The Cable

Countries in Crisis at Record High

In an unprecedented situation, the United Nations has declared four of the world's humanitarian crises "Level 3," the organization's highest designation. They are Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic.

The number and scale of these humanitarian crises -- all of which are in active conflict zones -- are placing extraordinary demands on the international aid system, according to organizations with people in these countries.

"I haven't seen anything of this scale before," said Noah Gottschalk, senior policy advisor for humanitarian response at Oxfam America. "Across the board, the humanitarian community sees this as one of the worst moments we've ever had to confront in terms of simultaneous, mostly man-made crises."

He added that while aid organizations like Oxfam "are working to ease the suffering, there's ultimately no humanitarian answer to these crises -- the only real solutions are political."

Another unwelcome milestone was marked in June when U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres announced that for the first time since World War II, the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people.

The complexity and scope of these problems are also unparalleled, said Craig Redmond, senior vice president of programs at Mercy Corps, which has people working in all four Level 3 countries. Sending staff into the midst of ethnic and sectarian conflicts marked by extreme violence requires aid groups to take extra measures to ensure their safety.

"It is really tough to meet all of these needs," said Gerald Anderson, senior director in the department of humanitarian response at Save the Children. The number of crises demanding a response has "put a strain on resources, staff capacity, and fundraising."

The U.N. increased its rating for Iraq on Wednesday, the day before President Barack Obama announced that a U.S. rescue mission on Mount Sinjar was no longer necessary.

"Declaring the crisis in Iraq a 'Level 3 Emergency,' which represents the highest level of humanitarian crisis, will help trigger more resources and expedite administrative procedures for the response," said Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations secretary-general's special representative for Iraq, in a statement.

Most of the 40,000 people -- members of Iraq's Yazidi community -- who were stranded on the mountain have made their way to safety, sometimes by walking for days, and therefore no longer need the U.S. military to evacuate them. While temporarily safe from the threat of the Islamic State, the Yazidis' basic needs like water, food, and sanitation still need to be met.

And they're not alone. The U.N. estimates that 1.2 million people in central and northern Iraq are internally displaced, and that 1.5 million people there need humanitarian assistance.

"Our donors' support, especially from the Saudi government, has made a huge contribution. But more assistance will be needed in the long run," said Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at a press briefing in Erbil on Thursday.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a forum involving key U.N. and non-U.N. humanitarian partners, determines what gets Level 3 emergency designation. The system is relatively new; it was established after a review of the international response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Emergency status is supposed to ensure that when the scale, scope, and complexity of a crisis are massive, the humanitarian community takes certain internal steps to prioritize it in terms of leadership and resources. It also accelerates the releasing of funds.

South Sudan received its Level 3 status in February. According to the U.N., 3.8 million Sudanese need humanitarian assistance, and more than 1 million of them have fled their homes because of violence.

Redmond said South Sudan does not get the same attention as Iraq, Syria, and other places but the international community is deeply worried that the trouble there could become regional. The possibility of famine is also growing: At least 1.1 million Sudanese don't have enough food.

In the Central African Republic, the U.N. estimates that 527,000 residents are internally displaced, while another 399,000 have fled into neighboring countries to escape the violence.

Meanwhile, the human suffering in Syria dwarfs these other hot spots. According to the U.N., 10.8 million people there need humanitarian assistance and 6.5 million people are internally displaced.

But the conflict's size, duration, and complexity hinder organizations' ability to raise money to help alleviate it.

Mercy Corps, like many international aid organizations, raised more money in three days for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year than it has during the entire Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, Redmond said.

Gottschalk said people are far less likely to donate money for man-made and political crises than they are for natural disasters. All four of the U.N.'s Level 3 crises are political in nature, making it difficult to drive donors to give, he said.

In a July report, the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) gave high marks to the international response to the Philippines' typhoon, which also reached a Level 3 designation. But it added that the world's responses to humanitarian crises could be much better.

"In the Central African Republic and South Sudan, countries with considerable security and logistical challenges, persistent problems remain with the scale up of the U.N. and [international nongovernmental] response, which is characterized by bureaucracy and risk aversion," the report stated.

To fill in the gaps in countries such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic, MSF says it had to massively bolster operations.

Meanwhile, there are myriad conflicts that have yet to reach Level 3, including Gaza and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yemen, which is rarely in the headlines, has 14 million people who need humanitarian assistance, including 10 million who don't have enough food, Gottschalk said.

As they look at the world, many in the aid community are asking themselves, "How much worse is it going to get?" he said.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

With Maliki Gone, Can Iraq's New Prime Minister Put His Country Back Together?

Nouri al-Maliki's sudden decision to step down as Iraq's prime minister should keep the fractured country from tearing further apart. The question now is whether his successor will be able to knit it back together.

Just four days after deploying loyalist troops around Baghdad and signaling that he was prepared to use force to hold onto his premiership, Maliki used an unscheduled appearance on Iraqi state-run television Thursday to announce that he was resigning from the post and handing the reins of power to Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite whom Iraq's president has picked to form a new government. Abadi has 26 days to do so, and officials from the United States and across the Middle East will be watching closely to see if the new premier gives key security posts to Sunni leaders as part of a broader outreach effort to the minority group.

"I announce before you today, to ease the movement of the political process and the formation of the new government, the withdrawal of my candidacy in favor of brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi," Maliki said.

Maliki's resignation came after the controversial leader lost the support of the United States and Tehran, his two biggest foreign patrons, and the Shiite clerics, politicians, and military leaders who had been his strongest domestic allies. On Monday, President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation to give a short speech congratulating Abadi on his appointment as prime minister-designate while pointedly not mentioning Maliki's name a single time. On Tuesday, a key Iranian leader with close ties to the country's ruling clerics gave Abadi a similar endorsement. Inside Iraq, meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most revered Shiite cleric, urged Maliki to step aside, a call backed by growing numbers within the prime minister's own political bloc. Faced with the reality that he could only try to hold onto power through force, Maliki resigned.

The move means that Iraq's future is now in the hands of Abadi, a Western-educated engineer who moved to Britain in the late 1970s and became a fierce critic of Saddam Hussein. In the early 1980s, the strongman executed two of Abadi's brothers and sentenced a third to 10 years in prison. Abadi's father, once a prominent Baghdad doctor, joined him in exile in England and died there in 1983. On Abadi's Facebook page, he bitterly notes that his father was buried in London because the Hussein regime wouldn't allow political "opponents to bury their dead in their own country."

Abadi, a member of the British branch of Maliki's Dawa party, returned to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein in 2003 and has since held a succession of political posts. He currently serves as the deputy speaker of Iraq's parliament, a post that has forced him to work closely with lawmakers from Iraq's embattled Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

The strength of those relationships is likely to determine whether Abadi can cobble together a unity government capable of persuading leading Sunnis to cooperate in the fight against militants from the Islamic State, which has conquered broad swaths of central and northern Iraq. The Obama administration, which hailed Maliki's decision to step down, has promised to increase its financial and military assistance to Iraq if Abadi's new government has less of a sectarian bent than Maliki's hard-line Shiite-dominated one.

Colin Kahl, who formerly served as the Pentagon's top Mideast policy official, said Abadi will take office with widespread goodwill within the Sunni and Kurdish communities simply because he is not Maliki, who was reviled for instituting policies that discriminated against both groups. But Kahl said Sunni and Kurdish leaders will be looking to Abadi to quickly make substantive moves that show he is genuinely willing to share power. A key early test: whether Abadi puts Sunnis in control of the powerful ministries of defense and interior, which control the country's military and police forces. Sunnis have wanted those posts for years to ensure that Iraqi security forces aren't used against them the way they were under Maliki.  

"A lot will depend on the initial steps right out of the gate. Who's his minister of defense? Of interior? How much autonomy will he be willing to give Sunni areas of the country?" Kahl said. "He'll have a honeymoon period and an opportunity to turn the page, but it's not inevitable that he'll take it."

Still, Kahl said that Maliki's resignation, and Abadi's pending ascension, was the best news out of Iraq "in a long, long time."

"A couple of days ago, Maliki was making all sorts of noise about legal challenges and threatening a self-coup by deploying security forces across Baghdad," Kahl said. "Now he's stepping aside for a new government that will be better than the one we currently have."

Amer al-Saedi/AFP/Getty Images