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Mercyhurst graduate student shares ‘Conversation with Free Syrian Army’

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A young, female graduate student sat cross-legged in a rundown shack in Bayramtepe, Turkey, strewn with weapons, cigarette butts and dirty socks. Across from her were 15 former members of the Free Syrian Army.

For 23-year-old Melonie Richey, a second-year graduate student in the intelligence studies department at Mercyhurst University, the squalor was worlds away from her high-tech intel lab, where last fall she spent untold hours researching the movement of refugee populations across Turkey arising from the civil war in Syria.

It was now January and she had traveled to Istanbul to reconcile her charts, calculations and methodologies with reality. The trip was not part of her project, said professor Kristan Wheaton, J.D.; rather it was entirely the will of a serious-minded intel analyst with an unbridled passion for the work. Richey aspires to a career in national security after she graduates this spring.

At Mercyhurst, she had used open source research to define the ethnolinguistic landscape of Turkey and analyze its alteration from the Syrian refugee movement. Since the refugee population is not a homogenous group, she crafted a simulation that predicted population movement and added qualitative research to reflect where Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Alawites and Christians from Syria would gravitate once in Turkey.

“I went to Turkey to talk to the people to see if they had followed the paths I established in my simulation,” Richey said.

She had a good feeling about the result. Her simulation had already accurately predicted two provinces in Turkey where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had recently erected new refugee camps.

Once inside Turkey, she found her research largely validated, but not without a surprise or two.

“I learned, for instance, that about 30 percent of the people I talked to had come to Istanbul by way of Cairo,” she said. “I didn’t expect that.”

Nor did she expect to find herself privy to so many profound human histories, many incredible accounts of flight and capture, incarceration, loss and despair; as told to her by some 20 families and more than 100 individuals. The encounters were facilitated by the director of an independent Syrian refugee organization and two translators. Together, the four of them took day trips from Istanbul to remote enclaves of urban refugees.  These were not, she said, the UN tent camps situated at the border. Instead, she said, “Imagine the slummiest part of New York City and multiply it by 10.

“Everyone had a story … My son, my brother, my husband, they would start … one lady had three children and her husband had been in jail for over a year in Syria. She said they had an agreement that if one of them was incarcerated or killed, the other would continue on. 

“I saw horrible living conditions, crippled people with no doctors, children with broken bones who had no way of getting them fixed.”

 One of the more personally impactful encounters was her meeting with the 15 members of the Free Syrian Army, one of the leading opposition forces in the Syrian civil war.

Looking across the room at these young men, who had given up the fight to search for jobs in Istanbul, she asked, “What was a normal day like for you?” A man who had been with the FSA the longest answered in broken English, "We mostly fought Hezbollah in Damascus. They were our main opposition. We lived normal lives, generally. Wake up, eat something, but sometimes, most days, we had to fight."

Admittedly, Richey felt a bond with these young men. “They were studying at a university. I was studying at a university,” she said. “They were 23. I’m 23. Under other circumstances, we could have been friends. And, yet, I get up every day and go to school and run my simulations and these people wake up with AK-47s and tell me how many Syrian regime fighters they’ve killed in a day.” 

Besides her encounters with families, individual refugees and FSA members, Richey also spoke with defected Syrian military fighters, the directors of two independent Syrian refugee organizations and three self-identified members of Al Qaeda. She is sharing some of her stories and much of her research through professor Kristan Wheaton’s blog, Sources and Methods. See her first installment:  “My Conversation with the Free Syrian Army.”  

In the meantime, as part of her capstone project in Strategic Intelligence this spring, Richey will replicate her method for tracking refugee populations, this time in Africa, as part of a project for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.