Tag Archives: Syria

A look at key events in Syria’s Aleppo

The Syrian government’s capture of eastern Aleppo, held for more than four years by rebels, marks a horrific new chapter for Syria’s largest city.

Here’s a look at key events in Aleppo since the start of Syria’s uprising nearly six years ago:

March 2011

Protests erupt in the southern city of Daraa over the detention of a group of boys accused of painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. On March 18, security forces open fire on a protest in Daraa, killing four people in what activists regard as the first deaths of the uprising. Demonstrations spread, as does the crackdown by President Bashar Assad’s forces, eventually igniting a full-scale civil war.

July 2012

Rebel fighters seize eastern Aleppo, dividing the city. The intense fighting that follows, including almost daily barrel bombs dropped on the poorer and more densely populated rebel-held east, causes an estimated 1 million civilians to flee. Another half million are displaced inside the eastern part of the city in the first year of the conflict.

October 2012

The U.N. negotiates a short-lived truce for the whole city during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. Fighting destroys cultural and historic sites, including the Grand Umayyad mosque, which both sides fought to control.

December 2012

Rebels launch an offensive that expands their presence in Aleppo province and secures supply lines to the Turkish border. They seize a number of military and air bases, increasingly isolating government forces. All flights from Aleppo airport are suspended after al-Qaida-linked fighters threaten to shoot down civilian planes.

January 2013

Bodies begin washing up on the banks of Aleppo’s Queiq River, in the rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood. Human Rights Watch says at least 147 bodies were retrieved from the river between January and March. It says the victims were most likely killed in government-controlled areas.

April 2013

Aleppo’s ancient Citadel, used by government forces as a base, comes under rebel fire. The government targets the Umayyad mosque minaret, suspecting rebels were using it as a base. Amid the fighting, passageways between the two sides of the divided city emerge, allowing an informal link for residents, but also turning deadly at times, as sniper fire kills many.

August 2013

Insurgents gain control of the Aleppo-Damascus highway, tightening the siege on the government part of the city. Residents of eastern Aleppo take food and vegetables through illicit passageways to their relatives in western Aleppo.

October 2013

Poor coordination and infighting weaken the rebels’ ranks. That winter, Islamic State militants clash with the rebels, establishing a presence in the eastern part of the city.

December 2013

The government begins an unprecedented campaign of dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo city and surrounding areas, driving more people out of eastern Aleppo. IS expands its presence in the eastern part of city.

January 2014

Rebels unite against IS, driving the extremists out of Aleppo city. Government forces exploit the fighting to push the rebels back.

May 2014

Using a new tactic, rebels tunnel beneath a hotel used as a government command and control center and blow it up. The government’s barrel bomb campaign on eastern Aleppo intensifies.

March 2015

Insurgents blow up the Air Force Intelligence building in Aleppo after digging a tunnel, a symbolic victory. The newly formed Army of Conquest, which brings together rebels and al-Qaida-linked fighters, seizes Idlib city to the northwest.

October 2015

Russia begins launching airstrikes to bolster Assad’s forces. Syrian troops launch an offensive around Aleppo. Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian militias also throw their weight behind the government, setting the stage for a wider offensive against Aleppo that would continue until the following year.

February 2016

Russia and the U.S. broker a cease-fire that excludes extremists. Signs of normal life return to Aleppo.

April 2016

The cease-fire collapses, bombing resumes, and the Castello road, the only road out of eastern Aleppo, becomes a death trap.

July 2016

The government and allied forces impose a full siege on eastern Aleppo, home to an estimated 250,000 people. Rebel fighters break the siege for a couple of weeks from the southern front, but it is re-imposed by August.

September 2016

A cease-fire negotiated by Russia and the United States holds for a few days, but talks to bring in aid go nowhere, and an airstrike hits a humanitarian aid convoy north of the city.

October 2016

Russia announces it is suspending its airstrikes on eastern Aleppo and designates humanitarian corridors, urging the rebels and residents to leave the eastern enclave. The rebels reject the offer, no one uses the corridors and the U.N. says it cannot carry out medical evacuations due to security concerns. The government continues its air raids on eastern Aleppo.

November 2016

The government launches a renewed and intensified aerial campaign. In late November, Syrian troops and allied forces launch a major ground offensive, rebel defenses crumble and thousands flee.

UNICEF calls for end to dire situation in Aleppo

UNICEF’s representative in Syria called Saturday for an end to the violence that has beset northern Aleppo, causing dire humanitarian and psychological impacts on both sides of the divided city.

U.N. agencies are on “standby” to deliver needed assistance, Hanaa Singer of the U.N.’s children agency told The Associated Press.

With the key powers deeply divided, the U.N. Security Council on Saturday once again failed to agree on the course of action in war-ravaged Aleppo, and Syria in general. Russia vetoed a resolution drafted by France demanding an immediate halt to the bombing of Aleppo. A resolution put forward by Russia that called for a separation of moderate and extremist forces in Syria but making no mention of a bombing halt in Aleppo failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes required for passage.

Also on Saturday, Syrian state media and a Syria monitoring group said pro-government troops advanced in a northern district of eastern Aleppo, wrestling control from rebel fighters in their latest push into the besieged area.

Singer said conditions in besieged Aleppo are “terribly dire,” with hospitals hit, doctors overwhelmed, and over 100 children killed in bombings since Sept. 19. Conditions for thousands of displaced in the government-held part of the city are also deteriorating, with some of them being displaced for up to six times in the last three years, she said.

Singer returned earlier this week from a week-long trip to the government-held part of Aleppo where she was visiting thousands of displaced Syrians. Most are crammed in makeshift shelters, mosques, parks and churches after recently fleeing clashes on the frontline between rebels and pro-government forces. In one case, a mother so desperate from the continuous displacement, stabbed her baby girl thinking she will save her the misery of living on handouts and without a home, Singer said.

Describing the dramatic situation for thousands of families living in shelters in government-controlled Aleppo, Singer said: “These (are) the horrors in western Aleppo. God knows what is happening, (in the case of) mental health or the psychological situation on the eastern (rebel-held) side.”

Western Aleppo, controlled by the government, is separated from eastern rebel-held Aleppo by a few meters, sometimes by a single plastic sheet or pockmarked building. An estimated 275,000 people are living in the rebel-held part of Aleppo, with no international aid reaching the area since the first week of July. Besides the scarce assistance, it is also difficult to assess the needs with the ever-evolving violent situation, and lack of access for international aid groups, she said.

“I think we all agree, and especially if you have been so close in the area there and seeing the dire situation in the west, hearing about the horrible situation in the east, all we need now is (for) the violence to stop,” Singer said. “The violence has to stop and once the violence stops, the U.N., we absolutely stand ready. We are ready. We are actually on standby.”

Singer says U.N. plans are in place for government-held Aleppo to accommodate residents that may evacuate the besieged part of the city if a cease-fire takes effect.

According to medical charity Doctors Without borders, hospitals in the eastern side of Syria’s Aleppo have been attacked 23 times since July, damaging all eight facilities that have not yet been shuttered or destroyed. Since the U.S-Russian cease-fire broke down on Sept. 19, the situation in besieged Aleppo has immensely deteriorated under a relentless bombardment campaign. Water stations and civil defense centers have also been hit, while over 320 people have been killed in eastern Aleppo in nearly three weeks of violence.

“In eastern Aleppo, the situation is terribly dire. Lots of schools and of hospitals have been hit we understand that there are only 30 doctors there. We have information that at least over 100 children have been killed. We hear that because of the lack of services and lack of health facilities that some children, that doctors can’t cope with all the cases, and some children in dire situation are left to die,” Singer said.

On Saturday, amid intensive air raids, pro-government forces seized the al-Awijeh district in northeastern rebel-controlled Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory also reported clashes on the southern edge of the rebel-held area. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Syrian State TV reported that government and allied troops took control of al-Awijeh, moving toward the Jandoul roundabout and getting closer to crowded residential areas in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled eastern districts.

Once lauded as a peacemaker, Obama’s tenure fraught with war

Seven years ago this week, when a young American president learned he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize barely nine months into his first term — arguably before he’d made any peace — a somewhat embarrassed Barack Obama asked his aides to write an acceptance speech that addressed the awkwardness of the award.

But by the time his speechwriters delivered a draft, Obama’s focus had shifted to another source of tension in his upcoming moment in Oslo: He would deliver this speech about peace just days after he planned to order 30,000 more American troops into battle in Afghanistan.

The president all but scrapped the draft and wrote his own version.

The speech Obama delivered — a Nobel Peace Prize lecture about the necessity of waging war — now looks like an early sign that the American president would not be the sort of peacemaker the European intellectuals of the Nobel committee had anticipated.

On matters of war and peace, Obama has proven to be a confounding and contradictory figure, one who stands to leave behind both devastating and pressing failures, as well as a set of fresh accomplishments whose impact could resonate for decades.

He is the erstwhile anti-war candidate, now engaged in more theaters of war than his predecessor. He is the commander-in-chief who pulled more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops out of harm’s way in Iraq, but also began a slow trickle back in. He recoiled against full-scale, conventional war, while embracing the brave new world of drone attacks and proxy battles. He has championed diplomacy on climate change and nuclear proliferation and has torn down walls to Cuba and Myanmar, but also has failed repeatedly to broker a lasting pause to more than six years of slaughter in Syria.

If there was consensus Obama had not yet earned his Nobel Peace Prize when he received it in 2009, there’s little such agreement on whether he deserves it today.

“I don’t think he would have been in the speculation of the Nobel committee now, in 2016, even if he had not already won,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and a close watcher of the Nobel committee. Harpviken said he views Obama’s foreign policy as more conventional and limited than he expected, particularly when it comes to using multilateral cooperation and institutions.

When it comes to finding new instruments for peace, he said, “Obama has been stuck in the old paradigm.”

In many respects, Obama’s tenure has been a seven-year debate over whether the president has used the tools of war to try to make peace too much or little.

Obama has been sharply criticized for his refusal to use force to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad, cripple his air force or more aggressively engage in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. Many view Obama’s policies as an unfortunate overcorrection from the George W. Bush-era Iraq war.

“The president correctly wanted to move away from the maximalist approach of the previous administration, but in doing so he went to a minimalist, gradualist and proxy approach that is prolonging the war. Where is the justice in that?” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and the author of the book, “Just War Reconsider.” Obama should have worked harder to rally a coalition around a shared vision of a stable Middle East, he said.

“Part of the requirement of leadership,” Dubik said, “is to operate in that space between where the world is and where the world ought to go.”

The president’s advisers dismiss such critiques as a misguided presumption that more force yields more peace. Cold-eyed assessments of the options in Syria show no certainty of outcomes.

“In Syria, there is no international basis to go to war against the Assad regime. Similarly, there’s no clearly articulable objective as to how it would play out. What is the end that we’re seeking militarily? “ said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “The president doesn’t believe you can impose order through military force alone.”

But Obama has in many other cases been willing to use limited force to achieve limited objectives, even risking unintended consequences.

He has ordered drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Syria, actions that that have killed civilians and sparked tension in those countries and across the international community. What began as a secret program has become more transparent and Obama has aimed to leave legal limits for his predecessor on the use of unmanned warplanes.

But he has left unanswered the question of how or when those actions will lead to peace, some argued.

Looking back on his Nobel speech, that dilemma was already there, said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert and former State Department official.

“What’s strikes me most is how different our concept of war was seven years ago,” he said. “We are engaged in a whole series of infinitely sustainable, low-level actions that have no logical endpoint. When do we stop doing drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan? What level of terrorism is acceptable? … We’re engaged in battles with a whole range of groups that are never going to surrender, so how do you decide to stop it? How do you decide what winning looks like?”

6 wealthiest countries host less than 9 percent of world’s refugees

The six wealthiest countries host less than 9 percent of the world’s refugees, an Oxfam analysis shows.

Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, South Africa and the Occupied Palestinian Territory host more than 50 percent of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers but account for under 2 percent of the world’s economy.

Collectively, the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom hosted 2.1 million refugees and asylum seekers last year — just 8.88 percent of the world total.

Germany recently welcomed far more refugees than the other richest nations, yet a major gap remains with poorer countries providing the vast majority of safe havens for refugees.

Ahead of two major summits about refugees and migrants in New York in September, Oxfam called on governments to host more people in need of safe havens and commit to do more to help the developing countries sheltering the majority of refugees.

“It is shameful so many governments are turning their backs on the suffering of millions of vulnerable people who have fled their homes and are often risking their lives to reach safety,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International said. “Poorer countries are shouldering the duty of protecting refugees when it should be a shared responsibility, but many richer countries are doing next to nothing.”

“The international displacement we are seeing is an unprecedented and complex challenge requiring a coordinated global response,” she added. “The richest countries need to be part of the solution and do their fair share by welcoming and protecting more refugees.”

More than 65 million people have fled their homes because of conflict, persecution and violence; the highest level since records began.  A third of these people are refugees and asylum seekers, while the majority have been internally displaced.

The conflict in Syria has been a major factor, but people are also fleeing violence in South Sudan, Burundi, Iraq and Yemen and elsewhere.

This is happening as the mood for offering safe havens to people on the move is darkening. The recent deal between European governments and Turkey left thousands of people detained in Greece in often appalling conditions and legal limbo.

The Kenyan government, when announcing the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp, said that if Europe could turn away Syrians, Kenya could do the same for Somalis.

“Too many people who have taken treacherous journeys to reach safety end up living in degrading situations littered with abuse, hostility and discrimination and too few governments are doing anywhere near enough to help or protect them.”

On the Web

Oxfam’s petition 

Across Europe, LGBT migrants face abuse in asylum shelters

Alaa Ammar fled Syria to escape not just civil war but also the threat of persecution as a gay man. Yet when he arrived in The Netherlands last spring, he did not find the safe haven he craved.

He and four other gay travelers had to face newly arrived asylum seekers at a migrant center in the remote northern town of Ter Apel.

“After five minutes, they started looking. After 10 minutes, they started to talk. After one hour, they came to us,” said Ammar. “After three hours, they started fighting with us.”

Across Europe, LGBT migrants say they suffer from verbal, physical and sexual abuse in refugee shelters and some have been forced to move out.

The AP found out about scores of documented cases in The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, with the abuse usually coming from fellow refugees and sometimes security staff and translators.

In Germany, the Lesbian and Gay Federation counted 106 cases of violence against LGBT refugees in the Berlin region from August through the end of January. Most of the cases came from refugee centers and 13 included sexual abuse.

Joerg Steinert, head of the federation in Berlin-Brandenburg, said refugees have been asking gay groups for help all over the country, reluctant to approach police for fear of jeopardizing their asylum applications. Last year, the federation placed 50 people in private homes because the migrant centers were too dangerous.

“These asylum shelters are law-free areas,” he said. “When I come to our office on Monday morning, there’s usually a bunch of refugees waiting outside in the hallway who need help immediately.”

Charities and private shelter operators say they’ve simply been too overwhelmed by the huge influx of migrants to attend to some refugees’ special needs. Masses of people often live in one big hall, without lockable rooms or gender-separated washrooms.

In Berlin, where four hangars at the former Tempelhof airport were turned into a reception center for 2,100 people, four cases of gay abuse were reported.

Maria Antonia Kipp, spokeswoman for private center operator Tamaja, said it’s very difficult to create safe spaces for homosexuals when hundreds of bunk beds are separated only by thin wooden boards.

“When we see a dangerous situation or people tell us about it, we’ll get the people out and transfer them to smaller shelters,” she said.

The German Red Cross said it had a code of conduct banning violence at its shelters.

And the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, or Worker’s Welfare charity group, said it is trying to create safe spaces in new centers but cannot implement the highest standards it would like.

“We’ve been somewhat overrun by reality,” said spokeswoman Mona Finder.

Some critics say it is up to the German government to protect migrants. But last month, a proposal to increase the security of asylum shelters was taken out of a government bill, despite official reprimands from the European Commission that Germany is not implementing EU safety guidelines.

Without the government, the protection of gay migrants has largely fallen to rights groups and local communities.

Earlier this week, gay rights group Schwulenberatung Berlin will open a new home with 122 beds for gay refugees in cooperation with the city of Berlin and another shelter with 10 beds was recently opened in Nuremberg. Berlin has also appointed a counselor as contact person for the registration of LGBT migrants.

Schwulenberatung Berlin’s Mahmoud Hassino said the new Berlin shelter would be a big improvement for LGBT refugees.

“Gay refugees live in constant fear in the big shelters,” said the 40-year-old Syrian refugee.

Hassino came to Germany in 2014 and had to move out of a Berlin shelter himself because of the hostility of fellow refugees. 

“Even if they don’t get abused right away, they’re always afraid their identity will be revealed and then they’ll be targeted,” he said.

The situation for gay refugees is difficult all over Europe. In Spain, for example, two migrants from Cameroon and a third from Morocco were physically abused after their sexual orientation was discovered by others at shelters, according to the Pueblos Unidos nonprofit.

In Sweden, a court sentenced an asylum seeker to five months in prison last summer for making death threats, along with spitting in the face and grabbing the throat of a fellow refugee in a center in Jonkoping. When the victim collapsed onto the floor, the attacker kicked him unconscious. Witnesses and a surveillance video backed the claims.

The motive was the victim’s homosexuality. The attacker was “outraged that Sweden protects homosexuality and all should be killed by slaughtering,” according to court documents.

In Finland, cases of gay harassment and abuse also  have been recorded at refugee centers, according to SETA, a nationwide LGBT group. As a result, some of the centers have separated a secure section for those afraid of sexual harassment.

Other migrants have contacted SETA after fleeing their designated refugee center because of abuse. Earlier this month, a Finnish court gave an asylum seeker a three-and-half-year prison sentence for raping a migrant man at a southern Finnish center.

In Denmark, there have been at least 10 cases of harassment, according to Mads Ted Drud-Jensen from the LGBT Asylum group. He stressed that those figures represent only victims who have been in contact with the group.

“Stepping out of the closet may be hard to do and not everyone is talking to us,” he said.

In the Netherlands, a Dutch human rights group reported earlier this month on regular abuse of gays and lesbians at a large camp that can house up to 3,000 asylum seekers near the city of Nijmegen. The group, The College for Human Rights, said one asylum seeker “has repeatedly found excrement and food in his bed. He is threatened and abused by fellow residents.”

The asylum seeker, whose identity was not disclosed, said he feared for his safety because some other refugees carried knives. The report said he often found notes in his bed such as “kill gay” and “we don’t want gay in the camp.”

When Ammar reported abuse in Ter Apel, he and other gay refugees were put up on the floor of a restaurant for a night. Then they were transferred to another shelter in Apeldoorn.

There too, Ammar said, three fellow refugees attacked him and another man in the communal washroom and slashed them with a knife.

“You could see from their eyes that they wanted to hurt me,” he said.

Again, Ammar was transferred, back to a caravan in Ter Apel. Employees with the COA asylum organization advised them to close the doors and windows, he said, but other asylum seekers “opened the windows and said bad things to us.”

Spokesman Jan-Willem Anholts said COA does not keep records of complaints of gay abuse, but does have “protective” measures for people at risk. Anholts also raised concerns that creating safe houses for specific groups could lead to a type of “segregation” in Dutch society.

It was only after Ammar received asylum and moved in with a private host in Amsterdam a few weeks ago that he started to feel really safe.

“Who wouldn’t like Amsterdam?’ Ammar said as he looked carefully left and right before crossing roads — already seasoned at watching out for speeding bicycles in the Dutch capital. “People don’t care if I’m gay or not. I can scream ‘I’m gay!’ and they will say, ‘Welcome.’” 

AP’s top 10 stories of 2015

The far-flung attacks claimed by Islamic State militants and the intensifying global effort to crush them added up to a grim, gripping yearlong saga that was voted the top news story of 2015, according to The Associated Press’ annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.

The No. 2 story was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that led to legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. But several of the other stories among the Top 10 reflected the impact of the Islamic State, while another group of major stories related to the series of mass shootings in the United States.

Among the 100 voters casting ballots, first-place votes were spread among 17 different stories. The Islamic State entry received 37 first-place votes and same-sex marriage 13. The No. 3 story — the deadly attacks in Paris in January and November — received 14 first-place votes.

A year ago, the top story in AP’s poll was the police killings of unarmed blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere — and the investigations and protests that ensued. In this year’s poll, a similar entry, with more instances of blacks dying in encounters with police, placed fifth.

The first AP top-stories poll was conducted in 1936, when editors chose the abdication of Britain’s King Edward VIII.

Here are 2015’s top 10 stories, in order:

1: ISLAMIC STATE: A multinational coalition intensified ground and air attacks against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, including expanded roles for Western European countries worried about IS-backed terrorism. For its part, IS sought to demonstrate an expansive reach by its operatives and supporters, claiming to have carried out or inspired the bombing of a Russian airliner, attacks in Beirut and Paris, and the deadly shooting in San Bernardino, California.

2: GAY MARRIAGE: Fifteen years after Vermont pioneered civil unions for same-sex couples, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in June enabling them to marry in all 50 states. Gay-rights activists heralded it as their movement’s biggest breakthrough, but there were flashes of disapproval. A county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Davis, spent a few days in jail after refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in her jurisdiction.

3: PARIS ATTACKS: The first attack came just a week into the new year. Two brothers who called themselves members of al-Qaida barged into the offices of the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and later attacked a Jewish market, gunning down 17 people in all. Nov. 13 brought a far deadlier onslaught: Eight Islamic State militants killed 130 people in coordinated assaults around Paris. Targets included restaurants, bars and an indoor rock concert.

4: MASS SHOOTINGS: Throughout the year, mass shootings brought grief to communities across the U.S. and deepened frustration over the failure to curtail them. There were 14 victims in San Bernardino. Nine blacks were killed by a white gunman at a Charleston, South Carolina, church; a professor and eight students died at an Oregon community college. In Chattanooga, four Marines and a sailor were killed by a Kuwaiti-born engineer; three people, including a policeman, were shot dead at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

5: BLACK DEATHS IN ENCOUNTERS WITH POLICE: In Baltimore, riots broke out after the death of Freddie Gray, a black man loaded into a van by police officers. In Chicago, Tulsa and North Charleston, South Carolina, fatal police shootings of black men prompted resignations and criminal charges. The incidents gave fuel to the Black Lives Matter campaign, and prompted several investigations of policing practices.

6: TERRORISM WORRIES: Fears about terrorism in the U.S. surged after a married couple in California — described by investigators as radicalized Muslims — carried out the attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people. The rampage inflamed an already intense debate over whether to accommodate refugees from Syria, and prompted Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to call for a ban on Muslims coming to the U.S.

7: US ELECTION CAMPAIGN: A large and varied field of Republicans launched bids for the presidency, with billionaire Donald Trump moving out to an early lead in the polls and remaining there despite a series of polarizing statements. He helped attract record audiences for the GOP’s televised debates. In the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders surprised many with a strong challenge of Hillary Clinton, but she remained the solid front-runner.

8: CLIMATE CHANGE: Negotiators from nearly 200 countries reached a first-of-its kind agreement in Paris on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Many questions remain over enforcement and implementation of the accord. But elated supporters hailed it as a critical step toward averting the grim scenario of unchecked global warming.

9: CHARLESTON CHURCH SHOOTING: A Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, suddenly turned into carnage when a white gunman opened fire, killing nine blacks, including the pastor. The alleged killer’s affinity for the Confederate flag sparked debate over the role of Civil War symbols in today’s South. In less than a month, the flag was removed from the South Carolina State House grounds.

10: EUROPE’S MIGRANT CRISIS: Fleeing war and hardship, more than 1 million migrants and refugees flooded into Europe during the year, overwhelming national border guards and reception facilities. Hundreds are believed to have drowned; 71 others were found dead in an abandoned truck in Austria. The 28-nation European Union struggled to come up with an effective, unified response.

Muslim-bashing GOP candidates score big with Republican voters

Some leading Republican presidential candidates seem to view Muslims as fair game for increasingly harsh words they might use with more caution against any other group for fear of the political cost. So far, that strategy is winning support from conservatives influential in picking the nominee.

Many Republicans are heartened by strong rhetoric addressing what they view as a threat to national security by Islam itself, analysts say. Because Muslims are a small voting bloc, the candidates see limited fallout from what they are saying in the campaign.

“I think this issue exists on its own island,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican political consultant who ran Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s highly unlikely to cause a political penalty, and there is no evidence that it has.”

Since the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, GOP front-runner Donald Trump has said he wants to register all Muslims in the U.S. and surveil American mosques. He has repeated unsubstantiated claims that Muslim-Americans in New Jersey celebrated by the “thousands” when the World Trade Center was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Donald Trump is already very well-known for being brash and outspoken and is appealing to a group of people — a minority of American voters, but a large minority — who seem to like that kind of tough talk,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

Rival Ben Carson said allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. would be akin to exposing a neighborhood to a “rabid dog.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, “I’d like for Barack Obama to resign if he’s not going to protect America and instead protect the image of Islam.”

Such statements appeal to Republicans who think Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, have not done enough to fight jihadis, Green said. The sentiment also plays well for evangelicals concerned about violence directed at Christians in the Middle East and angered about restrictions their missionaries face in predominantly Muslim countries.

“There’s a religious undercurrent here, aside from foreign policy issues,” Green said.

Other inflammatory rhetoric from the Trump and Carson campaigns has generated far different reactions.

When Trump announced his campaign, he said Mexican immigrants are “bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He was widely denounced. Polls find Latinos strongly disapprove of his candidacy and his remarks alienated other immigrant groups.

The potency of comments criticizing Muslims was apparent even before recent attacks by extremists in France, Lebanon and Egypt.

Carson’s campaign reported strong fundraising and more than 100,000 new Facebook friends in the 24 hours after he told NBC’s Meet the Press in September, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Associated Press, “While the left wing is huffing and puffing over it, Republican primary voters are with us at least 80–20.”

“People in Iowa particularly, are like, ‘Yeah! We’re not going to vote for a Muslim either,” Bennett said at the time. “I don’t mind the hubbub. It’s not hurting us, that’s for sure.”

According to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, Republicans view Muslims more negatively than they do any other religious group, and significantly worse than do Democrats. A different Pew poll last year found that 82 percent of Republicans were “very concerned” about the rise of Islamic extremism, compared with 51 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents.

Today, 84 percent of Republicans disapprove of taking in Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslims, compared with 40 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents, according to a Gallup poll released just before Thanksgiving.

In recent years, Americans’ attitudes toward Islam and Muslims have been relatively stable following terrorist attacks. But opposition jumped in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and around major elections. To Dalia Mogahed, research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, those are signs that “the public was being manipulated” by politicians with agendas.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, when President George W. Bush visited a Washington mosque and said “Islam is peace,” public opinion of the faith actually improved, she said. But the absence of such a leader has created a clear path for candidates who oppose Islam.

“They’ve now latched onto Muslims as an easy target with no consequences,” Mogahed said. “We’ve really moved the threshold of what is socially acceptable.”

Singling out Muslims is not new.

Before the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich called for a federal ban on Islamic law and said Muslims could hold public office in the U.S. if “the person would commit in public to give up Shariah.” Huckabee, then considering a presidential run, called Islam “the antithesis of the gospel of Christ.”

But candidates at the top of the field stayed away from such rhetoric.

“The kind of things that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are saying today are things that Mitt Romney would have never said,” said Farid Senzai, a political scientist at Santa Clara University. Romney was the Republican nominee in 2012.

Criticism of Muslims is hardly limited to presidential campaigns. In recent years, there have been ads by anti-Muslim groups and well-organized campaigns against the building of mosques, along with pressure on state legislatures to ban Shariah law.

“All of these things — built up over more than a decade by a few very vocal people — have created a climate in which it is not just acceptable for politicians to play to our basest instincts, but perhaps politically expedient,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an email.

The intensity of the rhetoric is partly a symptom of the large field of GOP candidates, all trying to stake out ground to prove themselves as the most patriotic and toughest on national security, said Charles Dunn, former dean of the school of government at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson, an evangelist and one-time GOP presidential candidate.

“The tone is much more strident now, much less forgiving,” Dunn said.

American Muslims make up just under 1 percent of the U.S. population, Pew estimates. They come from many different backgrounds and are widely dispersed, limiting their political influence, Green said.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a policy and advocacy group based in Los Angeles, sent letters in October to all the presidential candidates asking them to attend the organization’s public policy forum. The candidates either did not respond or declined, council spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said.

“Over the last 10 years, the political and civic organizations for U.S. Muslims have become much better organized, but I think their voice is still fairly muted,” Green said.

Even so, some observers say the verbal attacks risk alienating larger segments of voters, particularly other immigrants worried they could be next.

Suhail Khan, who worked in a number of posts in George W. Bush’s administration and has decried criticism by Republican politicians of fellow Muslims, said: “There’s no doubt that when specific candidates, in this case Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump, think that they can narrowly attack one specific group, other Americans of various faiths and backgrounds are paying attention.”

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When refugees arrive in U.S., here’s what they can expect

The Obama administration has announced plans to steadily increase the number of refugees accepted in the United States for the next two years.

Those fleeing Syria and other war ravaged countries whose claims have been investigated and who have been invited to live in the United States are considered refugees.

Refugees and migrants fleeing Syria and others countries often arrive in their new homes with little or nothing. Here’s a look at what they can expect when they arrive in the U.S.:

HOW MANY PEOPLE:

Currently 70,000 refugees from around the world are allowed to come to the United States. The U.S. will accept 85,000 people in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. People fleeing Syria will account for much of the increase, though not all.

Although more than half of U.S. governors have objected to plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States, with some declaring that they won’t allow resettlement in their states, the federal government controls resettlement programs. State authorities have no legal authority to bar refugees from moving to their jurisdictions.

HOUSING AND FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE:

Upon arrival in the United States, each refugee is eligible for a $1,975 arrival and placement grant that is managed by one of nine refugee resettlement agencies working with the federal government. At least $1,125 of that grant must be spent on housing, including a bed for each person, basic furniture such as a couch, kitchen items including dishes and silverware, and weather-appropriate clothing. The remainder is used to cover additional costs for the aid agency.

Low-income refugee families with children may be eligible for temporary assistance for needy families, a welfare program in which state rules govern eligibility and the amount of money families receive, for up to five years. Immigrants without children or otherwise not eligible for the temporary assistance program qualify for the refugee cash assistance program run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Eligibility for that program lasts eight months.

Elderly, blind or disabled refugees may be eligible for cash assistance through the Supplemental Security Income program for up to nine years.

HEALTH CARE:

Low-income refugees may be eligible for Medicaid for up to seven years. While immigrants to the U.S. are not generally eligible for Medicaid, refugees invited to move to the U.S. are exempt. Each state determines which refugees meet the eligibility requirements. Those who don’t qualify for Medicaid can receive refugee medical assistance for up to eight months.

WORK:

Refugees must register with the Social Security Administration after arrival and are almost immediately eligible for a work permit. Social services, including job placement programs, are available to refugees for up to five years.

OTHER ASSISTANCE:

Low-income refugees may also be eligible for food-assistance programs.

Walker threatens to ignore law and refuse Syrian refugees in Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker on Nov. 16 called on President Barack Obama not to allow any Syrian refugees into the United States pending a full review of security and acceptance procedures.

Walker also said that “Wisconsin will not accept new Syrian refugees,” although he didn’t explain how the state could prevent them from relocating here. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, two Syrians have settled in the state, according to the U.S. State Department.

Walker’s announcement came on the heels of similar statements from the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. All of them cited concerns raised by the Paris terrorist attacks, especially the fact that a Syrian passport was found near one of the attackers.

But despite their objections, governors do not have the power to close their state boarders to refugees. Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration, said governors are prohibited under the Refugee Act of 1980 from blocking refugees from settling in their communities.

Stacy Taeuber, director of the Immigration Justice Clinic, told The Associated Press, “Once you’re lawfully admitted to the U.S. as a refugee, you have the same rights of anybody else that is lawfully in the U.S.”

After living in the U.S. for several years, refugees who meet certain requirements and pass an additional background check are allowed to apply for a green card, Taeuber added.

Republican leaders of the Wisconsin state Assembly echoed Walker, saying they don’t want Syrian refugees in the state either. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said no refugees should be allowed in Wisconsin until steps are taken to ensure no terrorists slip through.

In September, the Obama administration said it would accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees as the nation’s European allies deal with the influx of migrants fleeing war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa.

“The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism, the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife,” the president said at the conclusion of the G20 summit in Turkey.

Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration’s deputy national security adviser, said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the massacre in Paris would not alter the U.S. policy toward taking in Syrian refugees.

See ACLU’s response to Walker.