Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Exploding car bombs and ill-advised U.S. airstrikes have demolished the streets of what was once the proud city of Mosul, ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. What remains is a war zone and one that ISIS cannot claim ownership over for much longer. As the American-backed coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces inch ever closer to its goal of recapturing the city, the Islamic State’s worldwide ambitions appear headed toward an impasse. The integrity of its Northern Iraqi caliphate is waning as it lies besieged amid the narrow alleyways and IED-strewn choke points of western Mosul. Its forces have employed increasingly destructive defense tactics that threaten both the anti-ISIS coalition and the city’s own residents through its clawing and foot-dragging “scorch-the-earth” exit. Losing Mosul spells strategic and symbolic doom for the caliphate’s goal of uniting the world under extremist Muslim rule. Fitttingly, ISIS’s metaphorical sun dims exactly where the group rose to prominence two years ago: in the shadow of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri.
Previously known for its historical significance and as a center of learning, Mosul became the heart of the Islamic State’s spread across the Middle East when the extremist group defeated Iraqi Army ground forces in 2014 and took possession of the city. At the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in the center of Mosul, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed ISIS to be a global caliphate and installed himself as caliph. This has been subsequently followed by over two years of rule under ISIS’s extremist interpretation of sharia law. It was at this point that ISIS became a credible threat and one that fellow terrorist organizations like Boko Haram began allying themselves with. The city has served as a base for their operations, in conjunction with the caliphate’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa, from which ISIS controls its territories in the two countries. The looting of a central bank for $425 million dollars and profit from Mosul’s lucrative oil fields have helped to fund the Islamic State’s weapons purchases and recruitment of new members. When the Iraqi army began coordinating with Kurdish forces in 2016 to converge on Mosul, it took over 3 months for the coalition to recapture the eastern side of the city. The Western Mosuli campaign finally appears to be in its final stages after seven months of heavy combat, with coalition forces now pushing into the last occupied districts. Iraqi Lt Gen Othman al-Ghanim recently predicted that the coalition could completely overtake the city in a matter of days.

U.S. forces provide artillery support in the coalition’s fight against ISIS

Despite the recent positive developments, ISIS saw its destructive agenda completed and found a surprising ally through the questionable actions of the U.S. military. On March 17, a U.S. airstrike allegedly decimated buildings in hopes of helping coalition forces oust ISIS from its cover within the city. Over 150 civilians were killed in a single strike, making it one of the most fatal in U.S. history in terms of civilian casualties. Such casualties caused by U.S. intervention in the Middle East have shown time and time again to breed further extremism, feeding directly into ISIS’s anti-Western rhetoric and call to arms. There were never official designations over what caused the building containing these civilians to collapse, but U.S. military forensic units have strong conflicts of interests in investigating their own actions. Some within the U.S. defense sphere blame ISIS for blowing up the building and herding civilians inside in order to frame American forces. Indeed, ISIS has trapped civilians inside buildings to deter or incriminate American air support since then, but the anti-ISIS coalition is now wise to the ploy. Beyond the threat of U.S. bombings, the lives of common citizens are further endangered by ISIS’s guerilla tactics like the use of humans shields and the holding of civilian hostages. Aid to the city can scarcely get in without the threat of appropriation by ISIS. Additionally, the acceptance of Mosuli refugees runs the risk of harboring fleeing militants in disguise.

The offensive has been a tactical nightmare for the allied coalition. ISIS snipers, sarin gas, incessant car bombs and an intensified media spotlight have contributed to slowing the allie’s advance in Mosul to a hesitant crawl. When anti-ISIS forces reclaimed parts of the city that had been previously under the Islamic State’s control, they discovered holes created between houses and tunnels beneath the streets that allowed personnel and supplies to move without aerial detection. The allied forces also discovered a garage which specialized in outfitting vehicles for suicide bombings, altering them to be bulletproof and avoid surveillance. These factors lead to difficult decisions regarding how much time and how many soldiers’ lives the coalition is willing to give up in order to capture Mosul. The respective cost in delaying progress, however, is larger still. ISIS has become more indiscriminate with its use of force as its defenses have failed. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin reports that civilian collateral casualties per week are, “in the hundreds with evidence showing that’s increasing.”

Without Mosul, ISIS would be without its biggest source of prestige, economic support and coordination center. Control of Mosul is central to the group’s legitimacy as Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s jumping off point. The caliphate’s official title as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” would lose both its accuracy and its sense of attraction among certain circles due to the group’s inability to control any significant portion of Iraq. This would be a major hit to ISIS’s recruitment abilities, despite being counterbalanced by potential anti-American sentiment following the mass civilian airstrike. Without a means of bringing new recruits into the organization, the group’s influence would likely dwindle and dissipate. The group already lost control of the city’s oil fields earlier in the campaign. ISIS fighters have reportedly stopped receiving payment as the organization has run out of money. The extortion of civilians within Mosul, not uncommon in similar situations, is difficult when there are battles to fight and the city is essentially starved.

Mosul’s strategic position in Northern Iraq once made it invaluable in controlling the group’s territories in Northeastern Iraq and Northwestern Syria. The city’s close proximity to the Syrian border was useful in working in tandem with ISIS’s remaining major city and new de-facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. But what was once an advantage is now a liability, as the city’s position between the northern Kurds and southern Iraqis encouraged the formation of an opposing coalition that was otherwise unlikely. The loss of Mosul will shake the group’s very identity and serve as a huge blow to ISIS’s chances of establishing the globe-encompassing Islamic state that it seeks.

As the tides continue to tip in favor of the Iraqi coalition, the focus of these forces will soon turn towards Raqqa, where another offensive is already underway. There is much speculation over when ISIS may be defeated and what the terrorist group will look like in the aftermath of this defeat, but these estimates carry wild degrees of uncertainty. Halting ISIS’s caliphate goals isn’t likely to end the threat of terrorism that occasionally penetrates the West. If anything, ISIS grows harder to deal with as its extremist foreign fighters disappear back into their native populations and sow fundamentalism back home. The relative clarity of a defined battleground will soon be lost; a reality that the coalition is already preparing for.
The next challenge after Mosul falls will be in identifying the enemy fleeing among the Mosuli refugees. Islamic State members have already begun abandoning Mosul in what appears to be an acknowledgement of defeat. They may resurface elsewhere in attempts to establish control in other parts of the Levant, land the group claims as its religious right. Increased terrorist activity may become a top priority due to a lack of having a solidified sphere of influence or they may simply refocus on resource acquisition as they regroup. What seems to be most certain, however, is that the loss of Mosul will spell the beginning of the end for ISIS’s sovereign state and will bring about the liberation of innocent civilians that have been starving and dying under ISIS’s oppressive rule.

Of the many reasons to liberate Mosul, the well-being of its people is perhaps the most compelling

Images courtesy of:
Staff Sgt. Adam Kern and the 621st Contingency Response Wing of the United States Air Force
Expert Infantry
DFID – UK Development for International Development



By Liliana Torpey
Staff Writer

It will be  a milestone in human history when an entire half of the globe sees an end to war. We could be closer to that milestone than many would think. The Western Hemisphere has been a mostly peaceful place since the mid-1990s, when the end of the Cold War led to numerous peace treaties and the implementation of full democratic rights in several Latin American countries. Today, the Americas list only one major ongoing conflict. Relegating war to the history books of our Western Hemisphere is close, but remains elusive.

On October 2, the Colombian people rejected a peace agreement that would have ended the longest-running conflict in Latin America. The implementation of the agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army, know as FARC-EP, would mean the end of ingrained terror that disproportionately affects Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural peasant communities. While the rejection of the peace agreement may seem baffling, it does not represent the rejection of peace itself. Those who objected to the agreement believe that the current terms were not conducive to sustainable peace for very legitimate reasons. This week, despite doubts that the process would move forward, a revised agreement was announced and released, which includes important concessions on behalf of the FARC-EP.

History and the Effects of Armed Conflict

The FARC-EP is a Leninist-Marxist group formed in 1964 with the original intention of addressing the needs of rural communities hitherto neglected by the Colombian government. Shortly after forming, they began providing social services to “loyal communities” and soon entered the international cocaine trade to fund their exploits , rapidly expanding their power and numbers.

Over 50 years of conflict have exacted a tremendous human cost on both sides. The FARC are responsible for kidnappings, murders, sexual assault, the use of child soldiers and inhumane treatment of combatants, among other crimes. The FARC are believed to be responsible for as many as 90 percent of the 27,000 kidnappings that occurred in Colombia between 1970 and 2010. Military forces are also suspected of at least 3,000 cases of “false positives,” in which civilians were killed and included in the death count of guerrillas. In total, the conflict has left up to 260,000 dead , over 45,000 forcibly disappeared and almost 7 million people internally displaced. These statistics are accompanied by very real grief, fear and profound absences of all those lost. The conflict has created a divided and wounded country, which will require great strength and unity in order to heal itself.

Past Attempts at Peace

Previous attempts at peace have been strikingly unsuccessful. According to Stanford’s Mapping Militants project, the first effort came in 1982 in the form of the Uribe Accords, which attempted to gradually reintegrate FARC-EP members and provided political participation via the formation of the Patriotic Union, known as UP. This peace initially appeared quite successful, but was circumvented by the assassination of thousands of UP leaders, including two presidential candidates, by the Colombian military, paramilitaries and drug gangs. Meanwhile, kidnappings and violence by the FARC-EP continued.

In 1999, after mass protest against the continuation of the conflict, the FARC-EP initiated peace talks again. This time, peace was thwarted by a $9 billion U.S. military aid program intended to reestablish the authority of the Colombian government and combat the drug trade. During his presidency from 2002 to 2010, Álvaro Uribe embraced harsh policies against the FARC-EP and the drug trade. He embraced U.S. aid and the involvement of paramilitaries, who were also responsible for human rights atrocities. 

The Current Agreement: Rehabilitation vs. Justice

The current agreement is based off of negotiations between representatives of the Colombian government and FARC-EP, including FARC-EP leader Timoleón Jimenez and Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos, which took place in Havana, Cuba over the last four years. The agreement outlines a plan for peace based heavily on development and rehabilitation and is divided into six main points. The first point establishes “Rural Integral Reform,” meant to close the gaps in development and economic and social rights between urban and rural communities, the latter of which  have been more affected by FARC-EP violence and control. Point two focuses on the broadening of political participation and the strengthening of pluralism within democracy in order to avoid violent conflict as a means of political action. This is intended to lay the foundation for sustainable peace in the face of ever-present political divides. Point three establishes the definitive call and implementation for bilateral ceasefire and the reintegration of FARC-EP into the “social, economic and political life of the country.” It also includes “security guarantees” for the protection against criminal organizations including “successors of Paramilitarism,” which, as stated before, have proven to be violent actors against peace. The fourth point deals with the dismantling of the illicit drug economy which has long had a hold over Colombia’s rural communities and has fueled more than one of its violent internal conflicts. Point five emphasizes the priority of victim’s rights to truth, justice and reparations, as well as the importance of including victim’s voices in the negotiation and implementation processes. The sixth point outlines mechanisms for implementation of the agreement.

It is the fifth point which raises the most contention. While the agreement claims to prioritize “non-repetition” and condemns impunity, its plan for dealing with those who have committed crimes in connection with the conflict do not seem to uphold those values. On the contrary, “The Special Jurisdiction for Peace” may grant amnesty “as widely as possible” to those whose crimes are less grave than crimes against humanity, genocide, etc. Even more concerning, those guilty of grave crimes such as those stated above as well as torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, who admit to their crimes will spend no time in jail, instead receiving limited sanctions on mobility and freedom between five and eight years. They will also be required to participate in projects meant to repair the damages they caused. Non-governmental human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International point out that this violates international law, which requires states to punish human rights violations in proportion with the severity of crimes committed. Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle stated in the announcement of the accord that “many Colombians would want punishment for the FARC. But also, with the same fervor, we would have to ask the same punishment for all responsible… [including] state agents who deviated from their mission, and third parties who financed serious crimes and massacres.” One wonders whether amnesty for the FARC-EP is granted only in return for amnesty of government and military officials, or to avoid embarrassment for the quiet, mild extradition of paramilitaries in 2008. Holding the state responsible for its own atrocities would be equally as important in assuring that new conflicts do not arise.


It is difficult to know whether the outcome of the plebiscite truly reflected the desire of the people, for various reasons. First of all, voter turnout was only 36 percent, and the “No” vote won by less than one percent. The triumph of the “No” vote was a surprise to most, who expected the “Yes” vote to win by a large margin, as it had in national polls. Those who supported the agreement in theory seemed to have not shown up to make it happen, for reasons that are perhaps less clear. Assistant Professor Robert Karl at Princeton University suggests that heavy rains and flooding from Hurricane Matthew may have been enough to deter voting in some areas. There was also an important regional difference of opinion between rural and urban communities, though the cause for that difference of opinion is debatable. claims that the difference is indicative of the privilege of cognitive dissonance from the actual effects of the conflict among urban voters. They state, “areas where conflict, violence, and displacement run rampant voted in favor of the peace accord, as did the majority of the zones where victims, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians live.” However, this could equally indicate a fear on behalf of rural communities who are more likely to be pressured by the FARC-EP.

Developments Since the Plebiscite and How to Move Forward

After the plebiscite, President Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize, which may have encouraged continuation of negotiations despite the “No” vote. Meanwhile many Colombians took to the streets after the vote to demand peace. Both the FARC-EP and the government have stated that the ceasefire will continue.

On Sat. Nov. 12, a new final agreement was announced. The new agreement addresses some of the concerns of those who voted against the original accord. Among other changes, the new accord tightens restrictions on liberty for those who confess to crimes against humanity, allows only Colombian judges to serve in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which is responsible for trying crimes against humanity, and holds commanders more responsible for the actions of their subordinates. It also expresses more boldly commitment to gender issues and requires disclosure of information about the FARC-EP’s assets. Whether these changes are enough for those who rejected the original agreement is yet to be seen, but it might not be up to the Colombian people this time if President Santos goes straight to Congress.

Colombia’s conflict with the FARC-EP is not its only source of turmoil or violence, and finding resolution to the conflict has been marked with great uncertainty. Still, these recent events shed a hopeful light on a difficult moment in Colombian history. Since the agreement was announced, we have seen the Colombian people fight for, rather than against each other. Still, it is clear that the wounds created by the conflict are too large to heal immediately or perfectly. Colombia will never forget the wrongs done in the last 50 years, forgiveness will take time and hard work, and peace may be fickle at first. The spirit that got the Colombian people through these violent times, and into these negotiations, will surely carry them on.

Image by Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana



By Henry Cauffman
Staff Writer

The Syrian conflict has burned on for over five years seemingly with no end in sight. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 430,000 have died and 11 million have been displaced since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. At this point it is almost impossible to overstate the degree of human misery perpetrated on the people Syria.

The Current Situation

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now seems poised to take control of the military situation and put itself in a much stronger bargaining position. The city of Aleppo, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, is within the regime’s grasp. Syria’s most populous city before the war, it has been fiercely contested between rebel and pro-government forces since 2012. Control of Aleppo is pivotal in the conflict, and media coverage commonly refers to it as “Syria’s Stalingrad” because of its brutal house-to-house combat. Its fall would be devastating for rebel groups’ morale and decisive for Russia and Syria in future negotiations.

The city holds tremendous strategic value on both sides of the conflict. “Victory would be a game changer” for Syrian rebel groups. According to Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East program at the British think tank Chatham House, that is because of both the city’s geographical location and its symbolic importance. If the rebels manage to take control of the city it would allow “a clear supply route from Turkey and increase the likelihood of [rebel groups] squeezing the regime into the coastal areas of Latakia, Tartus and Damascus.”

A loss would be equally devastating. Losing Aleppo would mean the Assad regime could “prevent the rebels from transporting supplies and enable the regime to advance toward Idlib.” Both sides view Aleppo as a military endgame, each side seeing victory as imperative.

Assad is well aware of these stakes and is taking no chances in securing Aleppo. Since September, the Assad regime has blocked all humanitarian aid to Aleppo in an attempt to starve rebel fighters. Denying humanitarian aid is part of a deliberate strategy. During negotiations, Assad adamantly refused to allow any humanitarian aid into the city and ordered the bombing of UN aid convoys. The Assad regime’s tactics have been extremely effective and the city is running dangerously low on food and medical supplies.

Assad’s siege has been assisted by a Russian air campaign. The Russian air force has ruthlessly bombarded the city since last September. It has targeted hospitals, aid workers and aid convoys as part of the same attrition strategy pursued by Assad. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warns that if Russia continues to bomb rebel-held East Aleppo, the city could be completely destroyed by Christmas.

The Current US Role

Aleppo may decide the outcome of Syria’s civil war and the US could have a decisive role. So far US President Barack Obama has shown little interest in escalating US intervention in Syria. The $500 million Pentagon program designed to train a moderate rebel army was canceled last year after it produced only five rebel fighters. The CIA program to arm rebel groups, though more successful, is vastly outweighed by Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah support for the Assad regime. Current US policy has frustrated those in favor of a US role in removing Assad from power, as well as those against such an interventionist US role. The situation on the ground has worsened and negotiations have gone nowhere.

The collapse of a ceasefire agreement and the resulting carpet-bombing of Aleppo demonstrate how US policy in Syria has failed. Obama’s piecemeal support for moderate anti-Assad rebels has not provided the leverage necessary for negotiating a transition of power. As it stands, Assad will not accept any agreement short of an outright victory. Foreign policy advisors, including those inside the Obama administration, see a change in strategy as essential to preserving American interests in the country.

US Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump share the belief that the Obama Administration has failed in Syria. The similarities between the candidates end there, diverging sharply on how they would approach the ongoing crisis.

The Future of Policy Under Donald Trump

Trump opposes direct US intervention against the Assad regime because he considers it “nation building.” Such efforts should not be a priority of the United States because “We [the United States] have to straighten out our own house. We cannot go around to every country that we are not exactly happy with and say we are going to recreate [them].” Trump sees interventionist efforts as costly, counterproductive and strengthening the influence of terrorist organizations. Trump regularly cites the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Libya following US intervention as proof that a similar operation in Syria is doomed to fail. Trump maintains that keeping dictators in power is preferable to the risk of anarchy. He has claimed that Iraq and Libya would be better off if dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi were still in power. Trump appears to think the Assad regime has a similar stabilizing effect in Syria. While asserting that his view of Assad is “bad,” Trump insists that Assad remains the best option for a stable Syria. Furthermore, the US should not support Syrian rebel groups because “we do not know who they are,” says Trump, alluding to possible jihadist connection among Syria’s disparate rebel organizations.

Syria, however, is not just a nation-building project. The situation in Syria is a humanitarian crisis. For many, especially the rebels inside Syria, allowing Assad to remain in power is simply unacceptable. Assad has been one of the world’s most brutal dictators, ruling with an iron fist and violently suppressing dissent. A Trump presidency would make Assad’s hold on power increasingly certain, which could subject the war-torn country to further oppression and violence. A Trump administration entails US allowance of Russian bombing in Aleppo. During the October 9th Presidential debate, Trump asserted that Aleppo “has fallen. Okay, it basically has fallen.” Still, this is not true and Trump denying it demonstrates the moral compromise implicit in not intervening in Syria; whether it is the right decision or not.

The Future of Policy Under Hillary Clinton

Clinton advocates taking a harder line with Assad than has the Obama Administration. She has been a proponent of direct US military intervention in Syria since the outbreak of war in March 2011. During her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton urged the Obama Administration to directly arm Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. Though the Administration was wary of direct intervention, Clinton has remained hawkish.

Clinton now advocates for “a no-fly zone and safe zones” she sees helping the US “go to the negotiations table with more leverage.” Establishing a no-fly zone would relieve Aleppo and the rebel groups currently operating in the city and put US-backed forces in a much stronger position. Clinton insists she would not deploy US troops, opting instead to provide more support for Arab and Kurdish rebels.

Though it could save lives, increased intervention in Syria is very dangerous and it is not guaranteed to work. Trump last week criticized her policy saying that it “could lead to World War 3.” This may not be an overstatement. A nuclear showdown with Russia is very possible, since implementing a no-fly zone would mean violating Russian airspace, making a military confrontation likely. It is difficult to see how the US could accomplish this without dangerous brinkmanship. While Clinton has proposed a “negotiated” no-fly zone, Russia is unlikely to concede airspace voluntarily. Even if Clinton could carry out her strategy, there is still the possibility that it will not be decisive and only prolong the fighting. Assad will fight for as long as it takes to remain in power, which would only entangle the US further in the region.

A Decision to be Made

Tomorrow it is likely that either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be elected president and will be given the authority to decide the extent of US involvement in Syria. If elected, Trump will likely defer to Russian interests in Syria by allowing the Russian military to bomb the Syrian rebels into submission. Hillary Clinton will implement measures to assist rebels, while likely risking a standoff with another nuclear power. There are no sure solutions for the civil war in Syria. The plans put forward by the candidates will not stop the violence and it is difficult to say which will best mitigate the rising human costs. Forming a coherent US policy in Syria involves making a choice many of us would rather avoid making. That is precisely why we elect politicians to make such decisions on our behalf. So one thing is certain: whoever you are, vote for the candidate you think will best serve the interests of both our country and human decency when forming US policy on the conflict in Syria.

Image by Joshua Tabti