Saving lives in Aleppo

If you only read one thing today (hell, this week) make it this incredible article about members of a Civil Defense team in Aleppo. Day after day, in a city being turned to dust by Assad's barrel bombs, these young men rush to the sites of bombings to try to rescue survivors. (Or used to rush: they've left too now, as this postscript explains). 

To be hit by an explosion at close range is to experience light and sound as darkness and silence; silence as your ears ring louder than any sound, darkness as dust and smoke envelop you. The air filled with flying chunks of cinder block, and the men were pitched forward onto their hands, the floor suddenly gritty with debris. Khaled leaped to his feet and rushed with the rest of the team out into the pitch-black lot. The station had half-collapsed, and the power had gone out. One of the guys, Omar, had been hurt and a group led by Khaled threw him into the cab of the truck and peeled out. The rest of the team ran across the road and crouched in a narrow space between two houses — they could hear the planes coming back in, and could see red anti-aircraft tracers arc up from the rebel positions to meet them. Another blast sounded close by; the door to one of the houses opened and a young couple, the man cradling an infant in his arms, came out and hurried off into the night.
After about 20 minutes, the bombing subsided, and they dared to smoke again. Annas and Surkhai came out and stood by the road. The moon had risen in a yellow half-circle above the station; no one wanted to go back in, for fear the planes would return. An ambulance screeched up, and the driver got out, gaping at them in astonishment. “When I saw the bomb drop here, I came as fast as I could,” he said. You could see the whites of his eyes. “God has saved you because he wants you to save others.”
The firetruck returned, and Khaled got out. “Omar’s okay,” he told the group. “He just cut his foot.” He stood for a moment and surveyed the grim-faced half circle. The guys were badly rattled. But the Hanano team had never run from the site of a blast. He quickly made a decision. “We’re going to stay here tonight and guard the station,” he announced. “And in the morning, we’ll go somewhere new.”
Nodding their assent, the guys lit up fresh smokes and started joking to break the tension.
“I hope we move to a nice big school,” said Annas.
“They always bomb schools,” responded Surkhai.
They sat in a line on the curb, leaning their shoulders against each other and listening to the shelling, their cigarette embers blinking in red procession, until the sun rose in place of the moon.

Thousands starving on outskirts of Damascus; situation ‘unprecedented in living memory,’ U.N. says

Starvation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee neighborhood in Damascus. Enough to make you hate the world and yourself. 

And then, 12 days ago, after the Syrian authorities cut off food shipments into the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, everything became more dire. More than 48 hours have now passed since the United Nations says food ran out for nearly 20,000 people dependent on aid in Yarmouk, which has suffered some of the worst fighting in the Syrian war. Today the community, which sits on the outskirts of Damascus, is little more than a warren of bombed-out buildings long on rubble and short on everything else.

 

What to do about Syria

This thought-provoking, morally challenging piece by Scott Long -- on what the Western left can actually do about Syria -- is worth reading it is entirety. 

It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

Syria in Free Fall

The NYT's Anne Barnard delivers a tragic snapshot of the Syrian conflict that tells us a lot about the region's, and the world's, inability to resolve conflicts like these:

The government bombards neighborhoods with explosive barrels, missiles, heavy artillery and, the United States says, chemical weapons, then it sends in its allies in Hezbollah and other militias to wage street warfare. It jails and tortures peaceful activists, and uses starvation as a weapon, blockading opposition areas where trapped children shrivel and die.
The opposition is now functionally dominated by foreign-led jihadists who commit their own abuses in the name of their extremist ideology, just last week shooting a 7-year-old boy for what they claimed was apostasy. And some of those fighters, too, have targeted civilians and used siege tactics.

It is not as if the world has no evidence of Syria’s ordeal, which has killed an estimated 150,000 people. Syrians have issued a sustained, collective cry for help from what is now probably history’s most-documented manmade disaster. They capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.

Despite that, to the bitterness of Syrians, the world’s diplomatic attention is drifting. Even as Syria’s epic suffering is remaking the human geography of the Middle East and beyond, initiatives to ease the crisis have sputtered and failed to offer effective help. Already tenuous hopes for an internationally brokered peace settlement have further faded as Russian-American relations worsen.

António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, said that is in part because there is no obvious path to a coherent global response. Given the world’s growing unpredictability, and competing priorities, “crises are multiplying and more and more difficult to solve,” he said. “Afghanistan is not finished. Somalia is not finished. It’s overwhelming.”

Read the whole thing, it's heartbreaking.

Syria: The unraveling

Here  are some articles to get a handle on the various Islamist militias now operating in Syria. Sarah Birke has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books explaining the origins of el Nasra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. 

But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.

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Farewell to Syria, for a while

Syrian writer and dissident Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who after two years in hiding in Damascus fled to his hometown of Raqqa only to find it under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham group. He has now left the country. 

In Raqqa, I spent two months and a half in hiding without succeeding in getting one piece of information about my brother Firas. Nothing could be worse than this. Therefore, instead of celebrating my arrival at Raqqa, I had to keep in hiding in my own liberated city, watching strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun Al-Rasheed or desecrating a church; taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons. All the prisoners were rebel political activists while none of them was chosen from the regime’s previous loyalists or shabiha. With the exception of this flagrant oppression of the people, their property and symbols, the new rulers have shown no sign of the spirit of public responsibility which is supposed to be the duty of those who are in power.

 

Syria's chemical weapons

Brian Whitaker continues to follow the strange case of a widely circulated article alleging chemical weapons were used by Syrian rebels -- one of whose alleged authors has been vainly trying to remove her byline.  

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications"). 
The story got more attention than it might otherwise have deserved because Gavlak's relationship with the Associated Press gave it an air of credibility. Ababneh, on the other hand, is virtually unknown and Google searches for examples of his previous journalistic work drew a blank.
Yesterday, however, Gavlak issued a statement denying that she was an "author" or "reporter" for the article. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said. It was a carefully-worded statement which did not specifically exclude the possibility that Gavlak had been involved in some other capacity in helping to produce the story.

Meanwhile the Sunday Telegraph publishes an interview with a former chemical weapons chief in the Syrian army:

Gen Sakat says he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.

He also insists that all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.

Now he also claims to have his own intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy his chemical weapons by transferring some of his stocks to his allies – Hizbollah, in Lebanon, and Iran.

 


 

 

Al Raqqa: military brigades, the city administration and the revolutions to come

A detailed, fascinating read on the various brigades (their funders, relations to each other, and relations to civilians) operating in the liberated Syrian city of Al Raqqa in July and August. Also, very well written:

Al Raqqa may be liberated but its skies are free to all, at all times. People in Al Raqqa, like all Syrians, often watch their impending deaths pass above them. With their own eyes they watch the planes that kill them coming and going. The helicopters particularly, cause more upset and grievance by their passing than by the death they bring, for everyone can see them. You sense them mocking the glitter of anti-aircraft fire that springs upwards from dilapidated trucks.

The author is Mohammed El Attar, writing for a site that describes itself as a volunteer, non-partisan effort on the part of Syrian researchers and writers to document and analyze the revolution.  

 

The Israeli debate over Syria's chemical weapons and Iran

Israeli officials complain that the delay of American military action on Syria will be detrimental to their national security, and that Obama has left them holding the bag yet again. And while the removal of Syrian chemical weapons under international auspices would benefit Israel, it does not benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates' position on Iran -- where they would like to see military action to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. 

"Israel provided intelligence to the Obama Administration on Syria. Now, [there is] a debate over what they have to show for it," writes Sheera Frenkel. What Israel will "get" at present for its intel on the weapons is the (temporarytabling of the military option against the regime - much to the chagrin of many Syrians opposed to Assad's regime, who had placed high hopes that the threat of strikes would lead to something more than this, a hope that has dimmed every day the U.S. has refrained from an attack. Now, a deal is tentatively in place for these weapons to be removed from Syria under international monitoring by 2014. So the U.S. has legitimized the regime it has simultaneously (though not even half-heartedly) been trying to remove.

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Arguments on Syria

I understand misgivings about US military action in Syria, but I don't understand skepticism over the regime's use of chemical weapons. You don't need to argue that the rebels gassed themselves to be against intervention. The specter of Iraq hangs over us; but in this case there seems to be wide-spread agreement that the regime had the weapons (it's offering to give them up now, after all), the opportunity and the motive. Here for example is Human Rights Watch's report:

The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces.

Meanwhile the Italian journalist Domenico Quirico -- just released after 152 days in captivity in Syria -- has this dispiriting description of his captors:  

"Our captors were from a group that professed itself to be Islamist but that in reality is made up of mixed-up young men who have joined the revolution because the revolution now belongs to these groups that are midway between banditry and fanaticism," he said.
"They follow whoever promises them a future, gives them weapons, gives them money to buy cell phones, computers, clothes."
Such groups, he said, were trusted by the West but were in truth profiting from the revolution to "take over territory, hold the population to ransom, kidnap people and fill their pockets".

But in the pages of the New York Times, Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh argues that jihadism isn't an argument against intervention, and is a by-product of the Assad regime's brutality: 

In the West, reservations about supporting the Syrian rebels that once seemed callous and immoral are now considered justified because of the specter of jihadism. But this view is myopic.
Jihadist groups emerged roughly 10 months after the revolution started. Today, these groups are a burden on the revolution and the country, but not on the regime. On the contrary, their presence has enabled the regime to preserve its local base, and served to bolster its cause among international audiences.
It is misguided to presume that Mr. Assad’s downfall would mean a jihadist triumph, but unfortunately this is the basis for the West’s position. A more accurate interpretation is that if Mr. Assad survives, then jihadism is sure to thrive.

Then there is this contribution to the argument against intervention, which I embarrassingly did not at first recognize as satire: 

"Someone needs to explain to me why gassing Arabs is such a bad thing," she replied. "I mean aren't these the same people that attacked us on September the 11th? Look, the system is working. Arabs are killing Arabs and that means in the future there will be fewer of them trying to kill us.
"I say we send them all the chemical weapons we have, and let them sort it out amongst themselves. Hopefully when it's all over we'd be left with some empty space to colonize. Personally I'd like to see megachurches and Home Depots outside Damascus."

This was too much even for a Fox anchor, who asked:  

"Yes, but these are innocent human beings caught in the crossfire of a terrible civil war," Kilmeade persisted. "Don't you feel any empathy for them at all? I mean Arabs are just as human as we are and should be entitled to the same level of dignity and respect, right?"

  

Syrian rebels and refugees

In the Guardian, Martin Chulov reports from rebel-held towns in Syria on the tensions between different anti-Assad groups and the preparations of jihadis for the US attack. The best part is this incredible description of a restaurant patronized by rebel fighters:  

Kalashnikovs are laid across tables next to salt and pepper shakers, which the waiters gently rearrange to serve plates of grilled chicken and salads. "Let him have it," joked one hulking Libyan as a waiter shifted a rifle to find space for a plate of hummous. "We can take him outside and show him how to use it."

Meanwhile, Karl reMarks is trying to help Western powers find the moderates among Syrian's militias (although "It’s not even clear why moderates would join a revolution, but let’s not pull on that string"). Among the groups he identifies:

The Red Unicorn Brigade
The red unicorns are the true visionaries and utopians of the Syrian revolution. They are the most radical moderate group intellectually, even though their fighting skills leave much to be desired. The unicorns’ slogan is ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ which their vicious enemies have attempted to portray as a rhetorical question. 

And the plight of Syrian refugees in Egypt -- who have fallen victim to the rabid anti-Islamist sentiment (because the Brotherhood was welcoming to them, suddenly now they are accused of being terrorists) and xenophobia of the moment -- is getting increased attention. In the Washington Post, Abigail Hauslohner reports that: 

Syrian refugees say they are insulted and taunted on the streets, charged double for commodities and services, increasingly mugged and robbed, and are harassed by police. Many said they hope to leave.

This petition says many, including children, have also been arrested. 

 

More on Syria

Damascenes were clearly taking the threat of U.S. bombardment seriously this past week. As the UN CW investigators were leaving for Lebanon, Syrian state television replaced its usual diet of fashion and food puff pieces with talk show coverage on whether or not the U.S. would strike, as well as emergency broadcasting information (such as whether or not bakeries would be kept open). 

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The question regarding Syria

A recent statement on the situation in Syria from the International Crisis Group:

Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath.  Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible. 

 

Damascus hotel a home for Syrians displaced by war

Lee Keath of AP manages, miraculously, to tell a story from Damascus that doesn't make you hate everything.   

Once total strangers hailing from far-flung parts of the countryside around Damascus, they have created a sort of communal family in the hotel's cramped quarters. They all live on the third floor, and the wives cook together in the kitchen of the restaurant on the top floor, to which the owner has given them free rein. Their kids play together, dashing around the hallways and up and down the narrow staircase. The husbands — those who still have jobs — come back in the evening and play backgammon together in the restaurant, where the TV is.

In a gesture of support, the owner has cut room rates in half for them, to around $5 a day.

 

In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

You know those nightmarish images of chemical attack victims in Syria you saw (or if you are like me, glimpsed and then avoided looking at) last week? It should be our goal to keep that shit coming, says some Washington think tank jerk in the New York Times Op-ed pages:

... a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

[...]

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This view has been circulating in US policy circles for months. This guy just comes out and says it. 

The new normal in Damascus

Sarah Birke, reporting from Damascus for the NYRB blog: 

While the brutal devastation caused by the Syrian conflict, now entering its third year, has affected many parts of the country, the Syrian government has long sought to portray the capital as an oasis of calm. Unlike Aleppo, parts of which have been destroyed by a year of battle, central Damascus shows few physical scars of war, apart from the many roadblocks and checkpoints, and the burned-out remains of a building northeast of the city that was bombed. Unlike Raqqa, a city in the east of Syria that is in the hands of extremist rebels, Damascus looks like a bastion of tolerant, vibrant life. In this view, the functioning city demonstrates both the continued strength of the regime and the dangers of the increasingly fractured opposition. But as my visit to the Umayyad Mosque revealed, under the surface things aren’t the same in the Syrian capital.

The same day, I went out for dinner with a well-connected businessman—he went to school with Bashar al-Assad and Bashar’s elder brother Bassel and has flourished under the regime, even more so since the crisis started. The restaurant served a take on continental food and any type of alcohol you might fancy. A coiffed young woman with a photo of Bashar as her iPhone cover sang songs as her smiling companions knocked back drinks at a price that would pay the rent of a displaced family for a month. At one point, the businessman got up to use the bathroom and something clattered to the floor. It was a pistol. “Oh, that,” he said. “I am so afraid of being kidnapped. I would rather kill myself than have that happen to me.”

The Syrian crisis in Jordan

This is a belated link to an article by dear friend of the blog Matthew Hall, a beautifully written and sharply observed piece that maps the geographical, social and economic dimension of the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan in the excellent publication MERIP  -- which you should all subscribe to.

(In addition to writing about the MIddle East, Matt is also a scholar of musical esoterica).

Morsy role at Syria rally seen as tipping point for Egypt army

That speech was definitely one of Morsi's top five mistakes. 

Army concern about the way President Mohamed Morsy was governing Egypt reached tipping point when the head of state attended a rally packed with hardline fellow Islamists calling for holy war in Syria, military sources said.

At the June 15 rally, Sunni Muslim clerics used the word "infidels" to denounce both the Shi'ites fighting to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the non-Islamists that oppose Morsy at home.

Morsy himself called for foreign intervention in Syria against Assad, leading to a veiled rebuke from the army, which issued an apparently bland but sharp-edged statement the next day stressing that its only role was guarding Egypt's borders.

"The armed forces were very alarmed by the Syrian conference at a time the state was going through a major political crisis," said one officer, whose comments reflected remarks made privately by other army staff. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to the media.