The Rebuilding of Palmyra

By Isabelle Sagraves

 

On March 27, 2016, the ancient city of Palmyra was recaptured from the Islamic State by Syrian forces, but the city that they recaptured was not the same as the city that was lost. After ten months of ISIS occupation, the ancient city and its inhabitants have suffered greatly. Evidence of massacres and torture has been found throughout the city, among the ancient stones and ruins of a past civilization that demonstrated tolerance and diversity. Ironically, its face has been marred by the injustice and cruelty of the Islamic State; yet perhaps through its repair, Palmyra has demonstrated the chance of real cooperation and solidarity in Syria.

Palmyra is a city of exceptional historical significance, and it has existed for millennia. Since its establishment as a major trade city in the second century CE, it has stood as a location of cultural exchange. It has been home to Arabs, Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout its long and complex history, and it is often described as a home for pluralism and religious tolerance in its heyday. UNESCO writes on their website, “Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria. It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilizations in the ancient world.” This crossroads is demonstrated in Palmyra’s fascinating and unique architecture and artifacts, which demonstrate Greco-Roman influences mixed with Arabic, Aramaic, and (later) Muslim traditions. Palmyra is currently a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes temples, more than 1000 columns, and a large necropolis.

Today, within the context of ISIS’s advances throughout the Middle East, Palmyra is also important because of its strategic location. Located on a major highway through Syria, Palmyra gives access to a large part of ISIS’s territory, so its recapture has cut off an important route linking ISIS’s heartland to other regions it could potentially move into. The joint attack by Syrian ground forces and Russian air strikes have constituted a significant victory against the Islamic State.

However, during their ten month long occupation of the city, ISIS managed to destroy many of the precious artifacts that UNESCO protects. ISIS adopts a strict interpretation of Sharia law that advocates for the destruction of false idols, which, to them, include historical monuments. Two extremely significant destroyed monuments include the Temple of Baalshamin and Arch of Triumph, both of which date to approximately two thousand years old; many other monuments that have been destroyed were directly linked to the Muslim faith, such as a tomb of one of Muhammad’s cousins. Clearly, however, artifacts were not the only things destroyed during the past ten months: a mass grave has been uncovered with more than forty bodies, including women and children. Evidence of torture has also been found throughout the city, and countless people have fled the city to surrounding regions where they are living as refugees.

Western leaders have been rather quiet in response to this event, perhaps because of their limited involvement in the successful recapture. Contrastingly, Putin has been vocal, and, in a statement, claimed “I hope that this pearl of world civilization, or at least what’s left of it after bandits have held sway there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the entire world.” He has also pledged to fund the rebuilding of the destroyed sites. Additionally, many archaeologists and other historians around the world have taken this situation and used it to advocate for cooperation in the reconstruction process, perhaps a cooperation that could symbolize a united and strong anti-ISIS front. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the Syrian antiquities chief, claimed that the rebuilding of these destroyed sites could constitute a “message of anti-terror”.

The importance of Palmyra as a symbolic location cannot be underestimated. ISIS used it as an effective symbol as its ruined buildings served as the backdrop for many propaganda messages. The anti-ISIS forces can also harness the symbolism behind Palmyra through the rebuilding process. The rebuilding of Palmyra can be used as a powerful demonstration of cooperation and solidarity against the Islamic State, but it also has the potential to become propaganda for Putin or Assad if they are the only ones involved. In this way, it may become important for Western countries to speak up about this event and to asist in the reconstruction of an ancient city that once symbolized a vibrant community of coexistence and tolerance.

Erdogan Versus the Parallel State

By Javan Latson

 

Another blow was struck against democracy in Turkey this past week. Policemen with orders from the Turkish court stormed the headquarters of Turkey’s most popular newspaper, Zaman. Far from a peaceful takeover, the government forces clashed with protestors in front of the building, using water canons and tear gas to dispel the crowd.  The hostile takeover of Zaman is the latest chapter in a complex narrative regarding current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his quest for control of the Middle Eastern country.

Located between Asia and Europe, Turkey has often served as the bridge between the two continents, and as a result has a culture with roots in European and Middle Eastern customs. A relatively large country with a population of around 79 million people, Turkey is a nation with strategic importance to various global powers.  Due to it’s proximity to the Soviet Union, the United States along with the dominant nations of Western Europe allowed the fledgling republic to join NATO in 1952 in an attempt to stop the spread of communism. Turkey is also one of the few allies the United States has in the in the Middle East, and in recent years, the US has relied on access to Incirlik Airbase in the nation’s southern region in order to strike Islamic State targets in bordering Syria. The European Union is especially attentive to Turkish Affairs and polices because of the direct impact they have on its members. As a result of the Syrian Civil War and instability in the region, millions of refugees have been flocking to Europe seeking asylum with a large portion entering through Turkey. Turkey’s government is a vital concern not only for Erdogan, but for the entirety of Europe and NATO.

During the midst of this turmoil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sworn in as Turkey’s first directly elected president in August 2014. Erdogan is a member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that draws most of its support from religious Turks. The AKP claims to support the ideals of Mustafa Kemal who founded Turkey in 1923 with the hope of changing Turkey from an Islamic nation, to a secular country with a mainly Muslim population.  However many secularists have suspected Erdogan and his party of trying to introducing Islamist ideologies into the government.  The President has been quoted saying that “you cannot put women and men on an equal footing” much to the dismay of women and feminists.  In addition to this he has sought to restrict the consumption alcohol, outlaw adultery, and restrict abortion.  Much to the dislike of the secular population Erdogan in 2014 lifted a 90 year-old ban of female headscarves in high schools, and later that year began converting secular schools into Imam Hatips (traditional Sunni religious schools), which teach conservative Muslim beliefs to students. These policies have led to a growing feeling of resentment towards the president and the AKP as people become wary of gradual erosion of Kemal’s secular society into a fundamentalist nation.

As a result of the president’s actions, a substantial opposition group has formed, comprised of secularists, religious minorities, Kurds, and rivals of the AKP. These men and women have denounced the gradual “ottomanization” of Turkey, the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of President Erdogan, and the mistreatment of Kurds by the government.  One of the leading critics of the president is a Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen who currently resides in the United States. Prior to his relocation, Gulen was a member of the AKP and a firm of ally of Erdogan, who at the time was the prime minister. This alliance soon dissolved following disagreements between the two men over policies towards the Kurds and how the government handled the 2013 Gezi Park Protests. Ever since the two went separate ways, Erdogan has sought to undermine the influence of Gullen’s Hizmet Movement in Turkey. Hizmet is an organization that promotes a tolerant form of Islam and emphasizes altruism, hard work, and education. Due to the lack of an official membership roll, it is quite possibly one of the biggest Muslim networks in the whole country, with an estimated membership totaling in the millions of people. There are said to be numerous followers of Hizmet that posses influential positions in the Turkish government and law enforcement agencies which has caused Erdogan to accuse Gulen of establishing a “parallel state” within Turkey and trying to overthrow the government.  The rivalry between these two individuals has lead to a massive crusade by the government to remove any trace of Gulen’s movement from the media, police, and the court system.

In a strategic move by President Erdogan the Turkish court issued a ruling that required the management of Zaman to step down and be replaced by a new government appointed staff. Zaman is a newspaper that has often been critical of the president, and also has ties to Gullen, making it a clear target for the Erdogan regime to attack. Following a standoff between law enforcement and protestors outside of Zaman’s headquarters, one of the most outspoken criticizers of the government was transformed into Erdogan’s mouthpiece.  Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described the takeover as a “legal not political” one and the government has justified the seizure of Zaman by accusing it of spreading propaganda in an attempt to destabilize the country.  Sevgi Akarcesme, editor at Zaman’s sister publication Today’s Zaman, called the event “a dark day for Turkish democracy”. The government seizure of the opposition newspaper is one of many recent cases of the government restricting the freedom of press. In January more than 1000 intellectuals were placed under investigation for petitioning the government to stop military operations against Kurds in southern Turkey.The government has attacked other media agencies including Cihan, the only independent monitor of the Turkish election process since 2005, which is another media outlet associated with Fethullah Gulen. On dubious legal and constitutional grounds, Turkey has begun a systematic crackdown against the Gulen movement.

The international community has been quick to criticize Turkey’s actions. France’s foreign minister called the action “unacceptable” and that it went against European values, while French President Francois Hollande said “The press must be free everywhere”.  US Ambassador John Bass tweeted that the importance of free press must be protected and State Dept. spokesman John Kirby called the takeover of Cihan  “another example of an unnecessary crackdown on journalism”. The EU as a whole has told Turkey “to respect and promote high democratic standards and practices “ yet despite all this talk Turkey seems unconcerned and isn’t showing any sign of reversing the current trend within its borders. Perhaps this is because Ankara believes they possess key bargaining chips such as the ability to reduce refugee flows to the EU or access to airbases for the United States, and as a result they feel like the west needs them too much to actually pressure Turkey into making some political reform. Whatever the case may be, the war between Erdogan and the mysterious parallel state doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon, and the Turkish people’s hope for freedom will only continue to dim.

The Iran Deal’s Implication For Israel and Netanyahu’s Response

By Derek Brody

On July 14th, President Obama, along with a number of other countries, reached a historic settlement regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. This complex and intricate agreement has been met with considerable backlash in the United States, especially from the Republican members of Congress. It was able to pass on September 10th, without the need for President Obama to use his veto power on any limitations put forth by Congressional opponents of the deal.

One staunch opponent of the deal, however, is neither American nor a member of the Republican Party: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has labeled this deal a “historic mistake.” The Prime Minister went on to say that the deal will grant Iran, and the terrorist regime in Teheran that runs it, hundreds of billions of dollars to “fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide,” its aggression in the region, and increase “Iran’s efforts to destroy Israel, which are ongoing.”

It is a somewhat understandable viewpoint, since few countries face the constant, complex security threats that Israel faces. Almost from the date of its inception, Israel has been under siege from enemies in the countries immediately surrounding it, and this fear caused by uninterrupted danger is inherent in Netanyahu’s remarks. Many Middle Eastern countries also have systematic and institutionalized opposition to Israel’s very existence Moreover, Israel faces an uphill climb in the United Nations, where states with far more perverse human rights violations continue to challenge Israel’s human rights records..  With these points in mind, it is still pertinent to assess Netanyahu’s condemnation of the deal as not only reckless, but also uninformed.

While Netanyahu’s address to Congress did no more than to label it “a bad deal, a very bad deal” and to say that the only way to rectify the situation is with a “better deal.” Instead of providing any concrete examples, the Israeli Prime Minister has railed against this peace accord aimlessly, challenging the United States, Israel’s biggest and strongest ally, to do better. President Obama was right in his response to Netanyahu’s speech, pointing out there was “nothing new” said by the Prime Minister.  Netanyahu spoke out of anger and fear, rather than rational thought, demanding a solution without offering any concrete help. His comments reflect that, as he did little to actually rectify the situation, choosing instead to recklessly criticize President Obama’s actions in his meeting with the joint session of Congress without any possible ways to resolve the conflict.

Despite Netanyahu’s stance, the Iran deal in its entirety is neither good or bad for Israel. The deal is a substantial diplomatic achievement in its own right, potentially limiting the nuclear power of an unstable state for the next 15 years; the mere fact that this was solved by diplomacy, rather than by force, is an accomplishment in and of itself. There are also negatives to this agreement: the possibility that Iran will renege on the accord, the problems that may arise with inspections of facilities, and the difficulties that may come with reinstating sanctions. But Israel, and Mr. Netanyahu specifically, must put trust in the United States to be able to combat an Iranian breach of contract swiftly and effectively. If not, they risk losing their most powerful ally, leaving them in imminent danger in the Middle East.

Instead, the Israeli Prime Minister is jumping on domestic fear in order to castigate the Obama administration, an administration that has had a complex, yet overall positive, relationship with the state of Israel. This illustrates the larger issue in these negotiations: the frosty and unhealthy relationship between these two world leaders. Both have legitimate gripes, to be sure. Mr. Netanyahu has said that President Obama has not acted with Israel’s best interests in mind with many of the United States’ actions in the Middle East, especially when the President went to Cairo in June 2009 and spoke out in support of a “Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” The American President has countered with the fact that the United States has provided extensive military aid to Israel, as well as blocking Palestinian efforts to be recognized by the United Nations. Ultimately, however, it is Bibi, as the President likes to call him, who has truly ignited the flame of this incendiary relationship. On numerous occasions, Netanyahu has spoken out against the President’s actions, preferring to loudly voice his concerns rather than find the common ground.

        When Mr. Obama refused to follow through on his threat of airstrikes on Syria after the use of chemical weapons, Mr. Netanyahu responded with outrage, fearing for Israel’s safety and security. Susan E. Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, reported that Mr. Netanyahu did everything but “use the n-word” to describe Mr. Obama. What Mr. Netanyahu failed to realize, however, was that the President was striking a deal to remove those weapons entirely, as well as a deal to remove Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon. Instead of providing concrete assistance toward peace in the Middle East, the Israeli Prime Minister has instead acted out of anger and frustration, choosing to personally attack the President, rather than providing real and helpful assistance.

        Despite major differences of opinion between these two men and their respective countries, it would be in the best interest of both parties to find common ground, to rekindle the strong relationship that the United States and Israel have had in the past. If they do so, America can continue to act with Israel’s interests when negotiating for peace with other countries in the Middle East. This will only be possible if Mr. Netanyahu begins to think before he speaks, rather than hastily criticizing the actions of John Kerry and the Obama administration.

How to wipe the tears from the attacks of Daesh (ISIS)

By Adithya Sivakumar

The Sinai.

Beirut.

Paris.

        The world watched in horror this past week as these places, usually abuzz with tourist activity, went into a state of shock and horror due to terror attacks. On October 31st, a Russian passenger plane exploded mid-air, killing all 224 on board, with intelligence strongly suggesting the responsible party is the Islamic State of the Levant (Daesh or ISIL), or one of its affiliates in the Sinai Peninsula. This Thursday, at least forty-three people were killed and more than 200 were injured in suicide bombing attacks, also claimed by Daesh, in Southern Beirut. A day after the events in Beirut, initial reports suggest that more than 100 people were killed and 350 were injured in a coordinated attack on various targets in Paris, and yet again, Daesh declared it was responsible. Many now question why these attacks were perpetrated, and how affected nations and their allies should respond.

        Although the crash in the Sinai Peninsula has not been confirmed as a definite terrorist attack, Daesh’s affiliate in the Sinai has claimed responsibility, and various intelligence sources seem to confirm that claim. There certainly could be a linkage between the air disaster and Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Russian airstrikes against Daesh only started a month ago, and they have certainly made Russia a prime target for attacks, demonstrated by a recent Daesh propaganda film directly references Russia in plans for a future attack. Essentially, the reasons for the attack on the Russian jet would be to hurt Russian morale and prove that Daesh’s reach extends far beyond Iraq and Syria.  

        The bombing in Beirut came in an area where violence, unfortunately, has happened before, as al-Qaeda conducted several attacks there in 2014. This area of Southern Beirut has a predominantly Shia Muslim population; it is also a stronghold of Hezbollah, an organization with significant power in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a primary player in the Syrian Civil War, being a solid supporter of the Assad regime, and Daesh is one of the groups fighting against Hezbollah (and Assad).  Additionally, Daesh is a group with a clear sectarian goal in mind, as it wants to establish a Sunni Islamic State. In the past, Daesh has exploited the Sunni-Shia divide in many ways, especially in Iraq. Therefore, the attack in Beirut on Thursday could be an attempt to inflame sectarian tensions in a country where the Muslim population is nearly evenly split on Sunni-Shia lines. It could also be a warning to Hezbollah on not to fight Daesh in the Syrian Civil War, as further involvement would bring further attacks by Daesh and thus weaken Hezbollah’s morale. Most likely, it’s both.

        For Paris, the attacks on Friday come just nine months after another period of terror in the city. In January, twenty people were killed in a series of attacks carried out by members of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula, as revenge for cartoons published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for its depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Details on Friday’s attacks are scarce, especially as the situation is still unfolding and rather chaotic.  Two facts, however, are quite clear: the death toll is above 120, and the attacks are the deadliest in France’s history since World War II. This time, Daesh has claimed responsibility, but the main question for the world is why France? Why again? The message from Daesh that claimed responsibility points to France’s involvement in the U.S.-led anti-Daesh coalition in Iraq and Syria. This indicates that the group attacked for very similar reasons as in Beirut and the Sinai: to weaken French morale and demonstrate their far reach into the global sphere.

        As these nations reel from these attacks, many wonder as to what is the next step in fighting Daesh. Even as airstrikes and offensives against the group are heightened, the organization always seems to strike terror into each nation it attacks, provoking more fear and chaos. French President Francois Hollande said in response to the attacks that his nation will go after the perpetrators with full vigor, while other world leaders, including those from the United States, Germany, Iran, and the United Kingdom, expressed solidarity with the French people and condemned the attacks. Similar responses from these countries were given in terms of the attacks on Beirut and the Sinai. With this high degree of solidarity, it is highly likely that all anti-Daesh coalitions will be ramping up airstrikes and other attacks on the organization.

        One of the most important responses may be to not fall for Daesh’s efforts to create fear and divide populations. Just after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in January, far-right parties, such as The National Front in France, assailed Islam and its supposed incompatibility with democracy, demagoguery that came in conjunction with attacks on mosques and other institutions in France. If xenophobia, Islamophobia, and/or sectarianism take hold in these nations, there is a prime possibility that populations may be divided even more, causing Daesh to once again exploit the resulting splits for its own benefit, as it did in Iraq by tapping into oppressed Sunni populations.  An effective response would be stop associating Daesh’s actions, as well as any extremist group’s actions, with the tenets of Islam, any kind of Islam, and its followers. These groups do not represent the ideals of the religion, but rather serve to heighten tensions between people and exploit power. To begin the process of disassociation, it is imperative to not refer to the supposed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as ISIS or ISIL, but rather Daesh, an acronym that roughly means “bigots who impose their views on others.” Denying the group legitimacy in terms of adherence to Islam not only weakens their authority, but also serves as a step in minimizing xenophobic sentiments and allowing nations to harness their populations to exterminating these extremist threats. As the affected nations mourn their fallen, the world must band together and remember the atrocities in the Sinai, Beirut, and Paris, not only to mourn, but also to take action, making a cohesive effort to defeat the menace that is Daesh.

Why Westerners Join ISIS

By Daria Berstell

        As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains in the press for their barbaric and violent methods, Westerners continue to leave their lives behind in favor of joining the jihadist group. The US State Department estimates that over 12,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria to join ISIS, including about 100 Americans. ISIS has attracted more Westerners than any other similar type of militant group due to their effective recruitment strategies. The vast majority do not have any prior military or fighting experience; ISIS is their first foray into military or jihadist life.

        ISIS uses the internet and social media to prey on young people, usually between the ages of 18 and 29. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Whatsapp are used by current ISIS militants to reach out to individuals who show interest in their cause by writing blog (or other social media) posts. These platforms make it possible for recruiters and their targets to communicate informally and quickly, even in real time with instant messaging. This method of reaching out to those who might join their cause is effective because it is a very personal approach.

        Additionally, social media is useful in helping recruit people to ISIS, due to its efficiency in disseminating the propaganda the group creates. They use slick movie-style trailers to interest people with high quality depictions of “fun violence,” much like in action movies or video games. However, some extreme cases have turned potential members off. It is clear that those making the propaganda pay attention to its reception, since videos often stop short of showing the end result. For example, execution videos often end before showing the moment of death.

Additional effective adaptations include the rapid development of videos. Social media’s efficient circulation of them means these images remain in the news feeds of people who have liked relevant pages or are friends with supporters or members. These people are more likely to be influenced by this media as they have already expressed interest in ISIS and related organizations.

        The journey from average western teenager or young adult to ISIS member is a slow one for recruits; understandably so, since it involves radicalizing them to the point where they wish to move across the world to become militants. For some, the journey to ISIS begins with conversion to Islam. Others, however, come from Muslim homes. Despite growing up Muslim, most of these Muslim westerners were members of moderate households. Parents and other family members were appalled at their relative’s choice to join ISIS. In interviews about their children joining ISIS, many parents commented on their child’s drastic change in personality and hobbies before leaving home. As a result of embracing conservative Islamic teachings, many of these new jihadists also rejected music and pop culture, as well as old friends.

        In addition to catering to their newfound values and beliefs, for many of the young people sucked into jihad, ISIS seems like an adventure. ISIS promises excitement, and for its recruits the opportunity to do something meaningful. For those who have turned to conservative Islam, ISIS provides a way to embrace and practice their religion in a “utopian” environment, for ISIS is in many ways is like a utopian political project. For these conservative foreigners, living in Syria and fighting alongside ISIS is portrayed as the ultimate way to practice their faith. The promise of martyrdom, or favor in the afterlife also tempts radicalized young Muslims.

        Furthermore, ISIS promises its recruits some more tangible perks, such as houses with running water and electricity, that are free of rent because of their service to ISIS. Additionally, ISIS implies that they will provide a community filled with like minded individuals.  For many of the young people who feel like outsiders in their homes in the West, promises of fulfilling their religious obligations, finding a path to a better afterlife, and being a part of a community are very strong motivators.

        New recruits not only increases ISIS’ numbers, but helps future recruitment, as those who have left western countries for ISIS are in a good position to recruit others from home. They speak the language of those they will recruit, and they have intimate knowledge of the culture. In addition, they can target specific people. Friends from home, or friends of friends who they know to be sympathetic or easy to sway, provide even more fodder for recruitment. As a result of the wide-array of people involved, ISIS recruitment is very decentralized. The use of social media and the ever expanding number of recruiters leads to a very large web of people that are very good at providing personal attention to those that express interest in ISIS. The lack of centralization makes it much harder for those trying to combat ISIS’ recruitment, like the U.S. government. The many middlemen involved in the process make it self-sustaining and quite capable of surviving many attacks.

        As a result of these effective measures, the United States struggles to prevent U.S. citizens from joining ISIS. A six-month review by the House Homeland Security Committee has shown that the U.S. does not have the infrastructure in place to prevent citizens from joining jihadist groups due to the lack of strategy for dealing with the threat of social media. In addition, the lack of strong security measures overseas makes it very easy for people to travel to join ISIS; this also increases the overall threat and possibility of extremists travelling or returning to the U.S. and committing acts of terrorism. Unfortunately, ISIS has proven formidable in its capacity to bring in young adults from a variety of western countries and as of yet there seems to be very little capable of stemming the tide.

Syria – Russia’s Next Power Grab?

By Adithya Sivakumar

In the fall of 2013, the United States faced the possibility of initiating military action in yet another Middle-Eastern country. This time? Syria, specifically against Bashar al-Assad, whose regime reportedly employed chemical weapons to attack opposition strongholds in the Syrian Civil War, killing thousands.[1] However, the Syrian government accepted a deal that prevented direct US involvement at the time, as this deal stipulated that the Syrian government would agree to destroy its chemical weapon stockpile.[2]. The lull in official foreign involvement in Syria changed due to the rise of the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL); led by the United States, a coalition began to conduct airstrikes in Syria in the September of 2014. For a time, this appeared to be the only official international effort against ISIL. Then, on September 30, 2015, another world power decided to get involved in Syria, launching coordinated airstrikes against not only the infamous ISIL, but also other groups opposed to the Syrian government.[3]

That world power? Russia, the U.S.’s perennial competitor.

        The timing of the attacks seems quite convenient. According to The Economist, the Russia’s decision to attack occurred when the overall non-ISIL Syrian opposition was in its best shape since the war began in 2011. And indeed, rebel groups traditionally backed by Western donors have taken notice of this timing, asking for more aid to fight what they deem as a second occupation by the Russians (the first being from Al-Assad’s other ally, Iran). This occupation, however, has many observers puzzled.  Russia’s last direct military involvement in the Middle East occurred in Afghanistan, when the Soviet Union still existed. Its result was a massive defeat that likely factored into the demise of the once dominant super power.

        Some experts point to the relationship Russia has with the Syrian government. It is a relationship that stretches back to 1967, when the Soviet Union assisted Syria in its war against Israel; in return, the Soviet Union gained a port access to the Mediterranean, and ever since Syria has remained sympathetic to Russia. Additionally, Russia has firmly backed the Assad regime, even in the face of chemical weapons allegations, and despite numerous global calls for its end. In effect, by forming this implicit military alliance with Iran, a country that has officially backed  the Syrian government, and now even Iraq, with its Joint Military Operations Command stating its intention to share intelligence with both Russia and the Al-Assad’s government,  Russia is not necessarily focused on fighting ISIL, but rather strengthening Al-Assad’s regime, a tactic that appears to be working in light of an apparent ground assault in the works. [4]

        Another motivation for the Russian government’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War could be its thirst for international credibility, especially due to heightened tensions with its number one competitor, the United States. Due international uproar over Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis (supplying military aid to separatists that may have brought down a passenger airline, as well as taking over the Crimean peninsula), Russia has certainly built a negative image globally. This has made the nation more keen to involve itself in matters of global stability, such as the Iran nuclear deal, that increase its global influence and perhaps builds a more positive image.

Furthermore, it appears that the United States is losing its global influence, especially in terms of the Syrian conflict. The CIA’s program to train and equip moderate rebels failed miserably.  In exasperation, members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL have started to give military equipment to their proxies in Syria, without giving much thought to American objections, indicating the lack of adherence to American leadership. Additionally, the coalition-led airstrikes have not been particularly helpful for coalition-backed Syrian rebel groups either, as the attacks are aimed to attack  ISIL, not the Assad regime, giving the government time to regroup and strengthen itself as its other major enemy is under fire. These weaknesses caused by the Americans are easy for the Russians to exploit, allowing for Putin’s government to have a greater say in what group stays in power at the end of the Syrian conflict.

         No matter what Russia’s logic is, global attention will be on Russia’s next move in the conflict, which includes the possibility of ground troops and continued clashes with American interests. Run-ins already have been reported between Russian and American planes, and tensions continue to grow between the two countries.[5] In essence, Syria appears to be becoming a proxy battleground between two rival countries. As Mouaffaq Nyrabia, the Syria National Coalition’s (the organization recognized as the legitimate government in Syria by a variety of nations)  representative to the Benelux and European Union, describes to the Huffington Post, an ISIL-only approach by the U.S.-led coalition has emboldened the Al-Assad regime, causing many deaths due to civilian targeting, a factor that drives more people from Syria into the arms of ISIL. This situation is further exacerbated with Russian involvement, as these airstrikes are specifically aimed to help the Assad regime.[6] With competing interests between the United States and Russia, the likelihood of a comprehensive solution to end the conflict seems slim, despite meetings between Russian and American diplomats. Until such a solution can be created, however, Syria will continue to be a land where complex alliances, interests, and violence resides.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/31/syrian-air-strikes-obama-congress

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/10/syria-chemical-weapons-convention_n_3901417.html

[3] http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21672031-what-russian-intervention-means-opposition-down-not-yet-out

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/27/world/russia-syria-involvement/

[5] http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/07/politics/u-s-diverts-aircraft-to-avoid-russian-fighter/

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mouaffaq-nyrabia/isis-no-fly-zone_b_8015784.html

The Forgotten Crisis in Yemen

By Gabrielle Timm

Recently, the world’s attention on the Middle East has been focused on Syria due to its long running civil war and the resulting refugee crisis in Europe. Largely overlooked however, is the violent conflict that consumes the Middle East’s poorest country, Yemen. Already troubled, this current conflict is making living situations worse and displacing many people, some of whom have fled into Djibouti and Somalia. With the seemingly endless conflict and existing internal threats from Al Qaeda increasing, the war in Yemen has the potential to become just as devastating as the conflict in Syria, with profound negative implications for the international community.

Since September of 2014, the political situation in Yemen has been tumultuous. Houthis, a militant Shi’a group, has long been fighting against Yemen’s government and finally seized control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital that month. Following the takeover of the capital, the Yemeni government still retained nominal control over the country, though Houthis did exert great influence over it. This changed in January 2015, when Houthis forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, among others, to resign following disagreements over a proposed new constitution. Following these resignations, the Houthis placed Hadi under house arrest. Officials in Aden and other cities across southern Yemen stated they would refuse to accept orders from a new government in Sana’a, and there were rumors that they would seek an independent South. (Yemen had formerly been separated into a northern and southern country, until unification in 1990, with Aden being the capital of South Yemen, and Sana’a the capital of North Yemen.)

In February of 2015, Hadi escaped from house arrest, fleeing to Aden. With Houthi forces rapidly advancing in the South and surrounding Aden, Hadi fled the country in late March and called on foreign powers to intervene and restore its legitimate government. The Arab League agreed, initiating the start of the broader conflict that engulfs Yemen today. The Saudi-led coalition acted promptly, initiating airstrikes against the Houthi insurgency and instituting a naval blockade around all Yemeni ports. In April 2015, the United States announced it would be providing logistical and intelligence aid to the coalition.  Other Western powers, notably Great Britain, have also supported the coalition.

The coalition has been making some progress against Houthi forces in the South, though Houthis still occupy Sana’a and heavily populated regions in northern and western Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the coalition continue to conduct airstrikes on northern territories, and now have a troop presence on the ground.

This war has dangerous implications for the entire region, as it has the potential to exacerbate regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has been accused of aiding Houthi forces, as both are Shi’a. While Iran has denied this, intelligence indicates that Iran has supported the group for years, and, more recently, the Arab coalition seized an Iranian fishing boat loaded with weapons meant for Houthi forces. Saudi Arabia has long viewed itself as a defender of Sunni Islam, in contrast to Iran’s defense of Shi’a Islam, which has made the two countries hostile on religious grounds. Moreover, Iran considers Saudi Arabia a wealthy, ambitious proxy of the United States, and Saudi Arabia views Iran as a major source of instability in the region. Thus, with Saudis backing Hadi, there is a very real danger of Yemen turning into a proxy war between the two regional giants.

Additionally, Yemen’s strategic location could have a negative impact on international trade, particularly on the oil industry.  The Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow chokepoint with Eritrea and Djibouti on the west and Yemen on the east, connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is located on a vital sea-lane between Europe and Asia, and trade that goes through the Suez Canal must pass through this area. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that 3.8 million barrels of oil and refined petroleum products pass through the Bab el-Mandeb each day en route to European, Asian, and American markets. This makes it the world’s fourth busiest chokepoint, so even the thought of a potential shutdown could have huge consequences on the oil market. While Houthis did gain control of this area in March, it was recently recaptured with the help of the Saudi-led coalition.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also stands to benefit from the war. US intelligence considers AQAP to be one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups, and the most threatening branch of Al Qaeda.  AQAP was already a very strong force in Yemen, particularly in the eastern province of Hadramawt (Osama bin Laden’s father’s homeland), and it currently controls some territory within Yemen. The group could exploit the current conflict to increase its power; this has precedent in Libya, where al Qaeda-affiliated extremists have made major advances following the overthrow of Gadhafi, as infighting plagues moderate forces. Success in weakening Houthi forces could strengthen AQAP, since Houthis have been an effective fighting force against AQAP. This is one reason why some in the US intelligence community are against the idea of the US helping the Saudi led coalition, in addition to their overriding belief that the coalition is doomed to failure.

AQAP currently operates (somewhat) as a Sunni ally of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, both fighting against the Shi’a Houthis.  AQAP consists of about 5% Yemenis working with Saudi Arabia, with the rest split evenly between southern Yemen secessionists, former government troops loyal to Hadi and pro-Saudi and ultraconservative Salafi Islamists. However, AQAP also hates the al-Sauds, the royal family of Saudi Arabia, since they believe that many of their actions are un-Islamic. Given all the serpentine and sometimes conflicting interrelationships, it is more likely that AQAP and the Saudi-led coalition are cooperating with an informal and somewhat shaky nonaggression pact, which is unlikely to continue indefinitely. Strategically, Houthi forces and Iran are using this as propaganda, saying the Saudis are allied with AQAP; many Yemenis are against AQAP, and are already upset with Saudi Arabia and its allies due to the large civilian death toll caused by coalition airstrikes.

The United Nations estimates that 5,400 people have been killed since the major conflict started in March of this year, including over 2,300 civilians. The UN estimates that almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths are caused by coalition airstrikes, though indiscriminate shelling by Houthi forces kills large numbers of civilians as well. Coalition airstrikes are also responsible for about two-thirds of collateral damage to civilian public buildings.

Recently, the Dutch spearheaded a UN proposal to send experts to Yemen to investigate the conduct of the war. The proposal called for warring sides to allow humanitarian access to deliver aid and for the commercial import of goods like fuel to keep hospitals running. While initially supportive, the proposal was blocked by Western governments, including the United States, and by strong, vocal Saudi opposition. Instead, a Saudi-led resolution was backed to support Yemen in setting up a national inquiry into human rights violations.

This conflict has understandably exacerbated previously existing problems in Yemen. Prior to the March conflict escalation, almost half the Yemeni population lived below the poverty line, with basic social services on the verge of collapse. Almost 16 million people (about 61% of the population) were in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. At the end of August, the BBC reported 4 out of 5 Yemenis in need of aid and 1.4 million displaced. 20.4 million people now lack access to safe drinking water, an increase of 52% since March. This worsening crisis is largely due to restrictions on fuel imports, needed to maintain the water supply, as well as war-related damage to pumps and sewage treatment centers.

Further, 12.9 million are considered food insecure, an increase of 20% in six months, according to the World Food Program (WFP). Yemen usually imports about 90% of its food, and naval embargos and fighting around ports have prevented many imports. Lack of fuel, damage to markets and roads and general insecurity have prevented the distribution of supplies. 15.2 million people also lack access to basic healthcare, which is a 40% increase since March.

Humanitarian aid organizations within the region are attempting to combat all of the issues that plague the general populace; however, they are struggling due to lack of funding and access constraints caused by the conflict and blockade. “The images I have from Sana’a and Aden remind me of what I have seen in Syria,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the most active humanitarian aid organizations in the country. “So, Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” Maurer attributes this to entrenched poverty, months of intensified warfare, and limits on imports. The heavy firepower employed, in particular, is causing more suffering due to already weak and inadequate infrastructure.

The cost of the conflict in Yemen is incalculable on a national and an international scale. Without worldwide attention and political pressure, the long-term implications of this war could be devastating for international trade and security and shameful in terms of the scale of humanitarian disaster. Unfortunately, regardless of the speed of conflict resolution, the Yemeni populace will be recovering for a long time. While the instability and crisis in Syria and other longstanding issues in the Middle East continue to be important, the crisis in Yemen is of paramount importance and demands the world’s immediate attention.

Op-Ed: In Defense of the Iran Deal

By Gregory Bernstein

Is the world any safer? This question is at the heart of the debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran deal. Proponents of the deal argue that yes, the agreement which was reached between the United States and Iran will make the world safer because it contains the unprecedented level of monitoring and verification necessary to achieve the long sought after goal of ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear arsenal. Those who oppose the deal argue that easing sanctions will only serve to reward and embolden Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. One element which has been relatively absent from the discussion over the Iran deal is serious consideration about what other courses of action are available to the United States if the Iran deal falls through due to Congressional opposition.

The course of action concerning Iran’s unrepentant pursuit of nuclear weapons can be broken down into three broad categories: 1) a negotiated agreement such as the one reached last week by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif, 2) the continuation or expansion of existing national and international sanctions, or 3) some form of military action. Since each course of action is designed to achieve the same end, they can all be evaluated using the same metric – how feasible and effective they would be at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in the near future. When evaluated using this metric, it’s clear that the first option, and the current deal in particular, is far and away the most likely course of action to yield a successful outcome.

Those who advocate for continued or expanded sanctions do so in the hope that increased pressure will weaken Iran’s negotiating position and enable the United States to reach a more favorable agreement sometime down the road. The logic used to support this line of reasoning is tenuous at best and dangerous to America’s national security interests at worst. Even if one were to assume that there is a positive correlation between international sanctions and a willingness on the part of Iran to concede to U.S. negotiating demands, there’s little evidence to suggest that the United States could have any success in expanding the existing sanctions regime. This May, Peter Wesmacott, the British Ambassador to the United States, told journalists that sanctions against Iran had reached their “high water mark” and that if the United States and Iran couldn’t reach an agreement by their self-imposed deadline, it was likely that there would be “sanctions erosion”. These sentiments were echoed by Peter Wittig, the German Ambassador to the United States who claimed that “sanctions might unravel” if diplomacy were to fail.

As the support of America’s European allies for the existing sanctions becomes ever more tenuous, the number of countries which are exempted from having to comply with U.S. sanctions regarding Iran continues to grow. In March of 2012, ten European Union countries (including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom) as well as Japan were given six month waivers from U.S. financial sanctions which target countries that trade with Iran. Similar waivers were also given to South Korea, China, India, and Turkey and were reissued in December 2012 and June 2013. These waivers are intended to recognize that many European and Asian economies covet Iranian crude oil and are unwilling to fully halt their importations. It’s no coincidence that Iran’s largest trading partners – China, India, Turkey, and South Korea – all appear on the list of countries which have been able to continue trading with and importing from Iran. Their presence seems to suggest that sanctions, no matter how vigorously they are enforced by the United States and its European allies, are unlikely to have the full effect that many had hoped for when the United States first announced new sanctions in 2010 and 2013.

Another alternative to the negotiated agreement is some form of military action or, at the very least, the “credible threat of force”. This is the course of action most frequently preferred by hawkish conservatives who believe that President Obama has signaled weakness to the Iranians by agreeing to the terms set forth in the deal. This, of course, is not a particularly novel idea. The centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s Iran policy when he was running for president was his criticism that President Obama had yet to establish a credible threat of force and his promise to do so. Military action is also a possibility which has been implicitly endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, after this deal was announced, reiterated his willingness to defend Israel at any cost – including the use of Israeli special forces to carry out an aerial attack of suspected nuclear sites in Iran. While military force or the threat of military force is an oft-talked about solution, is it a realistic one?  Most likely not. Jeffrey Goldberg, an American-Israeli journalist writing for The Atlantic opined that in a best case scenario, a successful military attack along the lines of a “surgical strike” would only serve to delay the amount of time until Iran can obtain a nuclear weapon. He writes “three things would happen in the event of an American military strike: sanctions would crumble; Russia would become Iran’s partner; and the ayatollahs would have their predicate to justify a rush to the bomb.” At that point, only a sustained military campaign would be sufficient to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and such a campaign would result in an all-out regional war which would promise to cause the Middle East to descend into chaos.

The evidence makes it overwhelmingly clear that the two most highly touted alternatives to the current Iran deal are impractical to say the least, but what about the deal itself? In the same way that detractors of the deal bear the burden of proposing alternatives, the deals proponents surely bear the burden of enumerating and defending the specific elements of the deal which will lead to a marked improvement of the current state of regional and global security as well as nuclear non-proliferation. There might be no better person to accomplish this task then Ernest Moniz, the current Secretary of the Department of Energy and former head of the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Secretary Moniz, one of the nation’s foremost experts on nuclear technology, not only played a hands-on role by negotiating directly with Iranian atomic energy minister, but he has offered, in multiple statements, complete assurances that the negotiated agreement blocks every possible path by which Iran could obtain the nuclear fissile material necessary to create a nuclear weapon. His reassurances carry more than just the weight of his own word, however – twenty-nine of the most preeminent nuclear scientists have signaled their support for Secretary Moniz’s detailed claims regarding the more technical aspects of the agreement. Negotiating a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear aspirations didn’t require a rocket scientist. But it did require a nuclear scientist. A nuclear scientist who was able to help the United States reach an agreement which has the wholehearted support of his most well-respect peers.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is far from a perfect deal and it would be disingenuous for anyone to describe it as such. Negotiating with the leaders of a country which has spent much of the previous four decades cursing the United States is far from palatable. But it’s necessary. It’s more necessary now than it has been at any point in the past. As Iran inches closer and closer to achieving the deadliest invention in human history, we’ve crossed the Rubicon and reached the point where inaction will no longer suffice. The United States must act to prevent a nuclear Iran. If not this deal, then what?