IRIN's Top Picks: Syria’s status, the migrant crisis and talking to ISIS

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

Five to read:

Shifting the system

Ahead of next May’s World Humanitarian Summit, the Start Network, a consortium of 24 leading NGOs, presents its mission statement to the gathering. It suggests four urgent changes to help the system respond better in a world of increasingly complex crises. These are: decentralisation towards local preparedness and response; new financial mechanisms to enable change; review and reform of the major humanitarian agencies; and greater accountability across the board. The document sheds light on some of the key policy debates in the run-up to the pivotal meeting in Istanbul.

Combating compassion fatigue


Syria is on the brink of destruction. Nearly half the country’s population has been displaced and some four million people are in need of aid – but are we still paying attention? Hugh Eakin and Alisa Roth highlight this sobering reality in the New York Review of Books: “The greatest threat facing Syria’s refugees today is indifference.” They argue that Syria’s neighbours have “scarce resources” to deal with the endless tide of refugees and so are “closing their borders.” Meanwhile, more and more people are fleeing to Europe, often dying along the way. Those who stay survive on almost nothing or face annihilation by so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The war is in its fifth year, but humanitarian assistance is dwindling. Eakin and Roth insist the last thing we should do is turn our backs.

Deciding who to aid in Syria



How do frontline aid workers in Syria decide who really needs humanitarian help? That is the dilemma being explored by Rezan Hemo, a field coordinator for Bihar Relief Organisation, an NGO serving Aleppo and established in 2011 to respond to the country’s ongoing bloody civil war. In his blogpost for the Humanitarian Practice Network, he suggests: “The challenging job… is to make those truly in need of assistance (be it material or otherwise) feel comfortable enough to accept it in a dignified way.” To tackle the “shame” and psychological stigma attached with receiving relief, he argues that Bihar works to establish “objective and transparently applied criteria” and “consult with the community” to identify who must be given aid – or decide whether “to employ blanket distribution” to local families in need.

How to destroy a war economy

“As long as conflict is profitable, it will remain harder to end.” John Prendergast makes a strong case in Foreign Policy to follow the trail of money made from atrocities unfolding in Africa. In order to prevent corrupt state leaders using middlemen – “arms dealers, ivory traffickers, gold and diamond smugglers” – to make hefty profits from war, he has launched The Sentry, a collaborative project with actor George Clooney to expose insidious financial networks benefitting from mass violence. He concludes: “International policies must focus more overtly on changing the cost-benefit analysis from war to peace.”

10 truths about Europe’s migrant crisis

Did you know the migrants at Calais account for as little as one percent of those who have arrived in Europe so far this year? The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley aims to separate facts from fears in this popular, myth-busting piece about the migrant crisis: “The number of refugees in the UK has actually fallen by 76,439 since 2011… each asylum seeker in Britain gets a meagre £36.95 to live on… 62% of those who had reached Europe by boat this year were from... countries torn apart by war, dictatorial oppression, and religious extremism” - one statistic after another helps to debunk some of the most headline-grabbing, but ultimately bogus, claims about migration to Europe.

One to watch:

Why we don’t know what we don’t know

When studying mass human rights violations, how can we trust our data? Patrick Ball, executive director of non-profit Human Rights Data Analysis Group gives a gripping talk at the Claremont Graduate University Commencement Forum 2015, arguing that “no matter how big it is, data on violence is always partial.” He argues that using flawed statistical methods to study mass data can have dangerous consequences – for example, a systemic lack of analysis on who was being killed and why during the Iraq war meant we didn’t recognise that ethnic cleansing was taking place in Baghdad until it was too late. He ends by stressing the importance of rigorous statistics, using random sampling and modelling. “When you have a giant data set, what is it that you don’t have?” he asks.

One to listen to:

Should we ever talk to ISIS?

In the BBC World Service’s latest episode of The Inquiry, four experts debate what it would take to stop the rise of ISIS and whether it could “ultimately mean talking to them.” The father of James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by the group a year ago, has said governments will have to negotiate with them eventually, while Pope Francis has stated he would never close the door on dialogue. In the podcast, Jonathan Powell, the chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland under former prime minister Tony Blair says: “There is no military strategy for destroying them, so there needs to be a political strategy. That will involve talking to them.” However, journalist Qais Qasim, who is based in Baghdad and has witnessed atrocities perpetrated by ISIS firsthand, disagrees, saying bluntly: “You cannot negotiate with savages.”

From IRIN:

Is Turkey fighting ISIS or the Kurds?

Turkey restarted its bombing campaign against ISIS last month in an effort to tackle the Islamist militant group – but is this also an excuse to go after its long-term Kurdish separatist foes, the PKK? IRIN ran a fact check and the evidence is damning – just nine ISIS militants have been killed by attacks so far, compared with nearly 400 Kurdish fighters. It seems that while many in the West view ISIS as the most immediate threat for Turkey, those in power in Ankara seem to disagree.

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