The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Syria
The Syrian Trauma

Sit yourself down to read, without distraction, this essay by our friend Peter Harling. It drives through, with unforgiving force, through the apathy that many of us who watch Syria from afar (and indeed those of us for whom Syria is a professional interest). There is a "Syria" out there that is synonymous with evil, misery, apocalypse and the collapse of a regional, or even global order. There is a "Syria"that is a "problem from hell" or an argument about i teventionism. And then there is Syria, the country, the complicated people, which is what Peter is reminding us to listen to:

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.”

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

AsidesThe EditorsSyria
The Zaatari refugee camp

Parastou Hassouri has written for the blog before. She has been living in Cairo since 2005, has worked in the field of international refugee law and specializes in issues of gender and migration. This is a detailed (and really engrossing) acccount of her experience working in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees currently reside. 

In March, the United Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that the number of displaced Syrians had reached one million (the real number is surely higher as many Syrians leaving for other Arab countries do not necessarily register as refugees). The UN’s announcement was accompanied by a plea for funding: Only one third of the funds needed had been received. Meanwhile, a number of non-governmental organizations concerned with the Syrian refugee crisis have issued reports, some focusing on the plight of children and women, detailing the urgency of the humanitarian crisis.

Having devoted a good deal of my professional career to refugee law, and yet never having worked in a refugee camp in the midst of an ongoing refugee crisis, I decided to respond to a call put forth by the UNHCR, and spend some time working at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. I only spent three months in Zaatari (November 2012 to February 2013) and what follows are my thoughts based on this limited time period and reflects only my experiences and opinions, and not those of the UNHCR.

First, a bit of background: The Zaatari refugee camp is about 70 kilometers north of Amman, near the town of Mafraq and approximately 30 kilometers from the Syrian border. The camp was officially opened at the end of July, 2012, as the numbers of Syrians coming to Jordan were rising. Prior to Zaatari’s opening, Syrians were housed in the Beshabsheh housing complex, near the town of Ramtha in northern Jordan. Once Zaatari opened, all Beshabsheh residents were transferred to Zaatari camp.

During the time I was in Jordan, two other sites hosting Syrian refugees, also near Ramtha, were King Abdallah Park (a flat, gravelly open space containing prefabricated single room units and shared kitchen and bathroom facilities), and Cyber City (a six-story, simple concrete building, dormitory style, with shared kitchen and bathrooms at the end of each hallway). Both of these facilities were much smaller (each held about 1,000 refugees), and at least half of the Cyber City residents were Palestinians who had fled Syria.

During my time in Jordan, there was talk that an additional camp was going to open east of the town of Zarqa. That camp has not opened yet. As for why Jordan decided to use camps to host Syrian refugees when they had not really done so for Iraqis, most people told me that it had to do with numbers and the fact that Jordan simply couldn’t afford to absorb more refugees. As long as refugees are in camps, the brunt of the expenditure is born by the international community.

When I arrived at Zaatari, the number of residents was estimated to be around 40,000. By the time I left Zaatari, the number had climbed to well over 75,000. The number of refugees in the camp, as of early March, had doubled again, to over 140,000. Of course the exact number of people in the camp on any given day was unknowable. Every day, some people would leave Zaatari: some would leave for other parts of Jordan, some would return to Syria (many only to return again).

Before coming to Zaatari, I had read quite a bit of the anti-refugee camp literature. The term used to refer to the practice is “human warehousing.” One objection (of many) to refugee camps is that they restrict freedom of movement. And yes, technically, once in the camp, Syrians were not allowed to leave the camp (except with permission, or if “bailed out” by a Jordanian). But in reality, there was a good deal of movement in and out of the camp.

Many would ask me if Syrians _had_ to live in a refugee camp in Jordan. The camp was actually set up for people who entered Jordan “illegally.” It is a bit confusing since Syrians do not need visas to enter Jordan. So, the term “illegal” doesn’t have so much to do with their presence in Jordan as it has to do with their manner of leaving Syria -- “illegally,” without the exit visas from government. The term used in Arabic is “tahreeb”. These persons have been escorted to the border by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and crossed the border on foot. Once in Jordanian territory they are met by the Jordanian army and taken to the Mafraq Screening Center where names are recorded, IDs are checked and taken, and the persons and their luggage are searched before the International Organization of Migration (IOM) transports them by bus to Zaatari camp, where they arrive starting between midnight and dawn (although by the time I left Zaatari, when daily arrivals were in excess of 2,000 refugees a day, the buses were coming at all hours). 

At the border, anyone holding a military ID is separated and sent to a different camp called Al-Rajhi camp. These individuals, who are presumably Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) deserters, are separated from the rest of the camp population, even if they have come with their families (so, the wife and children would be sent to Zaatari and the husband to Al-Rajhi). I was told that this was to preserve the “civilian nature” of the camp. More likely, it was to prevent any security incidents at the camp, since there are many Free Syrian Army (FSA) members at Zaatari. I was not able to understand how the presence of FSA in the camp was tolerated and did not threaten the “civilian nature” (especially given concerns about recruitment activity in the camp) when SAF were ostensibly excluded.

One problematic practice at the border was the fact that Jordanian authorities would turn away anyone without ID. The practice was so widespread and prevalent that apparently FSA even informed people of this before they crossed the border. Under international refugee law, the lack of ID should not preclude individuals from obtaining protection (consider that the circumstances under which refugees flee may at times prevent them from accessing IDs or other documentation prior to their flight). Nonetheless, the Jordanians were pretty steadfast on this and only made exceptions for minors. There were also reports of young single men being turned away. The authorities relied on broad “security reasons” for turning away single men. This very quickly led some men to “attach” themselves to families in order to enter (a fact we would learn later when interviewing new arrivals at the camp).

As for the camp itself, well, it was much like what you would expect a refugee camp to be. It is situated in a stretch of desert that was flattened and graveled, with one main paved road running the length of the camp, and rows upon rows of tents and prefabricated containers to either side of the paved road. People with far more experience than I have would tell me that it was a nice camp. One UNHCR photographer called it the “Hilton” of refugee camps (this only made me shudder to think what other camps are like).

Zaatari residents mostly resided in tents. The tents were “winterized” -- which as far as I could tell meant that they were covered in a tarp-like material meant to water proof it. An enclosed aluminum-type portal -- everyone called it a “zinko” -- was placed a the entry of tents (creating a vestibule of sorts) so that heaters could be placed there (so the heaters wouldn’t be taken directly inside the tent and the chances of fire could be reduced).

Of course even with winterization, the tents could not keep water out during the heavy rainstorms of January, which was one of the wettest months Jordanians could remember. And many Zaatari residents decided to use the zinko to make little kiosks on the main street of the camp, from which they sold everything from fruits and vegetables to saaj bread, falafel sandwiches, `awameh and other sweets, clothing, used mobile phones, and much, much more. As a result, heaters were used in tents, and there was the occasional tent fire which would result in injuries, and in a couple of cases fatalities.

A recent photo essay featured Syrian refugees showing the one item they were sure to bring with them when they fled their homes. Though undoubtedly many refugees have left Syria uncertain of when they would return, a good number of the refugees at Zaatari would make the trip back home to bring back provisions, or would call relatives who were on the way to bring them things. How else did the market at Zaatari sell items that my Jordanian colleagues swore were brands that did not exist in Jordan? On a number of occasions when I worked the night shift at the camp and saw people getting off the bus, I noticed them carrying large bushels with olives, makdous (pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts), and other food items they insisted were superior to the Jordanian variety.

Some refugees were housed in pre-fabricated structures (called “caravans”) at the camp. At one point the Saudis donated about 1,500 of them. Allocating the caravans to the refugees became something of a nightmare. Some caravans were allocated to residents based on their length of residence at the camp - those who arrived earlier prioritized over later arrivals. Some were designated for “vulnerable” families (a term you come to hate after working in a refugee camp, because who is more or less vulnerable in situations like these?). So, “vulnerable” families came to be those with members who had serious medical conditions, very elderly persons, female-headed households where a mother has multiple children and no other relatives in the camp. Each day someone tried to make a case that they were more vulnerable than their neighbor who had been allocated a caravan.

The camp has shared bathrooms and shared kitchens, and watering holes. The World Food Program distributes dry foods on a bi-weekly basis (aside from a “welcome” meal refugees receive upon arrival). UNICEF runs the schools (the Bahrainis have also set up a nice school). And, there are some medical facilities – a French hospital, a Moroccan, a Saudi, a Jordanian-Italian one and a Jordanian clinic. And a number of UN agencies and other NGO’s operate in the camp.

As I mentioned before, movement in and out of Zaatari was a lot more fluid than what was technically allowed. Yes, there is a main entrance with Jordanian police regulating who gets in and out (there are visitation days for families who have relatives inside the camp to visit them. It is important to bear in mind that the majority of the Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camp. The total number of Syrians registered with the UNHCR, as of late March, was over 320,000 – a number that still does not represent all Syrians residing in Jordan. However, people were fleeing the camp every day. The real tragedy was that each day we also dealt with people seeking “re-admission” to the camp, because they could not cope outside the camp: Jordan is quite expensive for Syrians and assistance is even more limited outside the camps. Also, some Syrians who had entered Jordan “legally” and were authorized to live outside would seek admission to the camp because they could not survive in urban centers like Amman or Zarqaa or Ramtha.

Otherwise, the only “legal” way to leave the camp is either to be “bailed out” by a Jordanian (it’s a somewhat bureaucratic process, but not too cumbersome as a few thousand Syrians have been bailed out), or to officially put in a request to return to Syria. In both cases, whether seeking a “bailout” or “return,” to Syria, the process is overseen by the Jordanian authorities, and not the UNHCR. Unfortunately, the “bail out” process lent itself to exploitation. Although the majority of people were bailed out by friends or relatives, there were also those who discovered they were expected to work for little pay in exchange for a bailout. Or, in some cases, the “bailout” system became a way for men to try to marry Syrian wives.

As for returns to Syria, it was interesting to me just how fluid the situation at the border was. The UNHCR’s official position was that they do not encourage or facilitate return. But almost every day, a busload or two of Syrians would return to Syria. Some were going back to get more provisions or money. Some were going to retrieve a family member left behind. Some were going to attend funerals of relatives back home, or even sometimes for more joyous occasions like weddings. Some returned, saying camp conditions were difficult and they’d rather die in their homeland, but with their dignity intact. Some of the people who returned to Syria came back after finding their homes had been destroyed, or upon hostilities flaring up again in their area.

Some of those returning were men intent upon joining the fight, over the pleas of their anxious mothers and wives. Instructed by international organizations concerned about the issue of child soldiers, the Jordanian authorities were supposed to forbid any unaccompanied boys under the age of eighteen to ride on a Syria-bound bus. Many young boys would spend hours arguing with the authorities, trying to convince them they were older. In their eyes I saw their determination to avenge the death of an older brother. Sometimes I succeeded in talking them out of making the trip, only to learn three days later that they had somehow managed to get on a bus. The first few times this happened, I spent days worrying about what might have happened to these boys once back in Syria. But over the weeks, amidst all the other concerns and tragedies of the camp, my concerns about these young men became just one more thing over which I felt I had no control.

When I was in the camp, the majority of the camp residents were originally form the Dara`a governorate. There were also some people from Homs and surrounding areas and from Damascus and its suburbs. By and large, the people who were in the camp were those with no recourse but to live in a refugee camp. I noticed a marked difference between the residents who hailed from Dara`a and those coming from Damascus or Homs. The population from Dara`a was primarily rural, most having completed a few years of schooling (especially the women), and poor. The camp really highlighted for me the gap between urban and rural areas of Syria and also led me to see why Dara`a was the province where the uprising first took hold.

A significant portion of the camp (easily a third) consisted of female-headed households. Some had been sent by their husbands, who were staying behind in Syria to tend to their work or homes, or were actively fighting. Some of the women were widows, and some had husbands who had disappeared.

I was also taken aback by what large families they had, and how young women were when they got married. It was astounding how many women I met who, by the time they were in their 30’s, had already given birth to upwards of 7 or 8 children (and looked like they were much, much older). It was devastating to meet widows who were only 19.

The early marriage issue is one with which the UNCHR was and I imagine still is grappling. Under Jordanian (and international) law, girls under 18 should not be married. However, it was proving difficult, if not impossible to prevent early marriages in the camp, which were mostly being arranged through Sheikhs who just wrote out marriage “contracts” on a piece of paper. Most girls were married between the ages of 14 and 16. Once in a while, I would talk to families thinking about marrying their daughters, and when I advised them to wait until she was at least eighteen, they would look at me like I was insane. When I asked girls how they felt, they would just look at the ground, or say they would do what their parents thought best. I once spoke to a 19-year old who had been engaged in Syria and whose engagement was broken off when her fiancé (also her cousin) decided to join the FSA. She didn’t want to risk the possibility of widowhood. I was speaking to her because her family had initially arranged for her to be “bailed out” of the camp through marriage to a Jordanian man. They then decided against the bailing out after learning that the man in question was much older than they had initially imagined and already married and with children and expected his new bride to live with his first wife. I sat the whole family down and explained the importance of being vigilant, that some men would take advantage of the desperation of some refugee women and make such arrangements, that just because she was 19 and with a broken engagement, she shouldn’t “settle” for just any marriage.

But the problem is that with all the stories circulating about women being forced into prostitution and survival sex, lots of parents do see marriage as the most viable way to keep their daughters safe (and honorable).

The truth is that for the time being, with the refugee crisis ongoing and with new people arriving at the camp every day, the UNHCR and all other agencies involved in the camp are very much in “logistics” mode. They are dealing with registration, with distribution, with just making sure that people can survive. The luxury to develop programs, to think about income-generation projects for women (and men for that matter) is not there.

My biggest frustration at Zaatari was the amount of time I devoted each and every day (and I went to the camp six days a week, leaving Amman at 7:00 a.m. and returning to Amman at 7:00 p.m. or later) to dealing with logistical and bureaucratic issues driven by concerns about fraud, itself caused by the scarcity of resources. Basically, each family (or in the case of persons who are alone each individual) receives a ration card upon registration with the UNHCR which entitles them to the services in the camp (food rations, medical care, etc.). A lot of time is spent monitoring the ration card, dealing with people who fled the camp (maybe gave their ration card to a relative inside the camp) and are now returning and asking for a new card, or who returned to Syria and then came back to Jordan, again, seeking a new card.

It is common for media reports about Zaatari (or any refugee camp for that matter) to depict the refugees as hapless victims and the UN and international organizations there as the heartless bureaucrats for whom this is just another humanitarian catastrophe. And no question, there is a lot of suffering in the camp and UN agencies could be doing a better job. But these accounts also fail to consider the agency of the refugees themselves and the fact that there are those who try to manipulate the system. My thought on this was that when you place people in a position of total dependency, they are of course going to manipulate the system, the one area in life where they can exercise control. But, I also understood the UNHCR’s concerns. Resources are limited and ration card fraud harms everyone in the camp because some people end up taking the shares of others.

Most of the time, I found myself hating the fact that this was the way things had to be. I hated the fact that people who didn’t have much to begin with, lost what they had, now had to be reduced to trying to manipulate the system so they could get an extra bag of lentils or oil that they then tried to sell so they could buy fresh fruits and vegetables in the market. I hated the fact that I suddenly would find myself intervening between an aid worker and a refugee who were arguing over blankets. I hated the fact that I knew that if she got that extra blanket, there would not be enough for the new arrivals.

One day, one NGO that distributed diapers found that some people had broken into their storage facility and stolen a large quantity of them. For some reason, they decided to collectively punish all the refugees in the camp by halting diaper distribution for a few days. Imagine this in a camp full of children, where children were also being born every day. And then imagine sitting and listening to a Syrian woman crying in your office saying: “We expect Bashar to behave like a dog, but how could one refugee steal from another refugee?”

And I think for me this woman’s question epitomized the depth of the tragedy of Syria. It is tragic that tens of thousands of Syrians have lost their lives, their homes, their livelihoods. It is tragic that whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble, including neighborhoods and markets and buildings that were hundreds of years old. It is tragic that there is no easy political resolution to the conflict. It is also tragic that a million plus Syrians have become refugees and that some of them, in the desperation of exile, have turned against one another. And the more protracted this exile becomes, the more desperate, the more difficult becomes rebuilding the peace and harmony of what was once Syria.


A follow-up on the Syria arms report

In my recent post on the arming of anti-Assad rebels via Croatia and Jordan, Syria Comment’s Aron Lund raised several important points I’ve discussed in earlier articles, but not recently, about how label- and media-driven coverage of the fighting in the country has become - often at the expense of the non-military anti-Assad efforts still going on in the country that I interviewed Stephen Star on a few months ago.   Lund’s report in part builds off on a discussion he and I had over the piece, where he pointed out that “there isn’t an actual FSA organization” and that unless the FSA label is better explained, “[i]t serves more to confuse readers than to clarify organizational links.”  

Lund’s post is a good breakdown of the anti-Assad rebels’ organizations two years into the conflict, so I’d like to highlight a few points from the primer he has written for Syria Comment.  

The first part is a reiteration of how the “FSA” came to be:  

The FSA was created by Col. Riad el-Asaad and a few other Syrian military defectors in July 2011, in what may or may not have been a Turkish intelligence operation. To be clear, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the first batch of fighters, or suggest that they would have acted otherwise without foreign support. But these original FSA commanders were confined to the closely guarded Apaydın camp in Turkey, and kept separate from civilian Syrian refugees. Turkish authorities are known to have screened visitors and journalists before deciding whether they could talk to the officers. While this is not in itself evidence of a Turkish intelligence connection, it does suggest that this original FSA faction could not, how shall we say, operate with full autonomy from its political environment.

From summer onwards, new rebel factions started popping up in hundreds of little villages and city neighborhoods inside Syria, as an ever-growing number of local demonstrators were provoked into self-defense. The most important recruiting tool for this nascent insurgency was not the FSA and its trickle of videotaped communiqués on YouTube. Rather, it was Bashar el-Assad’s decision to send his army on a psychotic rampage through the Syrian Sunni Arab countryside. As the corpses piled up, more and more civilians started looking for guns and ammo, and the rebel movement took off with a vengeance.

While the new groups almost invariably grew out of a local context, and organized entirely on their own, most of them also declared themselves to be part of the FSA. They adopted its logotype, and would often publicly pledge allegiance to Col. Riad el-Asaad. As a branding operation, the FSA was a extraordinary success – but in most cases, the new ”FSA brigades” had no connection whatsoever to their purported supreme commander in Turkey. In reality, what was emerging was a sprawling leaderless resistance of local fighters who shared only some common goals and an assemblage of FSA-inspired symbols.

Then there’s the fact that different armed groups observed in the conflict use the Free Syrian Army moniker as a “brand name” when it suits them:

One can’t disregard the fact that many Syrian opposition fighters will casually refer to themselves as FSA members, or that some armed factions actually self-designate as ”a brigade of the FSA”. But that does not mean that they belong to some Syria-wide FSA command hierarchy: it’s still just a label, typically intended to market these groups as part of the opposition mainstream.

With time, then, the generally understood definition of the FSA term has gradually narrowed from its original scope, which encompassed almost the entire insurgency. Today, it is understood to apply mostly to army defectors (ex-Baathists), non-ideological fighters, and more moderate Islamists. But the dividing line is not really a question of ideology or organization, it is political. The FSA label is increasingly being used in the media as shorthand for those factions which receive Gulf/Western support and are open to collaboration with the USA and other Western nations.

That still doesn’t describe an actual organization, but at least it’s closer to a working definition of what the ”FSA” would mean in a Syrian opposition context – a definition that can’t really decide what it includes, but which clearly excludes most of the anti-Western salafis, all of the hardcore salafi-jihadis, and, for example, the Kurdish YPG militia. Further in, Lund includes a rundown of the main groups calling themselves “FSA” or some variant of that, either until recently or at this very moment, and advice on how to better explain what “FSA” means in the context of specific political initiatives and geographical areas of operations.

Lund also expands on one of the core problems facing the rebels now that they are receiving greater (though still limited) outside support, both military and non-military: distribution.

No matter how shallow and ephemeral their allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss may be, no other opposition figure can point to a similar show of support from the armed movement inside Syria. The reason for this widespread endorsement of Brig. Gen. Idriss isn’t his personal charm, good looks or presumed brilliance as a military strategist – it’s a lot simpler than that. See, there was an immediate payoff for attending the Antalya conference and pledging allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss and his General Staff: You got guns.

Just when the Antalya conference to create the General Staff was held, in December 2012, fresh shipments of weapons & ammo started pouring into northern Syria, secretly shipped in from Croatia and other sources (this has been well covered by bloggers like Brown Moses and correspondents like C. J. Chivers). And what do you know, both the General Staff’s Antalya conference and these Croatian guns seem to have been paid for by Saudi Arabia. Coincidence? Not likely. Judging from who’s been seen firing the weapons, they seem to have been distributed more or less among the commanders who endorsed the General Staff. And that was always the idea: The General Staff was set up as a flag to rally the Western/Gulf-backed factions around, and probably also a funding channel and an arms distribution network, rather than as an actual command hierarchy. Idriss’s foreign sponsors do of course hope that it will eventually solidify into the latter, but we haven’t seen it happen yet.   As Chivers has speculated on his own blog, it may be that this is how the pitch was made in Washington, but it’s very likely that on the ground, the distribution system is allowing those non-Syrian actors doing the legwork - for the most part, hired Iraqi and Turkish hands along with the intelligence services of the Arab monarchy, rather than the CIA or DIA - to play favorites better than the EU or US have.

It does not appear that the arms supply effort – whether it has been 4 or 75+ planeloads of ex-Yugoslavian Army gear flown from Zagreb to Amman – has been able to substitute for the lack of organization among rebel fronts (or, on the field, yet match Assad’s qualitative advantage in planes, artillery and armor). Lund concludes:

A unified rebel leadership would spare Syria much of the bloodshed that lies ahead. Not just because an organized rebel army would pack more of a punch in the struggle against Bashar el-Assad’s fascist dictatorship, and could put a leash on the most unpleasant salafi extremist factions. But also – and this matters a lot more than the fate of either Assad or al-Qaeda – because only a functioning opposition leadership will be able to minimize the period of Lebanon-style armed anarchy and sectarian bloodshed that lies ahead for Syria, and help reestablish a central government when Assad’s is gone for good.

US u-turn on Syria?

So says Abdel Bari Atwan in US U-turn on Syria:

Speaking in Oslo, the US secretary said: 'What the US and the world want is to stop the killing in Syria.' He added, 'Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should sit with the leaders of the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table to form a transitional government, according to the framework agreement concluded in Geneva.'

Such statements tell us that the US administration, during its second term, has turned to adopt a different position to the Syrian crisis, looking to achieve a political solution.

The US Secretary of State did not stipulate that the resignation of the Syrian president was a pre-condition condition for any political solution for the Syrian crisis during the press conference. He did not say that the Syrian regime or its representatives should sit with the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table, while he said Assad should negotiate with the opposition. The statement is essentially American recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian regime.

To be more clear, we should remind ourselves that for the last two years, President Obama told the world that President Assad had lost his legitimacy, stressing that he should leave the power. However, he has not said anything of the sort for the last five months.

He predicts "more harmonious relations between the Syrian regime and the US" in the future, as part of a Russian-US deal. I doubt it.

Do arms transfers represent breakthrough for Syrian rebels?

FSA fighters being instructed in the use of the ex-Yugoslav M79 anti-tank rocket launcher (YouTube)

The New York Times reported last week that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria.” The effort was reportedly known to the US, but nothing was said for or against it so that it might proceed under the radar of a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

Palettes of former Yugoslavian weapons are not game-changers in and of themselves, and the way they’ve been secured by the rebels shows that the US still refuses to place its bets on any specific group. That said, the arrival of planeloads worth of small arms is significant in that it demonstrates a greater investment in the rebels by their foreign backers. According to the Australian small arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones, it is the quantity of the weapons that is the most significant development for the rebels: “a lot of people are discussing, ‘is x system effective against y armoured vehicle?’. What’s more important in this conflict is that we’ve seen an initial dearth of weapons and only recently have we seen supplies of anti-armour weapons significantly increase.” 

“It’s a long term thing, but I’m sure we’ll see the situation in Daraa look very similar to that in Aleppo in the coming months,” the Times’ Eliot Higgins told me, as Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria are falling under rebel control due to the capture of multiple Syrian military bases in the region. According to Higgins, the new weapons have given the rebels an "extra edge that has allowed them to start attacking checkpoints and bases, resulting in the capture of heavier equipment” from the Syrian Army.

Jenzen-Jones explained that three types of Eastern bloc anti-tank weapons – the M79 “Osa,” the M60 recoilless gun and the RPG–22 – now in use in Syria are “suitable for the type of hit-and-run urban warfare the rebels are conducting.” Suitable, but not “game-changing.”

Indeed, the conspicuous absence of a certain type of handheld weapon suggests that the supply effort is not quite an all-out effort on behalf of the rebels by foreign benefactors. “If we see [anti-air missile systems] being provided, I think that would suggest a shift in thinking in Washington,” Higgins explained, noting that rebels still mainly rely on captured Syrian Army stockpiles and a handful of heat-seeking Chinese-made missiles of unknown origin.

The rebels’ lack of air defenses in the face of aerial bombardment is partly why they have risked their columns to besiege Syrian military bases: capturing the airfields around Aleppo and in Idlib Province have reduced the scale of air attacks on targets in these places. Even if those jets and attack helicopters were grounded, however, the rebels would still lack the heavy weapons to exploit the situation.

The area where these weapons have been observed most is known as Daraa province, along the Jordanian border, and the weapons may help the rebels there carve out an enclave under their control. But where do the rebels go from Daraa, whose capital city they have already lost once before? That is less clear, because the flow of the Croatian pipeline is not and has never been a sure thing for the rebels.

A parallel with this situation can be drawn from the NATO and UN intelligence failures going into the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia. The international mission was divided against itself, with Western allies keeping secrets from one another, and of middlemen pocketing some of the spoils meant for the war effort. Small arms were shipped in en masse by international Islamic charities and the governments of several Middle Eastern countries with the official knowledge, (if not always actual complicity), of the US and several of its allies: Jordan, Turkey, Germany and the UK.

Indeed, the US embassy in Croatia was hit by backbiting over these arms transfers in the 1990s, with the CIA station chief and ambassador there falling out over the CIA man’s suspicious the State Department was keeping quiet about other nations’ (Iran) arms transfers in Bosnia because of an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rationale. 
Or rather, nothing was said for or against it because it armed a group the West wanted to see armed but didn’t want to associate with. Through Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that seems to be the policy of the US, France and the UK.

So far, no amount of pro-opposition lobbying in these three nations has led to them granting the rebels substantial armed assistance, though trainings programs for Free Syrian Army soldiers and anti-Assad propagandists are reportedly ongoing in both Jordan and Turkey under US direction.

When the US moved to reorganize the Syrian National Council as the “Syrian National Coalition,” it was thought that Washington was signaling greater investment in Syrian opposition forces. Despite rumors that the White House will receive leaders of both the FSA and Syrian National Coalition, no one has demonstrated direct arming of the rebels … though Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed that the White House is far more “involved” with overseeing the Gulf states’ arms deliveries than previously admitted. 

Though the decision to increase “non-lethal” to US$60 million and to supply it directly to the FSA is being marked as a decisive change in policy, it will be at least three months before the arms embargo imposed on Syria by the EU is up for renegotiation, with the UK in the lead to have it relaxed. If there is one military benefit from it for the rebels, it is that now they are freed up to spend more on weapons with their consumables and medical kits being better taken care of.

According to Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, one of the main reasons the US government continues to demonstrate great reticence in openly backing any rebel force diplomatically, let alone militarily is because “the sort of received wisdom in Washington today is that Syria is going to become Somalia because all of these groups are going to end up in an extended civil conflict once they get through Assad.” Landis explains that “the main groups from the Islamic front [rivals to the FSA, and likely the preferential recipients of aid from the Gulf states] are trying to find [more] common ground, and these Salafists are willing to push aside Jahbat al-Nusra” despite a burst of initial support for it when it was designated a terrorist organization by the US. The foreign fighters’ haughty disdain for their Syrian brothers-in-arms, it appears, are playing a large part in the increasingly negative response to their presence in Syria.

The Beltway calculus is, he says, that “to pick an effective winner in Syria, you need to be able to pick an Islamist” and the White House does not think it can sell anyone in Syria that way to justify a more direct role. Meanwhile, rebel supporters lampoon the US’s hesitancy, and representatives of the Free Syrian Army openly blame the Obama Administration for holding back Saudi arms transfers to them. At the same time, the FSA leader Salim Idris, “who is supposed to be heading all of these things,” says Landis, "denies that [arms transfers] are happening.”

“I don’t think he’s being sincere, but clearly, he’s trying to make a point that this is a drop in the bucket,“ Landis added, noting that making that point was probably the driving reason for Idris’s remarks, rather than an effort to distance the FSA from the Saudis. C.J. Chivers, the lead author of the Times report, has speculated on his blog that “[t]hese newly arrived weapons in Syria may well have been intended for nationalist and secular fighters,” ones favored by FSA top “commanders” who have very limited authority within Syria. That, believes Chivers, is how the operation might have been sold to US policymakers.

The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has written that foreign efforts to influence the course the FSA’s “officers” would take as the “armed opposition” began to come apart early on due to rivalries and the strength of Assad’s military: these failures to hold group in major cities such as Homs and Hama highlighted their limited popularity and poor supply situation. Jenzen-Jones notes that one of the biggest problems (and future challenges) for the rebels has been of ammunition supply and standardization: "you’ve got a lot of different calibers, and then within that you’ve got a lot of different types of ammunition, and you want to make sure the right ammunition is available so that you’re able to employ this range of weapons most effectively.”

The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham militia and the FSA’s “Farouq Brigades” were both named by Higgins as beneficiaries of the Croatian pipeline and seem well-placed to use and distribute the ex-Yugoslavian weapons to other groups.

While they can and do work together, the fact is that they belong to different militia alliances – al-Sham is part of an Islamist coalition and works with the extremist al-Nusra Front. They have been rivals for recruits and materiel because: “the fighters arm themselves and fund themselves as individuals or small groups,” Nir Rosen observed after several months inside Syria last year. While this is changing due to the influx of new weapons, and some groups do seem more interested in forming a centralized fighting front, there is a catch. With the Islamists the preferential choice of Saudi patrons, they may be in a stronger position to spread their influence in the FSA: as one of Higgins’ colleagues has remarked that ”if they’re making ideological conditioning [a prerequisite] for weapons training, would help explain growth of Salafists" – albeit those still loosely affiliated with the FSA.

Hof: Is it too late for Syria

Syria: Is It Too Late? | Atlantic Council

Former US envoy to Syria Fred Hof, who seems borderline suicidal: 

Syria is dying. Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that the price of his removal is the death of the nation. A growing extremist minority in the armed opposition has made it clear that a Syria of citizenship and civil society is, in its view, an abomination to be killed. And those in the middle long begging for Western security assistance are increasingly bemoaning that it is already too late. Between the cold, cynical sectarianism of Assad and the white-hot sectarian hatred of those extremists among his opponents Syria already is all but gone, a body politic as numbingly cold and colorless as the harsh wintry hell bringing misery and hopelessness to untold numbers of displaced Syrians.

It might in fact be too late to save Syria from the diabolical ministrations of Assad and his enabling Salafist enemies. Indeed, the single-minded, self-centered destructiveness of foes who once cooperated in the killing of Iraqis and who now collaborate in the murder of Syria may be sufficiently powerful to block any effort at national salvation regardless of its source. By facilitating Assad's poison pill sectarian strategy Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia have facilitated the implantation of al-Qaeda (in the form of the Nusra Front) in Syria. By funneling arms and money to those calling for death to Alawites and the establishment of a Syrian emirate, donors in certain Gulf countries, Turkey, and elsewhere have advanced Assad's survival strategy with a toxic blend of tactical skill and strategic stupidity. As in “Murder on the Orient Express,” many hands have plunged the knife into a victim perhaps too far gone to be saved.

The article is not so much an argument that it's too late as that more involvement, with force, is what is needed from the US. Hof concludes;

Yet Syria's fate will likely be decided by men with guns. If a firm, irrevocable decision is in place that the United States will not play in this arena, then it may indeed be too late for Syria as the Assad/al-Qaeda tag team crowds out all other opponents from the ring, making Syria ungovernable, 22.5 million Syrians vulnerable, and neighboring states fully exposed to a catastrophe that could persist for decades.

So at this point, is this an argument for going after, with full force, both the Assad regime and sectarian militias? Hof does not answer that satisfactorily, nor does he address the issue that if it's a choice between two bad things, which is the lesser evil (and it might very well be the Assad regime, the only one that has officially been written off).

(And to be fair, my own solution-which-will-not-happen: Turkish invasion and control of the country for at least five years, ruthless disarmament campaign.)

Should journalists interview people as they are being tortured?

I would think probably not, but the editor of The Atlantic apparently thinks that's ok:

Ibrahim al-Halabi was confused by my questions. He could neither tell me how he landed himself in a makeshift prison cell nor respond to even simple queries, like what job he held. The 27-year-old had been picked up at a routine checkpoint in the city of Aleppo by rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting the Syrian regime. When he could not provide identification papers, they arrested him.

My broken Egyptian Arabic was probably not to blame for the troubled communication, because another inmate offered logical responses to the same routine questions. But with Ibrahim, they only elicited a bewildered gaze.

On the rare occasion when he did speak, Ibrahim provided contradictory responses. At times he said he worked in a textile factory. Other times he said he was unemployed. Once he even admitted that he had worked for the regime's paramilitary, known as the shabiha, albeit for only two days. Ibrahim was clearly scared. His left hand never stopped shaking. Red spots on his forehead and nose covered the marks where his captors had beaten him. When Ibrahim refused to speak, a fighter yelled at him "Liar! Shabih! Dog!" before intensifying his pain with several slaps to the face.

It'd be one thing if the journalist had witnessed the torture. But he appears to have been given the interview opportunity by the man's detainees and the guards are helping him get answers out. The comments thread is on fire in the article.

Yep, the same magazine which runs blog posts sponsored by the Church of Scientology and whose Middle East content is produced by the (pro-Israel think tank and advocacy group) Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Syria: The fall of al-Moushat Academy

Le Monde.fr : Syrie - La chute d'Al-Mouchat

This report by Florence Aubenas on the fall of al-Moushat Academy near Aleppo, Syria's elite military academy, is incredible. It details the sectarian tensions inside of the academy growing over the last year, culminating as rebels began to lay siege to it. Over time, officers and cadets would break apart along sectarian lines inside the academy compound. They survived on nearly nothing for weeks, unable to go out during the day due to sniper fire, fighting each other for scraps of food at night. The Alawites in particular appear to have had a gradual descent into Apocalypse Now style madness, paranoid about their Sunni fellow officers and shouting the "Bashar is God". Just incredible reporting:

A Al-Mouchat, on enterre au bulldozer les morts de la première attaque, cinq par cinq. Chaque nuit, les désertions s'accélèrent. On brûle les portes et les fenêtres pour essayer d'avoir moins froid dans les lignes de défense. « Faites ce que vous voulez, mais restez, supplie un gradé. Sinon, Al-Qaida va vous égorger. » Les réserves de nourriture sont épuisées. Harcelé par les tirs rebelles, l'hélicoptère chargé du ravitaillement largue les vivres du mauvais côté des murs. Le haut commandant insulte le pilote par radio. L'autre rigole : « Tu as faim ? C'est pas mon problème. Baise ta mère. » Sur la base, on mange n'importe quoi, de l'herbe, des cigarettes. On boit l'eau de pluie.

Le site est en permanence sous la lunette des snipers rebelles. Plus personne ne bouge, ils sont terrés le jour durant, là où chacun peut, par groupes de deux, trois parfois, se méfiant les uns des autres. Des ombres ne commencent à bouger qu'après le coucher du soleil. Toutes vont vers les cuisines, espérant voler quelque chose. « On était comme des chiens entre nous, à se tirer dessus pour un peu de riz. On avait la haine au coeur.» Entre les déserteurs, les morts et les blessés, il ne reste plus qu'une centaine de militaires. Eugène, officier chrétien, est avec deux élèves alaouites. « Ils avaient deux balles dans la poche pour être sûrs de ne pas être pris vivants. Ils ont combattu jusqu'à la mort, en chantant pour Bachar. »

Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria, part 2

This is part two of Paul Mutter's interview with Stephen Starr. Read part one.

Do you have any advice for correspondents on this matter, to better report on this “silent majority”?

I don’t want to give advice on this. You can’t go from a rebel-held area – and you can’t shoot photographs in rebel-held areas – to regime-controlled areas. You can’t pass, and even if you do get in, you can’t behave in the same way. In areas under the FSA’s control, you can take photographs, you can speak to people and get direct quotes, you can get a pretty good picture [of what’s happening in the area]. But if you try to do that in Damascus, in areas under the regime’s control, you won’t last five minutes: you’ll be picked up by the regime’s security You can’t go out into the streets of central Damascus with a camera and just ask people what’s happening. There’s security everywhere.

Are any of the powerful business families the “big families” you described that depend on the Assads for patronage – like the Tlass clan – less supportive of the regime now?

I think not. Those who backed the regime from the beginning solidified that stance. Those who were less supportive of the regime are too fearful to do anything. Their businesses have essentially shut down now. There’s no industry operating in Aleppo, the industrial manufacturing center of Syria.

Where are their workers?

[Some] are they’re protesting, [some] have guns in their hands, [some] are sitting at home waiting for things to end.

I know lots of business leaders who are trying to leave or have left. To what extent trying to aid the rebel opposition? I think they’re waiting it out. There was all this talk in the beginning that the business community might begin to move against the regime, but that was never going to happen. They have family, they have so many contacts in the country that if they publicly opposes the regime or say that they support the rebels, they and their families might be locked up and never be heard from again. Now, that’s not to say that some leaders haven’t actually come out publicly and said they would finance the revolt, but for the most part they are sitting on their hands, they are waiting for the rebels to win the war. [Many] are hiding out in … Beirut, or Istanbul, Cairo and Dubai. I know quite a few people who have gone to these cities. They’re making plans for afterward, but they are in no way taking part in the actual revolt, even though they oppose the regime.

Is the regime actively pursuing defectors, especially from the armed forces?

I would probably say not because the regime is so stretched right now. The army is so stretched right now it does not have the resources to go out to every defector’s house and pull them back into the army … I think there are thousands of conscripts tied down in bases throughout the country who aren’t taking part in anything, they’re being held captive [essentially].

The increased use of shelling, earlier on, and of air capabilities [now], is an obvious sign they don’t trust their own soldiers and have to resort to these indiscriminate ways of trying to defeat the rebels.

Do you think there will be a change in the rebels’ military fortunes now that they’ve begun capturing military bases and airfields? They still don’t seem to be able to do much against the regime’s air force.

I think last week has been quite important. The fall is coming, and obviously we don’t know when and can’t say when but we know it’s coming. They’ve got their hands on a lot more ammunition and artillery and more sophisticated weapons. It’s coming, and it was always going to be the case. How it will work out on the ground [though], we don’t know at this stage. They [could try to] take Aleppo, and from there Hama and Homs, then on to Damascus. It’s very difficult to say: it could takes weeks, [or] we could be talking a year from now and Damascus could be surrounded by all sides by rebels. No one really knows.

They took control of a border crossing near the Jordanian-Syrian border. As soon as they had, they left, they feared airstrikes, they didn’t want to be targets, they didn’t want the civilian population in the area to take the brunt of whatever airstrikes came their way. Even if they don’t operate out of government airbases, the fact that they have destroyed a capability that can carry out air raids from … that’s a partial victory.

Is foreign intervention more likely now because of these successes?

Probably not …. I think what’s going to happen with the rebels taking more strategic areas and having their hands on more sophisticated hardware, it’s more likely that the international community will back off, and I think that’s a good thing [for Syria].

Is the FSA coordinating its offensives at a national level?

There seems to be very little coordination, even between the political opposition. I had a conversation with some [Syrian National Council] leaders a couple of months back, and they’re trying to “rein in” armed rebel leaders in Homs and other areas, and they can’t.

What’s the view of the new Syrian National Coalition, then? Is it having acceptance issues in Syria like the Syrian National Council has had?

That seems to be the case. To go back to your previous question, there isn’t much coordination between rebels on a national level. When one side needs ammunition or arms, there’s some kind of negotiation where “we give it to you, but want something in return” instead of uniting, as was the case in Libya. It’s not happening.

(For more on this sort of bargaining, see Charles Levinson’s “Leadership Rifts Hobble Syrian Rebels”.)

In terms of the new coalition, maybe it’s good that there are so many problems now, as opposed to when, eventually, they do govern the country. Maybe perhaps now that they [the opposition leadership] don’t have control of the country and are making all these mistakes first, when they don’t have a country to run, is [a positive development]. Maybe I’m looking at it a little too optimistically, but they’re working through their personality disputes right now as opposed to when they’re in Damascus.

If and when they come in the militias, will be the ones physically in control of everything.

Yes, this is the biggest question. But we also hear very little discussion about this point. The regime is not going to fall until it is physically and violently deposed from the presidential palace, from the main security areas in central Damascus. And who’s going to do that? The armed rebels will do that. The political opposition, maybe in terms of Burhan Ghalioun or the other kind of traditional [opposition] political leaders who are based overseas now, I feel that they feel they have a right to take over leading government positions once the regime falls, but on the other hand it was the rebels’ who sacrificed everything to get there. We don’t how that’s going to work out. Are rebel leaders going to take high positions? Is it going to be the case that a chief rebel leader, that we’ve yet to see, will transpire to occupy a major leadership role, and is he going to want to be President? And if he’s got militias on his side, there will be serious forces to deal with. And plus, they [the militias] have a lot more credibility amongst the Syrian population that support the revolution than these political guys who are based overseas.

Since the emigre activists have been out of the country for decades in some cases, how important and active are the local coordinating committees (LCC) still? Are there still areas where there is no government at all, either regime or otherwise?

It’s remarkable that in some rebel-held areas, there’s still functioning state electricity, functioning telephone lines. People go to the ATMs the first of every month and their government salary is there, even though there hasn’t been a government in place in that particular town in months. It’s really quite strange.

I think the LCCs were a tremendously important force earlier on, to get demonstrations going. Once there were eight hundred demonstrations on one particular Friday nationwide; that doesn’t just happen by accident. In that the LCCs were very important [and now] that’s not happening to the same extent. But … once the regime is toppled, they will already have the activists, the local civil society leaders in place. I think of them [then] in terms of turning out a vote, or campaigning for a particular leader.

So who are these people at the local level?

I think for the most part they’re university-educated young men and women, typically Sunni because three-quarters of the population is Sunni. And they know what the regime is doing is wrong, and at the same time they don’t want to take part violently in the uprising. And they, through their use of social media, they’re able to get their points across different areas of the country, and of course, they’ve had much help from outside. I think the leaders, the top people in the LCCs, are basically here in the US. They’re obviously a very important pivot for organizing what’s happening inside. They’re perhaps young medical students, or young literature students who’ve studied in the state universities. For the most part they’re not the students who went to private universities [in Syria or abroad] who pay US$10–15,000 a year. It’s really important to differentiate between them because the people who went to the private universities, on the highways to Damascus, they are the sons and daughters of wealthy businesspeople in Damascus. They want to go to their cafes, to the malls, to the cinemas: they don’t want any part of the revolution.

It’s the students from the state universities who don’t see themselves having a decent future once they graduate, and they blame the government for it. They see security guys and Alawi leaders driving around in big fancy cars, and they’re going to their state universities where the classrooms have no glass and they sit on twisted benches. And the education they’re getting, they recognize that it’s absolutely ridiculous. They learn everything by rote, it’s essentially a waste of time for them. If you ask a student that goes to Damascus University, “Do you regularly go for classes, they’d say ”No, I just go for the exams." And there’s tremendous, tremendous anger there amongst them.

These are young men and women [in their early twenties]. Take a dentist, for example. They’d need to buy equipment for their practice, but they feel that they’re getting a substandard education, but when they graduate they need to spend money on all this [equipment] … they get their practice, and they go to the kind of poor areas of the country because they can afford the rent there, and because their clients are working-class people, so they can’t charge the same amount for their work as practitioners would in central Damascus. They’re going to be an important force to be reckoned with.

What’s their relationship with the FSA?

They see themselves as very, very different from the rebels. They’re a hardcore, battle-hardened set-up of young men. Some are defectors, some are people who’ve lost family members. For the most part, they are not students. Of course, there are people from the public universities who have picked up guns, who are running with the Free Army.

I think a lot of them are dormant right now. These young men and women are dormant. And also, as I said at the beginning, a lot of them have picked up the gun. I know a couple of guys who I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they are now part of rebel battalions because of their own forceful views as activities. But this is reason has endured for so long, because it’s such a fragmented opposition.

We say opposition, but what do we mean? Do we mean the political opposition that is based overseas? Do we mean the rebels? Do we mean the LCCs? We can’t roll them all up and say they’re one opposition. What about the traditional political opposition guys who are based Syria, who have been the traditional Marxist-leftist guys with a relationship with regime and oppose violent opposition? That’s four sections of an opposition right there.

Is it possible to talk to any of your former colleagues inside Syria since you last spent time in Syria this past February?

A lot of [my Syrian journalist colleagues] have left the country. I have to be careful. I could phone up my friends in Syria, but if they’ve been detained, I wouldn’t [necessarily] know, and then who am I getting on the other end?

How good is the regime’s electronic surveillance capability?

Yes, it’s pretty sophisticated, the Syrian Electronic Army. Their surveillance technology had been supplied earlier this year and last year [from private companies abroad].

Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria

Contributor Paul Mutter interviewed Syria expert Stephen Starr at NYU this week about his book on the conflict there, and his impressions of Syria since last winter when he departed the country. Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising and — full disclosure — Mutter's editor at Near East Quarterly. This is part one of the interview, part two will be published tomorrow.

How common are nonviolent demonstrations now in Syria today?

In terms of to what extent there are people still protesting across the country, I think there’s certainly a lot less now than there were in the first six months … I think there’s three main reasons for that: one is that [more] people don’t see peaceful protests as a way of achieving what they want to achieve, which is the downfall of the regime. And they see that the armed element of the uprising has taken precedence over the protests, and they see the regime so violent that they feel that peaceful protesting is going to stop the regime when they use guns and shelling … they’ve carried out airstrikes against protestors in Idlib Province, whereas before when they had a presence of troops on the ground they would shoot or shell them. Another reason … is that a lot of people who took part in recent protests but were detained were often radicalized by the violence and the torture they experienced while detained, and when they got out a lot of people took up arms. Now, when I say a lot of people, though, [we have to be cautious since] you can’t put a number on it. These guys got out, they saw firsthand what the regime was doing, and felt that the only way to beat the regime was to pick up a gun and fight back using violence And the third sense is the feeling that, generally speaking, peaceful protests haven’t achieved what they wanted to do. In the beginning, it was very much obviously about peaceful demonstrations, these were the cornerstone of the revolution. And I think that certainly, there’s revolt fatigue amongst protestors. I see a lot of frustration among people trying to maintain peaceful protests, other kinds of non-violent dissidence against the government.

They find it really difficult to cajole other people who are unhappy with the regime, who may have participated in protests in the first six to twelve months [to come out]. They find it difficult to get their former fellow protestors to come out on the streets again because they feel that’s there’s no sense to it when the regime uses guns. But for sure, there are still a lot of protestors and activists who still want to keep true to the core values of the revolution, of a peaceful uprising. It’s divided.

Are there a lot of people who went out to protest in the beginning now determined to stay in their homes, hoping the war does not come to them anymore than it already has?

Absolutely. But it depends on where you are. If you speak to people in the Damascus suburbs, for example, in al-Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp in the south of Damascus, which has been shelled. If you go back six months from now, a lot of people I knew participated in protests there [both Syrian and Palestinian]. And they were detained. They were warned that their families would be killed or detained as well if they took part in the protests, and they stopped. And I think it’s really important to distinguish between that individual and the rebels, who for the most part came from the countryside. When rebels launched attacks to try and Damascus in July, the rebels who took part in those attacks didn’t actually come from Damascus, … they came from other areas outside of Damascus, but they launched these campaigns because they knew these areas were sympathetic to the cause because they were having demonstrations there.

Were these attacks coordinated with the demonstrations?

That’s a good question. What’s happened since suggests to me there wasn’t much coordination. A lot of people who lived in these places that had been protesting peacefully for over a year didn’t want this violence to take over, for a number of reasons, primarily because what had happened thereafter was the regime shelled these areas and the rebels fled, but the people from there area were still there so their families were killed and their houses were destroyed.

Even if you only watch the state news, you’ll see that the regime will surround and shell neighborhoods where rebels, described as “al Qaeda,” are or are suspected to be operating. So are people still able to move between the cities and try to organize protests, or are they locked in their towns by the regime’s forces?

I think people are for the most part locked in, but it varies from day to day. In Damascus, some days people can get inside the city, other days, they cannot. I lived outside Damascus for the first five months of the revolution, and I went into the city most days then. Obviously, there were a series of checkpoints going in and coming out, and if you wanted to leave or enter the city after a certain time in the evening, you couldn’t. In terms of people organizing protests across the country, I don’t think there’s much of that [going on] anymore. They’re indigenous to particular areas where they are, if it’s still happening, partly because of the increase in violence.

Does the regime try to co-opt any of the demonstrators it took in for interrogation?

Yes. I spoke to some people, people who had been educated as doctors who participated in protests. They told me that their interrogators tried to use “logic” with them, that their interrogators would say to them, “Look, you’re an educated guy, what are you doing taking part in these protests. The people who are organizing these protests are country people, they’re uneducated, they have no idea what they’re they’re doing, they’re asking for freedom and have no idea what it means. They don’t know what democracy is.” They said to these doctors that they’ve got “a good life, a salary,” so “why do that?”.

In your book you discussed how there were complaints from regime supporters watching the demonstrations that a lot of the protestors “don’t really know what they want” and “we have to give the government a chance and the people demonstrating have to take a step back.” Did that argument work with the doctors here?

I don’t think so. I think this is because the regime [has become] so violent. Whether they agree or disagree with the way things are being portrayed in the media, they see what’s going on in Homs or Idlib or Aleppo.

Speaking of media coverage, can you expand on your description of how Syrians have responded to foreign media coverage of their country’s internal conflict? Are the polarization problems you described in your book, where you wrote that Al Jazeera’s “editorial policy when reporting on the Syrian uprising daw its popularity fall among Syrians, especially with the ‘silent majority’ that was neither with nor against the government,” still present in foreign media coverage of Syria?

Today’s coverage to me seems to be much the same [as it was then]. When Syrians were watching what was happening in Egypt or Tunisia, they were glued to Al Jazeera. When the revolution started at home in Syria, they were much more [circumspect], though, again, it depends on what Syrians you are talking to. The nonviolent protestors, or even the “silent majority” who make up quite a large portion of the population, they knew that Al Jazeera would only speak to activists, to FSA officers, or only to people partaking in demonstrations – they wouldn’t speak to independent voices in the country or get the regime [and its supporters’] views.

One thing that struck me when I left the country was that Syria would only get a sixty-second or a five minutes broadcast at the top of the hour saying there had been shelling, or fighting in Aleppo and Homs. We got very little sense that there were millions of Syrians who don’t identify with the revolution, who don’t want any part of the revolution. Maybe they don’t like the regime, but they don’t back the revolution. [Even though] they will say the regime is a mafia. We get no sense of that. There is no coverage of what these people, the Syrians in-between, think.

Are these people willing to air their views?

Again, it depends. A lot of these people were afraid to do so, even though the government allows some semblance of an internal opposition. But the regime knows exactly what this internal opposition does, what it’s capable of. They let it out on its leash sometimes to speak to foreign media, and then they pull it back in. That is how it has been for decades. [There are people in this bloc] who don’t want a violent uprising because they feel it will destroy the social fabric of Syria and lead to sectarian civil war … but also say the regime has to change, and change in a huge way and there has to be a democratic transition. But we see very little about them.

To be continued.

PostsPaul MutterSyria
The FSA's new media-military offensive in northern Syria

Enduring America, a useful sources for media summations on Syria and (highly-debated) FSA claims of successes suggests that FSA forces are indeed increasingly gaining ground against Assad:

For several weeks there has been a growing number of rumors, low-quality Youtube videos, and eyewitness reports that suggested that not only was the FSA winning in Deir Ez Zor, Lattakia, and Aleppo, but it was on the brink of major victories in all three provinces. Similarly, there is a growing body of inconclusive evidence that the FSA is surging in Daraa province, and was increasingly effective in and around Damascus. While individual reports of this nature may or may not each be true, the trend lines were beginning to look clear.

The spread of the rebellion throughout the country means that even the vaunted internal security forces have to weigh whether moving one force to Point A will weaken Point B fatally, is surely impacting developments on the ground – desertion and heavy casualties continue to mount for the state’s forces. And Syria’s unwillingness to pursue the fight all the way to the Turkish or Iraqi borders for fear of igniting a wider conflagration must give breathing room not just to refugees, but to arms smugglers and militiamen:

For more than a week … that body of evidence has been harder and harder to dismiss as noise and rumor. With well documented victories yesterday, the FSA has encouraged us to post headlines that we have been sitting on for a long time.

While these are triumphs that have been documented by the FSA and its sympathizers — and as such must be taken with grains of salt — some of them have been corroborated by other media, such as Ben Hubbard of the AP, on location at the site of a key base the FSA has just captured from an elite Syrian Army unit. 

But the fact that so much of this appraisal of the Syrian Civil War relies on the rebels’ own reporting — which essentially makes it a propaganda effort, not that what the Syrian state news agencies show is anything less than that — should remind all observers to bear in mind the wording of the latest missive posted to the Facebook feed of Aleppo Now and the picture choice for this post: 

“When confrontation is imposed on us, then all of you are asked to act, [and in taking action, to stand] side by side.”

That the pen and the flash drive — symbolic of how important a role social media now plays in this conflict — are included with the bullet again signifies that for the FSA, this is a war on all fronts. Media is part of the war effort too. Not just for international support, but for recruitment and morale boosting efforts in country. It certainly is not the same as the AP on the ground doing independent fact-checking, but the line of thinking Aleppo Now puts forth would not look out of place to a veteran of Eritrea or Lebanon’s civil wars forty years past, or for Libya’s own uprising. It is the nature of modern warfare.

A war effort the FSA hopes (and hopes to convey) is now going it’s way up north, along an axis from Aleppo to Latakia that takes in one of their earliest strongholds and battlegrounds, in Idlib, and encroaches on Alawite coastal bastions. These are, one senses, less decisive battles for control than they are pit stops on the path of an increasingly “successful” war of attrition:

Two trends are clear - The Assad regime is retreating, pulling many units towards the capital and leaving its garrisons to fend for themselves - and they are fending poorly. Meanwhile, the FSA continues to ratchet up pressure on the capital, and despite the fact that Damascus is now the highest priority of the Assad military, those advances are accelerating.

Is it a state of collapse? Perhaps it’s too early to say, and we’re not predicting a sudden collapse even if that were true. Regardless, it is my conclusion that we have been too cautious in estimating the strengths of the insurgency, and this is saying something because we have been consistently more hawkish (and I would argue more accurate) than many media outlets who assess the strength of the Syrian insurgents.

In the last four days, the Free Syrian Army has won clear victories in Aleppo province, capturing the 12 kilometer long base belonging to the regime’s 46th regiment, and capturing many pieces of important weaponry in the process. There are many reports that the FSA siege of the Wadi al Daif base near Ma’arrat al Nouman has intensified, and the insurgents have destroyed more key equipment there in recent days. There are also reports that the FSA is pushing further northeast on the road between Idlib and Aleppo. Meanwhile, all the FSA forces that have been sieging the 46th regiment’s base will be free to push south towards Idlib and east towards Aleppo. The trend is clear - eventually, without a complete reversal of fate, the FSA will have a united front from Lattakia to Aleppo city. 

…. In 4–5 days the FSA has captured Al Bukamal, the Hamdan air base outside of it, and another major airbase near Deir Ez Zor. 

…. in Lattakia, the FSA continues to push deeper into the mountains, slowly working its way towards the coast, and in Daraa there are now daily reports of battles between the regime and insurgents. The FSA is not yet in a position to directly establish control of either region, but these battles will distract the Assad regime and eat away at the Assad military. Furthermore, if the FSA is not taken seriously in both places, it is possible to have a relatively small force of insurgents capture territory, which would significantly broaden the fronts.

At the same time, Al Jazeera reports, Islamists in Aleppo who criticized the new Syrian National Coalition — now recognized by both France and the UK — have taken a more conciliatory tone, probably suggesting their initial furor was aimed at ensuring they get their place at the table, which is pretty stacked with Syrian National Council members despite the Council’s limited reach inside Syria and increasing unpopularity among the powers aiding the rebels (the US made quite clear the Coalition was being organized in Doha because State has written off the Council).

A commenter on the EA article, though, notes that a different situation prevails on the border with Lebanon, citing a dispatch from the Christian Science Monitor. Though it suggests rebel gains in the north, it notes that counting on “a relatively small force of insurgents [that can] capture territory” is sure to lead to disappointment for FSA-boosters, given the seesawing the FSA has already experienced in Syria’s towns and cities:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) lacks the weaponry it needs to hold ground in the face of the regime forces’ air strikes. Instead, it attacks Syrian Army positions along the southern border, takes them over just long enough to rush supplies and fighters in from Lebanon, and retreats before the regime planes arrive.

The rebels farther north have managed to take and hold a solid bloc between Aleppo and the Turkish border, which they have dubbed “Free Syria.” (Read this story about the “uneasy normal” of life in rebel-held Syria.) But it is a very different story between Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and the border with Lebanon, some sparsely-populated 20 miles away.

The endless battle for turf underscores the challenges the rebels face simply holding ground as the conflict enters its 21st month. 

For every airbase or battalion the FSA has claimed to have captured, their gains are still reversible in the absence of a stronger military organization, and sufficient efforts to maintain popular support and encourage defections.

Extrajudicial killings of POWs and fighting amidst the rubble of towns caught between them and the Syrian Army’s tanks are not serving that strategy — but some support is there, though perhaps less for further battling as for expanding the non-violent popular demonstrations that seem so distant now but are nonetheless still going on. 

With that in mind, it should be said, for all its optimistic predictions regarding the FSA, EA has no illusions about what intense street fighting would bring to Damascus – or other Syrian cities – in the coming weeks:

>[T]he fact that the FSA is bringing the fight to Damascus is a military blow to the Assad regime, but it spells disaster for the residents of Damascus. The FSA will not be able to take the capital for many many months, at least. This will bring huge amounts of suffering to the people on the ground in these areas.

PostsPaul MutterMedia, Syria, fsa
Flight Records List Russia Sending Tons of Cash to Syria - ProPublica

Flight Records List Russia Sending Tons of Cash to Syria - ProPublica

Important story:

This past summer, as the Syrian economy began to unravel and the military pressed hard against an armed rebellion, a Syrian government plane ferried what flight records describe as more than 200 tons of “bank notes” from Moscow.

The records of overflight requests were obtained by ProPublica. The flights occurred during a period of escalating violence in a conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead since fighting broke out in March 2011.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is increasingly in need of cash to stay afloat and continue financing the military’s efforts to crush the uprising. U.S. and European sanctions, including a ban on minting Syrian currency, have damaged the country’s economy. As a result, Syria lost access to an Austrian bank that had printed its bank notes.

In Translation: Haitham al-Manaa on the new Syrian coalition

I was looking for interesting articles on the new Syrian coalition (see my take and links here) and came across this post by Angry Arabhttp://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2012/06/syrian-bet.html) recommending an article by Haitham al-Manaa, a Syrian dissident who has been critical of the SNC and the armed Syrian opposition. In it, Manaa returns to a theme he has written about extensively in the last few months: can an armed opposition be united in any political meaningful way? And is does this coalition empower the organized fighters (with their ties to foreign money, recently ex-regime figures, and Islamist groups) at the expense of the broader Syrian social movement that rose against Assad, or indeed a Syrian society that has shown it is not always in favor of militarizing this conflict (here I think especially of how the fighting was brought to Aleppo mostly by outsiders) despite the regime’s atrocities?

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Doha and Its Sisters

Haitham Manaa, as-Safir, 14 November 2011

For more than two months, and all those who passed through the Syrian National Council, from founders, resigners, members, associates, and missionaries for membership headed to Doha to rescue this body from intensive care — which the doctor, Eric Chevallier[1], failed to do on his own. Neither the group photo with President Hollande, nor the injection of funding and diplomatic support was enough.

The American pragmatic mentality was more subtle when it took some of the ideas proposed by Riad Seif and reformulated them in a way consistent with a radical departure from the National Council story. Hilary Clinton announced that the product had expired, and it was now necessary for an induced birth and Caesarian section to take place for a newborn heir to succeed a brother that did not take advantage of the oath of allegiance he received from the Gulf, Turkey and the West, who did not win people over, and who did not develop a political discourse befitting the destructive violence that the country is suffering from.

Perhaps the first weak point of the old National Council was in its blind support for one idea: getting armed and importing arms for military groups. This idea failed due to its single mindedness or by making its political horizon too short-sighted and immediate.

Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib’s words were taken as auspicious, as he talked about politics and religion and did not talk about violence and weapons. However, it was not long before we received really frightening information and testimonies as a clear article in the Syrian National Coalition confirms. Mr. al-Khatib is rectifying what he forgot in this inauguration speech, saying that he wants European recognition and financial support for the coalition, and going on to add that when political recognition takes place, this will make the coalition act like a government and then it will acquire weapons and this will solve the problems.

In a second message published two days ago, Mr. al-Khatib reveals his opposition to the National Charter approved in Cairo, affirming that “the Cairo document was not adopted in any way. I was among many of our brothers who rejected it and issued a statement that I will be the first person to withdraw when there is an item that contradicts the creed of the enduring Umma.”

Of course, here he is talking about the desacralization of public action by considering human beings to be responsible for their actions and affirming equal citizenship between all Syrians, as both of those items are rejected by some Islamists.

Despite the ambiguous relationship between the Council and the Coalition, the vagaries of the relationship between the Arab League and what the new project accumulated, despite the fact that the Council took the lion’s share (38 of the Council members, five of whom resigned) at the expense of the rest of the present and absent factions of the opposition, despite the absence of [Lakhdar] Brahimi’s mission, and the absence of the Geneva meeting, most Arab countries were silent about this in the Cairo meeting and tried to keep up appearances. However, as one attendee said, “They said what they had to say and ignored us, and we said what we had to say in a way that didn’t compel anyone.”

France is providing another example of the cacophony that it is directed toward Syria. The Defense Minister ruled out direct recognition, in Cairo the Foreign Ministry delegation contented itself with offering support without recognition, and President Francois Hollande offered recognition in a caricatural form, saying: “Today I declare that France recognizes the Syrian National Council [sic — here the author surely means the Coalition, not the SNC] as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and as the future government of a democratic Syria, allowing it to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.” There is no printing error here, Hollande is recognizing the Council after it removes al-Assad, giving proof of his meticulous and profound observation of the Syrian issue!

The ambiguities of the Doha text are many, and rejecting dialogue and negotiation was not in need of a political body. That is a task for warriors. The problem is that there are those who want to dictate to the Syrians what to do and force them to do what they want and turn them into yes-men, as Issam al-Attar[2] said.

Before the conference, al-Khatib said that negotiation is a religious and political duty. After Qatari generosity, the imam discovered that his fatwa was mistaken, since he has one merit, but Ford and Chevallier have two.


  1. Eric Chevallier is France’s ambassador to Syria.  ↩

Issam al-Attar is a former General Guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who has since left the group.  ↩

New Syrian coalition links

Links from all over the place on this question are below.

I think it's a good sign even if it had to be pushed together by outside forces. There are still too many Muslim Brothers on the coalition board, though. But in the leadership it is nice to see the kind of people who were behind the original protests against Assad rather than the militias of former regime officials, Muslim Brotherhood brigades and sundry Salafi nutters. I suspect the test of this new coalition will be how effective it is in maintaining at least the outward appearance of unity and implementing its goals of forming competent united organizational structures for aid to refugees and a joint military command. The French are very keen to get things going by having this turn into a one-stop shop for coordinating aid, as a first step. And one senses that the GCC, the French, the Brits and some of the others gung-ho on acting fast are rather peeved off with the slow movement of the Obama administration and would like to present it a success to nudge it along.

The question for the Obama administration, now reviewing its Syria policy, is still the same: who to arm, and whether the risk of arming these groups means reproducing Libya: militias across the country, trans-border violence, arming extremists, etc. No one wants a Somalia — much less a 1980s Afghanistan.

My question yesterday, in an off-the-record briefings with French officials, was how this affects the Lakhdar Brahimi track, which implies that the Assad government still represents Syria since he is negotiating with them. The answer I received suggested no one wants to outright kill the Brahimi track — indeed there was suggestion that continuing to pursue a ceasefire was desirable, and that even without recognition a deal secured with the Assad regime would be amenable. Yet, accepting this coalition, which rejects negotiations with Assad, suggests otherwise. Of course, arguably the Brahimi track is dead and buried. Nabil Arabi suggested as much a few days ago, in comments I am told were not picked up by the papers or news agencies.

  • Syria's Internal War Turns Against the Regime - The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • France recognises Syrian National Coalition - FT.com
  • PM warns of harsher response to Syria as border tension drags on
  • France Recognizes Syrian Opposition Coalition - WSJ.com
  • France recognises Syrian National Coalition - FT.com
  • Preacher takes opposition lead - FT.com
  • Finally, Leadership « P U L S E
  • Syria Comment » Archives » “The Formation of Syria’s National Coalition: An Assessment and Analysis,” By Amr al-Azm
  • Syria Comment » Archives » New Syrian Leadership Electrifies Opposition: Ten Countries Promise Recognition
  • De la prétendue laïcité du régime syrien | Un oeil sur la Syrie
  • Syria's opposition: Come together | The Economist
  • M of A - Syria: The New Coalition For Further Destruction
  • PostsIssandr El AmraniSyria
    Landis: Syria Disintegrating

    Syria Disintegrating

    There is no stopping it now. Syria is unleashed. Guns rule and the strong will eat the weak.  Brahimi speaks of Syria turning into Somalia and a “big catastrophe.” If that happens, it will become a prime target for American and Israeli drones, which will troll the skies in hunting aL-Qaida and those with a long beards, as is the case in Pakistan and Yemen.