“If you want to defend against the next generation of extremists, you need education.”
News reports this week are announcing the impending defeat of Syrian rebel forces in eastern Aleppo, one of the last remaining strongholds of the anti-government resistance in that country. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops have pushed back the rebels to just a few city blocks, which they share with tens of thousands of civilians and international aid workers. By all accounts, this last push has been bloody and chaotic. NPR’s Alice Fordham told Morning Edition Tuesday that, “the streets are littered with carnage. The White Helmets, who are a volunteer rescue organization, say they can’t give a body count anymore.” U.N officials report “on the spot” execution of women and children by government forces.
When the fog of war gets this thick, civilians and international nonprofit workers often get caught up in the crossfire. Which makes their willingness to travel to the front lines all the more remarkable. One group engaged in this sort of work is the U.S.-based Heraion Foundation, a veterans-run 501(c)3 currently active in Iraq and Syria. Heraion “recover[s] women and children from extremist & gender-based violence and sexual captivity, while strengthening at-risk communities.” It does this by providing aid and protection to captives of terrorist groups like ISIS, often whisking them away from conflict areas and transferring them to foundation-run safe-houses.
But “it’s not just enough to rescue people on the front lines,” Heraion co-founder Davey Gibian told Good Magazine recently, “If you want to defend against the next generation of extremists, you need education.” This focus on education-as-aid takes a decidedly “holistic” form—again Gibian: “And then it’s not just enough to be educated, you need economic support, you need a job … Freedom isn’t just freedom alone.”
Elsewhere in the Good profile, Gibian notes that the foundation’s capacity for broad thinking comes from its organizational independence—the group shuns any official ties to the U.S. government or military, granting it a degree of operational flexibility that locals in Iraq and Syria recognize and respect. “[The U.S. government is] not there to fight tomorrow’s war, Gibian says, “they’re there to fight today’s and they do that very, very well. We’re there as humanitarians to fill a gap.”
And so far for their troubles they’ve managed to rescue and rehabilitate more than 100 ISIS captives, educate roughly as many displaced children, and employ and train for employment some 250 women from Duhok and Erbil in Iraq. This is in addition to expert advice provided to the Kurdish Regional Government and military forces.
Undoubtedly, groups like Heraion are making a difference in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and helping in their way to avoid future wars by addressing underlying social and economic factors contributing to conflict. In the particular case of Syria, where even rebel forces ostensibly allied against the Assad regime have at times fought among themselves, the convoluted battle lines are often hard to keep straight. When Aleppo falls to government troops, as it looks like it soon will, fighting will continue; Assad and his allies will control the big cities, but opposition forces—including ISIS—still hold power in the north and east. That means the sort of violence against women and children that has marked this particular conflict for so long will carry on, and Heraion will have to redouble its efforts as both sides become more desperate. Another factor: air strikes by Russia will likely also intensify after the fall of Aleppo—air strikes which some reports claim have killed more civilians than ISIS in this conflict.
So international aid groups have their work cut out for them. But some, at least, have their mind on not just helping to end this war but also on preventing the next one.