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Syrian Family Finds Rare Path to Call Chicago Home

Pointing to a verse in the Qur’an that condemns violence, Firas explains that ISIS goes against the teachings of the religion. “They never represent Islam,” he said. Firas and Rehab don’t want photos taken that could identify them for fear of violence against family still in Syria. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)

Pointing to a verse in the Qur’an that condemns violence, Firas explains that ISIS goes against the teachings of the religion. “They never represent Islam,” he said. Firas and Rehab don’t want photos taken that could identify them for fear of violence against family still in Syria. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)

Sitting in a modest apartment in Chicago’s northern Rogers Park neighborhood, Firas Jawish, 35, thought back on the 10 months he spent detained underground by the Assad regime in Syria.

“We had no idea if it was day or night,” he recalled. “But usually the torture was in the mornings–so then we knew.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that it would have seemed like light conversation to a passerby.

The sparsely decorated apartment is the most reliable home Firas and his wife Rehab, 29, have had in more than three years. For their 3-year-old son, Hasan, it’s the first permanent place he’s ever lived.

The young family moved to Chicago in late September, joining the more than 150 Syrian refugees that have resettled in Illinois since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011.

Before the war began—or at least before it came to them—the newly married couple lived near Damascus in the northern suburb of Harasta. Firas was an anesthesiologist working in two different ICUs. Rehab, then pregnant, was going to school to become a textile mechanical engineer.

In 2012, as the unrest of the civil war began to spread, the Assad regime started weekly bombings in Harasta, forcing Firas and Rehab to leave their home and all their brand-new wedding gifts behind. They moved in with family in a nearby suburb, taking only belongings they could carry.

Meanwhile, Firas coped with the bombings the only way he knew how—by helping injured civilians in his neighborhood when he wasn’t working at the hospital. It was this that eventually led to his detainment.

“Even if someone is injured and goes to the regime hospital, they will kill him there, or he will just disappear forever,” Firas recounted last week in Rogers Park, explaining that the government considered anyone trying to alleviate the situation an enemy.

The couple didn’t want any identifiable photos taken for fear of the safety of family members still in Syria, but they did allow audio. Listen below to hear Firas describe his time in detention.

On the floor nearby, Hasan sat playing with a remote control car, oblivious to the dramatic tale unfolding in the living room.

When Firas was finally released in October 2013, he had been underground for 10 months. Hasan was now walking and talking, but he didn’t recognize his father.

A few days later, the couple decided to leave, fearing that Firas would again be arrested.

With little savings left, they sold their car and got on a bus to the northern city of Aleppo. From here, they took a bus to the Turkish border and then walked across, becoming part of the now 4.6 million Syrians who have fled the war-torn country.

They rented a room in Antakya, Turkey, a city about 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea toward Cyprus. Rehab worked for a Danish refugee organization, while Firas tried to run a clinic for other refugees out of their cramped home using the only medical equipment he brought with him: his stethoscope.

Each stop on the Jawish family’s journey from Damascus to Chicago. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)

The family applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in early 2014.

“After a while they asked us, ‘Would you like to go to the United States?’” Firas smiled big remembering, laughing a little. “Well, yeah. Sure, of course. Who wouldn’t?”

The whole process took about two years. There was a medical check, and a security check. Many security checks, he said. “They don’t tell you anything about how to travel, or when to travel,” Firas remembered. “You’re just waiting.”

The family got 10-days notice that they would be moving to Chicago, a city Firas said he knew about from movies.

“But we didn’t know the weather,” he said. “No one told us that it’s very cold. And I didn’t hear about the Lake Michigan—it’s just like a sea, actually, but it’s a lake. It’s very beautiful.”

Chicago’s large immigrant population, especially in Rogers Park, made resettling relatively smooth, the couple said. Their next door neighbors are Iraqi. Their local supermarket has recognizable products.

“Chicago is traditionally a welcoming hub for refugees from all over the world,” said Suzanne Akhras, executive director of the local aid organization Syrian Community Network. She referenced the resolution passed unanimously by Chicago’s aldermen in reaction against an attempted ban on refugees by Gov. Bruce Rauner late last year.

Ending up in the United States is not a typical outcome for Syrian refugees. The U.S. has only accepted 2,660 Syrian refugees since 2011, according to the most recent State Department numbers. That’s much less than one percent of the total number of Syrian refugees seeking relief from the conflict.

Illinois Syrian Refugee Resettlement 2011-2015

The number of Syrian refugees resettled in Chicago, Illinois, and the United States as a whole per year since the civil war began in 2011. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)

“It’s not sufficient,” Akhras said of the United States’ resettlement efforts. “Of course you can’t resettle everyone, we understand that, but why we’re not accepting more is beyond me.”

Instead, Congress introduced a bill late last year to make it harder for refugees from Syria and Iraq to come to the United States. The bill already passed in the House without amendment in November, after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris left many U.S. lawmakers worried that ISIS was gearing up to infiltrate the country via an influx of Syrian refugees. It headed to the Senate this week for a vote.

President Obama has said he will veto the bill if it comes across his desk.

“This legislation would introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” he said in a statement shortly after the bill was introduced.

For Rehab especially, the transition to a new life has been lonely, mainly because of the language barrier. But Firas just accepted a new job in data entry at a nearby clinic, and the couple is especially looking forward to Hasan’s future in America.

“We really find that American people are very nice people, and open-minded,” Firas said. “A lot of American people here that we’ve met say, ‘We know you’ve been through very hard situations.’ We didn’t expect that.”

White House: less force, more diplomacy in Syria

White House Press Secretary discusses national security after Islamic State attacks. (Sean Froelich/Medill).

White House Press Secretary discusses national security after Islamic State attacks. (Sean Froelich/Medill).

WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that no amount of U.S. military power will solve the chaos in Syria.

Earnest answered questions regarding President Barack Obama’s recent and upcoming meetings with world leaders to discuss how the Syrian civil war and threats posed by the Islamic State are being confronted.

Earnest assured reporters that international resources are being funneled together in order to meet the current U.S. plan of “degrading and defeating ISIL.”

“The success of this mission is dependent on 65 nations coming together, recognizing the common interest they have here and dedicating significant resources,” Earnest said.

Obama meets with French President Francois Hollande Tuesday as part of the international outreach.

Reporters asked Earnest about the ongoing efforts to snuff out terrorist threats in Belgium, which is currently on high alert against potential attacks following the massacre in Paris.

Earnest was mum on safety procedures in Belgium to ensure their secrecy, but suggested that security improvements Europe can make it easier for those allies to better defend their own national security.

Earnest said it is important to expand intelligence sharing within the European Union and with the U.S.

“That is certainly something we are committed to,” Earnest said. “And we are committed to helping our allies in Europe deal with this rather urgent threat.”

Congress voted last week to increase the security measures for Syrian refugees coming into the U.S. due to GOP fears that Islamic State operatives would sneak into the country.

“I think those who voted to further encumber the refugee process are accountable for their vote…it’s not likely to do much to improve the national security of the United States.”

Syrian reporter honored for giving back to her country

Erhaim and top Washington foreign editors discuss national security threats in Syria. (Sara Shouhayib/ MEDILL NSJI)

Erhaim and top Washington foreign editors discuss national security threats in Syria. (Sara Shouhayib/ MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON – The increasing dangers to journalists covering the Syrian civil war and other stories in areas where the Islamic State operates has driven many to cover the conflicts from outside the country, leaving the rest of the world less able to get eye-witness news Syrian journalist Zeina Erhaim is trying to get those stories out by training Syrians to report on their country’s war despite the dangers.

Erhaim was honored with the Peter Mackler Award on Thursday at the National Press Club.

The award honors courageous and ethical journalism by reporters and editors who have demonstrated a commitment to fairness, accuracy and speaking truth to power and asserting their right to publish or air their stories in countries where independent journalism is under threat.

Erhaim works to bring Syria’s stories to people around the world by reporting from inside the country herself and training others Syrian citizens to be reporters. In Syria, international news organizations and freelance reporters have left the country due to journalists’ beheadings by the Islamic State and threats for being there.

As the director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which supports journalists in countries undergoing conflict, crisis or transition, she has trained dozens of Syrians on how to report and produce stories, many of which have been published by news organizations outside Syria. She began working for IWPR in 2013, after reporting for the BBC.

After receiving the award at the National Press Club event, Erhaim shared her experiences in Syria during a panel discussion that included Miriam Elder, world editor of Buzzfeed News, Hannah Allam, a foreign policy reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, and Louise Roug, global news editor of Mashable.

Erhaim noted that other countries only recently began to seriously address the Syrian refuges crisis.

“I think in terms of the refugee crisis that it only became a crisis because it hits the EU, even though it’s been hitting Jordan, Beirut and Turkey for so long,” Erhaim said.

Allam agreed that Syrian migration should have been more widely covered sooner, emphasizing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a bigger reason than the rise of the Islamic State for Syrians to leave their country.

“I think it’s been really good in the recent interest in the refugee issue that there have been a number of stories pointing out that… I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that here it’s easy to imagine that they’re all fleeing ISIS, but when you actually talk to them they say by and large, they’re fleeing the barrel bombs,” Allam said.

Erhaim agreed, saying some Syrians consider ISIS-occupied territories as some of the safest parts of the country because the Assad regime won’t bomb those areas.

She criticized the news media’s attention on ISIS for giving the terrorist group exactly what it wants – a propaganda megaphone.

Reporting in Syria requires different approaches than in Western countries.

Erhaim said she used men, most often her husband, to conduct interviews with other men because they would not speak directly with a female reporter.

Further information about the IWPR and how it operates can be found at https://iwpr.net/.

Did poor US planning prompt Russia’s rise in Syria?

A witness speaks about strategy in Syria. (Sam Fiske/MEDILL NSJI)

A witness speaks about strategy in Syria. (Sam Fiske/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON — Russia’s recent airstrikes in Syria are prompting concerns that America is losing power and political influence in the region. And the fact that Russia is reportedly targeting positions that include those held by U.S.-trained rebel factions – but not by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL or ISIS – is widely seen as underscoring the divide between American and Russian strategies.

“I believe Russia will first and foremost protect Assad and its port, and ensure its own continued role and influence,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in national security and defense policy at the Brookings Institution, said in an email, referring to Russia’s naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus. “Defeating ISIL in the first instance matters less to them.”

Russia’s perceived intent to attack terrorist forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – its historic ally – while focusing less on the Islamic State group alarmed lawmakers this week, who decried what many of them see as America’s lackluster Middle Eastern counterterrorism strategy.

Since last year, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State group, provided air cover for ground forces like the Kurdish peshmerga, and trained and equipped rebel ground forces. The Pentagon announced Tuesday it had “paused” sending forces it has trained back into Syria after confirming previous reports some of those rebels had traded their U.S.-issued gear and vehicles to extremists in exchange for safe passage through areas they controlled.

But even before that, results had been mixed.

At a hearing Tuesday in Washington, members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade questioned witnesses about the effectiveness of these tactics, particularly the so-called “train and equip” mission.

“The indigenous ground forces in Syria and Iraq are not capable of defeating ISIS,” retired U.S. Army Gen. John M. Keane told the panel. “We are not only failing, we are losing this war. Moreover, I can say with certainty this strategy will not defeat ISIS.”

When done right, training and equipping indigenous forces is considered by some military experts to be an effective strategy for stabilizing a region. In a phone interview, Ben Connable, an analyst for the RAND Corp. and a retired Marine intelligence officer, compared the U.S. training in the Middle East to the French attempts to build a militia force in South Vietnam in the 1950s.

“They were in a hurry. They wanted to get out of Indochina,” said Connable. “So what they did was rush the half-trained force into the field and they were destroyed piecemeal.”

The situation, in Connable’s view, is similar to present-day Syria.

“Just because they went through a training course does not mean they are ready for combat,” he said. “You don’t put a couple hundred newbies into the fight.”

Airstrikes prevent gains by the Islamic State group and eliminate targets, but they have done little to quell the insurgent activities tearing through Iraq and Syria.

“High-value targeting is most effective when it is combined with other counterinsurgency measures,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a witness at the Tuesday committee hearing and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Unfortunately, there are currently no boots on the ground truly capable of implementing a large-scale counterinsurgency strategy.”

America’s inability to develop a successful trained militia in Syria or maintain a concrete strategy allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to criticize the U.S. in an address to the United Nations on Monday and call for a “broad international coalition” to fight ISIS and other terrorists, such as the al-Nusra Front.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, offered his concerns that the U.S. won’t achieve one of its principal objectives: removing Assad from power.

“It is a reality,” Keane said in response to Poe’s concerns that Russia’s new tactics will successfully prop up Assad. “I would tell Mr. Putin that I’m going to fly my airplanes where I want, when I want and you’re not going to interfere with them.”

Keane believes that the U.S. will eventually be able to remove Assad from leadership in Syria, with or without the help of the Russians. But with the Russian military now involved, it is not clear how or when that will happen.

Daniel Benjamin, another committee witness, noted Thursday that Russian military support has revitalized the Assad government.

“Whatever shared commitment there was among Western nations that Assad had to go has been essentially rendered moot,” said Benjamin, also a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “The diplomacy now has to get going with an understanding that Assad still may go, but not soon and not on the kinds of terms that were envisioned to date.”

Complicating matters is the fact that the Syria-Russia relationship goes well beyond the military alliance.

“There is an emotional connection between the Russian military and Syria,” Connable said. “The Syrian officers married Russian women and the Russian officers married Syrian women. It’s not just a political relationship, it’s a socio-cultural relationship as well.”

Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, said America’s limited military role in Syria is giving Russia an even stronger position of power.

“The fundamental problem is this administration does not know how to cover political objectives with military strategies,” Blank said of the Obama White House, adding that Russia has “a capability to project power in well-defined strategic objectives.”

Russia, which began bombing anti-Syrian government forces Wednesday, has forced the U.S. government to reassess its strategy in the Middle East. Lawmakers and experts who participated in Tuesday’s panel appeared to agree America must revisit its counterterrorism efforts in Syria.

“I think it’s time this administration goes back to the drawing board,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn.

Published in conjunction with US News Logo


U.S. reluctant to declare safe zone along Turkey-Syria border

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey exchange pleasantries before testifying in front of the Senate Committee on Armed Services about U.S. counter ISIS strategy. (Matt Yurus / Medill NSJI)

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey exchange pleasantries before testifying in front of the Senate Committee on Armed Services about U.S. counter ISIS strategy. (Matt Yurus / Medill NSJI)

WASHINGTON – Turkey and the U.S. agreed to a deal in late July that might lead to an ISIS-free zone along the Syrian-Turkish border while allowing the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the marauding jihadist organization from Incirlik Air Base in Southern Turkey.

There is not a plan in place, however, to create this buffer or safe zone, as it is often called. And Obama administration officials are reluctant to call what they expect to be a roughly 60-mile long and 40-mile deep area that nearly reaches Aleppo a safe zone.

The administration refers to this as an “ISIL free zone so that it would not have the perception of a safe zone protected as a no-fly zone,” said Ömer Taşpınar, a professor at the National War College and expert on Turkey. To implement a no-fly zone, the U.N. must pass a resolution, and Russia and China would veto it, and Iran would view it as a hostile act, according to Taşpınar.

Taşpınar pointed out that the agreement did not detail the type of zone that would be created. The Turkish media, however, has been reporting that the U.S. has finally agreed to a safe zone. So in this sense, it has been a public relations strategy, he added.

There are a lot of loose ends and potential complications, he said. The Turkish forces are hesitant to deploy ground troops without the protection of a U.S. and coalition-enforced no-fly zone. The Obama administration has refrained from sending in a sizable U.S. led ground force, instead choosing to train indigenous fighters, and these moderate Syrian rebels are too weak to police the area.

In early July, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that only 60 moderate rebels were in training, a force “much smaller” than expected. He expected that number to improve, however, saying that as the U.S. learns more about the opposition forces and builds relationships recruiting will become easier. More recently, The Washington Post reported that Jabhat al-Nusra captured U.S.-backed Syrian rebels earlier this month — five of whom were directly trained by U.S. personnel. U.S. officials said that many more members of the Syrian rebel forces have returned to Turkey.

Taşpınar noted that this area is too small to house millions of Syrian refugees. There are roughly 4 million Syrians displaced in neighboring countries, according to a USAID report. More than another 7 million and 12 million are internally displaced and need humanitarian assistance, respectively, in Syria.

What this zone does is break the Kurdish plan to “establish a Kurdish enclave,” he said. The Turks along with the U.S. consider the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group.

The same report from The Washington Post quoted Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, as saying, “I don’t think we will see anything approaching what even resembles a safe zone” in Syria.

To accomplish this there will have to be access to electricity, water and shelter along with medical facilities.

The U.S. recently sent six F-16, or “Fighting Falcons,” and an additional 300 personnel to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. These aircraft were sent to carry out attacks over northern Syria and close the border after Turkey agreed to the deal.

It has been roughly a year since the coalition began airstrikes in the region. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that ISIS has the same amount as fighters as it did then, between 20,000 and 30,000.


Is Syria beyond the point of no return?

WASHINGTON – Nearly four million Syrians have weathered the storms of political instability and violence by fleeing their country and pleading for sanctuary and official recognition as refugees in neighboring states – and far beyond.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for leading and coordinating international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. It “for the end of violence, for accountability, [an] end to impunity. Because failing this, those responsible for human rights violations and crimes are emboldened,” said Karen AbuZayd, former United Nations Under Secretary-General and UN commissioner of the Inquiry on Syria.

“The war will go on leaving more destruction. It will destroy lives, destroy society, destroy institutions including education, and it will destroy culture and heritage in its wake,” Abuzayd said in a Middle East Policy Council panel on April 21, 2015.

As the civil conflict treads into its fifth year, half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced, according to data compiled by the United Nations. In addition to those who have fled the country, more than 220,000 civilians have been killed, 6.5 million are internally displaced and more than 12.2 million civilians in the Syrian Arab Republic are in need of humanitarian assistance. Syria is in a state of crisis, and it is spreading throughout the region.

Twenty-five percent of Lebanon’s total population is Syrian refugees. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has only accepted 143 Syrian refugees, according to a May 2015 UNHCR report. Neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are sheltering millions of refugees. Turkey alone is harboring 1.7 million refugees.

The UNHCR has so far submitted 12,140 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for resettlement consideration as of May 2015. After resettling only 105 refugees in 2014, the United States has accepted 651 refugees as of April 2015, according to a State Department refugee admissions report.

State Department officials released a statement that the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, “violently suppressed expressions of popular dissent” and his sustained reign only incited extremism and instability, according to a State Department September 2014 press release. Ever since he assumed office in July 2000, his country entered the Syrian Civil War and he has been accused of crimes against humanity by the United Nations.

The United Nations has identified and is investigating the Assad government for violations of human rights under international law. The UNHCR has submitted numerous reports that multiple agents have explicitly targeted civilians – including the Assad regime, terrorist groups, anti-government armed groups and extremists. Since last year, Syria has been criticized for silencing journalists and activists, and committing other violations of international law.

Since Syria first established relations with the United States in 1944, the relationship has been precarious at best. Syria has been identified as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 because of its support for various terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.

In order to counter that kind of activity, the Obama administration has slapped economic sanctions against Syria, and taken steps to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the international community established a legal framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, which were used by the Assad regime to attack Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013.

The unrest from the Syrian uprising, in early 2011, spawned a full-fledged civil war, which increasing armed conflict between the Assad government and insurgents trying to displace it. According to the latest U.N. report, those fighting Assad now include proliferating terrorist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, which have gained traction through tactics such as public executions, torture, disappearances and mutilation.

The infighting between so many groups that are unfriendly to the United States, including terrorist groups and the Assad regime, have made it more complicated for Washington to intervene. But some Syria watchers say any kind of intervention is better than the current U.S. position, which is to mostly watch from the sidelines.

“We need to plant the American flag among other flags around the world and say this issue is important, and we need to mobilize all of these resources and move on it now,” said Denis Sullivan, director of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies. “That means dealing with a bizarre cast of characters,” he said, including the EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He urged global leaders to come to the table for diplomatic negotiations.

However, the United States has not furthered negotiations or drawn up a comprehensive legal framework to persevere in addressing the Syrian crisis, albeit providing $2.9 billion in monetary assistance as of September 2014.

“It’s the political overlay- it’s the political solution- it’s the parties who have a political interest in the region who are the ones who in the end come together to affect some sort of result,” said Ford Fraker, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Middle East Policy Council, in a Q & A session at the panel.

The lack of U.S. progress toward pursuing a functional political solution in Syria is due to other issues on the White House’s agenda, principally the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, Fraker said. He said that the Iran nuclear talks have “prevented any useful dialogue happening between the United States and Iran on any kind of Syrian solution.”

But, is it our job to intervene, and deploy U.S. troops to fight for people they’ve never met? Is the United States supposed to be the world’s police force, flashing its badge to save the day?   Does the deterioration of the lives of 17 million people affect the United States and international affairs?

AbuZayd appealed at a Capitol Hill conference demanding enforcement of international law, referral of the Syrian plight to the International Criminal Court, reformation of the national justice system, the halt of child recruitment for terrorism, increased foreign assistance and establishment of regional tribunals.

Humanitarian aid may only function as a tattered band-aid to Syria’s perpetual conflict, instead of an enduring political solution. “Will Syria’s displaced be condemned to relief instead of progress?” asked Sara Roy, a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

“The issues to track are the political ones,” Fraker said. “Until you see certain events having occurred that will allow the principal actors then to turn their attention to Syria, you won’t see any progress there.”


Understanding the Islamic State: A Medill NSJI Event

WASHINGTON – The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative will host “Understanding the Islamic State,” a lunch and panel discussion featuring National War College Professors of Strategy & Policy Dr. Omer Taspinar and Dr. Richard B. Andres, at the National Press Club on Monday, April 6 at 12:15 p.m.

The event is aimed at increasing the media’s knowledge of the Islamic State terrorist group. Taspinar is a leading expert on Islamic radicalization and the author of two books: “Political Islam and Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey” and “Fighting Radicalism with Human Development: Education, Employment, and Freedom in the Islamic World.” Andres is a former Defense Department official who specialized in defense planning, especially related to Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Andres is also a leading thinker on the role of cyber across the national security realm.

The February story of four teenage girls leaving Britain to join the Islamic State in Syria caught the world unaware but they were not unique. Young men and women have been joining ISIS, apparently after significant exposure to its message on social media. Andres and Taspinar are experts who will help the audience understand how this is developing. They will focus on how the Islamic radical movement in 2015 is using technology to appeal to youth to uproot themselves from relatively secure environments to join a radical movement in a distant land full of conflict.

Lunch will be served, but reservations are required.

The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, begun in January 2009 with the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, offers a sequence of courses that equip graduate and
undergraduate journalism students with the knowledge and skills to report on national security issues, undertakes an annual student investigative project with a media partner and sponsors an annual conference for journalists featuring briefings on the most pressing national security issues. It also provides training and background materials on nationalsecurityzone.org as well as webinars for working reporters around the country.

The National War College, founded in 1946, educates future leaders of the armed forces, State Department and other civilian agencies for high-level policy, command and staff responsibilities. The national security policy curriculum emphasizes the joint, interagency, and the multinational perspectives. NWC is located on Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.


Freelance journalist paints ‘complicated picture’ of Syria

Rania Abouzeid, award-winning journalist describes her reporting experience in Syria at the New American Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Rania Abouzeid, award-winning journalist describes her reporting experience in Syria at the New American Foundation in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON – There are “few signs” that the Syrian conflict will end in the near future, and the situation has become even more dangerous for journalists, according to award-winning reporter Rania Abouzeid, who has covered the Middle East and is especially known for her Syria coverage.

“If it was hard two years ago…it’s only going to get more complicated,” said Abouzeid at a New America Foundation event Nov. 3, responding to a question about U.S. involvement in the conflict, which started in 2011.

Abouzeid said being a female freelance journalist in Syria was definitely dangerous, but she worked alone because she could blend into the population as much or as little as she wanted, she said. The Australian of Lebanese descent said that being a woman and being able to speak the language helped her keep a low profile.

“I can’t do my work without the extreme generosity of Syrians,” she said.

One day after her talk, an Iraqi cameraman was reported murdered in Northern Syria by a Jihadi group in the region.

“His death underscores the importance of a concerted effort by the international community, by Syrian and international media freedom organizations and by all news providers to combat those who want to gag the media and silence those who work for them,” Reporters without Borders said in a news release.

Yasser Faysal Al-Joumaili, who often worked for Al-Jazeera America and Reuters was the eighth foreign journalist to be killed in Syria since the beginning of the uprising, Reporters without Borders said.

When the Libyan uprising started in Feb. 2011, Abouzeid told her editor she wanted to go to Damascus. She hoped to see how Syria reacted to the beginning of the Arab Spring in countries like Egypt and Libya.

At the beginning, she witnessed the peaceful candle-lit vigils, and the strong reaction they elicited from the regime.

“There was a liveliness, a cadence…there was an energy to the Syrian protest that I hadn’t seen in Tunis or in Egypt,” she said. “It was clear from the beginning that it was going to be existential for both sides”

Soon, things started to unravel.

“Very few of them flinched when the bullets started to fly…but that was the early days, it’s a very different picture now.”

In January 2012, groups with more extreme Islamist ideology such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jamat Al Nusra joined the fight. Although groups within the armed rebellion didn’t agree with the ideology, they needed them.

It was like “a marriage of convenience,” Abouzeid said. At the same time, U.S. reservations on intervening boosted the support for these outfits and deepened resentment against America.

“A sense of abandonment, which was always there, has deepened,” she said.

“If the only assistance was the guys with the beards and the pants,” she added, then the fighters against the regime just had to take that.

But some people are sitting out the fight ever since some of these more extreme outfits have entered into it, saying that it’s too “dirty,” she said.

Regardless of political affiliation, ”there are people in the middle,” Abouzeid said, and they’re tired of the bloodshed.

She described Syrian cities she saw when she was there a few months ago as being “sliced open” by the destruction caused by fighting, with rubble pouring out on to the street. Militia groups controlled basic amenities like electricity and water, and inflation has skyrocketed. Hospitals were the worst hit, she said, and children were being operated on without anesthetics, she said.

Now, all the Syrians just want the basics like being able to go in to the grocery store without the fear of being shelled, she said.

“They just want some semblance of peace.”