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Ensuring a Long-term Win Against ISIS In Mosul

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., Grace Wakim & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.

Allah Akbar (meaning God is Greatest) is a colloquial expression commonly used by Muslims, especially in the Arab world, to praise God and express commitment to the religion of Islam. Muslims often use the term to express emotions, such as gratitude, fear, and joy.

Sometimes, it is overused and clichéd—to the point of losing its intended meaning—such as when chanted during soccer matches. [1] To many in the West, Allah Akbar represents a petrifying expression, especially when used in relation to al-Qaeda’s, and now ISIS’, version of their so-called “martyrdom” operations. However, for the people of Mosul, it should now serve as one of the most meaningful phrases. Indeed, as the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State is drawing to an end, the citizens of Mosul can joyfully repeat this familiar term—and without any terrorism connotations or undertones.

The military assault to recapture Mosul from ISIS started in October 2016. At the time, ICSVE researchers wrote, Competing Interests, Civilian Confusion, Conspiracy Theories and Chaos in the Assault on Mosul. Now, facing liberation, we wonder whether the same observations apply post-liberation? Will the sectarian conflicts that already existed well before ISIS took over territories in Iraq be more accentuated following the fall of ISIS? Can those who lived under ISIS, particularly impressionable youth who have become entrenched in ISIS’ doctrines and their malevolent beliefs, be able to recover? Can they be rehabilitated in detention? If so, can they safely be reintegrated into communities ravaged by the brutalities of ISIS?

Many would argue that by losing Mosul, ISIS lost an important battle. There are still many unknown challenges, however, and celebrations for some have been cut short by worrying signals of potential strife to come. Despite losing their territory, ISIS is still recruiting online while its homegrown and directed “lone wolf” extremists have, and continue to be, deployed around the world. Their threat remains global. Locally speaking, in Iraq, ISIS still has many of their members and supporters hiding out in urban environments and refugee camps, among others. Peshmerga leadership shared with ICSVE researchers that they have pieced together a list of approximately 20,000 ISIS cadres and ISIS affiliates and supporters. This crucial intelligence is being used to target and hunt down such individuals in the region.

ISIS militants are also known to pursue defectors who flee the group, as revealed in our interviews with ISIS prisoners. One Iraqi boy who escaped ISIS in the past year and made it into a refugee camp told ICSVE researchers how his ISIS emir repeatedly contacted him, stalking and telling him that he could not leave and that he needed to act as a sleeper agent. His safety and true separation from the group actually came with arrest. Yet, Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, shared that when youth or family members of ISIS cadres are arrested and detained, authorities often face legal, process-related, and ethical barriers in assessing how to deal with them. While at the same time, we heard repeatedly a genuine desire by prison and government officials to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth.[2]

In addition to challenges associated with rebuilding and reconstructing the physical Mosul, the challenge of rewiring the psychological state—at a minimum, to its pre-ISIS capture state—of its residents will remain a daunting task, particularly in the context of children who were molded under ISIS’ tutelage and the wider traumatized population. The citizens of Mosul have witnessed beheadings, hand-cuttings, torture, murders, and other forms of violence. In some cases, some even had to reluctantly participate and engage in these activities. ISIS defectors told ICSVE interviewers how men and women, and even children, were forcibly gathered to watch the beheadings of people on the streets, which represented ISIS’ way of making clear that any resistance was futile and would lead to brutal punishment. The group put big screens up in the streets to inundate residents, including children, with their propaganda videos and atrocities—all framed in terms of glorious actions and with the purpose of desensitizing its residents to violence. Defectors spoke about the normalization of brutality, among both children and adults. One ICSVE interviewed defector expressed concerns about the dangerous effects of violence on children in particular—that is, how they will ever be recovered after having grown up under extreme brutality.[3]

Populations in conflict zones almost always have high rates of traumatization and usually display serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Saddam’s Baathist regime, the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion, and the post-2003 events that further widened the Sunni-Shia divide and violence are deeply entrenched in Iraq’s collective consciousness, creating a normalcy in repeated traumatization and post-traumatic arousal states among the general population. One woman who escaped to Baghdad after being subjected to the brutal rule of ISIS relayed her inability to stop compulsively washing her hands, and even her hair, sometimes using harsh bleach to attempt to, as she described, “remove from her body, and her mind, the dirty realities of life under ISIS.” Trauma is rife throughout the population, and mental health issues can be expected to be as well.

Recent research by the organization Save the Children revealed that Mosul’s children have shown “dangerous levels of psychological damage,” and even exhibited “toxic stress” signs, all conditions that affect children’s “mental and physical health.”[4] The organization is trying to raise awareness about the issue as well as asking for funding and support from the government of Iraq to provide trained psychologists for the affected populations. Many other organizations are also providing mental health support for internally displaced people, but there still exists a huge need for long-term help, especially in the case of those who are not easy to identify and reach.

According to government officials in Iraq, an estimated half a million youth lived and served under ISIS-dominated territory in Iraq.[5] Some became Cubs of the Caliphate. Others attended ISIS schools where beheadings and brutality served as the norm. Even those kept at home still witnessed atrocities out on the streets. Having the appropriate treatment and care is crucial to prevent those kids who did not get sucked into violence, including those who did, from continuing a path set out by ISIS to continue the cycle of violence and become perpetrators of violence themselves.

ICSVE interviews with government officials and mental healthcare practitioners in Iraq revealed that, generally speaking, Iraqis, and Syrians for that matter, often have strong stigmas against addressing mental illness or pursuing psychological therapy altogether. Equally important, Iraq is bereft of many of the well-trained psychologists and psychiatrists they once had, with many having moved to the Gulf States and Jordan during the 2003 U.S.- led coalition invasion of Iraq. In 2006, when we introduced the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the U.S. Department of Defense to address the 23,000 detainees and 800 juveniles held at the time in Iraq, we found it difficult to find qualified Iraqi psychologists and social workers.[6] The situation has only worsened since then. How will the psychological problems be dealt with remains yet to be discovered.

Laudably, the Prime Minister’s office in Iraq has already introduced a number of measures focused on education and deploying psychologists to survey teachers and youth in the affected areas to learn how to identify and serve their needs. Similarly, prison officials in Iraq are also looking at how to develop rehabilitation and reintegration programs for youth currently imprisoned who served under ISIS.[7]

There appears to be hope on the part of the government of Iraq to release youth who served under ISIS while their elder cadres who organized and took part in systematic rapes, beheadings, and killings will generally face death sentences. The will of Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, to rehabilitate and reintegrate detained youth and the spouses of ISIS cadres and their children who have been detained in camps—with their movements restricted—is laudable. More importantly, such efforts are necessary as this is not a problem that interested parties can overlook or kill their way through—there simply are too many youth and families who have been affected. These are complex issues that require effective rehabilitation and careful release programs that work not only with the youth held in prison but also with their family members and communities to whom they are being released.

A senior police officer in the Mosul region whose brother was abducted by Islamic State militants told journalists, “I am affected — and there are a lot of people who are affected like me…[I] don’t believe that anyone who lost a family member will forget this.” [8] Indeed, the fact of having served under ISIS is not easily forgivable, even for youth who did not rape, torture, or kill, as well as ISIS family members—including the wives of ISIS members—who did engage in or carried out such atrocities. The fact of having served or having been a family member of cadres in such a heinous organization can make it difficult to be welcomed back or to live safely in one’s community without social stigma or actual revenge occurring.

Arguably, one of the thorny problems is that Iraqi culture assumes a culture of revenge, enacted in the years of absence of adequate safety and security in many areas of Iraq. With the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq, Iraqi society has witnessed tribes, militias, and individuals often taking matters of justice into their own hands. Sectarian violence unleashed by Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq slashed open societal rifts that have not yet healed. This was followed by revenge narratives that became especially pronounced during the period of Maliki’s second term in power—often seen as largely responsible for sidelining the Sunni population in Iraq and eventually leading to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. To this this day, such narratives still permeate popular culture on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Revenge attacks and killings continue to occur in post-ISIS Mosul as well. In an area near Mosul, fifteen family members of ISIS cadres were reportedly beaten to death while spouses of ISIS cadres report being terrified.[9] ISIS youth we interviewed in prison in Kurdistan also expressed fears that if released Shia death squads would hunt them down and kill them. Indeed, stories abound of Shia militias who have taken justice into their own hands, throwing ISIS cadres off cliffs and conducting systematic summary executions—to just name a few.[10] There are also reports of young people being detained and brutally attacked while fleeing Mosul without any proof of them being ISIS members. The Associated Press (AP) reported the Iraqi government forces at checkpoints treated those fleeing from Mosul as ISIS’ family members versus as innocent civilians fleeing a terrorist group.[11] Unless addressed, such stereotypes will further widen the gap between the people of Mosul and the rest of the population of Iraq.

One interesting effort at reconciliation and healing has been made to break through the ideological indoctrination and terror techniques that ISIS engaged in and break stereotypes they instilled in the youth of Mosul and the rest of Iraq. This effort brings together hundreds of Sunni young men from Mosul who lived under ISIS rules to meet with Shia’ people from Iraq’s southern provinces. It was made to break the misconception that both groups harbor about each other. The initiative was filmed and is called Hala Bikkon, or You’re Welcome.

The short documentary showcases young men of Mosul who were taught by ISIS that the southerners [Shia’] were their enemy and told to wipe them from the face of the earth, now meeting these Shia in person. One of the young men states, “When Daesh came, we were told that people of the south hated Sunnis, southerners were going to kill us.” While the sectarian strife in Iraq is longstanding, and although many of the young men knew that such characterizations were only partially true, if true at all, they did not feel equipped or courageous enough to argue with Daesh.

That Sunni and Shia citizens alike call today for unity in Iraq and to denounce the ethnic and sectarian division that Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq unleashed after the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq and that Daesh has been capitalizing on—and trying once again to magnify—is commendable. One of the bus riders optimistically asserted that despite ISIS’ evil indoctrination, “the youth of Mosul have not been influenced by Daesh’s ideology,” instilling hope in the viewer. The filmed visit between the two groups of young men went well, and trips to other places in Iraq are being planned in the future. This and similar initiatives are important and necessary to rebuild unity across sectarian divides that terrorist groups have exploited, but they also have to happen on the higher policy and grassroots levels as well as be reflected in actual governance and security measures. The simple breaking of stereotypes is unlikely to be enough to rebuild confidence and trust between the different ethnic groups who have experienced all the brutality that has transpired.

Any efforts at rehabilitation of ISIS youth, spouses and wider family members must seriously take into account the issue of deep traumatization and family and community reintegration. In a context in which collective punishment is occurring and revenge is at times generalized to anyone connected to ISIS, the government of Iraq will have to find a way to carefully work not only with former cadres and family members they wish to release back into society, but also with their communities, tribes, and wider family members who must be ready and willing to take them back.

Our ICSVE research already revealed setbacks with Yazidi boys, who after being forced into the Cubs of the Caliphate, were released back to their traumatized mothers (who had also witnessed the killings of their family members and who may also have been rape victims). These boys had been ideologically indoctrinated into ISIS, witnessed extreme brutality, were taught to be brutal themselves, and were then released back to their equally traumatized mothers without any good treatment. They are reported to be confused and aggressive while their mothers are unable to cope in the face of these young boys predictably acting out their overwhelming trauma in extreme conduct disorders. In Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, ICSVE researchers were also informed about a young boy who had been part of ISIS and was released without any adequate planning and preparation while his parents had gone missing. Having nowhere secure to return to, the boy went back to his ISIS connections. Meanwhile, human rights workers, as well as family members of ISIS cadres, report being on the receiving end of threats. They are told to leave, face collective punishments, round-ups, and detention of entire families.[12]

Conclusion

Reconciliation and peacebuilding in post-ISIS Mosul, including post-ISIS Iraq, requires strong political will and determination. Strictly speaking in the context of liberated Mosul, sentiments and attitudes of projecting collective guilt upon those who lived under ISIS must be countered. The manner in which justice and reconciliation is carried out in post-ISIS Mosul will have a huge bearing on the future Shia-Sunni relationship in Iraq. Equally important, while crimes against all communities must be investigated, acts of arbitrary revenge towards select communities must be avoided at all costs. Such crimes must beinvestigated and properly dealt with when they do occur. Security and justice for all is paramount to successful rebuilding. Such an approach is necessary to safeguarding the long-term success of Iraqi forces in defeating ISIS in Mosul, and in the wider Iraq, and to minimize the prospect for the reemergence of conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. By the same token, those who once lived in the ISIS-held territory in Iraq must begin to trust their government and have confidence in their ability to provide for their security and ensure justice.

Given that in reality it is impossible to eliminate everyone who fell prey to ISIS and who offered support to them, a transparent legal mechanism must be put in place to sort out those who are truly guilty and separate them from those able to be rehabilitated and reintegrated. Robust deradicalization and post-traumatic stress disorder programs then must be introduced to address and heal the wounds that exist in the psyche of young children, families, and wider communities. Failure to rehabilitate and reintegrate the youth, particularly those who lived under ISIS, could jeopardize the long-term success of the successful operation against ISIS in Mosul and potentially result in the return of ISIS or other radical violent elements representing the Sunni struggle in Iraq through violence. Arguably, these rehabilitation efforts are costly and will not be easy to achieve, but the costs of failing are even higher in terms of seeing a resurgence of ISIS or similar to ISIS ideology and violence.


Reference for this Article: Speckhard, A., Wakim, G., & Shajkovci, A. (July 27, 2017) Ensuring a Long-term Win Against ISIS In Mosul: The Need for Rehabilitation, Reintegration & Restoring Security and Justice. ICSVE Research Reports

Grace Wakim – is a Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) working on the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project and providing linguistic and subject matter expertise on the Middle East. She is a native Arabic speaker and has a BA in English with a concentration in Linguistics from George Mason University. She comes from years of experience working in the Arab media where she was a promotion producer for different Arabic channels, including news channels. She is pursuing an advanced degree in International Security.

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).  He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. Prior to joining ICSVE, Ardian has spent nearly a decade working in both the private and public sectors, including with international organizations and the media in a post-conflict environment. He is fluent in several languages. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He also holds several professional certifications in the field of homeland security as well as a professional designation for his contributions to the field of homeland security and homeland security efforts in general. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism courses.

References:

[1] See for example Daniel Engber. Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2006/09/god_is_still_great.html

[2] ICSVE Interviews with officials at the Ministry of Peshmerga, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).

[3] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla. “ISIS Defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC, 2016.

[4] Save the Children (July 5, 2017). “Mosul’s children mentally scared by brutal conflicts,” available at http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/2017-07/mosul%E2%80%99s-children-mentally-scarred-brutal-conflict

[5] ICSVE interviews with officials in Baghdad, Iraq. “Education in Iraq Post Daesh-ISIL Terror,” Conference (March 29-30, 2017).

[6] First author personal accounts in Iraq while tasked with the program.

[7] In both cases ICSVE researchers have been giving their time and expertise to aid in such efforts; Charles Stafford. (July 2017). “Iraqi prison hopes to reform ISIL recruits. “Al-Jazeera. Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/video/news/2017/07/iraqi-prison-hopes-reform-isil-recruits-170721114348232.html

[8] Anna Lekas Miller. (July 19, 2017). “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq,” The Intercept. Available at https://theintercept.com/2017/07/19/revenge-attacks-on-families-of-isis-members-could-start-a-new-cycle-of-violence-in-iraq/.

[9] Anna Lekas Miller. “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq.”

[10] Patrick Cockburn. (July 18, 2017). “More than just revenge: Why ISIS fighters are being thrown off buildings in Mosul.” Independent. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-mosul-iraq-fighters-killed-thrown-off-buildings-reasons-corruption-revenge-patrick-cockburn-a7845846.html; Zubeda, Personal communication (July 2017).

[11] Associated Press. (July 2017). “Tensions rise in waning days of Mosul battle.” Available at http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/world/2017/07/05/iraq-mosul/103456696/

[12] Human Rights Watch. (July 13, 2017).”Iraq: Alleged ISIS families sent to ‘rehabilitation camp:’ Evictions, detentions amount to collective punishment.” The Intercept. Available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/13/iraq-alleged-isis-families-sent-rehabilitation-camp; ICSVE researcher personal communication with human rights advocates. Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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The Intensifying War in Yemen: World’s worst Humanitarian crisis

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Devastation caused by protracted conflict in Yemen. Photo: UNDP Yemen

Since the beginning of this year, the violence in Yemen’s civil conflict has increased. From being the centre of the ancient Arab world, the nation became one of the poorest. Millions of people have been drawn into conflict as a result of the seven-year conflict. Civilians have been killed in record number and people are hungry more than ever. Yemen has been torn apart by war for several years, and its citizens are battling mightily to live. According to the UN Development Programme, more than 370,000  people have perished since the war began in 2015, with 60% of those deaths coming from indirect factors including a shortage of food, water, and medical care. United Nations calls it as the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. With 21.1 million people, 80 percent of the population requires humanitarian aid of some kind. 11 million children need humanitarian assistance for survival.

What is the conflict about?

The conflict in Yemen is over who will rule the nation. Although the conflict has been ongoing for years, it has recently become more violent. As the wave of anti-government protests that swept the Middle East area expanded to Yemen, the war in Yemen was set off in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011.The war in Yemen has numerous participants. The main participant in the conflict is the Houthis, a minority Shia sect from Northern Yemen. They claimed that they had been oppressed and were taking part in a rebellion against the government. The group participated in an uprising against Yemen’s former president Ali Abdul Saleh during the Arab Spring.  Houthis now control areas of Yemen where most people live including the capital Sana’a. Saudi Arab is another prominent player of the war who is also the most influential member of the Gulf cooperation council. The GCC have installed new government in Yemen by removing Ali Abdul Saleh and putting Abd-Rabbu Mansoor Hadi in charge. The Houthis and Saleh who were both sidelined by GCC allied with each other. Houthis along with Saleh’s allies in the army took control of Sana’a.. However, Saleh broke with Houthis and called up his followers to take up  arms against them. Saleh was killed by Houthis in December 2017, and his forces got defeated within two days. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia along with the other coalition joins hands to return Hadi to power. For the last 7 years, the main fighting is between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition. The coalition has the backing of western countries including the US and the UK and is supplied with arms from states like France, Canada, and Germany. The Saudi-led intervention includes relentless air attacks on Yemen. SLC said that they have been attacking the enemy fraction but the right group has accused the coalition of bombing hospitals and schools, killing thousands of Yemeni civilians.

The Saudi-led coalition carried out more than 150 airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen, according to Yemen data project  According to the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of people have perished as a result of combat or its indirect effects, such . According to conservative estimates by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which monitors war zones around the world, the devastating air campaign  alone  conducted by a Saudi-led coalition has killed close to 24,000 people, including combatants and close to 9,000 civilians.

The escalation of War:

 In 2017, another group emerged as a big player in the war, the Southern Translational council (STC) . It was a separatist group who wants independence for southern Yemen. They got support from UAE and controls parts of South, including port of Aden.  The Houthis have been attempting to take control of Marib, the largest oil and fuel producing region, but their efforts are being hampered by this portion backed by the UAE. Houthis are being driven away from Marib by the SLC. Houthis retaliated in response to SLC’s aggressive attacks. They directly assault the UAE, attacking an Abu Dhabi gasoline storage complex on January 17,2022. The Houthis tactics used in the fighting became more sophisticated with time. The Saudi Arabia accused Iran of allegedly providing financial aid along with weapons. However, Iran completely denied the allegation. In March 2022, According to Saudi state-run media, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have launched a flurry of drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, hitting a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, water desalination plant, oil facility, and power station. In retaliation, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen once more. The fighting then intensified as a result.

Civilian casualties:

Children and civilians have been killed as a result of airstrikes in Yemen that target detention facilities. The United Nations  reports that January 2022 has been Yemen’s bloodiest month for civilians. In the seven years of the conflict, it was likely the worst month. Attacks on civilian targets have become routine, causing damage to the infrastructure, homes, hospitals, farms, weddings, funerals, and schools According to Mwatana for Human rights and human rights watchthe Saudi and UAE-led coalition launched three attacks in Yemen in late January 2022 that appeared to violate the laws of war and resulted in at least 80 apparent civilian deaths, including three children, and 156 injuries, including two children. More terrible are war’s broader effects. More Yemenis die from hunger, poverty, and diseases than from actual fighting.

The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis:

According to the deputy humanitarian chief of the UN, Yemen’s economy is crumbling, its humanitarian crisis is getting worse, and the conflict in the poorest country in the Arab world is becoming more brutal. Despite an ongoing air campaign and ground battles, the conflict has essentially come to a standstill and given rise to the worst humanitarian crisis in history. Since then, the US has stopped taking a direct part in the fighting.

Early in 2020, the Houthis started an offensive in the largely under government control Marib region that claimed thousands of young lives and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes and live in constant fear of violence and being forced to move again. The country is essentially unrecognizably different now as a result of six horrible years of airstrikes, mortars, shooting, dread, and devastation.

The once-favorite vacation spot, the coastal city of Aden, is engulfed in debris and destruction. Farmland that has been fruitful and green for many generations is now left bare. Healthcare facilities have been destroyed or run out of supplies, and electricity networks are down.

Over 20 million Yemenis are now in need as an estimated four million have abandoned their homes out of terror. No aspect of life has remained unchanged, whether it be the schools that kids used to attend or the highways that communities used to rely on for food supplies.

It is difficult for humanitarian organisations to prevent starvation in these circumstances.

The number of cholera cases has been rising, and doctors are struggling with a serious medication shortage. When Covid-19 first arrived in Yemen, families had to put all of their efforts into acquiring food, so concern about the virus had to take a backseat. In the ongoing crisis, aid is being used as a weapon in addition to the increased violence that has been the main cause of all the misery. In order to prevent supplies from entering or leaving Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition erected land, sea, and air barriers around the country in 2015. The SLC has been accused of obstructing, obliterating, or stealing aid that the Yemenis sorely needed.

There were hopes that the Yemeni conflict would de-escalate when US President Joe Biden took office last year because of anticipated improvements in US foreign policy.

But this year, conflict has only gotten worse. Internally, regionally, and internationally, the violence that Yemen is currently experiencing has increased. According to international relief organisations, Yemen’s severe humanitarian situation, which is exacerbated by widespread starvation, disease, and displacement, is predicted to get worse over the next few months. More than half of the population of the country, or at least 17.4 million people, are in need of food aid because they are caught between a lengthy war and an economic downturn.

Despite the UN ranking Yemen as the greatest humanitarian calamity in the world, a recent pledge conference fell short of raising enough money to avert more devastation. To solve Yemen’s food insecurity, only $1.3 billion of a $4.3 billion donation goal was raised.

Due to their own financial constraints, the World Food Programme was compelled to lower food supplies for eight million people earlier this year. By June, 161,000  people are predicted to be affected by the projected five-fold increase in hunger.

A Glimmer of Hope?!

Yemen’s two-month cease-fire which came into effect on April, gave people some reason to believe in a better future and an opportunity to rebuild. A deal mediated by the UN between the Houthi rebels, who are allied with Iran, and the Yemeni government on one side and the Saudi-led coalition on the other is an important step toward resolving a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused millions to go hungry. The six-year battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has since evolved into a proxy war has now reached its first nationwide ceasefire.

Additionally, according to the UN, the warring parties in Yemen have agreed to extend the current cease-fire for another two months. Despite charges of truce violations from both sides, the ceasefire was initially in effect on April 2 and was renewed on June 2.

Commercial flights have resumed from the rebel-held capital Sanaa to Jordan and Egypt under the truce, and oil tankers are also permitted to dock at the crucial port of Hodeida. A two-month extension is expected to allow for the reopening of roads connecting cities and regions, the safe repatriation of more displaced persons, and the delivery of humanitarian aid to those who have been cut off from it for too long due to hostilities in Yemen.

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Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing: Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity

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Much of Gaza City has been damaged as a result of Israeli air strikes. (file photo) © UNRWA/Mohamed Hinnawi

If there is one thing that Israelis and Palestinians agree on and religiously adhere to, it’s Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Israelis have long believed that overwhelming force, collective punishment, denial of rights, rejection of identity, humiliation, and a devastating Egyptian-supported 15-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip would persuade Palestinians to surrender their national aspirations, accept a rewriting of history, and settle for Israeli control in exchange for economic opportunity.

Israeli officials hailed the decision by Hamas, the Islamists who control Gaza, not to become militarily involved in this month’s fight with Islamic Jihad, a militant Palestinian organization based in the strip, as evidence that the government’s strategy was working.

However, there is little reason to assume that Hamas has suddenly changed its leopard spots and surrendered the principle of armed struggle. On the contrary, it is more likely that Hamas wants to decide on the timing rather than let Islamic Jihad or Israel drag it into a conflict at a moment that suits their agendas.

The Israeli military said this week that it had sealed an attack tunnel Hamas dug from northern Gaza into Israel. It noted that an underground defensive barrier Israel completed in December had blocked the tunnel.

Even so, Israeli officials believe that Hamas’ refusal to join the fray constitutes proof that Israel’s strategy is working.

“What is happening now between Israel and Hamas is a de facto (ceasefire). It is a system of big sticks and sweet carrots. Hamas is receiving what it never got from Israel before and delivering the goods to residents. They understand the price they are paying, but realize the alternative is worse,” a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor.

With the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimating youth unemployment at 75 per cent, Israel is expected to incentivize Hamas by allowing thousands of Gazan workers return to work in Israel.

Israel is also considering increasing the number of Gazan work permits from 14,000 to 20,000. Furthermore, Israel may allow Gaza residents vetted by security to travel abroad on flights from an airport in southern Israel.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz argued in recent days that “for the past year, Israel has had a clear policy. On the one hand, a heavy hand against all violations of sovereignty and offensive and defensive efforts to prevent (attacks) on all fronts. On the other hand, a responsible civil and humanitarian policy strengthening moderate forces over terrorist organizations.”

It’s a strategy built on Israeli scholar Micah Goodmen’s notion of “shrinking the conflict.”

Mr. Goodman argued in a 2019 New York Times oped that this “wouldn’t solve or end the conflict… It would contain it, it would lessen it. It would broaden the Palestinians’ freedom of movement, their freedom to develop and their freedom to prosper — all without an Israeli military withdrawal, and therefore no security dangers for Israeli civilians.”

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Goodman suggested that shrinking the conflict “would mitigate the risk of a deterioration into a one-state reality” in which Israeli Jews would likely no longer be a majority.

Mr. Goodman’s notion constitutes an acknowledgement that Israeli policy has not worked, even if Hamas appears to have become more selective in picking its fights.

The experience of the Palestinian Authority that has been rendered powerless because of Israel’s refusal to push for a definitive resolution of the conflict and the Authority’s mismanagement, corruption, and rivalry with Hamas, is likely to serve as a red line for the Islamists. They will want to ensure political, not just economic benefits.

Moreover, more than seven decades since the establishment of the State of Israel, Palestinians continue to cling to their national identity and aspirations. Yet, many implicitly acknowledge that ordinary Palestinians pay the price for violence that is not getting them closer to a solution.

“At the end of the day, the ones who lose are the people. Rockets fired into Israel don’t change anything. All they do is ensure that more civilians and children are killed. We have rights, but we have to find another way of securing them” said a West Bank resident.

Israel’s dilemma is that its future as a Jewish state and democracy may today be as threatened as it was in the early years when Arab armies were determined to wipe it off the map.

Today’s decreasing options for a solution to the century-old conflict constitute the most serious existential threat facing Israel rather than Palestinian violence, despite the wounding earlier this week of eight people when a Palestinian gunman attacked a bus in East Jerusalem.

To be sure, Israeli officials have linked the Gaza operation to stepped-up Israeli countering of Iran, widely viewed as the greatest threat to the existence of a Jewish state.

Israel’s increased focus on Iran comes at a time when the revival of the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program hangs in the balance.

Islamic Jihad maintains close ties to the Islamic republic. Ziad al-Nakhalah, the group’s top leader, was in Tehran meeting Iranian officials when Israel began its three-day operation against Gaza on August 5.

“Islamic Jihad has an open tab in Iran… Islamic Jihad in Gaza is a violent Iranian proxy,” Mr. Gantz said. He asserted that the group received tens of millions of dollars a year from Iran.

Journalist Ben Caspit noted that the assault on Islamic Jihad “was Israel’s first military operation against Gaza terrorist groups since 2009 from which it emerged with a sense of strategic victory” by “keeping Hamas out of the fighting, cutting Islamic Jihad down to size to contain its threat, and restoring its deterrence. On the other hand, metaphorically, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) as the neighborhood bully took on the weakest kid on the bloc.”

With or without Iranian support, Palestinians have fared no better than Israelis by adhering to Mr. Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Palestinian violence in the 1970s and 1980s served its purpose by putting the Palestinian issue on the world’s agenda. However, it has since contributed to taking it off the agenda of some Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain that in recent years established diplomatic relations with Israel and downgraded the issue’s importance to others like Saudi Arabia.

Add to that, a United States that has all but given up on pursuing peace between Palestinians and Israelis with no one willing to seriously replace America as a mediator, albeit a flawed one.

Palestinian Islamists continue to cling to the principle of armed resistance that primarily targets civilians in the illusion that violence will again succeed or in the hope that violence will keep Palestinians in the international public eye.

Meanwhile, despite making concessions such as recognizing Israel’s existence and abandoning the notion of armed struggle, moderates have failed to halt Israeli settlements and achieve a modicum of independence.

Moderation also has not prevented the hardening of Israeli public opinion and marginalization of the country’s dovish left.

Israel’s attack on Gaza in a bid to deal a fatal blow to Islamic Jihad, a group that rejects a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a coalition of armed groups on the West Bank, serves as the latest affirmation of Mr. Einstein’s definition.

The attack and the Palestinian response have done little more than widen the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, entrenching self-serving positions at a time of Israeli election maneuvering and mounting Palestinian frustration and lack of confidence in leadership.

The international community, as does the Palestinian Authority that administers parts of the West Bank, cling to the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in areas conquered by the Israelis during the 1967 Middle East war even if the presence of 670,000 Israeli settlers in 152 settlements in the territory as well as East Jerusalem makes partition extremely difficult, if not impossible.

In the final analysis, the de facto removal of the two-state option as a viable solution, turns solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by opting for one state for both Palestinians and Jews into an existential threat to Israeli democracy if both groups do not enjoy equal rights or to the Jewish nature of the state if they do.

In theory, the only other option would be a three-way solution involving some sort of federation, including Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians. But that may not go down well with Jordanians and could potentially aggravate the demographic threat to Israel.

In sum, failure to implement a two-state solution when possible may have made a solution to the conflict more intractable and perpetuated cycles of violence that undermine Israel’s social fabric and democracy.

“If there is one thing completely missing from the public agenda in Israel, it is the long-term view. Israel does not look ahead, not even by half a generation… There is not a single Israeli, not one, who knows where his country is headed,” noted controversial Israeli columnist Gideon Levi.

Mr. Levy could have said the same about Palestinians who know what they want, have no idea how to get there, and, true to Mr. Einstein, stick to strategies that, at best, are unproductive and, at worst, counterproductive.

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Middle East

Assyrians are Not Refugees Who Settled in Iraq

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In recent years, some Kurdish and Arab politicians and wanna-be historians have been making statements that the Assyrians of Iraq were refugees from Hakkari, Turkey and that the British brought them to Iraq. This absurd and misleading statement spread as Assyrians were trying to find their place in the new Iraq post 2003 US invasion.

On October 3, 1932 Iraq became the 57th member of the League of Nations (replaced by the United Nations on October 24, 1945 post World War II). On December 15, 1932, an article titled “Iraq and the Assyrians” was published in the periodical The Near East and India. The article addressed the settlement of the Assyrians in Iraq. The Assyrian leaders have been pleading to solve the settlement issue before ending the British mandate over Iraq and before admitting Iraq into the League of Nations as a sovereign and independent state (planned for 1932). The Assyrian leaders warned the West that Iraqi leaders could not be trusted and that Assyrians are not safe under the rule of Arabs and Kurds.

Before going further into the article aforementioned there is an important point that the readers must understand. The Assyrians did not fall from Mars onto northern Iraq. The Assyrians have been living in Northern Mesopotamia from time immemorial and their dynasties established one of the greatest civilization and empire in the Near East. The fall of the last Assyrian dynasty, i.e., the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in 612 BC and the last capital in Harran in 609 BC did not mean the disappearance of the people. This is similar to the fall of the Roman, Greek, Persian and many other empires. The people of those empires survived. The Assyrians continued to live in and around the historic Assyrian capitals of Ashur (Qal’at Sharqat), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur Sharukin (Khursabad), Nineveh (Nebi Yunis) and Harran in upper Mesopotamia or lived in new settlements near by those capitals, such as Mosul, Arbil, Kirkuk, Urfa (Urhai or Edessa), Nisibin, etc. that were centers of the Assyrians’ Christianity.

Assyria was occupied by several nations including the Medes, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Arabs, Mongolians, Ottoman Turks and others in between. The Assyrians adopted Christianity during the time of the Apostles and remained Christians ever since. The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) isolated these Assyrian denominational communities from each others. As the Church established further structure and hierarchy, the Churches of the Assyrians kept the various Assyrian communities together, each under its leader, the patriarchs. The Assyrian denominational terms Nestorian and Jacobite were born. Later, in 1681 in Diyar Bekir (Turkey) and in 1830 in northern Iraq (Alqosh) the conversion of Assyrians to Catholicism isolated more Assyrians as the term Chaldean was given to these converts.

With the clear establishment of these denominations, a clear distribution of the Assyrian population was shaped. The Nestorian Assyrians lived as a concentrated region of the Hakkari Mountains (Van Province) and Urmia region in Persia, Jacobite Assyrians in the Tur Abdin/Diyar Bekir region (Sandschak Zor and Diyar Bekir Provinces) and Chaldean Assyrians in Nineveh region/Arbil/Kirkuk (Mosul Province); however, these various denominational groups were intermixed in some locations. Despite this denominational separation, they all continued to refer to themselves as Suraye, which is Asuraye or Assuraye, meaning Assyrians.

The genocide of World War I (1914-1918) committed against the Assyrians by Turks and Kurds in Hakkari and Tur ‘Abdin (today both in modern Turkey) forced the Assyrians out. One escape route ended the Assyrians first in the camp of Baquba (1918 near Baghdad) and then in the camp of Mindan (1920 near Mosul) via Urmia, Persia.

Map of the Ottoman Empire divided by provinces Before its Fall in 1922

The other route ended up in Qamishli and Aleppo as genocide continued even after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and the Turkish State was created in 1922. Therefore, the Assyrians were basically displaced because of genocide from one province to another within the same Ottoman Empire, i.e., from Hakkari to Mosul and from Diyar Bekir/Tur Abdin to Qamishli/Aleppo. Those displaced refugees from Hakkari and Urmia joined their Catholic brethren, the Chaldean Assyrians, in Mosul Province. Therefore, the Assyrians did not migrate from some foreign planet to Mosul Province considering also that there were Assyrians in Mosul region since the fall of the Assyrian Empire and these Assyrians after converting to Catholicism became known as Chaldeans.

Another important issue is the similarity in the geographical terrain. One of the principle Assyrian regions was the highlands that starts from Mosul (today in Iraq) and extends all the way to southern Lake Van (today in Turkey). The Assyrian people lived throughout these highlands. This continuation of topography was not divided politically until the official fall of the Ottoman Empire in November 1, 1922. After many disagreements, protests and negotiations, the British and the Turks finally signed the Treaty of Ankara on June 5, 1926 by which both states recognized the Brussels line (with some minor modifications) as the frontier between the two new created states of Iraq and Turkey. Even if we consider this new frontier, we need to understand that the large Assyrian region of Lower Barwar was always part of the Ottoman’s Mosul Province (Iraq) – the Assyrians of Lower Barwar did not migrate from Turkey to Iraq per se, unlike those of Upper Barwar.

During World War I, British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored a secret agreement (concluded on May 19, 1916 ) regarding the future spoils of the Ottoman Empire that was expected to lose the war. After few modifications and incidents, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was created from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra and immediately placed it under the British mandate. Modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other states in the region did not exist before 1921/22. Therefore, we cannot say that in 1918 people moved from Turkey to Iraq because Turkey and Iraq did not exist at the time.

Now back to the December 5, 1932 The Near East and India article, which stated that the Council of the League of Nations considered the question of the settlement of the 40,000 [Nestorian] Assyrians in Iraq. At the council meeting, Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq stated: “The government of Iraq is determined to assure the prosperity, the happiness and the tranquility of all inhabitants of Iraq. It is following the best and most practical path to this end, allowing itself to be guided by the most human principles, by considerations of the general interest and by respect for existing laws.”

It took only few months later from the promise of the Iraqi prime minister that 3,000 Assyrians were massacred in the state-sponsored Simele Genocide in August 1933. The Assyrians continue to be persecuted and oppressed in Iraq by the Arab and the Kurdish authorities as the leaders and historians of Arabs and Kurds continue to claim that the Assyrians were refugees from Turkey and Persia (later Iran) and needed to be relocated or settled outside Iraq, if they had any conditions or hard to meet conditions, regardless how reasonable.

One important note, Kurdish nationalists and writers claim that the Allies post WWI divided Kurdistan into north, south, east and west Kurdistans. Such wild claims must never be allowed to spread. Unlike the well established and historic Assyrian Empire, there never existed an official state or country on the world map under the name of Kurdistan. After European travelers and missionaries visited the Middle East region, they encountered the nomad Kurds and soon a border-less and unofficial region under such name began to be inserted on certain Middle East maps to reflect the presence of these stateless people. In 1946, a Kurdish state under the name of Mahabad Republic was established in west Iran, but it was crushed by the Iranian army after 11 months. The Kurdish nationalists have promoted an aggressive Kurdification campaign to erase the Assyrian history from northern Iraq and replace it with Kurdish history.

Education empowers people – it enables them to understand. When they understand, they discuss issues affecting them with confidence, logically and accurately. Assyrians and other undermined people around the world must participate in this great battle of survival armed with education, because they must not let the murderers or oppressors write the history. The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq – history and archeology proves that. Throughout history, many Assyrians were forced to flee their homes and lands of northern Iraq (occupied Assyria) because of massacres and persecution.

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