As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East

The Washington Post reports: While the world’s attention is fixed on the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees swarming into Europe, a potentially far more profound crisis is unfolding in the countries of the Middle East that have borne the brunt of the world’s failure to resolve the Syrian war.

Those reaching Europe represent a small percentage of the 4 million Syrians who have fled into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, making Syria the biggest single source of refugees in the world and the worst humanitarian emergency in more than four decades.

As the fighting grinds into a fifth year, the realization is dawning on aid agencies, the countries hosting the refugees and the Syrians themselves that most won’t be going home anytime soon, presenting the international community with a long-term crisis that it is ill-equipped to address and that could prove deeply destabilizing, for the region and the wider world.

The failure is first and foremost one of diplomacy, said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The conflict has left at least 250,000 people dead in the strategic heart of the Middle East and displaced more than 11 million overall, yet there is still no peace process, no discernible solution and no end in sight.

Now, the humanitarian effort is failing, too, ground down by dwindling interest, falling donations and spiraling needs. The United Nations has received less than half the amount it said was needed to care for the refugees over the past four years. Aid is being cut and programs are being suspended at the very moment when those who left Syria in haste, expecting they soon would go home, are running out of savings and wearing out the welcome they initially received.

“It is a tragedy without parallel in the recent past,” Guterres said in an interview, warning that millions could eventually end up without the help they need to stay alive.

“There are many battles being won,” he added. “Unfortunately, the number of battles being lost is more.”

It is a crisis whose true cost has yet to be realized. [Continue reading…]

A Syrian refugee, having reached Europe — where she hopes to find a doctor who can treat her two-year old daughter’s heart condition — told the New York Times: “I want to find somewhere where there are no Arabs. Europeans are better people. The Arabs hurt us a lot.”

Jenan Moussa, who reports for Al Aan TV, highlights the conflicted views on governance that are stifling the region’s political development.

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Smugglers who drove migrants to their deaths were part of a vast web

The Washington Post reports: The smugglers responsible for driving 71 migrants to their deaths in the back of a cramped, unventilated truck in Austria were part of a vast international syndicate that has been a subject of multiple criminal investigations, a leading European law enforcement official said Saturday.

Just four relatively low-level operatives have been arrested in connection with the deaths, which were discovered Thursday when authorities pried open the door to an abandoned truck emitting a noxious odor on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna.

But Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, said in an interview that his organization and national law enforcement agencies were “working urgently” to catch the ringleaders of an operation that epitomizes the rapid expansion and increasing sophistication of human smuggling networks across the continent.

“It was a direct hit in our systems,” said Wainwright, whose agency serves as the law enforcement arm of the 28-member European Union. “We were able to make intelligence connections with many other cases that we’re currently working on across Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Message to the West from ISIS suicide-bombing mastermind: ‘Islam is coming’

Martin Chulov in Baghdad interviews Abu Abdullah, known to his ISIS commanders as “the planner” – the man responsible for dispatching suicide bombers to attack mosques, universities, checkpoints and market places across the Iraqi capital: Throughout the past decade, Iraq’s prisons have been condemned by human rights groups as places where torture is routinely used on security prisoners. Abdullah winced when the guards approached him, and a block and chain sat in a plastic crate near the cell door. He bore no visible physical scars, though, and appeared well nourished – a legacy of what a senior officer said was an order from the government to keep all prisoners fed and in cells with constant electricity and air conditioning.

“Can you imagine that,” the officer sneered. “They have a better life than most people in Baghdad.”

When the guards left the room Abdullah appeared far more at ease, quickly switching from submission to defiance. “What is your message to the west?” he was asked. Abdullah paused briefly, then looked towards the door to see if we were alone. His eyes flashed: “Islam is coming. What the Islamic State has achieved in the past year cannot be undone. The caliphate is a reality.”

Abdullah, whose real name is Ibrahim Ammar Ali al-Khazali, claimed to have been a member of Isis and all of its earlier incarnations since 2004. His path to violent jihad was unorthodox: he was born a Shia Muslim and practised the faith until the late 1990s, when he converted to Sunni Islam and disavowed the teachings of the rival sect.

He said he had been active in the organisation’s earlier years until 2007 when he was shot in the head during a clash with Iraqi forces. Entry and exit scars were obvious near his left ear and he moved slowly, even taking into account the shackles and chains, as if he had lost some of his motor skills.

Whatever his injury, his resolve appeared to harden in recent years. “It was after 2011 that I got busy again,” he said. “I wanted to live in an Islamic state ruled by sharia. I want every thing that [Isis] wants. Their goals are my goals, there is no difference.” [Continue reading…]

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Growth of the new pragmatism in Iran depends on durable sanctions relief

Seyed Hossein Mousavian writes: With the ongoing domestic in-fighting in the United States and Iran over the nuclear deal — which has already become legally binding by way of a U.N. Security Council resolution — it has become clear that Congress poses the biggest risk for the deal falling through. Congress’s ability to play a spoiler role comes not only from the power it has to scuttle the deal altogether but also from its efforts at fostering an uncertain atmosphere regarding the removal of sanctions on Iran.

The effectiveness of the nuclear deal will rely largely on the P5+1 instilling confidence in the global business community that sanctions have been removed and the country is open for business. Truly removing sanctions in a way that would have tangible benefits for Iran would require shaping expectations in such a way that businesses do not feel their investments are precarious and susceptible to the political machinations of Congress or a future U.S. president.

For the deal to be successful, it is critical for Iran to derive real and substantial benefits from sanctions relief. President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has hedged its legacy, and by extension that of pragmatism in Iran, on being able to deliver economic prosperity to Iranians. The nuclear deal and normalizing Iran’s relations with the West have been viewed as the critical ingredient to accomplishing this goal.

Indeed, the successful conclusion of the nuclear talks has led to the development of a new pragmatism in Iran, personified by prominent decision-makers who have more sober and practical views on foreign and domestic policy. This phenomenon has seen the joining of political figures who hail from historically opposing camps, namely the moderate Rouhani and the principalist speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani. This heretofore unseen alliance is a significant development in Iran’s political landscape and has positioned pragmatism as a palpable political force in Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey carries out first air strikes as part of anti-ISIS US coalition

The Associated Press reports: Turkish fighter jets have carried out their first air strikes as part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria. A Turkish foreign ministry statement said that late on Friday the jets began attacking Isis targets across the border in Syria that were deemed to be threats to Turkey.

After months of hesitation, Turkey agreed last month to take a more active role in the fight against Isis. Turkish jets used smart bombs to attack Isis positions in Syria without crossing into Syrian airspace, and later Turkey granted US jets access to an airbase close to the Syrian border. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi Shia militia ‘Rambo’ mocks strength of ISIS

Middle East Eye reports: A video circulating on social media purportedly shows a renowned Iraqi Shia militiaman standing next to a charred body. The body is hung upside as the militiaman raises his sword and cuts a slice from the corpse of the unidentified dead man. The video has sparked wide debate in Iraq.

The militiaman – who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Azrael (or father of the Angel of Death) but whose real name is Ayoub Faleh Hassan al-Rubaie – claimed in the video that the body belonged to a dead fighter sent by the Islamic State group (IS) to the city of Baiji.

“Those [fighters] were sent by the supposed elites of IS [who boast of their strength] but end up like shawarma,” Abu Azrael said as he cut part of the dead man’s leg.

The video, which could not be independently verified, was shared by fans and critics of Abu Azrael alike.

Towards the end of the video, members of the anti-IS Shia militia – known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) – chanted “Where will you run to? [We will chase you until you are ground and become nothing] but flour.”

The chant, which Abu Azrael said in a separate video that it is derived from Shia religious heritage, has come to serve as a signature battle cry of the PMU against IS.

Abu Azrael has become well-known after he was portrayed by his supporters as a Rambo-like figure in the fight against IS. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. citizen, once held in Egypt’s crackdown, becomes voice for inmates

The New York Times reports: Mohamed Soltan knew he had one thing going for him when the Egyptian police came to his door: He was a United States citizen, raised primarily in Ohio.

It did not mean much in the moment. The police had come looking for his father, Salah Soltan, an outspoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But when they found only Mohamed Soltan and three friends, the police arrested them instead, along with tens of thousands of others thought to be Islamists or liberal dissidents who were rounded up after the military takeover here two years ago.

But his American citizenship helped embolden Mr. Soltan, then 25, to carry out a hunger strike for 16 of his 21 months in prison, shedding more than 160 of the original 272 pounds on his 5-foot-11-inch frame and risking organ failure in the belief that the United States government might come to his aid. [Continue reading…]

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Dark day for press freedom

Al Jazeera reports: Following today’s retrial verdict in Cairo, Al Jazeera Media Network’s Acting Director General Dr Mostefa Souag said: “Today’s verdict defies logic and common sense.

Our colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy will now have to return to prison, and Peter Greste is sentenced in absentia.”

The whole case has been heavily politicised and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner. There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organisations and at no point during the long drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny. [Continue reading…]

Al Jazeera also reports: Egypt’s foreign ministry has summoned the British ambassador over comments he made on a court’s decision to hand down prison sentences for three Al Jazeera journalists, state television has reported.

Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesperson for the ministry, on Sunday tweeted that the ministry objected to John Casson’s comments, calling them “unacceptable intrusion” in the country’s judiciary. [Continue reading…]

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Germany’s embrace of Syrian refugees exposes how little other countries have done

Joyce Karam writes: They’re calling her “Mama Merkel,” sending her love messages on twitter and showing gratitude unseen recently for a Syrian or Arab leader. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel is being celebrated by many Syrians this week, for defying EU rules and showing compassion to a refugee population that’s been let down all too often in the last four years.

With more than four million refugees since 2011 and with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon reaching full capacity in hosting those fleeing the Syrian war, the international community is dragging its feet in the face of the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Discrimination, hate crimes, and sheer catastrophes in the Mediterranean are encountering Syrians escaping on foot or by water to European shores. Barbed wires, and refugee-profiling awaits across the continent while some countries like Poland and Slovakia have made no secret that they would only take Syrian Christian refugees.

Merkel might not be the most charismatic leader or orator on the global stage, but this week, Germany’s Chancellor has shown both the audacity and the empathy in addressing the Syrian refugee problem. On Tuesday, Berlin announced its intention to welcome all Syrian asylum seekers to stay in the country, disregarding Europe’s Dublin protocol and enraging the far right groups in the process.

Merkel called for restoring European values in tackling the humanitarian problem, for “sharing the burden” dismissing the far right attacks as “disgusting, how right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis are trying to preach dull hate messages.” Merkel also vowed ”there will be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkish intelligence said to have orchestrated kidnapping of U.S.-trained Syrians rebels

McClatchy reports: The kidnapping of a group of U.S.-trained moderate Syrians moments after they entered Syria last month to confront the Islamic State was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence, multiple rebel sources have told McClatchy.

The rebels say that the tipoff to al Qaida’s Nusra Front enabled Nusra to snatch many of the 54 graduates of the $500 million program on July 29 as soon as they entered Syria, dealing a humiliating blow to the Obama administration’s plans for confronting the Islamic State.

Rebels familiar with the events said they believe the arrival plans were leaked because Turkish officials were worried that while the group’s intended target was the Islamic State, the U.S.-trained Syrians would form a vanguard for attacking Islamist fighters that Turkey is close to, including Nusra and another major Islamist force, Ahrar al Sham. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS taking control of proposed ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria

Reuters reports: Islamic State has seized new territory from Syrian rebels in northern Syria, advancing in an area where Turkey and the United States are planning to open a new front against the group in coordination with insurgents on the ground.

The ultra-radical IS and a monitoring agency said the group had seized several villages as it stepped up an offensive in northern Aleppo province, in a blow to rebels who are likely partners for Ankara and Washington in any ground campaign.

Intense attacks began overnight and on Thursday morning IS fighters had mostly encircled the rebel-held town of Marea, some 20 km (12 miles) from the Turkish border, a rebel leader fighting against the group in the area said. [Continue reading…]

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Palestinian refugees being sent by force back to Syria

Nina Strochlic writes: Ahmad is invisible. He uses a fake name, rarely ventures outside, and moves his family between apartments in Jordan’s capital of Amman frequently, sometimes at a moment’s notice if he thinks his cover has been blown.

Ahmad is a refugee twice over. His family fled land that now belongs to Israel for refuge in Syria, where he grew up. Now, he’s hiding from his foster country’s civil war in Jordan. Meanwhile, residents of his former neighborhood in Damascus who couldn’t escape survive by eating grass.

Ahmad is one of the estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria living undercover in Syria’s neighboring countries, all but one of which explicitly turn away Palestinians at the border. In Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, hundreds of people like Ahmad have been caught and deported back into Syria.

A mutual acquaintance took me to meet Ahmad on a Friday. The narrow streets of his neighborhood in eastern Amman were empty — I later learned our visit had been timed to coincide with Friday’s prayers, when a foreign visitor attracts less notice. We parked down the block and walked to his apartment, which was completely obscured behind a tall gate.

Tracking down this hidden demographic feels like making contact with a sleeper cell: phone calls come in from unknown numbers; fake names are used; middle men choose anonymous meeting spots. These people have everything to lose if they’re discovered, so they remain undercover, trusting their existence to only a few outsiders.

Palestinians refugees from Syria — known as PRS — are the shadow refugees of a four-year crisis with no end in sight. They are flat-out barred from entering any of Syria’s neighbors other than Turkey. If they do find a way in, they’re rejected by humanitarian organizations, banned from refugee camps, and face deportation back into Syria’s nightmare. [Continue reading…]

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83% of Syria is outside the control of the government

IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review reports: Territory fully controlled by President Assad’s forces has shrunk by 18% between 1 January and 10 August 2015 to 29,797 km2, roughly a sixth of the country, according to the latest data insights produced by IHS Conflict Monitor.

In a recently televised speech, President Assad admitted it was necessary to focus on holding certain areas of greater strategic importance, while sacrificing others. The key areas which Assad cannot afford to lose include the capital Damascus, the Alawite coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous, and the city of Homs as the vital connection between them. These are likely to be defended, even at the expense of losing other major cities like Aleppo or Dar’a.

Assad also stated that manpower shortages were the greatest challenge to the government’s war effort. The Syrian Army is believed to have lost around 50% of its pre-war strength of 300,000. Many of the remaining soldiers are very young Alawite conscripts, sent to the front lines with minimal training and low morale. [Continue reading…]

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Mass migration: What is driving the Balkan exodus?

Der Spiegel reports: When Visar Krasniqi reached Berlin and saw the famous image on Bernauer Strasse — the one of the soldier jumping over barbed wire into the West — he knew he had arrived. He had entered a different world, one that he wanted to become a part of. What he didn’t yet know was that his dream would come to an end 11 months later, on Oct. 5, 2015. By then, he has to leave, as stipulated in the temporary residence permit he received.

Krasniqi is not a war refugee, nor was he persecuted back home. In fact, he has nothing to fear in his native Kosovo. He says that he ran away from something he considers to be even worse than rockets and Kalashnikovs: hopelessness. Before he left, he promised his sick mother in Pristina that he would become an architect, and he promised his fiancée that they would have a good life together. “I’m a nobody where I come from, but I want to be somebody.”
But it is difficult to be somebody in Kosovo, unless you have influence or are part of the mafia, which is often the same thing. Taken together, the wealth of all parliamentarians in Kosovo is such that each of them could be a millionaire. But Krasniqi works seven days a week as a bartender, and earns just €200 ($220) a month.

But a lack of prospects is not a recognized reason for asylum, which is why Krasniqi’s application was initially denied. The 30,000 Kosovars who have applied for asylum in Germany since the beginning of the year are in similar positions. And the Kosovars are not the only ones. This year, the country has seen the arrival of 5,514 Macedonians, 11,642 Serbians, 29,353 Albanians and 2,425 Montenegrins. Of the 196,000 people who had filed an initial application for asylum in Germany by the end of July, 42 percent are from the former Yugoslavia, a region now known as the Western Balkans.

The exodus shows the wounds of the Balkan wars have not yet healed. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s non-democratic destiny

Michael N. Barnett writes: Believing in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today is a little like looking for unicorns on the moon — it doesn’t matter how much you search, you still won’t find any. As recognition of this fact has become increasingly widespread, grappling with its implications has been hampered by the lack of normatively attractive or politically viable alternatives. In his review of Padraig O’Malley’s “The Two State Delusion,” Peter Beinart calls the book and its research impressive but nevertheless faults the author for not telling us how the story ends.

Although Beinart and others committed to a two-state solution make it sound like the alternatives are a great mystery, the search for unicorns has been distracting them from increasingly plausible outcomes. As the two-state solution fades into history, its alternatives become increasingly likely: civil war, ethnic cleansing or a non-democratic state. Although all three are possible, the third is rising on the horizon. Whether it goes by the name of an apartheid state, an illiberal democracy, a less than free society or a competitive authoritarianism, the dominant theme will be a Jewish minority ruling over a non-Jewish majority. Although such an outcome would be an emotional blow to those who favor the two-state solution as a way to maintain Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, it looks quite familiar in a world where liberal democracy not only remains the exception but has actually lost ground over the last decade. [Continue reading…]

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Droughts used to be given names as the came and went, but now the drought has no name because it never ends

Turane Mohamed says: I come from Wajir in Northern Kenya.

Pastoralists keep camels, cattle, sheep and goats. People also try to grow crops like maize, millet and sorghum, but they often fail because of poor soil and lack of rain.

The pastoralists have come through a long journey in adapting to climate variability.

From the 1950s to the 80s, the drought was minimal. Drought used to be given a name. You only needed a small number of animals to have food security.

As a child, I used to lose weight when I went to school in town and fill up on milk, ghee, meat and wild fruit when I came home for the holidays.

The trend from the 90s to today, the drought has been happening constantly. People have given up giving it a name. [Continue reading…]

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There may be reasons for hope in the Middle East

Henri J. Barkey and David F. Gordon write: The winds of change are unexpectedly blowing through the Levant.

In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement, there was a broad expectation, both in the region and beyond, that sectarian tensions and conflict would intensify and deepen the proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the United States, even some strong supporters of the nuclear deal emphasized that Washington needed to respond aggressively to the inevitable push by Tehran to expand its regional influence at the expense of traditional U.S. allies.

What we are seeing on the ground, however, looks quite different. There is an increasing possibility for new geopolitical alignments throughout the region. The confluence of the growing fear in both Saudi Arabia and Iran of the threat posed by Islamic State; the weakening of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy shift to cooperate with the United States in Syria, and Moscow’s and Washington’s growing shared interests in steering the Saudi-Iran rivalry onto a less escalatory path, while also creating a broad coalition against Islamic State, is creating real political fluidity. [Continue reading…]

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Prominent Iranians launch campaign calling on Congress not to kill Iran deal

The Guardian reports: Dozens of high-profile Iranians, many of whom have been jailed for their political views, launched a video campaign calling on the American people to lobby Congress not to jeopardise the landmark nuclear agreement.

The campaign includes messages from celebrated film-maker Jafar Panahi, Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, and British-Iranian activist Ghoncheh Ghavami.

Many of the campaign’s participants have been persecuted in Iran for their beliefs or activism, sentenced to lengthy prison terms or even solitary confinement. But they have expressed support for the Vienna nuclear agreement struck in July between Iran and the world’s six major powers, calling it a good deal which could avert threats of war.

Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, one of the organisers of the campaign, said the video was intended to show “that those who have paid the highest prices for the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran are supporting the deal”.

The video messages were gathered, to show to the world “that not only the overwhelming majority of Iranians, but also almost all the leading human rights and pro-democracy activists, prominent political prisoners and the independent voices of Iran’s society are wholeheartedly supporting the Iran deal,” the activist, who spent five months in solitary confinement in Iran, said. [Continue reading…]

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