Category: Syria

Early Rx to Syria Chemical Attack

I received the below, horrifying mail earlier today, before the news broke on the mainstream media.  It was written by a ranking Syrian-American physician, whom I have gotten to know this past year through the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS).  He has been traveling back and forth to Syria during the war to staff trauma clinics across the country, for months at a time.

[Related, see Dr. Jaber Hassan’s interview with WATE here:]


This morning over thousand of civilians that belong to human race mostly children sleeping in their homes were mercilessly attacked by the Syrian regime using the largest chemical attack ever being launched in this century against human race. This occurred this dawn in the several small towns surrounding Damascus while the UN chemical weapon investigators are in Damascus 5 star hotels not even considering visiting these areas. These attacks this AM have killed over 1300 people mostly children. This day, 8/21/2013, is shame on humanity who is collectively responsible for this innocent huge toll of innocent life and the consequent turmoil and vicious cycle of terrorism that is the natural outcome of the sleepy world conscience

Anti-Killer Apps & The Arab Revolutions

It is not surprising that the power of technology available to support post-conflict humanitarian action vastly surpasses the ability of governments, multilateral organizations and commercial enterprises to deploy it optimally. It is usually the smaller, nimbler, locally-rooted organizations that are usually best able to respond to local crises. Yet by their very nature, these organizations must be discovered and empowered if they are to act on a larger scale. It is here that politics comes into play.

Take ‘medicine and the Arab Spring’: There are a number of regionally-focused medical organizations, projects and technologies that could have a substantial impact in reducing human suffering in the field, and yet are healing at levels far below capacity, mainly because the smaller and the larger organizations are not speaking to one another as optimally as they might. A few examples from personal exposure as Co-Founder of the Avicenna Group, which has been working to boost medical capacity in post conflict regions (Libya, particularly), since 2011.

Mobile Ultrasound in Syria:  Pushed to its Limits

Within the Syria crisis, which has claimed by some estimates more than 100,000 lives, a U.S.-based organization called SAMS, the Syrian-American Medical Society, has spearheaded a series of truly inspiring humanitarian efforts. SAMS’ staff, most of which are senior American physicians, undertake regular, extended tours in country as trauma surgeons and advisors, in the most extreme of conditions.

One new technology in particular has proven hugely useful in the field. The VSCAN, a portable ultrasound scanner manufactured by General Electric, has been a diagnostic boon to the various field medics and hospitals — in ways that the manufacturer probably never envisioned. Indeed, General Electric corporate was unaware until recently that their products were playing such a prominent role in treating Syrian war wounded.

Severe conditions breed innovation, not only in technology, but also process: SAMS purchased 40 both rehabilitated and pared-down VSCANS, transported them to the Turkish-Syrian border and from there, into Syria, where they have saved many lives. The small size, versatile nature and ease of use of the VSCAN often makes it the only diagnostic tool within reach, both literally and in terms of cost (the units start at about 8000 dollars). In the cities of Homs and Aleppo (high-casualty centers for the Syrian opposition), for example, single-digit units are serving populations of 1-2 million.

SAMS is not just putting this technology to use, it took the lead to successfully lobby for an amendment to Anti-Assad sanctions that would allow legal delivery of VSCANs into the battle theatre. SAMS estimates that it needs another 40 of these units to reach the limits of its own capacity to assist.

The current push is to get more VSCANS into Syria, Turkey and Libya, to extend their use with power-enhancing accessories (the field life of device’s batteries is a large constraint). There is an effort underway to bundle VSCANs with expert-made diagnostic videos featuring the VSCAN, and to create detailed logs as to how the VSCANS are being used. The resulting ‘how to’ videos and logs would be made available free of charge to train medics and crisis planners outside of the region in use of the VSCAN and associated tools– all of which would benefit the suffering Syrians, of course, but also future trauma victims worldwide. From the manufacturers’ perspective, it could also be expected to create a much larger commercial market for these tools inside and outside of Syria.

‘1-1-1’ in Benghazi, Libya

Benghazi is a city largely without addresses, and without ambulances. When citizens in this city of 800,000 need urgent assistance, they count on friends and relatives to take them to one of the city’s six hospitals. The capacity of these hospitals varies greatly from week to week, and day to day. God help those heart attack, bombing victims or pregnant mothers with complications if they’re taken to one of those clinics that’s closed.

Benghazi officials tried to address this problem the low-tech way, by erecting a large billboard downtown, on which that day’s ‘open clinics’ are listed. Yet a relatively simple, technology-driven override exists:

A group of graduate students at U.C. Berkeley, assisted by a Bay Area technology firm, spent last semester building a prototype cell-phone-based app that allows the driver or the victim to use his/her GSM phone text a 3-digit number (say 1-1-1), to receive a return text message listing the closest open hospitals — obviating a trip to the “oracle-billboard.” A mapping enhancement developed by StampStreet, may in the near future enable victims to create their own ‘pickup’ addresses and maps, in a city with few valid addresses and little reliable mapping data (try looking up Benghazi on Googlemaps). The main local requirement for all of this is reliable human updating of facility status via independent, secure web connections, and a robust public awareness campaign. Estimates are that hundreds of lives have been lost because of this information breakdown. Undoubtedly many more will be if the situation continues for long.

The above are just two cases in which a small infusion of capital, and a bit more coordination within the local and international communities could have a large impact. There are many more. Every day counts.

Libya Disapora Marketplace

USAID and Western Union Extend Libya Diaspora Marketplace Deadline To June 24, 2013

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Western Union have extended the application deadline for the Libyan Diaspora Marketplace (LDM) to Monday, June 24.  The LDM encourages sustainable economic growth and employment by supporting entrepreneurs who are U.S. citizens or permanent resident members of the Libyan diaspora community, as well as those who have a relevant connection to, or experience in, Libya. The LDM will award up to four winning businesses with matching grants of between $25,000 and $50,000 with accompanying technical assistance.  Proposals need to be submitted by 5 pm EST June 24, 2013.  Information about LDM, eligibility requirements and how to apply can be found at 

A Case for the ‘Responsibility to Rebuild’ (R2R)

I’ve written a paper for the Boston University International Law Journal, entitled: “NATO’s Libya Intervention and the Continued Case for a ‘Responsibility to Rebuild'” (Summer 2013, Vol 31, No. 2, p 365-386)

The abstract is here:

This article evaluates the success of the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya relative to the emergent and fragile doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”).  The paper argues that, while the Libya intervention may have met  formal R2P consensus criteria, the overall success of the operation has been undermined by the failure of the international community to complement international military action with robust assistance in critical areas, including disarmament, national reconciliation and employment generation.  Collectively, these constitute a Responsibility to Rebuild (“R2R”).  This article cites developments in Libya and Syria to suggest that, despite the attendant complexities, some version of R2R is essential to continued relevance of R2P. 


The “Libya Effect” on the Syria Crisis

Did the U.S. miss an opportunity to intervene to some positive effect in Syria over the last two years, or is that a myth?

Libya may provide an interesting, if only partial, answer to that question.  Libya’s own “Islamist” problem is itself a product in part of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan– those conflicts attracted militants looking to hone their skills in the war against Gaddafi; they returned to fight in the Libyan Revolution, and many are now back in Syria helping the Islamist factions within Syrian rebel ranks.  Various sources suggest (this has not been proven), that the U.S. (may) have been providing Syrian rebels lethal aid– without knowing much about the recipients.  Libya (may) have been a source of some of this lethal aid, through “weapons exfiltration” campaigns, which some have suggested were a contributing factor behind the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi on 9/11/12. In the wake of that attack, the city has become something of a  no-go zone, not only for foreigners, but for the Libyan government in Tripoli.  Had the U.S. and the West managed to help Libya recover faster, and had the attack on the US compound in Benghazi been successfully repulsed, Libya would likely be in a far better position to counter the proliferation of, and political power wielded by Islamist elements– which far outstrips their numbers.  Had Eastern Libya been ‘secured’ early on, we might well not have seen the reverse leakage of ‘Libyan’ extremists and weapons to Syria and the Sahel.

At this point, the U.S. has few, if any, good options in Syria.   There have been signs for months that the Syria morass is re-invigorating lightly-dormant sectarian tensions in Lebanon;  Jordan’s leadership has been under great, and public strain, and increasingly used as a recruiting point for Syria-bound extremists.  The stream of refugees into Turkey and Jordan may ultimately make the Iraq war refugee crisis look like a minor problem.  With Hezbullah and Iran trying to take advantage of regional chaos to rearm, and undermine Israel, the prospects of the US being drawn in at some point to support Israel increase.

While the world has waited and hoped that somehow Syria would ‘disappear’, even as tens, and now 100s of thousands have died, we’re now looking at the very real prospect of an all out regional war, with the combatant groups – and consequences– not easily bounded.   Libya might be, again, a good place to focus our efforts in the near term.