLP to lobby the government for $40,000 a month. No one seems to care that millions of dollars will be pumped into the hands of a genocidal authoritarian regime. The Trump Administration is happy Sudan has cut off ties with North Korea, the CIA is content with new partners in the counterterrorism efforts, and businesses are excited with potential profits to be made in oil possessing nation. Yet the plea of the oppressed falls on deaf ears.

Same Problem, New Solution: President Nieto’s Approach to Drug Trafficking

By Naveen Krishnan

From the entertainment realm with Netflix’s Narcos to the political stage with Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, the subject of drug trafficking has grown to demand greater attention within public discourse in America. Annually, drug cartels receive around $19 to $29 billion USD in revenue from sales within the United States causing countries in the Americas to grapple with the destruction caused from their violence. Regarding the issue of combating drug trafficking, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico announced a departure from the policies of his predecessor President Felipe Calderón. As Calderón famously declared war on the cartels in 2006, with a ‘kingpin’ strategy which involved directly targeting the leaders of cartels, Nieto ran on the platform that he aimed to reduce the violence which results from drug trafficking and not engage the cartels directly.

With President Calderón’s initiation of the Mexican Drug War with missions like Operation Michoacán, which deployed federal troops to combat drug cartels, the country suffered approximately 120,000 homicides during his tenure. His efforts resulted in the capture or assassination of twenty-five out of thirty-seven of the top drug leaders within Mexico while the carnage extended into the civilian sphere as nearly one hundred current and former mayors were targeted in cartel violence. The uptake in kidnappings, murders, and general violence due to drug trafficking caused many within the Mexican political spectrum to look for new alternatives to the current policy against the cartels. With the sharp increase in the homicide and no end in sight to the current cycles of violence, the political climate turned to Nieto who advocated an indirect approach to the cartels.

Nieto’s term has brought about a gradual decrease in the homicide rate, (with a recent uptake in 2016 which some individuals attribute to territorial conflict due to Guzman’s recapture by authorities), despite seeing numerous large cases such as the disappearance and presumed murder of forty three college students in 2014. Furthermore, in June 2017 Nieto legalized medical marijuana through a decree with support from the Senate and Lower House of Congress. With regards to other criminal legislation surrounding drugs, Nieto announced efforts to increase the number of grams of drugs in an individual’s possession which would warrant prosecution.

However critics have quickly pointed out that extrajudicial killings by Mexican forces still present a major problem. Yet Nieto has maintained that his hardline strategy was successful and indicates that there will be little change in the future. The capture of “El Chapo” and his subsequent extradition to US authorities has boosted Nieto’s perceived clout within the realm of drug trafficking as he has maintained strict stances on Trump’s proposed border wall and other issues, holding opposition to US military involvement in Mexico with regards to combating drug trafficking. While the demand of drugs in the United States continues to draw from south of the border, there is no immediate end in sight to the violence within Mexico as the world awaits to see how President Nieto will navigate his country into the future.

The Looming Crisis in the Heart of Africa

By Thomas Bell

Africa as a continent has a complicated history, but its modern past has been unstable and violent.  African countries, unable to cope with the ethnic, political, and economic constraints imposed by European imperialism, have proven largely unable to industrialize and modernize since independence.  Civil wars, genocide, and massive poverty are all traits commonly associated with Africa, for good reason.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, and formerly Zaïre, is one of the better examples of this reality.

The Congolese saga began with colonialism.  Much of the first contacts with Europeans involved trading, eventually for slaves.  Belgian colonial control later spread, leaving the nation subjugated under the weight of direct imperial rule from 1908 to 1960.  Since independence, the DRC has not enjoyed a single peaceful transfer of power, with assassination, civil war, and even invasion being the catalysts for political change.

The current Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, has been in power since January of 2001, with his second and final term under the constitution having expired in December last year.  Under the constitution of the DRC, Kabila is limited to two terms and should have stepped down.  This, however, did not happen; Congo’s electoral authority announced that the election would be postponed to allow time for a census to take place, an invalid reason under the country’s laws.  Predictably, that decision plunged the DRC into chaos.

Protests in December left dozens dead, resulting in an increased police presence and the blockage of social media.  The government has delayed the elections until at least December 2018, though in principle that could stretch further.  In the meantime, mediation by the Catholic Church has proven moderately successful at quelling the immediate threat of violence, while the appointment of an opposition leader as Prime Minister is a step in the right direction.

However, the risks in Congo are horrifyingly apparent.  Past power shifts have not only been violent, but often catastrophically so.  In 1996, the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko’s government by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and rebel groups left up to a million dead and led to an even more cataclysmic conflict only two years later.  The Second Congo War, linked directly to the 1996 overthrow, killed more people in any conflict since the Second World War.   It brought nine African national armies into conflict in Congo, plus over twenty rebel groups.  It also led to the political involvement of nearly half a dozen other African nations.  It has been appropriately dubbed by historians and journalists as “Africa’s World War”.

Simply put, the Congo is a volatile, dangerous place, where continental warfare was waged barely over a decade ago.  Rebel groups still roam Eastern Congo, killing and raping countless people.  Political instability could lead to the growth of these groups, and perhaps even the involvement of national governments again.  The DRC is a place where widespread, tumultuous violence is commonplace both now and in the recent past.

This is why Kabila’s actions could be so disastrous for Congo.  The lack of a successful transition of power in national history sets a poor blueprint to follow, especially for a leader in power for so long.  Since Mobutu, Congo’s leaders have proven autocratic and unwilling to relinquish control.  Tales of Mobutu’s “Versailles of the jungle”, a spectacular marble palace, is just one example of the corruption that made Congo famous.  If Kabila is seeking a long reign such as that, it could similarly dissolve into disarray and war, just as Mobutu’s did.

But many feel that not enough is being done to stop Kabila.  Belgium and France, two of the most important influencers in Congolese policy, both merely stated that they would review their respective relationships with the DRC.  The United States and the United Kingdom both offered similar statements, if a bit more strongly worded.  The point is, none of the countries most able to hurt the government, both politically and economically, have bothered to take steps in that direction.  A fairly widespread lack of media and public interest among western populations in African affairs likely has something to do with it.  The aforementioned Second Congo War, though being the deadliest conflict since World War II, is seldom discussed in academic settings, let alone the public square.  A history of American inaction in Africa dates back to the Clinton presidency when the administration knew about the Rwandan genocide yet chose to ignore it.  The sad reality is that not enough people in the west care and intentional ignorance could again be the policy of the west.

All the while, Joseph Kabila sits in his massive Kinshasa palace, reportedly playing video games and collecting motorcycles.  Outside those walls, millions live in abject poverty, violence plagues the streets, and an oblivious world looks the other way.  As Congo descends further and further towards chaos, it is anyone’s guess how the crisis will play out.  A country with such a dark history, however, cannot afford to allow that history to repeat itself.

A Problem Like Maria

By Anne Hicks

Just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, a smaller yet significantly more devastating storm. The destruction of the island, in the wake of Maria’s massive winds and heavy rains has overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure and caused significant damage to the environment and raised concern over the accurate portrayal of death tolls in the aftermath of disaster.

While Irma was a powerful Category 5 hurricane, it passed West and did not directly hit the island of Puerto Rico. Maria, on the other hand, although categorized as a smaller category four hurricane, proved more devastating than Irma because it passed straight over the island and hit at its most intense moment. After Irma, one million Puerto Ricans were left without power. By the time Maria hit on September 20th, thirteen days after Irma, 60,000 of those one million people were still without power. Now, in early October, many of the 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are still missing power. According to a statement made by the Department of Defense on October 11th, three weeks after Maria, only 16% of the population has electricity. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority suspects that an outage at a Puerto Rican nuclear plant may have decreased that number to 10%. Maria’s 150 mph winds have destroyed the island’s infrastructure and rendered the people powerless, waterless, and with limited fuel and access to communication services. Without electricity, it is impossible for water to be pumped into homes for drinking, bathing, and flushing toilets. Access to clean and fresh water has become a predominant problem. Because the energy system on the island was already poorly established, the storm destroyed an estimated 80% of the island’s power lines and it is projected to take from four to six months to restore power. It is understood that the implications of such prolonged power loss are many for a hot, tropical climate that will be left without air conditioning or electric water pumps, hospitals running on generators and limited fuel, and for anyone attempting to leave the territory.

All of the infrastructures on the island has been shocked. Because the main dam was structurally damaged in the storm, water supply became immediately threatened. Without electricity, generators on the island are relying on gas and a shortage of fuel and difficulty distributing fuel has become a major concern of officials and residents. As previously mentioned, the poor management of the government-owned power company has complicated the reconstruction of connection to power lines. It is approximated that 80% of the “transmission and distribution infrastructure” has been lost. Further complicating the mess, the fact that Puerto Rico is an island has made it extremely difficult to deliver relief. In response to the limited operation of hospitals, the U.S. Navy brought its floating hospital, the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico last week.

In addition to massively damaging the territory’s infrastructure, Hurricane Maria destroyed much of El Yunque, the only tropical forest in the U.S. and one of the island’s main tourist attractions, bringing in 1.2 million visitors each year. The overwhelming defoliation of the forest poses risks not only for the animals who inhabit the forest but for the people who rely on the health of the ecosystem to direct the water. Research suggests that 20% of the water used for drinking on the island comes from the capturing of water by plants in these forests which direct the water towards streams and rivers. The efficiency of this process is now at risk, especially considering the destruction of tree mosses like Bryophytes that used to help collect water that is drained into rivers. Animals who made their habitats in the forest, especially birds and bats, will face a long battle to establish new homes and sources of food. Although much of the forest vegetation has been decimated, the pre-established biodiversity of the forest is suspected to aid in the recovery of the ecosystem over time.

An emerging concern in the wake of Hurricane Maria is over the reported death toll and how that number might vary across sources.  How fatality counts are decided, and when certain deaths are deemed directly related to the hurricane have become topics of debate. The cause of death is left to be determined by the individual’s coroner or doctor, making many deaths that have resulted from the hurricane instead labeled as the result of other contributing health factors. The way a death is interpreted, then, is often open to a variety of conclusions. This grey area is perpetuated further by the infrastructural incapacity to accurately count death tolls, the hesitance of families of illegal immigrants to report deaths, and the politics behind the numbers reported. President Trump, for example, made a point of comparing the low death toll in Puerto Rico to that of Hurricane Katrina in order to defend the administration’s response to disaster relief efforts. In a developing country, on the other hand, the death toll may be dramatized to muster more support and donations for relief efforts. Regardless of the motivation, it is clear that death tolls for this disaster and disasters to come may never be truly telling of the actual situation on the ground.

Hurricane Maria has devastated the people of the island of Puerto Rico, leaving in its wake the destruction of the territory’s infrastructure and environment, as well as raising questions about the ability of any government to report death tolls accurately after a disaster has occurred. As the territory begins to rebuild, it will be important to continue to support Puerto Ricansand the environment that they call home.