Confirmation of the death of aid worker Kayla Mueller, thought perhaps to be the last American held captive by the Islamic State, is a tragic reminder of how outside humanitarian assistance has become almost totally absent from the areas of Syria and Iraq held by the jihadist organization.
As the United States and especially Europe have focused on stemming the flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State from the West, less attention has been paid to the inverse departure of humanitarian workers and journalists from large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Like many of the Islamic State’s Western hostages before her, Ms. Mueller got caught in the period of transition in Syria from a civil conflict to a more complex battlefield involving Islamist terrorism.
Mueller had gone to Turkey and then Syria out of a desire to help the Syrian people in the months after the Syrian civil war deepened.
“Syrians are dying by the thousands, and they’re fighting just to talk about the rights we have,” Mueller told her hometown newspaper, the Prescott, Ariz., Daily Courier, in a 2013 interview. “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal.”
She was abducted by the Islamic State in August 2013.
Already by late 2012, when Syria’s civil war was entering its second year, United Nations aid organizations began restricting the movement of their workers and reducing the areas reached with humanitarian assistance. Since then, the territory the UN and nongovernmental aid organizations can reach has shrunk considerably more, especially since Islamic State fighters poured out of northern Syria to take control of large parts of northern and eastern Iraq in the summer of 2014.
For example, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, has had to reduce its presence in Syria as terrorist groups targeting Westerners have expanded their presence. The organization is known for maintaining medical services in war-torn areas long-since abandoned by other aid groups. But last May it was forced to shut down a hospital and two medical centers in northern Syria after a rash of kidnappings of staff members.
"The reduction of humanitarian aid is a direct consequence of the kidnapping of aid workers," MSF said in a statement at the time. The reduced presence meant that 150,000 Syrians in the area would be deprived of medical assistance, according to the group.
Intelligence suggests that the Islamic State is out to rebuild its numbers of Western hostages, Western officials say, making it unlikely international aid groups will send workers anywhere near areas held by the terrorist group for the time being.
The White House said Tuesday the US knows of at least one other American being held hostage "in Syria," while other Americans are thought to be held elsewhere in the region.
Journalists, too, are largely absent from areas controlled by the Islamic State. Media organizations are able to reach residents of the areas with cellphones or to interview anonymous Iraqis and Syrians who have traveled to the areas. But the beheadings of Western journalists have put Islamic State-controlled territory off limits.
One American journalist thought possibly to still be alive in Syria, Austin Tice, disappeared a year before Mueller was abducted, in August 2012. A former Marine who reported for a number of US media including the Associated Press, Mr. Tice is not thought to have been abducted by the Islamic State, which was still in a formative stage when the abduction occurred.
As the absence of Western aid groups and humanitarians like Mueller from large parts of Syria has grown, those groups and individuals have been replaced by thousands of Westerners drawn to Syria to fight for jihad and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL).
Almost 20,000 foreign fighters are thought to be in Iraq and Syria, with perhaps 20 percent of those from Western countries – including the US but primarily from Western European countries such as France, Belgium, and Britain.
US officials speaking out on Mueller’s death focused on the deep contrast between Mueller’s humanity and the Islamic State’s depravity, just as Mueller’s family and friends on Tuesday called on Americans not just to honor a humanitarian but to remember suffering Syrians.
“While ISIL exploited the crisis in Syria to rule by violence and massacre the innocent, human tragedy moved Kayla to do the opposite,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Kayla’s sense of values, her humanity and generosity, her idealism” he added, “this is what will endure, and it will endure long, long after the barbarity of ISIL is defeated.”