View from The Hill: A ray of bipartisan good comes out of obscure senator’s hate speech


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Immigration has become one of the most divisive issues in Australian politics. It has created open fractures within government ranks and sparked dog whistling; it’s being exploited to nefarious political ends by fringe and not-so-fringe players.

But an appallingly racist diatribe, by a senator who not one in a thousand Australians would have heard of, on Wednesday brought almost all the parliament together to reassert some core values of Australia’s policy.

Delivering his maiden speech on Tuesday, Fraser Anning called for a ban on all further Muslim immigration and invoked the words “final solution” – the term referring to the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews – when calling for a popular vote on immigration.

Anning arrived in parliament by chance, replacing the equally controversial Malcolm Roberts from One Nation, who fell foul of the citizenship crisis. But Anning immediately parted ways with One Nation, and has recently joined Katter’s Australian Party.

Among much else, the Queensland senator told parliament on Tuesday that “the one immigrant group here and in other Western nations that has consistently shown itself to be the least able to assimilate and integrate is Muslims”.

“The first terrorist act on Australian soil occurred in 1915 – when two Muslim immigrants opened fire on a picnic train of innocent women and children in Broken Hill – and Muslim immigrants have been a problem ever since.”

Such are the rituals of first speeches that many Coalition senators and even crossbencher Derryn Hinch (who has been beating up on himself publicly ever since) went over to pay Anning the traditional congratulations afterwards.

But after that reactions were quick, and by Wednesday morning condemnation was raining down on Anning from almost everywhere.

Labor with the support of the government moved a motion in the Senate and the House; the leaders in both houses spoke.

The motion, which did not mention Anning by name, acknowledged “the historic action of the Holt Government, with bipartisan support from the Australian Labor Party, in initiating the dismantling of the White Australia Policy”.

It gave “unambiguous and unqualified commitment to the principle that, whatever criteria are applied by Australian Governments in exercising their sovereign right to determine the composition of the immigration intake, race, faith or ethnic origin shall never, explicitly or implicitly, be among them”.

The motion was the same (except for the addition of the word “faith”) as the one prime minister Bob Hawke moved in 1988 after opposition leader John Howard had suggested a slowing of Asian immigration. Then, the Liberals voted against the motion, though with three defections.

In our frequently depressing and often toxic political climate, Wednesday’s bipartisanship was a small but significant and encouraging moment of unity on what we stand for as a nation.

Mathias Cormann, an immigrant from Belgium, said: “This chamber in many ways is a true reflection of what a great migrant nation we are.”

“We have … representatives of our Indigenous community. We have in this chamber representatives of Australians whose families have been here for generations, who are the descendants of migrants to Australia of more than 100 years ago.

“We have in this chamber first-generation migrants from Kenya, Malaysia, Belgium, Germany and Scotland. What a great country we are. Where first-generation Australians can join First Australians and those Australians whose families have lived here for more than 100 years and all work together to make our great country an even better country.”

While the mainstream had its act together, on the fringe it was a wild ride.

Hanson denounced Anning’s speech. “I have always advocated you do not have to be white to be Australian,” she said. And “to actually hear people say now that, as Senator Hinch said, it is like hearing Pauline Hanson on steroids – I take offence to that”.

Never mind that in her own maiden speech as a senator Hanson had declared that further Muslim immigration should be stopped and the burqa banned. “Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own,” she said in September 2016.

Later on Wednesday Hanson introduced her private member’s bill “to give voters a say on whether Australia’s immigration levels are too high by casting a vote at the next general election”.

Then there was that force of nature, Bob Katter, who said he supported his new recruit “1000% … I support everything he said”.

It is never easy to navigate one’s way through Katter speak – on Wednesday it was at times close to impossible.

“Fraser is dead right – we do not want people coming in from the Middle East or North Africa unless they’re the persecuted minorities. Why aren’t you bringing in the Sikhs? Why aren’t you bringing in the Jews?” he told a news conference in Cairns – he could not fly to Canberra and parliament because of a sinus procedure.

As for the “final solution” reference: “Fraser is a knockabout bloke, he’s owned pubs and he’s not stupid – he built his own aeroplane. But he hasn’t read all the history books.

“He didn’t go to university, he was out working building pipelines for the coal and the gas and the oil with a hard hat on. He’s a member of the hard left, not the lily pad left. He didn’t go to university to know the significance of all these words.

“Fraser would have no idea about what that meant. For those of us, like myself that are fascinated by history and have read the history books – it is one of the worst statements in all of human history.”

“He like myself, has had constant meetings and addressed Jewish groups around Australia. We are strongly behind the Jewish people.”

Hanson wasn’t the only one complaining of being insulted. Katter turned on a journalist who referred to his Lebanese grandfather.

The Conversation“He’s not. He’s an Australian. I resent, strongly, you describing him as Lebanese. That is racist comment and you should take it back and should be ashamed … No prouder Australian than my grandfather.”

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How Indonesia is dealing with the new threat posed by returning Islamic State fighters


Joshua Roose, Australian Catholic University

It was no coincidence that Sunday’s suicide attacks on three Catholic churches in Indonesia came as Muslims began the holy month of Ramadan.

For the observant, this is a time of charity, introspection, renewal and closeness to God. For Islamic State, however, Ramadan has become a strategic time in which to strike, inspired by the Battle of Badr in the year 624, when the Prophet Muhammad and his army defeated a vastly superior force and laid the foundation for the growth of Islam.

Around the time of Ramadan last year, the Islamic State claimed over 300 separate attacks worldwide.

The gruesome church attack on Sunday, which involved using children as suicide bombers and left 13 people dead and more than 40 injured, also follows another pattern – an uptick of violence linked to the terrorist group in Southeast Asia.




Read more:
To fight terrorism, Indonesia needs to move beyond security measures


As Islamic State has lost vast swathes of territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, it has actively sought to mobilise support with Jihadist groups in other countries such as Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, was also identified as a core target of the group in an article in the Islamic State magazine Rumiyah in 2017. And in a worrying sign for the region, the number of attacks has been on the rise, driven in part by the return of fighters from the front lines of Islamic State’s battles in the Middle East.

Returning foreign fighters

Conservative estimates suggest more than 1,000 fighters have travelled to the Middle East from Southeast Asia to join Islamic State over the past five years. Of these, [700 are estimated] to have come from Indonesia, about half of whom were male fighters, the other half women and children joining their husbands. Another 75 Indonesian fighters were deported from Turkey before they could travel to Syria.

Considering Indonesia is home to 225 million Muslims, the number of Indonesians who fought in Iraq and Syria is remarkably low. (Australia, with just over 604,000 Muslims, has seen more than 100 of its citizens join the fight, with up to 87 deaths at last count).




Read more:
Should we worry about Islamism in Indonesia?


Journalists and scholars have argued that Indonesia’s pluralism has played a significant role in limiting the outflow of fighters to the Middle East.

However, as has been made painfully clear in attacks like the one on the Bataclan theatre in Paris in 2015, the actions of just a handful of trained Islamic State fighters can have a devastating impact – both in terms of casualties and the wider political fallout.

Though Indonesian intelligence forces are well-trained and have been working with countries like Australia to improve the sharing of information across borders, there are no laws prohibiting Indonesians from travelling overseas to join the Islamic State. Nor is it illegal to express support for the group.

Adding to the problem is the fact that Indonesia’s borders are exceptionally porous, making it almost impossible to prevent returning fighters from slipping back into the country unnoticed.

The threat from within

It was initially reported by media outlets that the family responsible for the church bombings on Sunday had also fought in Syria, a claim that has now been retracted.

But they were linked with Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organisation consisting of up to two dozen affiliated militant groups. The leader of JAD, Aman Abdurrahman, is being held at the prison that was the scene of deadly riots by Islamic State followers a week ago and led to the deaths of several prison guards.

The militant groups operating within the JAD umbrella are relatively autonomous and don’t have a great deal of interaction with one another. However, it is almost certain, though difficult to substantiate, that fighters returning from Iraq and Syria have joined up with a number of them, bringing their battlefield experience and militant skill sets with them.




Read more:
Insecure jobs and incomes carry risk of radicalisation for young Indonesian workers


JAD has also pledged its support to the Islamic State. This pledge of allegiance, or bayat, to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi requires followers to follow Al-Baghdadi’s orders but gives them autonomy to conduct terrorist operations against the state, rejectionists and apostates.

The Islamic state continues to enjoy a sizeable level of support among everyday Indonesians, as well. A Pew Research study found that 4% of Indonesians have a favourable opinion of the group, which may seem small, but in numerical terms, constitutes over 9 million people. As Indonesian society has slowly become more conservative in recent years, this support is sure to grow.

The Indonesian government faces a significant challenge overcoming the simultaneous problems of returning foreign fighters and home-grown violent extremism.

The ConversationBut no nation can battle terrorism alone. Though Australia and Indonesia have been working well together on counter-terrorism initiatives, a senior Australian government official told The Australian on Monday that Canberra would “double down” on its cooperation with Jakarta to tackle the issue of returning foreign fighters.

Joshua Roose, Director, Institute for Religion, Politics and Society, Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Defeated in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is rebuilding in countries like Indonesia


Greg Barton, Deakin University

Even after the recent arrests and deaths of dozens of its members, the Islamic State-linked network of militant groups in Indonesia organised under the umbrella Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) clearly remains a potent force.

In the past week, five bombings have rocked the island of Java, killing at least 26 people and injuring more than 50 – the deadliest series of terrorist attacks in the country since the Bali bombings in 2002. These attacks included the bombings of three churches in the city of Surabaya, carried out by a family that used its children as suicide bombers.

The latest attack came on Wednesday when four assailants wielding swords stormed a police station in Sumatra. One officer was killed and two others were injured. The alleged militants were shot dead.




Read more:
To fight terrorism, Indonesia needs to move beyond security measures


Formed in 2015, JAD achieved notoriety in January 2016 with a military-style attack in the centre of Jakarta that resulted in the deaths of four people and four attackers. Dozens of other potential attacks were foiled in the two years that followed, but several smaller ones were carried out, directed largely against the elite Detachment 88 counter-terrorism police unit – the arch-nemesis of JAD.

Formed in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings, with assistance from the Australian Federal Police, Detachment 88 has emerged as one of the world’s most effective counter-terrorism units, having arrested more than 1,000 militants.

Last year, 172 suspected terrorists were apprehended and 16 shot dead, following 163 arrests in 2016 and 73 in 2015. Most of the militants recently arrested have been linked with JAD and the related Islamic State support network of Mujahidin Indonesian Timur (MIT).

Returning fighters

Since it declared its caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014, the Islamic State has perversely given special attention to planning and inspiring terrorist attacks during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began this week.

This is the first Ramadan since the group lost control of large swathes of its territory centred around Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. As the Islamic State is clearly desperate to maintain its brand and prove its continuing potency around the globe, there are now concerns the recent attacks in Indonesia are a sign the group has extended its reach eastward to the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Ever since the Islamic State shot to prominence with the fall of Mosul in 2014, there have been fears about its potential to reenergise the decades-old jihadi network in Indonesia.

Since 2013, it’s estimated between 600 and 1,000 Indonesians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict, most drawn to the Islamic State and its fabled caliphate. (Others were aligned with al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra.)




Read more:
How Indonesia is dealing with the new threat posed by returning Islamic State fighters


Indonesian police estimate 400-500 of these fighters subsequently returned home, either from Syria and Iraq, or from Turkey on their way to join the conflict. Many have been met at the airport by authorities and taken into rehabilitation programs. But others returned unannounced. With a lack of appropriate laws in Indonesia, these returning fighters cannot be prosecuted for travelling overseas to join the Islamic State.

After the recent JAD attacks in Indonesia, local police have spoken of sleeper cells of returnees from the Middle East and their associates, who lay low and give the appearance of having no inclination to violence, even while they prepare for an attack at an opportune time.

Initially, it was reported by the respected head of the Indonesian police, General Tito Karnavian, that a family of six involved in the bomb attacks on the churches in Surabaya had returned from the Middle East. Later reports suggested this was not the case. Nevertheless, they and the other two families involved in the attacks were close associates of Islamic State returning fighters.

Defeat in the Middle East

The world rejoiced when Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate, was finally liberated in October 2017, following a four-month siege. With the fall of the city, the last holdout of its tens of thousands of local and foreign fighters was also defeated.

Months earlier, Mosul, the last city held by the Islamic State in Iraq, fell after nine months of the most brutal urban warfare since the second world war. With the caliphate destroyed, it was believed the Islamic State itself had been eliminated, too.

As it turns out, the fall of Raqqa did not see the final destruction of the Islamic State army. Rather, under a secret deal brokered by the Kurdish-led, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces who led the campaign to liberate Raqqa, thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families were allowed to leave the city in convoys of busses and trucks.

Many made their way to Turkey, where it seems some remain. But thousands more drove into the desert of eastern Syria, occupying territory along the Euphrates River and linked to others across the border in rural northern Iraq.




Read more:
Out of the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq: the rise and rise of Islamic State


Many Islamic State fighters, especially local Arabs, have gone to ground, blending into villages and Sunni desert communities. Even in liberated Mosul, which is largely Sunni, many locals still express support for the militant group.

The election of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the failure to rebuild Mosul and other destroyed Sunni cities, mean that in Iraq, as in Syria, all the social and communal grievances that supported the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remain in place.

Even as the Islamic State was losing territory in Iraq in recent years, its leaders spoke with the conviction of an apocalyptic cult, confidently asserting that even if they lost the caliphate, the insurgency would rebuild.

Today, the group has active affiliates and supporters across the Muslim world, including in the southern Philippines, and a “virtual insurgency” throughout the many Western countries that contributed around one-quarter of the group’s total of 40,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria.

The ConversationThe insurgency is far from over, and in Indonesia it may well be that the worst is yet to come.

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation; Co-Director, Australian Intervention Support Hub, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Iraq: Persecution News Update


The links below are to articles reporting on the persecution of Christians in Iraq. The most recent articles are at the top.

For more visit:
http://www.aina.org/news/20180405095806.htm
https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/iraqi-christians-still-threatened-with-annihilation
https://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/four-children-injured-in-bomb-blast-outside-mosul-medical-complex/
http://meconcern.org/2018/03/20/iraq-christians-concerned-after-spate-of-deadly-violence/

Islamic State schooled children as soldiers – how can their ‘education’ be undone?



File 20180314 131572 15cqm1b.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
There is a fundamental difference between Islamic State’s use of child soldiers and the practice elsewhere.
Al Arabiya/YouTube

James S. Morris, The University of Queensland and Tristan Dunning, The University of Queensland

Over the last few years, the Islamic State (IS) terror group has shocked the world with its gruesome public spectacles. Especially abhorrent to our moral sensibilities is its overt use of children as frontline fighters, suicide bombers and propaganda tools.

From macabre hide-and-seek exercises, in which children hunt and kill enemy prisoners in specially constructed mazes, to the mass execution and decapitation of adult soldiers, young people living under IS have been indoctrinated and encouraged to engage in violence.

Meanwhile, IS’s quasi-government instituted an education system explicitly aimed at indoctrinating and weaponising the children living under it.

Mathematics was practised by determining how many more fighters IS has than an opposing force. Chemistry was taught by discussion of methods of gas inhalation. And physical education focused on the correct body positions for firing various weapons.

Their education has been compounded by the retaliatory and sometimes excessive violence of the vast array of forces committed to destroying IS. Through this, children have been exposed to horrific violence on a daily basis – thus generating trauma and, undoubtedly, genuine long-term grievances.

How IS’s use of child soldiers differs

There is a fundamental difference between IS’s use of child soldiers and the practice elsewhere.

IS hasn’t just recruited child soldiers. It systematically militarised the education systems of captured Iraqi and Syrian territory to turn the region’s children into ideological timebombs.

These children, saturated in IS’s particular brand of violent and uncompromising “religious” instruction from about the age of five, were trained in the use of small arms before their teenage years. They constitute a new challenge for the international community.

IS’s state-building efforts appear to have been thwarted for now. But saving the children exposed and potentially indoctrinated in its ideology is key to avoiding further terror attacks in the West, tackling the root causes of regional upheaval, and working toward a future where children play instead of fight, and schools teach instead of drill.

What children have been taught

Military activity, superiority based on IS’s interpretation of Islam, and the need to defeat unbelievers are embedded in its school textbooks.

Various videos, produced both through journalistic investigation and by IS itself, show the more practical side of education under the group’s rule. Children are taught how to fire small arms and use hand grenades.

Although IS extensively forced children into its ranks, many joined voluntarily – with or without their families’ blessing. But, in the long term, it doesn’t matter whether a child is forcibly recruited or not. And this is the matter of gravest concern.

IS’s primary concern is building and maintaining the children’s loyalty. The phrase “cubs of the caliphate” is a microcosm of how it views them. Cubs are unruly, ill-disciplined and dependent on strong (sometimes violent) guidance from their elders.

However, with time, resources and patience they can turn into a generation of fighters and idealists who will foster IS’s ideology even if its current military setbacks prove terminal.

Programs need to take a new approach

Disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation programs designed to reintegrate child soldiers into post-conflict society have significantly progressed in recent years. This represents the continued evolution of military-civil partnerships in the quest for a conflict-free world.

But IS’s systematic and meticulous radicalisation of an entire region’s children presents new challenges.

It’s understandable to interpret IS’s rapid retreat as its death knell, and thereby view traditional rehabilitation techniques as an appropriate remedy for yet another region recovering from violence at the hands of a radical armed insurgency. However, this conflict has been highly unusual in its pace, tactics and impacts – both now and potentially in the future.

So, we must revisit the fundamental assumptions of what it means to inspire peace within a society. This starts with the children subjected to the ideological extremism of IS and other armed groups.

If there is to be sustainable peace in the areas liberated from IS control, rehabilitation programs must be viewed as a community-wide process. Even if children did not directly participate in IS activities, the group has moulded their worldview and underpinning life philosophies.

Such philosophies may be especially productive in a region where resentment of perceived foreign – Western – interference and exploitation is long-lasting and multifaceted.

What can be done

The regular processes of identifying child combatants, disarming and reintegrating them into their communities through rehabilitation (such as by ensuring they are physically and mentally capable of rejoining their communities) and reconciliation (developing peace, trust and justice among children and their communities) are all necessary. But they are vastly insufficient in this instance.

Rarely has there been such systematic youth radicalisation and militarisation. So, the international response must be equally far-reaching and methodical.

Rapid reimplementation and revisiting of pre-IS school curricula is of the highest priority. National and local governments should ensure children are shielded from further recruitment by instituting a curriculum drawn from principles of tolerance and inclusion.

It’s essential to develop locally run initiatives to measure the level of radicalisation among a community’s children and to construct child-friendly spaces for young people to socialise, reconnect with their wider community and “unlearn” what they adopted under IS.

The ConversationSuch practices will help to heal the wounds of IS occupation and ensure the potential for cyclical violence is removed. Done right, it will hinder IS’s ability to rise anew.

James S. Morris, PhD Student in International Security and Child Rights, The University of Queensland and Tristan Dunning, Lecturer in Modern Middle East History, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Syrian ‘hell on earth’ is a tangle of power plays unlikely to end soon



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Until the jihadist rebel groups are wiped out, there will be more civilian casualties, like this man and young boy in Eastern Ghouta.
Reuters/Bassam Khabieh

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

Once again, unfortunate civilians are trapped in the “hell on earth” that the Syrian civil war has become. This time it is the turn of the 400,000 residents of Eastern Ghouta, ten kilometres east of the capital Damascus. Latest reports put civilian casualties at 520 and thousands wounded under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces supported by Russian air strikes.

It seems conditions in Syria are getting worse, and there is no end to the conflict.

The end to any violent conflict comes when either the warring sides realise the devastation they cause and make peace; outside intervention sways the warring parties to end the conflict; or there are clear winners delivering a crushing defeat to their enemies.

None of the warring factions seem to care about the devastation of the seven-year civil war. Almost the entire country is rubble – more than 400,000 people have died, there are 5 million Syrian refugees and more than 6 million displaced. Unfortunately, the peace option seems highly unlikely.

There had been international intervention through peace initiatives since 2013, when the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, lamented that Syria “heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos”. It was a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta that prompted the United Nations to pass a resolution in 2013 demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles and giving impetus to peace talks in Geneva. All efforts to make progress on these talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to meet even as late as 2017, painfully expediting Kerry’s apocalyptic prediction.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


The Geneva talks were paralleled by a Russian-led peace initiative in Kazakhstan and later in Sochi. These talks could not have been expected to succeed, given that Russia’s unconditional and active support of the Assad regime hampered any attempt at brokering a peace deal.

Apart from the vested interests and insincerity, the biggest stumbling block has been disagreement over who to include in the peace process. The US does not want Assad or Iran involved; Turkey does not want the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit (YPG); and Russia does not want any of the jihadist rebel groups.

The sheer number of rebel groups is another issue. In the relatively small area of Eastern Ghouta alone, there are three rebel groups, which often bicker with one another.

Since the conflict began in 2011, nearly 200 separate rebel groups have sporadically emerged. Although most of these later merged into larger entities, there are still too many groups. Their inclusion in any peace process has been problematic, because it is unclear who actually represents the Syrian opposition, not to mention the groups’ refusal to sit at the same table.

Then there is the thorny issue of ideological and religious differences. Shiite Syrians and a segment of secular Sunni Muslims support the Assad regime, whereas the largest chunk of the rebel groups are Salafi jihadists. The exceptions are the Kurdish YPG and the largely weakened Free Syrian Army.

All along, Assad’s regime has been claiming it is fighting IS, Al-Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups to keep Syria a modern secular state. Putin is pushing Assad to wipe out these groups, spurred by the deep fear they could mobilise radical Muslim groups within Russia’s borders.

The US and Europe are in the cognitive dissonance of wanting neither Assad nor jihadist groups to gain control in Syria. They don’t want Assad, but they like his argument of protecting a modern secular Syria. The unspoken preference is for Assad over any Jihadi rebel group.

So, the lack of an effective peace intervention and the impossibility of parties sitting down to negotiate leaves only the option of fighting it out until clear victors emerge.

This leaves the Assad regime with a free run to assert itself as the only feasible and legitimate government in Syria, a possibility that may indeed eventuate.

This is the strategic line the Assad regime has drawn thick on the ground. It explains why Assad forces have ignored the UN’s 30-day ceasefire resolution. Putin’s disregard for the resolution, by reducing it to a farcical five-hour window, shows that neither Assad nor Putin wants the rebels to regroup and gain strength. They want a quick and absolute victory, even if it is a bloodbath.

Just as it is almost certain that the rebels of Eastern Ghouta will fall, it is equally certain Assad forces will next intensify the siege of Idlib, a northeastern city held by the Salafi jihadist rebel group Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This pattern will continue until all rebel groups are wiped out.




Read more:
Syria is a mess, but the solution is complicated too


It is unlikely there will be any fighting between Assad forces and the Kurdish YPG, as that would mean an open confrontation between Russia and the US. After the US supported the YPG, it successfully ended Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria. The US has made it clear it is there to stay, establishing a 30,000-strong border security force as a deterrent against IS regrouping, but more importantly to stop Assad attacking Kurdish regions once he clears the ground of rebel groups in his territory.

The wild card in Syria is Turkey’s unpredictable president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He aims to establish Turkey in northeastern Syria as a third major player along with Russia and the US, by fighting alongside elements of the Free Syrian Army to capture the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin.

Whether Russia and the US will allow Erdogan to realise his objectives remains to be seen. He may find he is out of his league when things get tough on the ground, forcing him out of Syria.

The ConversationThe Syrian conflict will end only if the Russian-supported Assad regime wipes out all Salafi jihadist rebel groups and regains control of western Syria and its most important cities. This may be before the end of 2018. In the meantime, the international community should be prepared to lament more civilian casualties.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

I visited the Rohingya refugee camps and here is what Bangladesh is doing right



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What is the future of Rohingya refugees?
AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Sabrina Karim, Cornell University

Nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees have entered Bangladesh from Myanmar since September 2017. The Bangladeshi government’s plan to start repatriating them beginning this Tuesday, Jan. 22, has been postponed due to concerns about their safety.

That the Bangladesh government agreed to the delay, speaks to its benevolent attitude toward the Rohingya refugees. In a recent trip to Bangladesh I witnessed this benevolence firsthand. I saw roads adorned with pro-refugee banners. Even those with opposing political views have come together to support the Rohingyas.

Posters hailing the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Sabrina Karim, CC BY

The Bangladesh case stands in stark contrast to what happened in Europe in 2015, which faced an influx of a similar number of refugees, where many European countries saw rising anti-refugee sentiment among its political parties and a lack of a cohesive refugee management plan in the European Union.

In Bangladesh, I witnessed how the refugee camps were being run in an efficient, effective and compassionate manner.

The refugee problem

In August 2017 the Bangladeshi government allowed into the country a large influx of Rohingya refugees, who were escaping massacre by the Burmese military. The Burmese government claims that it was rooting out Rohingya terrorists who had attacked military posts. The United Nations, however, called these attacks “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Since then, a massive number of Rohingyas crossed the border to come into Bangladesh, known to be one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Currently, over half a million Rohingyas are living in refugee camp sites. The estimated costs of hosting them is US$1 billion dollars a year.

The camp management system

During the first few days of January, I visited the camps and witnessed firsthand the scale of operations necessary to manage the camps.

A refugee camp.
Sabrina Karim, CC BY

Since the beginning of the crisis, the Bangladeshi government set up a separate civilian authority to manage the refugee crisis. All domestic and international aid agencies must gain approval from this governing body to work in the country.

In addition, since September 2017, the government has deployed thousands of soldiers from the Bangladeshi military to manage the camps. The soldiers manage camp headquarters, where supplies are stored and guard the roads leading to the camps. To understand how big this camp is, and how widespread, think of a city as large as Austin, Texas.

I found the camps to be to be efficiently run and well-organized. They have been divided into administrative zones led by Rohingya leaders chosen by the Bangladeshi military. The all-male leaders are responsible for around 200 families each. They ensure that everyone under their watch gets provisions from the distribution sites and serve as the main contact for any kind of issue, be it finding information, or resolving disputes.

The government has also set up a large surveillance system, which includes a network of internal and external intelligence officers. They control who can or cannot enter into the camps. For example, I had to register the donations I took with me before being allowed to enter the road to the camps. No cash donations are allowed. Government officials told me that they are taking these precautions to prevent drug and human trafficking and also to minimize the possibility of Rohingya recruitment by militant groups.

But there are other issues that the government cannot completely control. Among them is the spread of communicable diseases. Last November, an outbreak of diphtheria, a deadly bacterial throat infection, quickly claimed at least 31 lives. Additionally, I observed that there are concerns about environmental damage and loss of biodiversity as the government cleared forest reserve land to build the camps.

Reasons for success

Bangladesh’s rapid response to the refugee crisis was possible due to country’s long-term experience with disaster management.

After gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh faced one of the worst famines in history because of flooding and chronic hunger, in which an estimated 300,000 to 1.5 million people died.

This disaster was not, however, a one-off event. Each year, the country is plagued with rains and cyclones, that claim many lives and displace people. As a result, the government has had to come up with a long-term crises management plan. A vast network of local people who act as rapid first responders has helped decrease casualties, although a large number of deaths do occur every year. The same system was put to use during the refugee crisis.

Furthermore, Bangladesh has been a part of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations since 1988. This experience has allowed its military to understand how to manage a crisis where vulnerable populations are affected. Among other things, I observed how the military created “safe spaces” for women, children and the elderly in the camps.

In addition to peacekeeping experience, as the soldiers explained, it is a mix of military discipline and Bangladeshi culture of hospitality that has enabled their success.

It helps, of course, that the Rohingya are devoutly Muslim and share a religious identity with Bangladeshis, though not language or ethnicity. These similarities might make empathy and compassion more possible, but soldiers and aid workers point to something else that motivates them to care for the Rohingya: Bangladesh’s own history. They point to the parallels between the Rohingya crisis and the violence during 1971 liberation war, when East Pakistan won independence from Pakistan and became Bangladesh.

One aid worker, in particular, mentioned that she heard reports of Burmese military camps in which Rohingya women were forced to visit soldiers at night. She recalled how sexual violence was rampant during the liberation war as well. She told me that she felt a particular affinity for helping the Rohingya for this reason.

What will happen in the future?

The question is, will this treatment last?

Rohingya refugees.
Sabrina Karim, CC BY

Rohingya refugees I spoke to do not want to go back to Myanmar. Several women described to me the violence they had been through. One woman showed me how she had been shot in the neck and another pointed to the extensive burns on her face.

In the camps, they have food, shelter, schools, sanitation, and most importantly, peace. They are receiving goods and amenities that they have not seen before. This was also confirmed by aid workers, who told me that the refugees have come from such deprivation that, at times, they have to be told not to eat the soap that is given to them. Many have never seen daily toiletry items such as soap, toothpaste and moisturizers.

But the government of Bangladesh is also apprehensive about integrating the refugees too well into Bangladeshi society. I observed, for example, that the Rohingya children are prohibited from learning the local Bangla language in camp schools and are only taught Burmese and English. Any integration into Bangladeshi society would give fodder to the Burmese government’s claim that the Rohingya are Bangladeshi immigrants to Myanmar.

There is also the fear of radicalization. Extremist groups have tried to recruit Rohingya into their organizations in the past.

There are other issues as well: In the long haul, Bangladesh cannot sustain the current population. Almost 1 in 4 Bangladeshis live in poverty. While it is true that Bangladesh’s economy has improved over the past several years – a reason, government officials explained to me, that the country could provide aid in the early stages of the refugee crisis – this is not sustainable in the long run.

The economic strain is already noticeable in Cox’s Bazar, where many of the refugee camps are located. The local population is starting to complain about rising costs and job shortages. With the potential for national elections this year or the next, public opinion matters.

The ConversationThe plan to repatriate the refugees has been put on hold because of continued violence in Myanmar and an anti-Rohingya sentiment. With repatriation delayed, Bangladesh will need more international help. This is not a crisis it can manage alone.

Refugees raise their hands to shout that they will not go back.
AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Sabrina Karim, Assistant Professor, Caplan Faculty Fellow, Cornell University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.