By Fred Hof
On Wednesday evening, President Obama took 14 minutes to articulate, in clear and persuasive language, a counter-terrorism strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet the problem presented by an ersatz caliph and an amalgam of criminals, terrorists, executioners, and foreign fighters goes far beyond one of counter-terrorism. The Islamic State—just like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraq—cannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president’s strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.
The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy—to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game—the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame—keeping the Islamic State in its grave—is simply incomplete.
Iraq and Syria are extreme examples of the fundamental grievances embodied by the 2011 Arab Spring. Since the 1920s, much of the Arab World has been struggling to answer one fundamental question: what is it that follows the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy? The answer suggested by protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Deraa, and elsewhere was compellingly correct: the consent of the governed. That autocrats should reject the answer and push back is hardly surprising. Today only Tunisia seems to be on a clear path to legitimacy. Other Arab Spring countries—notably Libya and Yemen—teeter on the brink of state failure. Syria has taken the plunge. Iraq, though not an Arab Spring country per se, is likewise in the pit.
The Obama administration’s strategy, though counter-terrorist in its essence, hints at the broader problem. In a fact sheet issued on September 10, the White House cites “Supporting effective governance in Iraq” as a key pillar of the president’s strategy. It argues, quite correctly, that “only a united Iraq—with a government in Baghdad that has support from all of Iraq’s communities can defeat ISIL.” An important obstacle to legitimate governance in Iraq will be Iran’s arming and financing of Shia militias, which see Iraqi Sunnis—all of them—as supporters of the Islamic State. Interestingly, however, the fact sheet makes no mention of promoting effective, legitimate governance in Syria.
Today’s crisis—that which obligated the President to speak on September 10—has its roots in the March 2011 decision of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to respond with lethal violence to peaceful demonstrators seeking his protection from police brutality. The Assad regime initially escorted Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives from Syria to Iraq between 2003 and 2011, but its violently sectarian response to peaceful protest drew much of what was left of the seemingly beaten Al Qaeda in Iraq back to Syria, where it was joined by foreign fighters and split into two groups: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Both groups compete with the nationalist opposition to Assad—indeed, the Islamic State engages in de facto collaboration with the regime in western Syria to erase the nationalists, even as Assad and the caliph clash in eastern Syria over oil fields and air bases. And it was from secure bases in eastern Syria that the Islamic State launched its recent assault into Iraq, taking advantage of the depredations of yet another illegitimate, sectarian leader: Nouri al Maliki.
Indeed, if sidelining Maliki was the essential first step to getting to legitimate governance in Iraq, what about Assad in Syria? He is the face of Islamic State recruitment around the world. He is the author of war crimes and crimes against humanity that are breathtaking in scope and consequences.
President Obama decided, correctly if belatedly, to seek more robust assistance for beleaguered Syrian nationalists fighting in two directions: against the Islamic State and the regime. Will it work? It would have been easier two years ago, but now there is no choice. Airstrikes will not suffice in executing the counter-terrorism strategy. A ground element is essential, as it has been in Iraq. Indeed, airstrikes in Syria should focus first on Islamic State targets in western Syria, where nationalist forces are desperately trying to repulse the caliph and his forces.
Over three years ago, President Obama called on Bashar al Assad to step aside. Moving this murderous regime offstage will be neither easy nor quick. Yet unless it is a major facet of American strategy, the Islamic State will not be killed. It has been a gift to the Assad regime, one that will keep on giving so long as that regime exists. Legitimate governance in Syria will require much more than removing Assad. But regime removal is the first step, and without legitimate governance in Syria (as well as Iraq) the undead Islamic State will continue to march.
Fred Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.
Dozens of reserve soldiers from Israeli intelligence unit publicly declare their refusal to operate in Palestine.
Israeli reservists refuse to serve
Dozens reservists and former members of an elite Israeli army intelligence unit have condemned alleged “abuses” of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The forty-three reserve soldiers expressed their condemnation in an open letter addressed to Israel’s prime minister, armed forces chief, head of military intelligence and distributed to media on Thursday.
“We veterans of Unit 8200, reservists past and present, declare that we refuse to take part in activity against Palestinians and refuse to be tools to deepen the military control in the occupied territories,” the soldiers wrote.
“There’s no distinction between Palestinians who are, and are not, involved in violence, we cannot continue to serve this system in good conscience, denying the rights of millions of people” they wrote.
The soldiers went on to express their concern towards human rights abuses and the disruption of Palestinians everyday lives.
They clarified that they will no longer take part in any act that harms innocent people and called upon all soldiers to join their cause and speak out.
“We call for all soldiers serving in the Intelligence Corps, present and future, along with all the citizens of Israel, to speak out against these injustices and to take action to bring them to an end.”
One soldier also told Channel 10 TV he feels most of the work was motivated by “political reasons” to cement Israel’s control over the West Bank and not security concerns.
The letter was published less than three weeks after the military’s fierce offensive against Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip killed more than 2,200 people, many of them civilians.
The 8200 army unit is one of Israel’s best and brightest unit , taking care of surveillance and communications monitoring in addition to sharing information with Israel’s civilian intelligence agencies.
A former commander of the unit, reserve Brigadier General Hanan Gefen, accused the letter’s authors of a grave breach of trust.
“If this is true and if I were the current unit commander, I would put them all on trial and would demand prison sentences for them, and I would remove them from the unit,” General Hanan Gefen said on Friday.
SEPT. 2, 2014
The territorial gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have provoked fears — as well as tentative news reports — that archaeological sites in those countries are being attacked and looted, much as sites in Iraq were at the outset of the second Iraq war.
We have recently returned from southern Turkey, where we were training Syrian activists and museum staff preservationists to document and protect their country’s cultural heritage. That heritage includes remains from the ancient Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods, along with some of the earliest examples of writing and some of the best examples of Hellenistic, Roman and Christian mosaics.
In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. (Our contacts and sources, whom we cannot name out of concern for their safety, continue their work under the most dangerous of conditions.)
ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites. Rather, its involvement is financial. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.
The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay the state treasury a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.
The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.
The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along the Euphrates River, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.
In addition to the looting, ISIS seems to be encouraging the clandestine export of archaeological finds, which is primarily centered on the border crossing from Syria into Turkey near Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold. There is reason to suspect that ISIS has approved and encourages the transborder antiquities trade. In institutionalizing this system, which provides ISIS with one of its many diversified income streams, ISIS has caused irreparable damage to Syria’s cultural heritage.
Stopping this illicit trade is imperative not only because it is a source of income for a terrorist organization, but also because it jeopardizes the possibility of post-conflict stabilization and reconciliation. In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. Syrians live in ancient cities and neighborhoods, pray in historic mosques and churches and shop in centuries-old bazaars. If and when the fighting stops, this heritage will be critical in helping the people of Syria reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines.
Numerous local and international organizations such as The Syria Campaign are advocating for the United Nations Security Council to ban the trade in undocumented and most likely recently looted antiquities. The success of such a resolution could become the most effective means available to save Syria’s past.
And saving Syria’s past is about saving Syria’s future.
Amr Al-Azm is an associate professor of anthropology and Middle Eastern history at Shawnee State University. Salam al-Kuntar is a lecturer of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Brian I. Daniels is the director of research and programs of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Thousands of young refugees are missing out on school to support families left destitute after fleeing the fighting in Syria
Counting in Arabic, Hamza is carefully stacking freshly-baked flatbreads on the shop counter. It is a Saturday afternoon in the southern Turkish town of Antakya, blisteringly hot. The seven-year-old boy has been working in the small bakery ever since his family of five fled from Aleppo in Syria.
“I really want to go to school, I like school,” he says, now balancing a basket full of firewood. “But my mother won’t enrol me. She says we need the money to eat.”
The oldest of three siblings, Hamza works six days a week, often up to 12 hours a day, to support his family. His mother begs on the street. “My father is hurt and cannot find work here,” he says. “Life in Turkey is very expensive.”
His two child colleagues, brothers from Hama, are 12 and 13. Both have been working in the bakery ever since they came to Turkey more than six months ago. “I would rather go to school,” said 12-year-old Nasir.
The rent for the two rooms they share with 23 family members is 750 Turkish lira (£209) a month. “We need to contribute to the family income,” says Nasir.
According to the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), about half the million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey are children. Whereas more than 60% of children in refugee camps are enrolled in school, 73% of those outside the camps – the overwhelming majority of refugees – do not go to school. A recent Unicef report estimates that one in 10 Syrian refugee children is working – in agriculture, restaurants and shops, as mobile vendors or begging on the street.
“There is a massive increase in child labour here. It didn’t used to be that way. The authorities try to fight against it, but in many cases families have little choice,” said a Turkish human rights activist who wished to remain anonymous.
Almost 900,000 children are estimated to be working in Turkey, around 300,000 of them between the ages of six and 14, according to official figures. The legal working age is 15. Hakan Acar, a children’s rights expert from Kocaeli University, underlined that the real numbers were probably much higher: “Children working on the streets are not included in these statistics, for example – children selling water, tissues or those who are begging.”
As refugees from Syria do not receive work permits in Turkey, underage Syrian workers are not being recorded at all. “It makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse,” warned Acar. “Syrian women and children are probably amongst the most vulnerable groups in Turkey right now.”
In Kilis, a town where there are now more Syrians than local residents, child labour has soared.
Samir, 12, from Aleppo, fled to Turkey two years ago with six siblings, his mother, father and his aunt, all of whom share one small flat. He has not attended school since. In order to support his family he worked at a butcher’s for a year, and he started a job in a shoe shop in the city centre in March. Samir works seven days a week, from 8am until nightfall, earning 35 TL a week – a small fraction of the legal minimum wage.
The employer, a Turk who has owned the shop for 29 years, says that business has been booming since the Syrians came, and that Samir is a diligent worker.
Acar criticises the authorities for failing to tackle child exploitation and punish offenders: “There are too few labour inspectors, no clear procedures for what to do about child labour. Workplaces that employ children are rarely penalised.”
Muhannad al-Nader, a Syrian political activist involved in child protection in Gaziantep, explains that desperation may make refugee families complicit: “Many families might hide the fact that their children are working, because they are afraid that humanitarian organisations might reduce the aid if they find out about it.”
The lack of schools outside of refugee camps in Turkey adds to the problem of increasing child labour among the Syrians, he adds: “Schools are overcrowded. Privately-funded schools are sometimes too expensive. Many children who should continue their education thus end up working.”
While the large majority of child workers from Syria are boys, a growing number of girls can also be found working in shops, private homes and in the fields.
Aisha, 12, from Azaz, and Hatice, 13, from Aleppo, have been in Turkey for two and a half years. Both work in a clothes shop in Kilis. Hatice, who works six days a week for 50 TL, says that she dropped out of school to help her family and because the Syrian school she attended in Turkey was bad.
“In Syria I liked going to school, but here the teachers were not good, it wasn’t nice. My favourite subject was geography, but here, I didn’t learn anything.” All of her three siblings work, including her younger brother, who is nine and works at a barber’s shop.
Ridwan, 12, from Aleppo, sells biscuits from a mobile tray together with his younger brother Mahmud, 8, on the streets of Kilis, earning around 12 TL a day. His feet are covered in bloody blisters caused by ill-fitting sandals. “In Syria, my favourite subject was maths. I would love to be a doctor for children when I grow up.”
Together with his mother, Muntaha, his seven siblings and another family of eight, Ridwan lives in a small depot without hot water. His father was killed in a bombing raid on Aleppo. One corner, separated from the rest of the small, unplastered space by an old blanket, serves as both the kitchen and the bathroom. They have to pay 200 TL in rent.
“Six of my children went to school in Syria,” Muntaha explains. “How is Ridwan ever going to become a doctor? All my children were so good in school in Syria. This situation makes me very sad as a mother.”
Ahmed, 10, whose family fled their Turkoman village six months ago after an Islamic State (Isis) attack, says that he misses going to school. He is the eldest of eight children, and now works at a Syrian restaurant in Gaziantep, often up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for 40 TL. In the three months he has been working, he had one free day, which he spent playing football with his cousins in a nearby park.
“I want to go to school again, and learn,” he says. “I don’t want Bashar [al-Assad], I don’t want Isis, and I don’t want the Free Syrian Army. I don’t care about them. All I want is peace, and my Syria back.”
*Some names have been changed