11/23/2015 08:36 EST | Updated 11/23/2016 05:12 EST

The War Against ISIL Begins With The Battle For The Refugees

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
HATAY, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 21: A Syrian refugee kid fled from his home due to civil war is seen at a house in Reyhanli district of Hatay on November 21, 2015. Syrian refugee families who fled their country due to the ongoing civil war try to hold on to life as they live in rented houses, tents and storehouses. (Photo by Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In 1939, 907 Jewish refugees made the harrowing journey to Canada aboard the transatlantic liner, the St. Louis. Women. Children. Innocent people. They were, of course, seeking life. Life which was promptly denied by the Canadian Government of Mackenzie King as they were turned back to Germany to be tortured, raped, gassed, murdered. Because they were Jews. As many people believe about Syrians and Iraqis running for their lives today, it was widely believed at the time that Jews could not conform to the laws of the land and could not change their cultural and religious beliefs in order to assimilate into Canadian society.

Only 5,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Canada during the twelve years of the Nazi regime. I remember learning, as a child, about Prime Minister Mackenzie King and my country's general policy of "none is too many". Learning that I was one of the too many. I can still feel the distinct sting of that betrayal.

Today, people in positions of leadership and power are equating refugees with the terrorists they are fleeing simply because they are Muslims. Indeed, the only correlation between the Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the Paris murderers is that they identify as Muslims. It appears that most and possibly all of the terrorists in Paris were Belgian and French nationals. Nevertheless, many continue to conflate the two and to urge our governments to close our doors. Like the statesmen of 1938, including the American President at the time, they see a fifth column among the sea of the suffering.

The cruelty of ISIL is matched only by its shrewd assessment of the West. The masterminds of the Paris attacks were keenly aware of the seething anti-Muslim bigotry that bubbles just below the surface of our society. This knowledge allowed them to recruit us in their mission, to make us an accessory to the operation, which continues to play out. Like all ISIL operations, the intention of Paris was not a hit-and-run styled murder. It was thoughtful, intended to invoke psychological and emotional pain, intended to threaten the very ideals we presume to be fighting for, undercutting. It was intended to confirm for these refugees that they cannot escape the long-reaching arm of ISIL; that even if their children have escaped the blades of ISIL's swords, they will not escape the West's leveraged hatred in what is becoming a two-front war against these victims. It was intended to make us live up to the cruel effigy of the West that ISIL propagates to their followers, to use our reaction to the refugees as promotional material in their recruitment endeavors and radicalization agenda.

Our fear and hatred of the "other" is so dependable that they factored it into their strategy so that, once again, innocents will be delivered into the hands of murderers.

A fake Syrian passport left at the scene of the attack by one of the attackers was all that was needed. A moment of common sense reflection should have suggested that this was a mere ploy to stigmatize innocent refugees who had escaped the grasp of ISIL. The attacker certainly wouldn't need it where he was going. Moments after the passport emerged, experts and academics took to the media telling us that it would have been uncharacteristic and inefficient for ISIL to smuggle its own through the refugee channels rather than activate an agent already abroad, because as we learned from the Paris attackers, many members of ISIL hold Western passports. Not that this reasoning would have any bearing on those eager to justify their hatred. A fake passport. Almost childish in its simplicity.

But they believed it would be enough. These murderers believed that all they needed was to provide the spark. We had prepared the kindling on the hearth. They believed that we would lay the blame at the refugees' feet in spite of ISIL's agenda of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims. They believed that our assessment of the fault would ignore the fact that 130 innocent Muslim civilians killed at the hands of ISIL in Syria and Iraq is a number that has long been deemed too small to warrant an international headline. They believed that we would be blind to the orphans, the amputees, the families and see only Muslims. That we would equate the term Muslim -- the belief system of 1.6 billion people on this earth -- with the term terrorist. Our fear and hatred of the "other" is so dependable that they factored it into their strategy so that, once again, innocents will be delivered into the hands of murderers.

The ease with which so many of us surrender the very ideals we purport to be fighting for is chilling. This war against ISIL is a battle for our humanity. And victory begins with self-reflection. It begins with understanding the toxicity within our society. If we fail to recognize and address the hatred and the bigotry within that allows us to become the tools of our worst enemies, we are, in fact, executing our intended role in their operation.

For this one of many reasons, we must open our hearts and our doors to these innocent victims. If we become the slaves of our own reactions, mindlessly firing no matter at whom we direct our scourge, abandoning our humanity, equating the murderers with those they have murdered, then we have become foot soldiers in their holy war and there remains no battle left to fight. We lose this war by allowing the cancer of this hatred to expand until those values we seek to protect become unrecognizable. Until we become unrecognizable.

I listen to the vitriol spouted at Muslims. I read headlines telling me that my fellow citizens have been attacked in our streets, that mosques have been burned. And I find myself on the St. Louis in 1939. I imagine myself holding my seasick shaking child, revoking the promises of a merciful new land, telling her that perhaps this world is not meant for the innocent. I imagine how I would pray to my God for mercy as Canadian authorities redirect us to the Nazi ovens.

One day, when my child will ask me why the Jews were turned away and sent to their deaths, as I asked my own mother, how will I be prepared to answer? How will I ever again utter the words, "Never Again," if I do not help today?


Syrian Civil War Death Toll

  • Civilians 115,627
    Shaam News Network via AP video
    Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the deaths in the civil war.

    Just this Friday, at least 47 people died when a Syrian government airstrike hit a marketplace in Douma, east of Damascus.

    While Assad's shelling and bombing of residential districts takes huge toll but there have also been reports of fatalities linked to US-led coalition actions.

    A harrowing report by HumanRights Watch also claimed government forces have been responsible for the detention and torture of hundreds of children.

    Testimony from one child said: "Every so often they would open our cell door and yell at us and beat us. They said, 'You pigs, you want freedom?' They interrogated me by myself. They asked, 'Who is your god?' And I said, 'Allah.' Then they electrocuted me on my stomach, with a prod. I fell unconscious. When they interrogated me the second time, they beat me and electrocuted me again. The third time they had some pliers, and they pulled out my toenail. They said, 'Remember this saying, always keep it in mind: We take both kids and adults, and we kill them both.' I started to cry, and they returned me to the cell."

    The war has created nearly 4 million refugees, many of who have fled to Europe. In the image above made from video posted online by the Shaam News Network, a loosely organized group opposed to Bashar Assad, on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows the bodies of people killed in Syrian government airstrikes in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. The United Nations humanitarian chief said on Monday he is "horrified" by the attacks on civilians taking place in Syria, singling out in particular government airstrikes the previous day that killed nearly 100 people in a Damascus suburb.
  • Regular Regime Soldiers And Officers 52,077
    The Syrian Armed Forces are the official military of Syria coordinated by the country’s beleaguered government. They consist of an army, navy, air and defence force and number around 220,000 regular servicemen and women.

    The force has shrunk by close to half since civil war began in Syria in 2011, but it retains a flexibility which complements the guerrilla nature of battles and combat in the country.

    Before the beginning of the Syrian civil war, mandated military service for men aged 18 was in decline. But since the Syrian government has re-focused its efforts on ensuring its young people serve in the armed forces.

    Deep-rooted fatigue has begun to effect its capabilities on the ground, however, with reports suggesting the Syrian Army’s ability to fight on multiple fronts, in tactically challenging conditions is severely restricted.

    Most recently declining support for the Syrian government and a lack of morale amongst soldiers have further impacted its army’s effectiveness. A pact with Russia to provide airstrikes was signed in September 2015 – after having previously been resistant to foreign involvement.

    In the photo above, Syrian soldiers carry a wounded comrade on a stretcher in Harasta, northeast of Damascus, Syria, Thursday, Oct. 22, 20115. Syrian troops have been fighting rebels in the frontline district, which lies on the northeastern edge of Damascus and only few kilometers (miles) from the presidential palace, since 2013. Neither side has been able to make a breakthrough in the fighting, although state media has reported Syrian army advances in the last week as part of a major army offensive.
  • YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units), Rebel And Islamist Fighters 42,201
    AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
    The ongoing Syrian Kurdish-Islamist element began in parallel with the country’s civil war. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamist rebel factions have fought over control of Islamist-controlled regions around Ras al-Ayn.

    Street fighting has seen hundreds of fighters killed on both sides, resulting in dozens more injured and others kidnapped and missing.

    Islamists including so-called Islamic State continue to fight sporadic battles to retain control of key territory while Kurdish forces aim to disrupt their routines and attack ill-defended camps.

    Conflict in the northern territories known as Rojava has seen Kurdish forces attempt to adopt an autonomous region, while military and allied groups have fought to regain control.

    The Kurds are seeking to control an area of strategic importance to Jihadist groups, who seek shelter and income from its geographic assets.

    In the photo above, Syrian Kurdish fighter Delkhwaz Sheikh Ahmad, 22, sits with his sons, Dilyar, left, 3 and Ibrahim, 2, right, at his brother's house in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, as he prepares to leave for Kobani, Syria, to rejoin the fighting, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014.

    Sheikh Ahmad is a member of the Peoples Protection Units, also known as YPG and is fighting against militants of the Islamic State group in Kobani, Syria.

    Every few weeks, he takes a couple of days to cross the border into Turkey to visit his family that had evacuated. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters.
  • NordNordWest
  • Islamic State And Other Islamist Factions 37,010
    AP Photo/Mehmet Shakir, File
    One of the most complicating factors in the conflict in Syria is the presence of Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda and the infighting between the rebel factions.

    Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, the al-Nusra Front, formed in 2012 in response to the Syrian regime's "massacre of Sunnis".

    In 2013, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the merger of his group with al-Nusra.

    Al-Qaeda rejected the move and the two groups have since operated independently.

    While nominally fighting against the forces of Assad, IS have also fought rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front.

    January 2014 saw rebel groups attack IS near Aleppo in the north of the country .

    In summer of 2014, IS gained their biggest victory with the capture of the town of Kobani just south of the Turkish border.

    The fight to recapture the town saw the Free Syrian Army fighting alongside the Kurdish YPG.

    US and western forces are also fighting IS. Until this week this has mostly been in the form of airstrikes but President Obama has now announced special forces will engage the group on the ground.

    Despite all this - and muddying the picture even further - elements of IS have co-operated with the Al-Nusra Front to fight Hezbollah.

    The battle for supremacy between jihadi groups in Syria has been incredibly damaging for the Syrian opposition and diminish the likelihood of a national or even provincial victory.

    In the photo above taken on Saturday, April 18, 2015, a car passes in an area that was destroyed during the battle between the U.S. backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters, in Kobani, north Syria.
  • Nationalist Syrian Fighters 35,235
    Assad's forces are supported by a number of nationalist groups, the largest of which is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).

    This organisation and others such as the Arab Nationalist Guard and the Syrian Resistance espouse an ideology counter to the religious and sectarian lines that characterise many others in the conflict.

    These fighters are not part of Syria's official army.

    In the photo above, a Lebanese member the Syrian Social Nationalist Party carries her son with colors of the Syrian national flag is painted on his face, during a demonstration against a possible military strike in Syria, in front of the United Nations headquarters, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013.
  • Foreign Pro-Regime Shia Militia Fighters 3,395
    In an attempt to shore up losses inflicted upon his regular forces, Assad has been forced to recruit Shia fighters from abroad.

    Some sources suggest up to 40,000 may have come from countries such as Lebanon and Iraq to defend Shia holy sites in Syria from the Sunni Islamic State (IS).

    Such groups are funded and trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

    Many of these fighters have since left Syria to concentrate battling IS in Iraq.

    The fight against Islamic State by the US and western forces could have the unintended consequence of bolstering Iran's influence on the region.

    In 2013 many of these groups merged to form the National Defence Forces (NDF).
  • Defected Soldiers And Officers 2,551
    At the start of the uprising, a group of Syrian Army officers defected and founded the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011.

    The FSA is mostly made up of Sunni Muslims but also contains a number of Alawites, Kurds and Druze elements. By July of 2012 their number was estimated at 100,000.

    Their aim was to be the "military wing of the Syrian people's opposition to the regime" and they are one of the main rebel groups backed by the US.

    They are currently in control of the Idlib governorate in the north-west of Syria and are fighting IS as well as Assad's forces.

    Despite receiving $123 million from the US in "non-lethal aid" in 2013, the group has been hampered by infighting and lost fighters who joined the better equipped and more motivated Al-Nusra Front. As the FSA's rebellion stalled that year, more and more fighters felt compelled to join this and other Islamist groups.

    Currently the FSA is described as "a loose-knit association of groups" and has been subject to airstrikes from Russian jets.

    The FSA have worked alongside the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF).

    For a detailed breakdown of this group see this incredible interactive infographic by Al Jazeera.

    In the photo above, Syrian army defectors celebrate shortly after they defected and join the anti-Syrian regime protesters at Khaldiyeh area in Homs province, central Syria. Now four years later, the activists’ goals are eclipsed in a conflict many believe has become a choice between rule by Assad and rule by Islamic radicals and they prefer the former.
  • Hezbollah 971
    AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari
    Hezbollah is a powerful Shiite Islamist group and a Lebanese political party, formed in the wake of the Israeli invasion of the country in 1982.

    Although they perform many social programmes including the running of hospitals, their armed paramilitary wing, the Jihad Council has carried out numerous attacks against the US, Israel and other Western interests.

    This has lead to them being deemed a terrorist organisation by countries including the UK, US, France as well as the EU.

    They fight in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad, reportedly committing 2,000 fighters against rebels in the battle for Aleppo in June.

    Much of their funding and weapons come from Iran and benefit from Russian air strikes.

    Hezbollah's Secretary General, Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, recently claimed that once they were finished in Syria they would concentrate once again on Israel.

    In the photo above, Hezbollah fighters carry the Hezbollah flag-draped coffins of Shiite fighters, who were killed in Syria supporting Syrian government forces, during a rally to mark the 13th day of the Shiite mourning period of Muharram, in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Shiite Muslims observe Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, as a month of remembrance and in particular they mark the death in the 7th century of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in present-day Iraq.
  • Unidentified Dead 3,258
    AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File
    Unfortunately the horrors and scale of the conflict mean many of the dead have simply gone unidentified.

    In this photo from 2012, a Free Syrian Army soldier, left, looks at dead bodies laying on a roadside in front of al-Shifa hospital, at al-Shaar neighborhood, in Aleppo city, Syria.

    From the three-year-old boy who washed ashore on a Turkish beach to the 71 migrants who suffocated in a truck in Austria to the daily scenes of chaos unfolding in European cities as governments try to halt a human tide heading north.

    There is no let up to the horrors that Syria'€™s civil war keeps producing. Syria's brutal conflict, now in its fifth year, has touched off the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.