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Human rights groups sound alarm over Arab allies in Syria strikes

Human rights advocates who closely follow abuses by some of the U.S.’s new Middle Eastern allies worry about the partnership.

As the United States embarks on a heavy air assault against Islamic State and Khorasan targets in Syria, human rights groups are urging world leaders to keep both the intensifying refugee crisis, and the ongoing abuses of Middle Eastern partners high on their list of priorities.

“What we’re talking about now is a conversation that risks eclipsing what needs to be the immediate focus -- protecting civilians,” said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East & North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. “One major challenge is the thousands of Kurdish refugees blocked from entering Turkey … Another concern is that some of the parties the U.S. government has allied with have problematic human rights records.”

"[S]ome of the parties the U.S. government has allied with have problematic human rights records."'

President Obama and several U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday hailed the fact that military strikes in Syria, which began at 8:30 p.m. Monday night (3:30 a.m. Tuesday local time) were supplemented with operational assistance from five Arab nations: Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE.) Of the group, the UAE’s government is so far the only one to publicly confirm its role. Other nations, including Egypt, have expressed support for the strikes but were not directly involved.

Shortly before leaving the White House for the United Nations in New York Tuesday, President Obama said that “America is proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these nations,” in that it signifies “this is not America’s fight alone.” Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, made similar statements praising the coalition.

PHOTO ESSAY: Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees flee to Turkey

But human rights advocates who closely follow abuses by some of these Middle Eastern governments argue that the U.S.’s enthusiasm for the partnership is misplaced and could potentially strengthen the conditions that allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ( ISIS,) also known as ISIL, to flourish in the first place.

“This campaign and the kind of hysteria about ISIS’s spread in general has the potential to allow oppressive governments to re-legitimize authoritarianism after whatever freedoms were won during the Arab Spring,” said Erin Evers, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Obviously, ISIS’s abuses are horrible and should be condemned in the strongest terms. And if there’s any way to get justice and accountability, then that needs to happen. But these abuses can’t be an excuse for incredibly abusive regimes.”

In Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International has tracked a recent surge in executions reportedly on the basis of forced confessions extracted through torture. According to Human Rights Watch, Bahrain not only has a long history of torturing detainees, but also threatens legal action against people who discuss it. UAE authorities have jailed scores of prisoners of conscience for alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The same is true of Qatar, where in one instance the country’s highest court last year upheld a 15-year prison sentence for a man who wrote a poem considered critical of the ruling family. Qatar also enforces one of the worst sponsorship systems in the region, now on display in the 2022 World Cup construction, which leaves migrant laborers -- mainly from India, Nepal, and Pakistan -- vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

“It’s important that coalition claims not be used by some of the other governments to whitewash their own terrible human rights records,” stressed Bery.

At the same time, said Heather Hurlburt, senior fellow for national security at Human Rights First, “it doesn’t help anything for the U.S. to come into a region and act without regional partners.”

“This is something that’s true throughout history -- it’s very rare that you get perfect partners,” said Hurlburt. “There is a legitimate and understandable reason for us to partner with [these countries,] but ISIS shouldn’t overshadow our long-term goals for them to clean up their act at home.”

Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative late in the day Tuesday, President Obama pledged U.S. commitment to supporting human rights groups abroad, and acknowledged the need for balance between national security goals and working with repressive governments. In this instance, the safety of Americans was at stake, the White House said, in that Khorasan, an al Qaeda-affiliated group, had been plotting for months to attack targets in the U.S. or Europe. But more work needs to be done, argued Hurlburt, in terms of integrating human rights priorities with U.S. military strategy.

More work also needs to be done to address the skyrocketing number of displaced Syrians, now the largest refugee population in the world, UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres told NBC’s Ann Curry Tuesday. Approximately 150,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees have fled to southern Turkey since last week, forcing the Turkish government to close all but two border crossing points, the UNHCR said. That’s on top of the 3.3 million Syrians who have already fled, and the 6.5 million who are internally displaced.

“The U.S. government has provided a significant amount of funding to the UN to assist with refugee issues, but at a global level, the amount of funding has fallen far short of the what the UN says is necessary,” said Bery. “One area where the U.S. can do much more is to assist in the resettlement of Syrians… Some European countries have made a much larger commitment and the U.S. should do the same.”