Besieged, Twice-Over: Activists Push for Airdrops in Deir Ezzor

This piece originally appeared on Warscapes here.

The horror of siege is that it is a manufactured famine, and its miseries are anticipated and slow to manifest. The United Nations, along with other humanitarian agencies, can see the disaster start to mount, but respond only after so many people die of starvation. And even then, response isn’t guaranteed. In Madaya, the small resort town controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and besieged by Hezbollah (a regime paramilitary force in Syria), the UN responded only after images of emaciated children were pushed into mainstream Western media by dedicated activists. Had activists not been able to document and talk about what was happening, it was unlikely aid actors would have even attempted to enter Madaya.

Regardless of whether a population is able to raise awareness of its own plight, the UN and International Syria Support Group need to prioritize breaking the sieges in Syria. Putting the onus on a besieged population to publicize its own starvation in hopes of receiving relief is immoral and damages the integrity of the system.

A look at Siege Watch shows the extent and severity of siege across Syria. An estimated 1 million Syrians are currently living under siege, 900,000 of whom are victims of pro-government forces. An area may be besieged by one actor, controlled by another actor, and the combination of both decides what degrees of freedom the population has. FSA-controlled areas under siege typically still have freedom of speech, which is how Madaya was brought into the international spotlight this past January when it reached a critical starvation point. In contrast, areas under ISIS, Regime, Jabhat al Nusra, and Jaish al Islam control all face varying degrees of restriction on freedom of speech. The regime routinely barrel bombs areas it besieges.

Deir Ezzor: Siege within a siege

By far the most restrictive sieges are those enforced by ISIS or the Assad regime. The eastern city of Deir Ezzor, home to 220,000 people, is besieged by both. Up till 2014 the majority of Deir Ezzor was controlled by the FSA. Then in July of that year ISIS entered the area and kicked FSA forces out, allowing the regime to move in and control most of the city with ISIS controlling the surrounding areas. By August 2014 most of civil society had been forced into exile due to the danger posed by both Assad and ISIS.

Then began a 6-month cooperative period between the regime and ISIS, where the regime would send its petroleum engineers to work on ISIS-controlled oilfields.

“Before the siege started, there was a deal between the regime and ISIS. The regime is getting aid through trucks, they’re getting food, they’re getting oil and gas and whatever, but they’re giving salaries of petroleum engineers who are working in the oil fields. I have some friends who were there. The oil fields were under control of ISIS. ISIS didn’t have the ability to control oil fields. So all the engineers were from the regime side,” says Karam Alhamad, civil society activist from Deir Ezzor, currently in exile.

Then on January 25th, 2015, ISIS sealed off the perimeter of the city and prevented goods from going in. On March 23rd, the regime began to restrict access to aid and control civilian mobility within the city. Clashes between the regime and ISIS have been ongoing since then, with US Coalition strikes targeting ISIS. Before partially withdrawing its troops, Russian planes flew over Deir Ezzor, airdropping supplies to the regime. Both these actors have killed non-combatants in the process. Civilians describe this situation as a “siege within a siege,” making Deir Ezzor one of the more difficult places to live in.

With siege came a rise in prices. Since January, the exchange rate in Deir Ezzor is 1USD to 390 SP.  Sugar and rice, both normally costing around 200 SP each, now cost 4,500 and 3,000 respectively, according to Nashwan Alsaleh, former math teacher and activist from Deir Ezzor.

“To buy chicken would cost half a month’s salary,” Karam describes. “People are selling everything just to leave—their cars, their house. It’s more expensive to get to Raqqa from Deir Ezzor than to go to Germany from Syria.”

Back in January, Nashwan Saleh along with Moaz Talab, a member of the Deir Ezzor Civil Council, met with UNOCHA regional coordinator Kevin Kennedy to relay information about Deir Ezzor and the details of the siege.

“We told him about the siege and we gave him information he didn’t know, which is that the regime is part of the siege and is the first benefactor of the siege,” explained Moaz. “What we wanted was an air bridge for aid to the city because the regime is still able to feed its soldiers and send them weapons through airplanes.”

The airport in Deir Ezzor is still under regime control, and helicopters land and depart there daily. Residents report how the regime, along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, restrict access to aid and often sell aid at inflated prices. Though the UN operates in Syria under the consent of the regime, it has been unsuccessful in breaking any sieges. Linda Tom, a spokesperson with the UN, responded to queries on Deir Ezzor: “While airdrops help with the delivery of assistance, they do not provide the sustained access that humanitarian actors need to be able to conduct needs assessments, oversee distribution, provide medical treatment and conduct evacuations.”

Airdrops

In late February, the UN attempted one unsuccessful food drop into Deir Ezzor. Citing changing winds, the UN reported that pallets missed their target and were either damaged or missing.

This week, Siege Watch reported a successful aid drop to Deir Ezzor. “According to the World Food Programme, 22 out of the 26 food pallets were collected by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent,” said Marjolein Wijninckx, Syria Program Manager for PAX, one of the organizations collaborating on Siege Watch. “However, there is a lack of clarity about how the aid is stored and distributed. This underscores the need to independently monitor the distribution of aid to ensure aid reaches those in need.”

Going forward, the UN and parties associated with the Geneva talks need to prioritize lifting the sieges across Syria. Considering that UNSC members are flying over the country and dropping bombs, but are hesitant to drop food, it’s the least they can do.

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Syrian Protest Blooms During Lull in Bombings

This piece originally appeared on Warscapes here.

In the five years since the Syrian Revolution began, the country has endured a multi-faceted conflict and a massive humanitarian crisis. Peaceful public demonstrations in Syria initially carried on but later declined after the Assad regime’s increased use of barrel bombs and indiscriminate air strikes on civilians in 2012. In September 2014, the US International Air Coalition against ISIS began flying over Syrian airspace, consequently killing hundreds of civilians in their attacks on ISIS. A year later, Russia began flying over Syria in an effort to “combat ISIS terrorists,” though reports largely indicate Russia attacking schools, hospitals, and Aleppo, where ISIS is not present. Though demonstrations continued, the presence of the Syrian nonviolent movement was mostly pushed into private and digital-public spaces in order to remain alive. Many activists had to make the journey across Syria’s borders for the chance to continue working publicly, joining the refugee crisis that has politicized the West. Others, bound by the walls of siege, continued their work within Syria.

Meanwhile, seven UNSC resolutions on Syria regarding the use of barrel bombs, starvation sieges, political prisoners, chemical weapons, and access to humanitarian aid began to pile up, unenforced. The eighth one, resolution 2254, was adopted on December 18th, 2015, stating that the implementation of a ceasefire is necessarily linked to a Syrian-led political transition that reflects the aspirations of the Syrian people, as referenced in the 2012 Geneva communique. The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) then came out with terms for the ceasefire called “Cessation of Hostilities in Syria,” which were adopted on February 22nd, 2016 by the ISSG’s co-chairs, the United States and Russia.

The goals of this document are four-fold: to implement the Munich Statement from Feb. 11th, to implement UNSC resolution 2254, to implement the 2015 Vienna statements, and to implement the 2012 Geneva Communique. The terms of ceasefire apply to the Syrian regime and its supporting militaries (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah) and the Syrian armed opposition. The ceasefire explicitly excludes military or paramilitary activities against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other UN-designated terrorist organizations. The actual terms for both the Syrian regime and its supporting militaries and the Syrian armed opposition are almost identical, except that the Syrian regime is prohibited from using barrel bombs and performing other aerial military operations. To enforce the terms, the ISSG set up a Ceasefire Taskforce co-chaired by the United States and Russia, who are responsible for four points: delineating territory held by Daesh, Nusra, and other terrorists, ensuring communications among all parties, resolving allegations of non-compliance, and referring persistent non-compliant behavior for action.

The ceasefire went into effect at midnight in Damascus on February 27th, 2016.

And then, the sound of birds singing, as one member of the Syria Civil Defence reported. And with an official ceasefire calming the usual torrent of aerial attacks to a drizzle, protests bloomed across the country in the form of white banners from the south in Daraa to the suburbs of Homs and Damascus, across the entire province of Idleb, to the ancient city of Aleppo. Syrians danced at World Heritage sites, showed up with their posters, and chanted in unison calling for the removal of the Assad regime and justice for the entire country. Each weekly protest in the Syrian revolution was given a theme, chosen by popular vote. This past week’s theme was: “The Revolution Continues.”

104 peaceful protests were reportedly recorded across the country within a week that the ceasefire took effect, and are currently being archived. Some were from besieged areas, like this photo (posted by prominent Syrian human rights activist Marcell Shehwaro on her Facebook) from besieged Saqba showing a man holding a sign that says “Revolution is an idea, and ideas cannot be killed.”

Other photos came from Maarat Nouman, an area that has had its hospitals, schools, and bakeries destroyed by airstrikes from Syrian and Russian warplanes. Last March after the UNSC passed resolution 2209 condemning the use of weaponized chlorine in Syria, Maarat Nouman was one of the places repeatedly hit by chlorine-filled barrel bombs.

A year later, Maarat Nouman is now the congregating point for a demonstration that represents the entire province of Idleb. An English-language banner reads, “A Ceasefire Is a Ceasefire; Our Peaceful Revolution is Still in Progress Until Toppling Assad and Imposing Justice All Over Syria.”

And in besieged Douma, journalist and activist Firas Abdullah uploaded this video from their demonstration that day, which shows Abdallah speaking to the camera in English. “We are here to confirm the principles our revolution, the Syrian Revolution: freedom and justice and dignity. We will never give up as far as we can still breathe,” Abdallah says.

And another powerful poster from Aleppo shows a list of years crossed out on a poster board, with “And we still want freedom” written in Arabic at the bottom.

The following week’s protests started out in besieged Daraya, with calls from civilians to oust Assad in order to break the siege. One smiling girl holds a sign that says, “Get rid of Bashar to get rid of the siege,” while a video from that protest shows civilians making a human sign that says “SOS.”

Friday, March 11th’s demonstrations were held under the theme “Renewing Our Vows.”

Aleppo, beiseged Waer, Saqba, Talbisieh, Kafr Dryan, Rastan, Dumayr, Jabal Zawaiyah, Zabadani, Saraqeb, and Doumawere just some of the places to participate.

One notable point about the protests thus far are the clashes between pro Revolution demonstrations and Al Nusra fighters. Today a video was released on youtube of a pro revolution protest in Maarat Nouman as a group of Nusra fighters tried to overtake the demonstration. Instead, revolutionaries chanted loudly to drown out Al Nusra. “One One One, the Syrian People Are One!”

Violations

As for compliance with the ceasefire, monitors have already reported violations within the first 24 hours. The ISSG’s own violations hotline has come under criticism for hiring operators who are not fluent in Arabic and has yet to make a statement on breaches of the ceasefire.

Some of these violations include multiple accounts of regime shelling, attacks on residential towns with machine guns, and the taking of political prisoners, while ISSG co-chair Russia reportedly carried out aerial attacks, including shelling the town of Hama. The Syrian armed opposition has attacked a regime base in Daraa and launched rockets into a neighborhood in Aleppo.

Looking at this ceasefire, there is reason to be skeptical of the means by which the ISSG plans to ensure compliance. For example, despite reports of violations from Russia, the ISSG has yet to report an official violation. The integrity of the Ceasefire Taskforce is in question because of its fox-guarding-the-henhouse model: it’s unlikely that Russia will actually concede to its own air force violating the ceasefire terms that it mapped out.

What is more remarkable, however, is Syria’s civil society, who are deeply politicized bodies in a theater that is more able to recognize and respond to privately armed terrorist groups than it is to state-sanctioned extermination and war crimes. They are a central part of the conflict and a resolution cannot be achieved without meeting their demands—not only as a matter of principle, but as a matter of practical implementation. Until then, the revolution continues.

The Trouble with Bernie Sanders’ Syria Policy (From a Bernie Voter)

BernieSandersAn entire generation of Americans are excited for Bernie Sanders’ platform based heavily on economic justice, and I am too. However, as a Syrian American and supporter of human rights and social justice in the Middle East, his vision for America’s role in Syria terrifies me. The Senator uses recycled Iraq war talking points to present an isolationist platform for the Middle East. In essence, his foreign policy is a mashup of all the misconceptions about the Middle East, Syria, and what it means to fight terrorism. So far, the Senator hasn’t responded to requests from Syrian Americans to meet with him. It’s ill-fated to believe a good domestic policy is more important than a good foreign policy: we need both.

When discussing these issues, the Senator consistently uses his vote against the illegal US invasion of Iraq to segue into his views on Syria, implying that we should take the lessons learned in Iraq and apply them to Syria despite the fact that 2003 Iraq and 2011 Syria represent two different eras in the Middle East. In 2003, America was still reeling from Al Qaeda’s attack on the twin towers and the Middle East region was still living under stable dictatorships; we invaded Iraq under two main false pretenses: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that we need to establish a democracy based on our terms. Contrast this with 2011 Syria, when a popular movement led by all members of Syrian society called for reforms under their own image of democracy. Soon after the Assad regime began its crackdown, it began using weapons of mass destruction in the form of barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians.

According to Human Rights Watch, the three criteria to justify humanitarian intervention are:

1) If the people experience imminent threat of harm or genocide by their government.

2) If diplomatic options have been exhausted.

3) If the people ask for assistance from the international community.

Syria meets all these criteria: There are hundreds of reports detailing the systemic and ongoing violence against Syrians by the Assad regime. After multiple failed UNSC resolutions and a clear call from Syrians for a No Fly Zone, it follows that we need a Syria policy which addresses the Assad regime and ISIS with consent from Syrian civil society, who are the natural peace builders in the country.

Consent from Syrian civil society cannot be underscored enough for a truly progressive and just American foreign policy. The best way Americans can practice social justice on an international scale is to get consent from civil society for our military actions. Historically, nation-states never get consent from local populations when performing military actions; this is because most military actions are not based on moral grounds. It’s entirely possible for the United States to proceed with Syria policy that has consent fromSyrian civil society because the Syrian actors have worked hard to organize this call and take it to Western governments.

Currently, Senator Sanders wants to work with Bashar al Assad to stabilize Syria and fight ISIS. He shows he is not listening to Syrian civil society when he says that America will not send boots on the ground to Syria — this is irrelevant, because Syrians have never requested foreign boots on the ground from the international community.

Bernie Sanders strength comes from listening to the average American and fighting for the working class. He should follow the same strategy with Syria and listen to Syrian civil society when it comes to creating our foreign policy because it is the most consistent way to remain true to our values and keep up with a changing political landscape in the Middle East.

Why Americans Must Change the Conversation About Syria

This piece originally appeared on Warscapes magazine here.

 

This past week, Al Jazeera Plus uploaded a video on Facebook featuring producers Sana Saeed and Tarek Abu-Esber entitled “Is the US at war with Syria?” Their conversation, taking place over the board game “RISK,” is representative of a larger American discourse that completely misses the point on the power dynamics happening in and over Syria. Syria is not a question of “which states are at war with each other,” but rather a question of “in a world where states have hegemonic power, can a revolution be successful without adequate international support?” In fact, no states have directly declared war on each other as a result of the current situation in Syria, despite many parties being involved in military operations.

Perhaps the most startling thing about the AJ+ video is how Sana and Tarek, as Western civilians, engage in a discussion that is completely out of sync with the conversation taking place between Syrian civilians about US involvement. Syrians know that the US is not at war with Syria just by looking up at the sky, which is filled with a criss-cross of Assad regime aircraft and US-led coalition aircraft that never skirmish. They see US support of the opposition forces as consistently inadequate, and indicative of a “bleeding out” policy. When Americans position the United States as a primary aggressor in the Syrian conflict and frame the conversation exclusively within the logic of US imperialism and the War on Terror, they’re proliferating a narrative that doesn’t apply to the Syrian civilian. This framing is dangerous, erasing the Syrian context by homogenizing its conflict with the illegal US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. This leaves little room to consider the popular anti-dictatorship movement that gave rise to the conflict.

To understand the structures of violence operating in Syria today, the conversation should place the Syrian civil society activist at its center and map out culpable parties based on their responsibility to safeguard the inherent dignity of the civilian. This “civilian-centered approach” immediately places the Syrian regime as the primary actor culpable in creating and perpetuating violence within the state. All other actors, therefore, commit violence in Syria in relation to the Syrian regime.

The Main Conflict: Regime vs. Citizens

In the international system of governance where states have hegemonic power, it is the state that has direct responsibility in ensuring the inherent dignity of its citizens is upheld. Therefore, to the Syrian citizen, it is the Syrian state that is directly responsible for its well-being. The Syrian state is governed by the Assad regime, which has a direct monopoly on state infrastructure.

Syria as a state is governed by the Assad regime under illegitimate State of Emergency Law, repressing public and private liberty for 40 years. While the Assad regime signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, they violate the legal guidelines for state of emergency law to blatant extremes. The regime didn’t just practice torture (prohibited in Article 7)—it was notorious for it. The regime didn’t just restrict freedom of speech (prohibited in Article 18)—it had a program designed to monitor a civilian in their public and private life. The regime didn’t just punish criminals without precise terms (prohibited in Article 15)—it punished civilians indefinitely without charge of crimes.

The most visible example of Syrian regime brutality can be seen in the 1982 Hama Massacre, where the military cracked down on political organizers and killed between 10,000-40,000 people in the span of a month. While the exact casualty number is unknown, Syrians describe the event as “an entire generation of young people wiped out.”

Systemic brutality can also be seen in the Syrian policing and prison system. Despite being branded as a socialist state, all political groups, including leftist groups, were outlawed in Syria and suspected members were picked up and imprisoned. People were routinely imprisoned without charge and incarcerated for years to decades. Syrian state prison torture cannot be underscored enough for its brutality—documents, reports, testimonies, and an entire genre of “prison literature” all detail “unique” and “innovative” torture techniques inflicted on civilians. So infamous are these techniques that the CIA torture report released last December revealed the United States sent detainees to Syria for torture via rendition. In thewords of former CIA agent Robert Baer: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.”

Outside of prison, government agents repressed freedom of speech through the mukhabarat program, an insidious method of secret policing aimed at bending public and private behavior of the civilian to conform to the regime’s will. The goal of the Syrian regime wasn’t to wholeheartedly brainwash citizens, but rather to coerce them into behaving “as if” they believed in the regime, making them aware of their submission through regurgitated illusions.

These attributes of the regime lead Syrians to join the anti-dictatorship protests that swept parts of the MENA region in 2011, actions that initially appeared to garner international support. When civilians came together and, from their coalescence, the popular anti-dictatorship protests emerged in 2011, the regime declared war on them. Marchers and protestors were met with military police, neighborhoods were destroyed by tanks and others later placed under siege, and finally in 2012, the regime began dropping bombs on predominantly civilian areas. These bombs are commonly filled with TNT, shrapnel, or chemical weapons. Syrian and international monitoring groups agree that the Syrian regime isn’t just attacking armed militias—the regime deliberately targets civilians and civilian infrastructure. Pertinent examples are barrel bombs, which have a 95-97% civilian casualty rate and have claimed well over 12,000 lives so far, the “starve and siege” policies entrapping 600,000 civilians, the deliberate attack on medical workers and hospitals by the Syrian government, as documented by Physicians for Human Rights, and the Syrian torture photos released by a military defector which document 11,000 people tortured to death in Syrian prisons during the war. As scholar Kheder Khaddour writes, the regime targets civilians and civilian infrastructure to strengthen its monopoly on state infrastructure and destroy all other options where self-governance can emerge.

Iran and the United States: States complicit with the Syrian Regime

After establishing that the Syrian regime is at war with Syrian civilians, how do we understand the actions of other states? Are any of them, as Sana and Tarek asked in the beginning of their conversation, at war with Syria?

The answer is, no. No international state has directly challenged the Syrian regime militarily, except Turkey on minor occasions in self-defense. This is because the original conflict is between the Syrian regime and Syrian civilians—all other state and non-state actors are fighting in Syria to protect their own political interests, and commit violence within the country in relation to the Syrian regime.

Iran is directly complicit with the actions of the Syrian regime, providing financial and military support that is responsible for propping up Assad. According to a report by the Iranian monitoring group Naame Shaam, Iran became involved in the Syrian uprising in 2011 to protect its ally Bashar al-Assad and secure their arms shipment route to Hezbollah. Iran established the National Defense Force in Syria, which was responsible for repressing civilian protests throughout 2011, and is still active in policing civilians. The Iranian regime is operating as an occupying power in Syria today—General Qassem Soleimani, the commander-in-chief of Sepah Qods (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign operations arm), is the military head of Iran in Syria. Iranian flags are commonly seen flying over regime-occupied areas of Syria, and last week Ahrar al Sham, a group loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was negotiating with Iran to end the regime and Hezbollah’s joint assault on Zabadani. Negotiations fell apart because Iran insisted on a full evacuation of Zabadani, but residents refused to leave.

Though it appears the United States is in direct opposition to the Syrian regime, this is not true. The Obama Administration has been consistent in publicly condemning the regime and avoiding any action to check their power. America avoided military confrontation with the Assad regime despite their history of direct violence against civilians. This history includes the deployment of chemical weapons, outlawed by multiple UNSC resolutions on Syria. Some of these resolutions even allow for the use of military measures against the regime if violated, but no effort has been made to pursue that route from the United States on the Security Council. After ISIS swept across Iraq, executing scores of citizens, religious minorities, journalists, and proliferating videos of the carnage across global media, the Obama Administration was pressured to respond and created the US air coalition to halt their advance. The coalition included assets from Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This force entered Syrian airspace in September 2014, with tacit understanding between the Syrian regime and coalition governments that the latter would not interfere with regime air operations. This commitment to non-confrontation from the United States is further seen in recent headlines concerning a Turkey-US safe zone in northern Syria. In an awkward dance, Turkey declared that the safe zone would include protections from regime bombs, but this declaration was immediately followed by the United States denying such protections. Bearing this in mind, the US air coalition has killed hundreds of civilians in their operations against ISIS, according to a report by independent monitoring group Airwars.

A big question concerning Americans, which Sana Saeed brought up in the AJ+ video, is how US action in Syria fits in with our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria is not an extension of our legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but involvement over the country is an indication of a clear shift in how the US assigns culpability towards states harboring terrorist groups. Pre-9/11, states were deemed to be terror supporters by the US if they condoned attacks by non-state actors and clearly expressed that such attacks aligned with state interests. In the post-9/11 era, the Bush Administration lowered the standard for culpability by erasing the distinction between state and privately armed terrorist groups. This interpretation was used to justify the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama Administration, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to not confront states that harbor terrorists. This interpretative shift can be seen as a largely good thing, except in an extreme case like Syria, where the Assad regime can continue waging war on civilians alongside the US air coalition’s anti-terrorism mission against ISIS.

Mainstream Discussions on Syria Must Center the Civilian

While there is still much left to be discussed about the role of other states and privately armed group’s military operations in Syria, it’s important to center our conversations around civilian needs, realities, and requests. The repercussions of failing to do so can already be seen in mainstream conversations on Syria: confusion about how Syria fits in with America’s legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan led to the “Hands off Syria” movement, refugees fleeing to Europe are simply labeled as “migrants,” and daily casualties from regime bombings have yet to stoke mass public outrage. Centering our understanding of Syria from the viewpoint of civil society activists recognizes them as the most valuable actors in the conflict and builds a narrative that represents and reaffirms their struggle. Most people, for example, are unaware that the Syrian Civil Defense, a neutral, non-partisan first responder group, has worked tirelessly for over two years to save lives and advocate for the end to bombs within their country. Through a civilian lens, we can make sense of power dynamics and structures of violence “from the ground up,” and position our discourse and advocacy around their needs.

Syrian Refugees Are Not A Terror Threat

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America here.

As the first wave of Syrian refugees settle into new homes in the United States, the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R-Texas) has been raising fears that people who have fled political violence are a threat to America.

“I think this would be a huge mistake if we bring [Syrian refugees] into the United States that could potentially be radicalized,” he said. “I am worried that [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)] could exploit this effort in order to deploy operatives to America via a federally funded jihadi pipeline.”

McCaul’s efforts to curtail the refugee resettlement program are part of a larger trend in Western countries that is exacerbating the Syrian refugee crisis by using anti-immigrant, Islamophobic sentiment to avoid resettlement responsibilities. In recent years, the program has raised its security standards and is considered successful by resettlement professionals.

The most vulnerable

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) takes measures to prevent exploitation of the program; if it didn’t, member states would not want to participate in resettlement. And every year, the United States admits 70,000 refugees for resettlement from conflict zones around the world. It admitted 132 Syrians last year — a drop in the bucket — but Houston-based UNHCR representative Alia Khatar-Williams told me UNHCR has referred 12,000 Syrian cases to the United States to over the next several years.

Before referral to the United States, refugees must pass through multiple in-depth and in-person interviews. Resettlement is an exclusionary process, meaning any discrepancy or perceived security risk warrants disqualifying a refugee from moving forward.

After referral from the UNHCR, cases are transferred to the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration where refugees begin the second phase of screenings. The process includes a series of in-depth interviews by well-trained Homeland Security officers, who cross-reference multiple databases as they perform biographic and biometric investigations on candidates. Interagency cooperation between the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other partners in the national intelligence community are essential to make sure that the U.S. refugee resettlement and asylum programs are secure.

“The Department of Homeland Security has significantly strengthened and enhanced its existing security check process for refugees in recent years,” says Stacie Blake, Director of Government and Community Relations at the United States Center for Refugees and Immigration, “They have never been stronger.”

The UNHCR actively seeks out the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement. After four years of massacres and barrel bombings, 3.9 million Syrians have registered with the agency.

The vast majority of ISIL members are foreign fighters who are oppressing hundreds of thousands of Syrians and creating thousands of refugees.

“We’re talking about people who have been tortured, about children who have not been able to attend school for four years, and about women who have been living not even in refugee camps but in urban settings in abject poverty without adequate water, blankets or heat in the winter,” Blake says, on the incoming Syrian refugees.

Syrians leading the fight

To imply that Syrians are indistinguishable from ISIL also ignores the fact that both Syrians and Syrian Americans were the first to warn against the rise of ISIL and currently lead the battle against this militant group.

In 2013, Syrian activists warned the international community against the rise of militant extremist groups after requests for protection from the Bashar al-Assad regime’s massacres were ignored. In January 2014, seven months before American air strikes were launched against ISIL, Syrian civilians in opposition areas launched a protest movement and armed rebellion against ISIL in northern Syria. In fact, the armed Syrian opposition is one of the few groups fighting and winning battles against ISIL on the ground. Stateside, the Syrian American Council, a national organization with 22 chapters across the country, called for airstrikes against ISIL seven months before the U.S. air campaign began over Syrian airspace. What’s more, the vast majority of members of ISIL are not even Syrian but foreign fighters who are oppressing hundreds of thousands of Syrians living under its rule and creating thousands of these very refugees.

It’s also important to note that the Syrian American community is leading humanitarian relief and development efforts for vulnerable Syrians abroad, preventing people from defecting to ISIL out of desperation for the financial assistance they offer. Twelve million Syrians inside Syria are in dire need of aid, making humanitarian relief and development essential in the fight against ISIL.

My organization, the Houston chapter of the Syrian American Council, took Syrian American constituents to meet with McCaul’s office in Katy, Texas, in January. We shared our anti-Assad and anti-ISIL sentiments and went on to explain how some members of the delegation initially came to America as refugees and ended up running successful businesses in Texas.

His office responded by saying that they would log our comments and complaints and thanked us for coming. We later reached out to meet with his office to discuss the Congressman’s concerns on incoming Syrian refugees, but have not heard back after multiple follow-ups.

In June, the Syrian American Council came together for town hall meetings with the Secretary of Homeland Security to discuss, among other things, the efforts of Syrian Americans in working with DHS against extremist groups such as ISIL and al-Qaeda. McCaul’s fear of “potential radicalization” of Syrian refugees is unwarranted considering that refugees will integrate into a Syrian American community with a record of pro-democracy, human rights, and anti-terrorism initiatives.

Islamophobic stance

In the midst of a global refugee crisis, McCaul’s attack on the resettlement program is part of an Islamophobic anti-immigration stance adopted by right-wing politicians in several Western countries. The United Kingdom, for example, has committed to resettling less than 1,000 Syrians and has only resettled about 187 families so far, despite calls from the UN for rich countries to take in more.

There are two countries leading the resettlement effort: Germany and Sweden have pledged to take in 30,000 and 2,700 refugees respectively, with Sweden implementing an “open-door” policy to Syrians beyond the UNHCR referrals. In opposition to this policy, anti-immigration Swedish Democrats have gained seats in parliament.

Considering that ISIL is made up of over 25,000 international fighters, many from Western countries, who have gone to wreak havoc in Syria, it is necessary for rich nations to open the door and welcome refugees looking to escape the chaos. Those who have fled the violence in Syria want, arguably more than anyone else, a world free from extremism.

Open Letter to UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura on ISIS entering Yarmouk, April 2015

Below is a letter I organized in response to ISIS entering Yarmouk camp in April 2015. The decision to create the letter was taken after touching base with Palestinian League for Human Rights, a Syrian-Palestinian human rights monitoring group, and was hand delivered to de Mistura by SAC National.

The Coalition for a Democratic Syria (Syrian Emergency Task Force, United for Free Syria, the American Syriac Union, Syrian American Council, Syrian Christians for Peace, the Assyrian Democratic Union and the Association of Free Syrians), the Syria Campaign, Syria Relief and Development, NuDay Syria, the Karam Foundation, and Watan USA sent the following letter today to United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura with regard to the ongoing siege of theYarmouk refugee camp in Damascus:

Dear Staffan de Mistura,

We are concerned for the well being of 18,000 civilians in Yarmouk, 3,500 of whom are children. For over two years, the Assad regime has enforced a siege on the district, severely limiting food resources within the camp leading to 200 deaths from starvation. Since September of 2014, the regime cut off access to running water in Yarmouk, forcing civilians to plan their day around collecting water for hygiene, consumption, and agriculture. Overall, 2,000 people have died from conflict-related violence in Yarmouk.

The siege has taken a tremendous physical and emotional toll on residents, who cannot escape the pain of their hunger. Lack of medical supplies coupled with regular aerial bombardments exacerbates the humanitarian crisis. Civilians are caught between the cross-fire of regime soldiers and militant groups. On April 1st, ISIS fighters entered through the siege and are currently battling for control of the area with Aknaf Beit al Maqdis.

As the armed clashes go on, multiple barrel bombs rain down on Yarmouk everyday. These bombs target residential and medical buildings, and have caused a mass internal displacement of 4,000 people within the first week of April. The UNRWA, which has a special mandate to service Palestinian refugees, has been unable to provide humanitarian relief for civilians inside the camp, or allow for safe passage for people wishing to leave. In a heroic effort, Palestinian civil society organizations have stepped up to provide humanitarian services, but are severely limited in resources. International aid actors and civil society workers cannot do their job in Yarmouk so long as the Assad regime continues to enforce the siege.

As UN Special Envoy to Syria, it is your mission to bring an end to all violence and human rights violations within the country and achieve a peaceful resolution for the conflict. This can only happen by placing the physical and emotional well-being of civilians at the center of resolution efforts, which is why it’s necessary to respond to the urgent humanitarian crisis facing civilians in Yarmouk.

As per Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014) and 2191 (2014) that call for immediate access to all of Syria’s besieged areas, we are asking you to ensure the immediate lifting of the siege on Yarmouk on humanitarian grounds. In spite of years of grueling violence, the people of Yarmouk have an unyielding will to live and pursue universal joys of life. We must not fail to support them as their brutal siege plays out on the world’s stage.

 

Signed

The Coalition for a Democratic Syria

The Syria Campaign

Syria Relief and Development

NuDay Syria

Karam Foundation

Watan USA

For Syrian Eyes Only: On Syrian Male-Female Dynamics

The following is the text of a speech delivered at the Woman’s Session of the 2015 Road Forward Conference in Washington DC. It’s a hard topic to talk about frankly in public, but knowing the stories of women being told in private I feel the price of silence is too much. 

One woman, who I believe did not understand my speech, told me she walked out of the room during my talk because I sounded like “someone from Fox News.” So here is the deal. This blog post is for Syrian Eyes Only. Anyone from Fox News or anyone who is non-Syrian cannot use my words to further their own agenda without specific written permission from me.


10 minutes is not enough time to cover the variety of women’s experience organizing for Syria. 10 minutes is not enough time to tease apart the social and economic factors that intersect to weigh down women more than men in Syrian circles. 10 minutes is not enough time to explore a detailed alternate vision of how we can make our community more inclusive.

But in the amount of time that it takes to jog a mile, 10 minutes, I will attempt to do all three. And I’m going to tell you right now that I will fail to give the nuance that all three of these topics deserve, and not everyone who needs to hear this message is even in this room. But this conversation needs to be pushed forward and amplified. Consider the next ten minutes a mere warm up for the marathon of work we have ahead of us.

First, I want to be absolutely clear about one thing: women are active participants in the Syrian revolution. They are first responders in Aleppo. They are doctors in underground field hospitals in Homs. They are directors of award winning NGOs in Lebanon. They are intellectual writers. They are artists of every medium. They are high profile advocates. They are the anonymous activists risking their lives to protest in the Revolution.

The points I will discuss today have more to do with male-female dynamics within the Syrian community, that have come from my experience working as a Syrian American organizer in Houston and from my connection with Syrian women around the world.

The truth is, there is a gender divide in our community. Literally. Many of us, myself included, grew up socializing with other Syrians in gender segregated settings, and gender segregation still persists today in many Syrian settings. While this is not the norm for all Syrian socializing, it is certainly a significant experience in our collective memory. The idea of strict gender roles is strongly reinforced in nearly all Syrian socializing and it is these gender roles that are particularly harmful during times of revolution. Men are the economic breadwinners while women are the family nurturers. Women may pursue a career, but only if her number 1 priority, nurturing the family, is maintained. Men may travel far to pursue their careers, but it is better to stay close to home if you’re a woman. There is significant social pressure for women to marry young while at the same time there is social pressure for men to succeed in their careers.

I want to take a second to address the common perception that our gender roles are rooted in biology and are a biological fact.; the truth is gender roles have absolutely no basis in biology. Womanhood and Manhood in Syria and elsewhere is a diverse experience. There is nothing biologically inherent about men that makes them better suited for paid public work or anything biologically inherent about women that makes them better suited to stay away from public life. After a woman bears children, there is nothing in the childbearing process that affects her intellectual capabilities. The only thing that prevents women with children from working is child support at the workplace. Gender roles narrate the type of work we are expected to perform, and our Syrian gender narrative props up the Syrian patriarchy.

I cannot stress enough the detrimental effect of the gender role narrative. Time and time again, through out history and in different cases outside of Syria, we see economic disenfranchisement as the precursor for negative perceptions to emerge towards a group. The most obvious example of this for Syrians is the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon and elsewhere, where disenfranchised Syrians are seen as lesser than and as a nuissance to the locals. Recognizing this relationship between paid work status and negative perceptions, we can then understand how the history of strict gender roles promotes limited perceptions within Syrian society towards Syrian women. In other words, because women are discouraged from actively and aggressively seeking their full career potential, we don’t consider women to be serious players in public life. Whether we like it or not, the paid “work” and the prestige that comes with it, shapes our perceptions of that individual. Taking care of a family is not idleness, it is absolutely work, however it is not paid. There is no money exchange. Unfortunately, money is how we assign value to people. Our social forces work to sequester women outside of the financial market.

Harmful attitudes towards women include:

  1. “women are just stay at home moms who can do all our volunteer work”
  2. “they are just pretty faces and don’t have substanstive ideas to offer”
  3. “they can be talked to in a way “to put them in their place””
  4. “women are inherently lustful objects”
  5. “women are submissive and beneath men, and if a woman outperforms a man that is somehow shameful to the man”
  6. “women are too emotional and not critical thinkers”

Just last night at our dinner, a male Syrian political leader was heard talking down on women showing up to work with painted nails and lipstick, expecting to be taken seriously.

It should be noted that the practice of gender segregation creates sexual tension between men and women, thereby adding to the latter’s perception as a primarily sexual being. Sexual tension and frustration within a society is linked to domestic and gender based violence. Everybody in this room is aware of the rape epidemic primarily affecting Syrian women. Alma Abdurahman, who was a battalion leader in the FSA, is one of the few women to speak publicly on the rape epidemic in Syria, describing horrific sexual abuse and the subsequent difficulty that survivors have reintegrating into society. Women who are rape survivors in Syria have to worry about getting surgery to restore their virginity. We should work to create a society that accepts sexual trauma victims and gives them space to  heal.

During this time of revolution where all our Syrian economy, politics, and social fabric is in a state of flux, our culture of gender segregation and gender roles has not changed fast enough in response to the challenges of war and makes it difficult for women to emerge as leaders in the Syrian revolution, whether here in the diaspora or in Syria. Women who have been socialized within gender segregated spaces are cut off from approaching potential investors (who are usually men) to invest money in their entrepreneurial projects. Women whose husbands have died in the war face difficulty transitioning to into the work force. Women displaced in refugee camps face domestic violence from men, and there are no institutions in place to prevent this. Women who work in international politics and humanitarian relief find themselves working in an “3mo” culture, alongside men who perceive themselves of a higher authority than women.

Many Syrian activists and thinkers have created alternate social spaces that disregard traditional gender roles, and there we see women lead as often as men. The most famous example of this are the Douma4, where Razan, Samira, Wael and Nazem worked together at the Violations Documentation Center outside of Dimashq to document human rights abuses and distribute humanitarian relief. They were kidnapped in December 2013 and have been missing since.

The enforcement of gender roles is in large part why when we look at who has emerged in leadership, the numbers are heavily skewed toward men. This effect is compounded by our culture of honor, which means the opinion of the community at large matters when breaking social norms. Men generally welcome the idea of working alongside women, but often create obstacles for their own female relatives in pursuing social and economic power. Or just as often, men will feel uncomfortable working alongside a woman as an equal because there is a common perception of women as tempting sexual objects. Other stories show men occupying paid positions while women do the free volunteer work under him. There is pressure on men to maintain social status quo due to the honor culture. Women are also apart of reinforcing these standards to uphold the honor system. These stories could fill an entire catalog of the Syrian experience.

So what to do? I have two suggestions.

First, it’s clear that in order to support Syrian women we have to support their economic empowerment. This means supporting women’s development projects like the ones spearheaded by Mouna Hashem and Lina Sergie and Reem Alhaswani

through Watan USA and Karam Foundation and Basma and Zeitouna, respectively. These projects employ women in Reyhanli Turkey, Aleppo Syria, and Shatila Lebanon to sell their artisan goods, providing them with a living.

Also, its clear that our institutions need to create more jobs. Relying on volunteers because they are “stay at home moms” or “young unmarried women” is not acceptable. There is a story where a male board member quit because he said he deserved a salary, and pointed to our female board member to pick up the slack because she’s a “stay at home mom”. Never mind that this woman was holding down a job and caring for a new born baby – she apparently has all the time in the world to take on two board positions.

Furthermore, the jobs we create need to be family friendly, allowing either the mother or the father to take on the job. We have a community of talented men and women, and its in our best interest to create institutions that accommodate both in the work force.

This means, of course, that we have to actually invest money in building up our intuitions. An investment in good institutions is an investment in ourselves.

Second, what should happen to our individual dynamics? First, Men must recognize the Syrian patriarchy and take opportunities to work with, hire, or promote women. If there are unhealthy dynamics, then open and receptive communication can and has worked. For example, at a conference dominated by men, the women were cut off from speaking. This was pointed out to the male organizer, and he issued a sincere public apology. These types of open and receptive communication channels create an inclusive environment, build trust, and will continue to push us forward. Thank you.