‘If we don’t get our country back ourselves, no one will do it for us’

Growing Home ينبتون وطنا : Samer, a displaced Syrian barber, has taken refuge along with his young family in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Despite filling his time with meaningful work, caring for his family and improving his living conditions, the daily distractions cannot diminish his desire to return home.

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As long as there is no real democracy in the Middle East, ISIS will continue to mutate

David Hearst writes: The betting is that neither the pro-Assad coalition nor the Saudi-backed one will prevail in Syria. The likeliest outcome of a ceasefire is a Syria permanently fragmented into sectarian statelets in the way Iraq was after the US invasion.

This could be regarded as the least worst option for foreign powers meddling in Syria. Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt will have stopped this dangerous thing called regime change. Saudi will have stopped Iran and Hezbollah. Russia will have its naval base and retain a foothold in the Middle East. Assad will survive in a shrunken sectarian state. The Kurds will have their enclave in the north. America will walk away once more from the region.

There is just one loser in all this – Syria itself. Five million Syrians will become permanent exiles. Justice, self-determination, liberation from autocracy will be kicked into the long grass.

The history of the region has lessons for foreign powers. It proves that fragmentation only leads to further chaos. The region needs reconciliation, common projects and stability as never before. That will not come from creating sectarian enclaves backed by foreign powers.

The Islamic State is a distraction from the real struggle of the region, which is liberation from dictatorship and the birth of real democratic movements. IS is not a justification for the strong men. It is a product of their resistance to change. History did not start in 2011 and it won’t stop now. The revolutions of 2011 were empowered by decades of misrule. There is a reason why millions of Arab rose – peacefully at first – against their rulers and that reason still exists today.

As long as there is no real democratic solution in the Middle East, the Islamic State group will continue to mutate like a pathogen that has become antibiotic-resistant in the body politic of the Middle East. Each time it changes shape, it will become more virulent. [Continue reading…]

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No way out: How Syrians are struggling to find an exit

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Eleonora Vio reports: Over the last five years, close to 4.8 million Syrians have fled the conflict in their country by crossing into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But as the war drags on, neighbours are sealing their borders. Forced from their homes by airstrikes and fighting on multiple fronts, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers now have no legal escape route.

Earlier this week, EU leaders reached a hard-won deal with Turkey aimed at ending a migration crisis that has been building since last year, and that in recent weeks has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. But the agreement turns a blind eye to the fact that even larger numbers of asylum seekers are stranded back in Syria, unable to reach safety.

Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and even embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications.

When Syria’s war erupted in March 2011, it was initially relatively easy for most refugees to leave the country. Those without the means to fly poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, these exits have been restricted or closed off entirely. [Continue reading…]

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Drought in eastern Mediterranean Levant region worst in 900 years, study finds

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American Geophysical Union: A new study finds that the recent drought that began in 1998 in the eastern Mediterranean Levant region, which comprises Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past nine centuries.

Scientists reconstructed the Mediterranean’s drought history by studying tree rings as part of an effort to understand the region’s climate and what shifts water to or from the area. Thin rings indicate dry years while thick rings show years when water was plentiful.

In addition to identifying the driest years, the science team discovered patterns in the geographic distribution of droughts that provides a “fingerprint” for identifying the underlying causes. Together, these data show the range of natural variation in Mediterranean drought occurrence, which will allow scientists to differentiate droughts made worse by human-induced global warming. The research is part of NASA’s ongoing work to improve the computer models that simulate climate now and in the future.

“The magnitude and significance of human climate change requires us to really understand the full range of natural climate variability,” said Ben Cook, lead author and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City. [Continue reading…]

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As Syrians flee anew, neighbors’ altruism hardens into resentment

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The New York Times reports: When the Syrian refugees first started streaming into this bedraggled border town, Gassim al-Moghrebi was their tireless benefactor, distributing donations of food, money and clothes and sheltering as many as possible in two apartments he owned.

“All of Ramtha was just like me,” Mr. Moghrebi said, describing a good will rooted in family ties that spanned the border, and sympathy for the victims of a pitiless war. “One man had 10 apartments. He gave them to the Syrians for free.”

But now, as Syria witnesses a new escalation of violence, including waves of Russian airstrikes, and as Syrians flee for safety again by the tens of thousands, neighboring countries are increasingly overwhelmed and reluctant to let them in. In many places, that early altruism has hardened into resentment — an ominous turn for those fleeing war.

Desperate Syrians are backed up at the borders of Jordan and Turkey, barred from entering or else just allowed to trickle in. Increasingly, they find escape routes closing. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian refugees in Jordan: ‘If they cut the coupons, we will probably die’

The Guardian reports: Just look at how we’re living,” says Umm Majd, a Syrian who fled to Jordan. She stands in a tiny single-room apartment in Amman, the capital. It lies deep underground, next to a subterranean car park, and measures just two metres by two and a half. It is here that she, her husband and their two sons live out their exile.

“Just look,” says Umm Majd, gesturing at the room. “That’s enough to understand what’s happening to Syrians here in Jordan.”

There are between 630,000 and 1.27 million Syrian refugees in the country, depending on whose estimate you believe. Like most of them, Umm Majd’s husband does not have the right to work – so he works illegally as a carwasher for 100 Jordanian dinars a month (about £100, half the minimum wage). The family collectively receives 40 dinars in food coupons from the UN – down from 80 a year ago. Their rent is 50 dinars, leaving them just 90 each month for any other living expenses.

“Right now we’re not thinking of going to Europe,” says Umm Majd’s husband. “But if they cut our funding again then we’ll have to. If they cut the coupons we’d probably die.” [Continue reading…]

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Without education, Syria’s children will be a lost generation

Gordon Brown writes: mid the Syrian chaos of carnage, starvation and evacuation, there is a tiny glimmer of hope. The Lebanese government has declared that it has taken 207,000 Syrian refugee children off the streets and given them places in their country’s public schools.

And today I am setting out a plan to extend the opportunity of education to 1 million refugee boys and girls across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey during the course of 2016 – with the ambition that by next year every refugee child will be offered a place at school.

Through a combination of generous European Union funding by development commissioner Johannes Hahn and contributions from both public and private sectors in the region itself, $250m has been raised – the first instalment of the $750m we need to deliver this bold initiative. And in the run-up to the UN pledging conference in London on 4 February we are asking donors from public and private sectors to do more.

What has unlocked the chance of hundreds of thousands of extra school places is the introduction of a “double-shift school system”. Local Lebanese children are educated in the morning in their neighbourhood schools but the same classrooms are now being thrown open to refugee children in the afternoon and early evenings.

Because the double-shift system uses existing schools and so avoids the huge capital costs of building, the average cost is just $10 per school place per week. Already 200 Lebanese schools are offering double-shift education and there are now robust plans to offer 400,000 places by doubling the number of schools.

And as a direct result of Lebanon’s success, Turkey and Jordan are now ready to make double-shift schools the centrepiece of this year’s educational efforts for refugees. Working with Unicef, Turkey has set out its goals to double its school places for refugees to more than 450,000 this year. In Jordan, where just over 100,000 refugees are already in school, the aim is to double places. [Continue reading…]

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The refugees and the new war

Michael Ignatieff writes: According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, since September 11 the US has taken in 784,000 refugees and of these only three have been arrested subsequently on terrorism-related charges.

Fear makes for bad strategy. A better policy starts by remembering a better America. In January 1957, none other than Elvis Presley sang a gospel tune called “There Will Be Peace in the Valley” on The Ed Sullivan Show to encourage Americans to welcome and donate to Hungarian refugees. After the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam, President Ford ordered an interagency task force to resettle 130,000 Vietnamese refugees; and later Jimmy Carter found room in America for Vietnamese boat people. In 1999, in a single month, the US processed four thousand Kosovar refugees through Fort Dix, New Jersey.

These examples show what can be done if the president authorizes rapid refugee clearance in US military installations, and if the US were to process and repatriate refugees directly from the frontline states of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. As Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative has been urging since September, direct processing in the camps themselves will cut down on deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean. If Europe and the United States show them a safe way out, refugees won’t take their chances by paying smugglers using rubber dinghies.

The Obama administration should say yes to the UNHCR appeal to settle 65,000 refugees on an expedited basis. Refugee agencies across the United States — as well as religious communities from all faiths — have said they will take the lead in resettlement and integration. If the Liberal government in Canada can take in 25,000 refugees directly from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and process their security clearance at Canadian army bases, the US can do the same with 65,000.

Taking 65,000 people will only relieve a small portion of a refugee flow of 4.1 million, but it is an essential political gesture designed to encourage other allies — Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina — and other immigrant countries to do their part. The strategic goal is to relieve the pressure on the three frontline states. Refugee resettlement by the US also acknowledges a fact that the refugees themselves are trying to tell us: even if peace eventually comes to their tormented country, there will be no life for all of them back home.

Once the US stops behaving like a bemused bystander, watching a neighbor trying to put out a fire, it can then put pressure on allies and adversaries to make up the shortfall in funding for refugee programs run by the UNHCR and the World Food Program. One of the drivers of the exodus this summer was a sudden reduction in refugee food aid caused by shortfalls in funding. Even now these agencies remain short of what they need to provide shelter and food to the people flooding out of Syria.

Now that ISIS has brought down a Russian aircraft over Sinai and bombed civilians in Paris, Beirut, and Ankara, the US needs to use its refugee policy to help stabilize its allies in the region. The presumption that it can sit out the refugee crisis makes a hugely unwise bet on the stability of Jordan, where refugees amount to 25 percent of the total population; and Lebanon, where largely Sunni refugees, who have hardly any camps, are already destabilizing the agonizingly fragile multiconfessional order; and Turkey, where the burdens of coping with nearly two million refugees are driving the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan regime into the arms of Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led air war on ISIS in Syria has little allied support

The New York Times reports: As the United States prepares to intensify airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.

The Obama administration heralded the Arab air forces flying side by side with American fighter jets in the campaign’s early days as an important show of solidarity against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Top commanders like Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees operations in Syria and Iraq, still laud the Arab countries’ contributions to the fight. But as the United States enters a critical phase of the war in Syria, ordering Special Operations troops to support rebel forces and sending two dozen attack planes to Turkey, the air campaign has evolved into a largely American effort.

Administration officials had sought to avoid the appearance of another American-dominated war, even as most leaders in the Persian Gulf seem more preoccupied with supporting rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, some of those officials note with resignation, the Arab partners have quietly left the United States to run the bulk of the air war in Syria — not the first time Washington has found allies wanting.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shifted most of their aircraft to their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan, reacting to the grisly execution of one of its pilots by the Islamic State, and in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Jets from Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, coalition officials said. Qatar is flying patrols over Syria, but its role has been modest. [Continue reading…]

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The resignation and resilience of Syrian refugees stuck in Zaatari

The New York Times reports: As the West grapples with a new flood of asylum seekers bursting across Europe’s borders, the vast majority of Syrian refugees remain in the region: 1.9 million in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon and 630,000 registered here in Jordan. Underfunded aid agencies and overburdened host countries have been struggling for years to support them.

With the World Food Program having cut vouchers this month to 229,000 Syrians living in Jordanian cities — where it is illegal for them to work — the once-reviled Zaatari (pronounced ZAHT-ah-ree) is increasingly seen as the most stable spot for refugees. While growing numbers yearn to join the exodus to Europe, many in the camp have all but surrendered to a life of limited possibilities.

Until recently, virtually every family imagined an imminent return to Syria as soon as President Bashar al-Assad fell. Now, many see their beloved homeland as lost, and grudgingly accept that Zaatari is somewhere they will be a while.

Refugees have planted vegetables, flowers, even trees that will not bear fruit for years in their compounds cobbled from corrugated tin and trailers. Unicef is spending $37.7 million to install water and sewage systems and Germany $20 million to build a solar field. A recent United Nations report estimated that residents run 2,500 shops — scores of new ones repair bicycles — generating $14 million a month.

“We’ve become used to a system here, and a way of life,” explained Ola Mahmeed, 26, a mother of five who was applying for a two-day “vacation” to visit relatives in nearby Irbid. “There’s order, in terms of security, in terms of services. Anything I can think of I can find now in the market.”

Zaatari’s occupants say they would still jump at any chance to leave. Complaints are rife about electricity, which since June has been available only at night; rationed water; and, especially, the dismal quality of the schools. Last year, classes in the camp were crammed with up to 90 children; of those who took Jordan’s 12th-grade exam, 3 percent passed. [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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FBI opens inquiry into Chapel Hill shootings; Obama calls killings ‘brutal and outrageous’

In a conversation recorded by the storytelling project StoryCorps just last summer, Yusor Abu-Salha, a victim from the recent Chapel Hill shooting, described her experience of being an American.

The Washington Post reports: The FBI is opening an inquiry into the shootings of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., a move that followed multiple calls this week for authorities to investigate the violence as a hate crime.

On Friday, President Obama issued a statement on “the brutal and outrageous murders,” saying that the FBI would look to see if federal laws were broken during the shooting.

“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” Obama said.

Police are investigating the shootings of three people — newlyweds Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — on Tuesday afternoon at a housing complex near the University of North Carolina.

As the shooting has attracted global attention, Obama has been criticized for not speaking out about it sooner.

“If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to Mexico on Thursday, according to Reuters.

The Embassy of Jordan in Washington said Friday that Alia Bouran, the country’s ambassador to the United States, went to North Carolina on Friday. Jordan’s foreign ministry issued a statement a day earlier saying that the sisters killed in Chapel Hill also had Jordanian citizenship.

While in North Carolina, Bouran met with the families of the victims and expressed the sympathies of Jordanian King Abdullah II. The embassy said Friday that it was “closely following the ongoing investigation” in North Carolina.

The FBI probe announced on Thursday stops short of being a full investigation, as had been reported in multiple media outlets since the inquiry was announced. Rather, it is a review that could ultimately become an investigation down the line. It was opened by the FBI, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle district of North Carolina. [Continue reading…]

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Destroying ISIS is about more than vengeance

Hassan Hassan writes: Less than three weeks before ISIL captured Jordanian pilot Maaz Al Kassasbeh on December 24, Jordan’s King Abdullah described the fight against the extremist group as “our third world war”. He said that Muslim leaders should take ownership of the fight, which requires a pan-regional strategy to counter extremism.

Two months later, Jordan is now finding itself being pushed to the forefront of this “generational fight”, as the king put it then. Since the terror group burnt Al Kassasbeh to death in a cage, the country’s air force has carried out at least 56 sorties, and been joined by F16s of the UAE. Jordan’s fight against ISIL is no longer someone else’s war.

The greatest mistake that Jordan can make is to define its battle against ISIL purely in the language of vengeance. The pain and anger that define the atmosphere in Jordan today might abate in coming weeks, but the country’s commitment to the destruction of ISIL should become part of a long-term strategy. The rise of ISIL was a result of reactionary and inconsistent policies in the first place – something Jordan must avoid if it is to win this war.

Jordan must heed the king’s own advice during his interview with CBS News in December, when he said that ISIL would not go away without a “holistic” strategy that views the group as part of greater challenges facing the region. ISIL, he said, is one face of many extremist groups in the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Jordan says conducted 56 air raids in three days against ISIS

Reuters reports: Jordan’s air force chief said on Sunday his country’s jet fighters had conducted 56 bombing raids in three days against Islamic State militants in northeast Syria, targeting key bases and arms depots.

Jordan stepped up its bombing of the jihadist group on Thursday in response to the brutal killing by Islamic State of a captured Jordanian pilot, and continued until Saturday.

No new strikes were announced for Sunday.

“We achieved what we aimed for. We destroyed logistics centers, arms depots and targeted hideouts of their fighters,” General Mansour al-Jbour, head of the Jordanian airforce, told a news conference.

Jordan has carried out nearly a fifth of the sorties of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria to date, Jbour said. U.S. aircraft joined the mission to provide intelligence, surveillance, a U.S. official told Reuters earlier on Sunday. [Continue reading…]

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Killing of Jordanian pilot unites the Arab world in anger

The New York Times reports: There was one sentiment that many of the Middle East’s competing clerics, fractious ethnic groups and warring sects could agree on Wednesday: a shared sense of revulsion at the Islamic State’s latest atrocity, burning alive a Jordanian pilot inside a cage.

In Syria, the government denounced the group that has been fighting it for months, but so did Qaeda fighters who oppose both the government and the Islamic State. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government for once agreed on something, the barbarity of the militant group for the way it murdered the Jordanian, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh. And in Cairo, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of the 1,000-year-old Al Azhar institute, was so angered that he called for the Islamic State’s extremists to be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.”

That leading Sunni scholar’s denunciation was even harsher than similar outbursts from the region’s Shiite leaders, theologically the more traditional foes of the Islamic State.

In a way that recent beheadings of hostages had not, the immolation of Lieutenant Kasasbeh set off a regionwide explosion of anger and disgust at the extremists, also known as ISIS or ISIL, or to most Arabs by the word “Daesh.” Even more significant, in a chronically embattled region that bequeathed to the world the expression, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Islamic State suddenly found itself friendless in the extreme.

Name almost any outrage in the Mideast in decades of them — the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Achille Lauro hijacking, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the gassing of the Halabja Kurds, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole — and the protagonists would readily find both apologists and detractors. But with one breathtakingly vicious murder, the Islamic State changed that dynamic, uniting most of the region against it.

Martin Chulov adds: The day after the horrific images of the caged pilot being burned alive were released, the streets of the capital Amman were subdued, except for the crowds that lined the road from the airport to the royal palace to welcome home their monarch King Abdullah from his shortened visit to Washington.

Privately though, inside tea houses, universities, shopping malls and restaurants, people seethed. Radio and television stations played patriotic hymns on high rotation and all 23 minutes of the gruesome images were being widely circulated on social media. Occasionally, passions flared.

“I swear to God we will kill all those pigs,” said Musab Ibrahim, from inside a cafe in Amman’s Old City. “Whatever it takes to finish them is what we will do.”

On a nearby table, four men interrupted a card game to condemn the executioners and eulogise Kasasbeh. “He is our son, he is a hero. All of Jordan is with him and with our king,” said Yousef Barghouti, a primary school principal.

“We are all Hashemites and we are following the government with no reservations in this fight against these godless terrorists,” said another man, Yousf Majid al-Zarbi. “Have you seen that video? I mean really, how in humanity could this be a just punishment for any person?”

At intersections in the heart of Amman, street vendors sold flags and funeral bouquets prepared for Kasasbeh. There were few takers, though. A society that had been gripped for almost a month by the plight of Kasasbeh, and the pleas for mercy from his desperate parents, had seen the raw horror of his death eclipse their worst fears. Ghader Shathra, a nurse, said she had been numbed by the news and the reality that it would likely lead the country to war.

“We have watched as the region has disintegrated. We have taken in almost 2 million refugees and we have hoped it wouldn’t come our way. But sometimes you have to stand and fight. We have no option.”

Sophia Jones reports: despite the king’s vow to wage a “relentless war” against the Islamic State group — a declaration backed by many Jordanians who are demanding revenge for the pilot’s murder — there is an undeniable sense of doubt among other citizens. They question Jordan’s role in the U.S.-led air campaign desperately trying to reel in the group that has claimed large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“I support this crisis to be solved, not Jordan fighting ISIS,” explained Souheil, a 23-year-old shopkeeper in Amman who referred to the late pilot as Jordan’s “martyr.”

Atef Kawar, a member of the Jordanian parliament representing the kingdom’s Christian minority, also expressed concerns over the United States and other Arab countries invested in combating the Islamic State group.

“I think that we should all unite as one hand to fight terrorism,” he told The WorldPost over the phone. “It’s to our country’s benefit [to be part of the coalition]. But clearly, the coalition doesn’t have a plan.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports: The United Arab Emirates has suspended its air attacks against the Islamic State in Syria since the capture of a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by the jihadi group, it has emerged.

US officials confirmed that the UAE, one of the four Arab states in the anti-Isis coalition, had ceased its participation because of concerns over a lack of contingency plans to rescue downed aircrew.

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