The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged syria
In Translation: Russia's Army of the Levant

One of the big questions about Russia's involvement in Syria is how it intends to turn its geopolitical and strategic victory – edging out the United States as the key international actor in the conflict and helping the Assad regime's forces recapture Aleppo – into something that doesn't turn into a quagmire. Even if the Assad regime is able to retain control of the main cities of "useful Syria" (and look how it yet again lost control of Palmyra), the Syrian civil war is likely to continue for years in the countryside. So as the Astana negotiations begin (and will probably produce few results) and Russia struts its diplomatic clout, it is stuck having to manage a weak ally in the regime and an unreliable one that is potentially a rival in Iran, the regime's other major outside backer.

For several weeks, there have been reports that the Assad regime is trying to raise a new force that would effectively be under Russian command. Its purpose is unclear, and it might simply be to counter increase its influence over Assad (whose forces are likely exhausted and more concerned with internal regime politics) and provide a counter-veiling force to Iran's more effective presence on the ground troops in Syria. That, at least, is what much of the (Assad-hostile) Arab press is speculating. The dramatic moves to recruit this "Fifth Corps", as the new formation is called,  spell more suffering for ordinary Syrians (see details below). The idea is that the regime will corral reluctant men (including deserters, civilians, former rebels etc.) into the Fifth Corps – which hardly seems likely to be an effective force to counter a highly-motivated and well-trained pro-Iran Syrian and foreign militias.

The piece below, by al-Hayat's longtime Syria correspondent Ibrahim al-Hamidi (who was jailed by the regime in the early 2000s) draws a parallel between the Fifth Corps and France's Army of the Levant, which consolidated its hold on the country after the First World War. 

Thanks to Industry Arabic for providing this translation - they make this feature possible and you should give them your consideration for your Arabic translation needs.

The Fifth Corps: Russia’s “Army of the Levant” to Suppress Comrades-in-Arms and Impose Peace

Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat, 9 January 2017

The Russian army continues to pressure its allies in Damascus to move quickly to form a “Fifth Attack Troop Corps” as a military pillar of Russian penetration into Syria, which would largely resemble the Army of the Levant founded by France during the Syrian Mandate at the start of the past century. It is possible that this new formation would be aimed at confronting the increasing influence of the National Defense Forces and militias supported by Iran and keep the peace after the remaining pockets of resistance are suppressed.

At the end of 2012, with the retreat of many regime forces due to defections and the evasion of compulsory enlistment by up to 100,000 individuals, Tehran succeeded in convincing Damascus to organize the Popular Committees into “national defense forces” supervised, trained, and funded by the Basij. They were eventually deployed to most regime-held areas and front lines, their number reaching about 70,000 Syrians and non-Syrians, including Afghans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis, under the direct supervision of officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which contributed to halting the progress of opposition factions in several regions.

Following the direct Russian military intervention at the end of September 2015, the Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army, Gen. Ali Ayyoub, announced in October from the Russian military base at Khmeimim the intention to form a “Fourth Attack Troop Corps” with the aim of “liberating all towns and villages.” However, Moscow’s attempts to incorporate some 18 detachments supported by Iran into the Fourth Corps did not succeed, and military coordination remained at the bottom of differing priorities.

In November, in pace with the infiltration of the Russian army’s officers into the civilian and military governmental institutions in Damascus and the cities of “useful Syria,” a statement was distributed announcing formation of a “Fifth Corps” with “financing and training from Russia.” It will include roughly 45,000 individuals deployed as infantry, engineering, mechanized, and assault forces, “after training in guerrilla warfare in areas protected by Russia,” according to an official examining the project.

The high command of the army and armed forces then announced the “formation of a new unit of volunteer combatants, under the name ‘Fifth Attack Troop Corps,’ with the goal of eliminating terrorism.” The high command called for “all citizens wishing to join the corps to consult the recruitment centers in the provinces, which are located at the headquarters of the southern region, the headquarters site in Damascus, the headquarters of the Tenth Division in Qatana, the headquarters of the central region in Homs, the headquarters site in Hama, the College of Administrative Affairs in Masyaf, the headquarters of the northern region in Aleppo, the headquarters site at Tartus, the headquarters of the coastal region in Latakia, the headquarters of the Fifth Division in Daraa, and the headquarters of the Fifteenth Division in as-Suwayda,” without including areas under the control of the Syrian opposition or ISIS. The call included “those not obliged to serve under conscription, deserters, those who are over 18 years of age, those wishing to join who have completed their national service – from all ranks, commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men – as well as state employees wishing to join under a one-year contract, which can be renewed subject to the agreement of the employing agency.”

Instructions

Alongside the issuance of presidential decrees pardoning army “deserters” and those who have not enlisted for military service, tightening leave procedures for young men, and dispatching street patrols to drag youths off to the front without full training, instructions have been issued to the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, government institutions, the army, mobile-phone companies, and the media to urge enlistment in the new force. In a memorandum, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments has called on the imams of mosques to “speak from the pulpits and urge citizens to enlist in the Fifth Corps, and highlight the advantages of doing so.” Among these are “regularizing the status of those who are absent from reserve service and of deserters and state employees absent from work, while a person can earn 100,000 lira per month.” (The U.S. dollar is worth 500 lira). Another memorandum from the dean of the Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Giana Eid, calls on employees to “register their names with the Director of Administrative and Legal Affairs.”

The governor of Latakia urged government institutions in the province to compel their employees, and especially displaced persons (seven million are displaced within the country) to “join the Ba‘ath Vanguards camp in al-Raml al-Janubi,” including people from 18 to 50 years “In the event of non-enrollment, employees’ assignments will be terminated,” he added. The Directorate of Education requested that teachers under the age of 42 be “encouraged” to enlist in the Fifth Corps and stated that there is a “need for displaced teachers to be forced into the corps within 48 hours,” noting that estimates indicate there are 1.5 million displaced coming from Aleppo, Idlib, and Homs now present in Tartus and Latakia. News has also circulated of a trial plan to repatriate refugees from countries neighboring Syria (some five million people) on condition that they agree to fight in this corps.

Moreover, general managers in Damascus have gathered their employees to explain the advantages of enlisting in this force, including “keeping half of one’s monthly salary while earning another monthly salary of up to 300 dollars.” Syrians have received text messages on their mobile phones such as “Be one of the shapers of victory,” “Sign up for the Fifth Attack Troop Corps,” and “We invite you to join the Fifth Attack Troop Corps and share in shaping the victory,” while new businessman have been informed of the necessity of financing this force as a condition for their being granted new financial benefits

In addition to some pieces of news from the tribes in the country’s east, Moscow – engaged through officers at the Khmeimim base in “reconciliation talks” – is wagering on the incorporation of opposition fighters whose “status has been regularized” into the new force, where “they will fight their former comrades-in-arms, especially Jabhat al-Nusra cadres and ISIS.” It has been noted that among the elements of the draft agreement proposed to settle the status of three towns south of Damascus is the formation of a force to fight al-Nusra and ISIS, something which has happened before in other areas such as al-Tall, northeast of the capital. Given that thousands of those who have not signed such “settlements” have moved with their families to Idlib province, the coming period may see direct clashes between “former comrades-in-arms” – battles between members of the Fifth Corps and those who refuse “settlements,” especially on the fronts of Idlib, which Damascus wants to retake “at any cost.”

Army of the Levant

Experts have linked the latest changes in the Syrian army to the new formation’s prominent forthcoming role and to Moscow’s eagerness to expand and transform the Tartus base into something resembling the one at Khmeimim. Experts in Western institutes and specialist publications, including Stratfor, have noted that one of the reasons for the creation of the Fifth Corps is to counterbalance the influence of Iran, especially since Moscow, having reached agreements with Ankara after the ceasefire in some parts of Syria, will provide most of the support. This will include arms, training, and a monthly salary amounting to $750 for members of “its corps.”

Syrian historians liken this force to the Army of the Levant formed by France after its assumption of the Mandate over Syria in 1920. As one said, “After the idea of dividing Syria into statelets, France recruited the minorities of Syria and some fighters from colonized countries like Senegal to form the Army of the Levant in order to crush Syrian nationalist movements, including that of 1925-1927. The leaders of this army were Frenchmen, while its members were the poor and marginalized of Syria.”

He added: “The reception of the Army of the Levant was more successful on the Syrian coast where the people had been historically marginalized, and where the Army of the Levant offered authority and influence. This was the basis for the beginning of the military ideology among the oppressed sons of the coast, a matter which became evident later in Syrian history” with the taking of power in Damascus. After independence in April 1946, the Army of the Levant became the nucleus of the Syrian army amidst efforts by the “Damascus elite” to sideline it, which was one of the reasons for the nakba of 1948. Some members of the army, such as Husni al-Za‘im and Adib Shishakli, were behind military coups, and Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, along with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was behind the foundation of the “security state.”

The number of individuals in the Army of the Levant rose from 13,000 in 1920 to more than 100,000 in order to suppress the Great Syrian Revolt of 1927. Those are also the goals Russia seeks in forming the Fifth Corps one year after its direct military intervention via the eastern Syrian coast, along with the organization of an army outside the “authority of the state,” according to a Syrian historian. He wonders: “Does Moscow’s recognition of Islamist factions and acceptance of them as partners in the ceasefire and political solution reflect Russia’s intention to rely on the majority in cooperation with Turkey?”

In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup
Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Last weekend's aborted  coup in Turkey, and the crackdown that has followed it, has been the focus of excellent think-pieces in the last week (such as this excellent piece by Aaron Stein). Most are concerned with the domestic implications for Turkey and the ambitions of President Erdogan. In the Arab world, reaction has been divided and mostly concerned with the strategic implications for the region, particularly as it came as Ankara had announced an effort to patch up its relations with neighbors. The most concrete element of this new policy that has been achieved thus far is the discreet settlement reached with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident, and the potentially most significant element were overtures to Russia and Syria. (Reconciliation with Egypt, also floated prior to the coup, seems unlikely after Egypt so clearly welcomed the putsch.) 

In the article below, the commentator Abdel Bari Atwan (whom I find relatively equidistant these days from the main Arab "concerned parties" in the new regional great game) focuses in on the potential of a reversal of Turkish policy on Syria. Atwan wagered that the issue might be addressed in Wednesday's National Security Council meeting in Ankara (it does not appear to have been) but this is one issue worth watching.

As always, our friends at Industry Arabic provided the translation. They're great, please check them out for your business (or other) needs.


Is President Assad the biggest winner after the failed Turkish coup? What is the surprise Erdogan is preparing to unleash on Wednesday? How do we explain the chilliness and confusion of the Saudis toward Ankara? And why is Jubeir suddenly more optimistic about solving the Syrian crisis?

Abdel Bari Atwan, al-rai al-youm, 20 July 2016

Let us leave aside the failed Turkish coup and all the consequent purges, which have included tens of thousands of judges, teachers, imams, security officers, state employees and both high and low-ranking officers — let us leave all of that aside, even if temporarily, and try to explore the steps President Recep Tayayip Erdogan is preparing to embark on at the regional and international levels.
Surprises from President Erdogan these days are many and various — you need to stop and catch your breath every now and then while trying to keep up with him — but the most prominent may be “reconciliation” with Syria, entry into negotiations with it, and a shift in Turkey’s attitudes toward it, politically and militarily.
We’ve spoken about this issue here more than once before, and have quoted more than one statement from Mr. Binali Yildirim — the prime minister, and the second man in Turkey — in which he spoke about the futility of the war in Syria and the need to stop the bloodshed and return to “zero problems” with neighbors. What is new this time is that assurances in this direction came from Erdogan’s own mouth the day before yesterday. This may be the biggest surprise, and could gladden the hearts of some while giving others heart attacks.


In video and audio, President Erdogan told a group of his supporters on Monday evening that “his country would put all its disputes with neighboring countries behind it,” and revealed that his country would take an important decision after the National Security Council meeting which will be held tomorrow (Wednesday).
We do not know what important decision the Turkish national security leadership — with the participation of the prime minister, senior state officials, and the military and security establishments — will take, but we do know that the biggest disputes with neighboring countries, which it will put behind it, are with Syria, the source of all the problems Turkey is enduring these days, including “terrorism” and its bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, and Kurdish aspirations to establish a “state” taking shape along its northern border.
Of course we do not deny the existence of disputes with Iraq, as well as others with Egypt, and third, to a lesser extent, with Iran, and fourth with Russia, which are on their way to being resolved. However, all of these disputes are secondary, or are directly related to the Syrian issue, and will all melt away if there is a change in Turkish policy toward this issue.
In this article, we will try to read between the lines of Erdogan’s statements and see what they involve in terms of meanings and indicators on this or that issue and what we can deduce through these readings. We can summarize them in the following points:

  1. There has been an accelerating political and media trend by President Erdogan’s government to review its friendly relations with Washington, as well as a lack of concern with European threats to stop negotiations to include Turkey in the European Union if it reinstates the death penalty. There is a chance of a rupture between the two sides on the grounds of the American government’s refusal to extradite US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been officially accused of being behind the failed coup.
  2. A state of “chill” has prevailed over Turkish-Saudi relations since Mr. Yildirim’s statements about the possibility of restoring his country’s relations with Syria. The confused reaction of Saudi media toward the failed coup reflected this chill, as Saudi channels, including the official Al Ekhbariya and semi-official Al Arabiya, appeared at first to sympathize with the coup, and then corrected this and timidly welcomed its failure.
  3. A strange statement was made by Mr. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, on the sidelines of the European Union-Gulf Cooperation Council Ministerial Meeting in Brussels yesterday. He said, “There is hope of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis,” while adding at the same time that, “the support of his country for the Syrian opposition will continue, as well as the war on ISIS.” What made this strange was that Mr. Jubeir was uncharacteristically optimistic about a political solution in Syria and did not mention the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, whether peacefully or through war, at all.

We do not want to preempt events or jump to hasty conclusions, however we do not hesitate to say that President Assad could be the biggest winner to emerge from this failed Turkish coup, whether it was real or fabricated, for several reasons, listed below:

  1. The Turkish-Russian rapprochement will be definitive, and could enter a stage of unprecedented strategic cooperation if US-Turkish relations collapse. Two days ago, Sergei Lavrov confirmed there was close cooperation between Moscow and Ankara around the Syrian issue.
  2. The phone conversation initiated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with his counterpart Erdogan — and which was greatly welcomed and appreciated by the Turkish president when Rouhani offered congratulations on the failure of the coup and readiness for cooperation between the two countries — could be a prelude to joint Iranian-Russian mediation to resume Turkish-Syrian relations.
  3. The Syrian opposition has disappeared from the political scene over the last three days. So far, no delegation representing it has arrived in Ankara to at least show solidarity with Erdogan.

The Turkish landscape is changing, and Turkey will be different after the coup, as we said in a previous article. So is it the case with President Erdogan. We are less than 24 hours from finding out about the biggest transformation, which the Turkish President will announce after the National Security Council meeting. These are long hours to wait, at least for us.

The Arab of the Future

I've just published  a review in The Nation of the first two volumes of French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future (volume 1 is out in English). Sattouf grew up in Ghaddafi's Libya and above all in Hafez Al Assad's Syria and has penned a disturbing, affecting and darkly funny childhood memoir. 

It’s 1983, and a family has landed at the Damascus airport. The father, who has avoided military service, bribes his way into the country. Accompanying him are his foreign wife and small blond son. Outside the airport, Syria assails them. A scrum of screaming cab drivers fights over the startled new arrivals. Cabbies abandon the brawl and compose themselves on the sidelines, combing their hair and smoking cigarettes, until the last one left shouting—and close to keeling over from his exertions—hustles the family into his taxi. He ashes his cigarettes through the moving vehicle’s missing floorboard.
This scene of homecoming and culture shock falls about halfway through the first volume of The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir by the French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The book delivers a vision of childhood that is both extreme and familiar: its terrors and painful revelations, the utter mystery and absolute power of adults, the sensory details that lodge forever in the memory. But Sattouf’s vision is also of the unusual childhood he lived in Moammar El-Gadhafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, as well as in the shadow of his father and his delusions. The Arab of the Future blends a rueful backward glance at the early days of two dictatorships that finally imploded in the Arab Spring and an intimate indictment of the way boys were taught to be men.
Sattouf, who is 37 and lives in Paris, has directed two movies and written dozens of graphic novels, many of them focused on adolescence and sexual losers (one is called Virgin’s Manual, another No Sex in New York). Other work is drawn from life: For one piece, he spent 15 days in an elite French high school. Between 2004 and 2014, Sattouf contributed a weekly comic called “The Secret Life of Youth” to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Based on scraps of life seen and heard on the streets and subways, it was preoccupied, like much of Sattouf’s work, with observing those moments of cruelty, violence, or strangeness that happen in plain sight but are generally passed over in silence, purposely ignored.

 

Assad’s Officer Ghetto: Why the Syrian Army Remains Loyal

From a fascinating paper by Kheder Khaddour, for Carnegie:

Army officers have access to a benefits system that links nearly every aspect of their professional and personal lives to the regime, and this places them in an antagonistic relationship with the rest of society. Dahiet al-Assad, or “the suburb of Assad” northeast of Damascus and the site of the country’s largest military housing complex, reveals how this system works. Known colloquially as Dahia, the housing complex provides officers with the opportunity of owning property in Damascus. As many army officers come from impoverished rural backgrounds, home ownership in the capital would have been beyond their financial reach. Military housing has offered them an opportunity for social advancement, but the community that officers and their families inhabit within Dahia also fosters a distinct identity that segregates them from the rest of Syrian society, leaving them dependent on the regime.

The benefits Dahia provides come at a steep cost. With the move into military housing, officers effectively complete their buy-in, linking their personal and familial fortunes to the survival of the regime. All the trappings of an officer’s life, and the social respectability it provides, are thus granted by and dependent on the regime. In 2000, when then president Hafez al-Assad died, many officers in Dahiet al-Assad sent their families back to their home villages to wait out the succession outcome. The families only returned once Hafez’s son Bashar was confirmed as the new president. Officers had understood that their life in Damascus was contingent on the Assad regime’s survival, rather than on their status as state employees or military personnel.

I remember driving through Dahia in the 1990s. Really a world apart. And this type of situation and create of a parallel society of army officers applies to some extent to many other countries in the region.

"We told you our shitty Syria policy would fail"

This (from the NYT) is pretty disingenuous from the Obama admin:

WASHINGTON — By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.

But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

. . .

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

. . .

“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,” Mr. Earnest said. “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

If it was convinced this was the wrong idea, then it should not have done it and come up with another alternative. This kind of half-assed abdication of responsibility seen in Syria and Libya (support the overthrow of the regime, but in the first case don't do anything serious about and in the second pursue regime change with no day-after strategy) is really a disgrace. Foreign policy is one matter where the president usually has to compromise less, particularly with his own cabinet. If he disagreed with Clinton and others inside the administration then Obama should have told them to stuff it, not meet them half-way.

AsidesThe Editorssyria, uuspolicy
Helping the Syrian people

As the bodies of those trying to reach Europe continue to be found piled in trucks or washed up on shores, are we finally acknowledging the almost unfathomable magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, and our responsibility to help? Many ordinary citizens are doing more than their governments.

German train stations are overwhelmed by donations for arriving refugees. An online fundraising campaign has raised $150,000 to benefit a Syrian father of two selling pens on the streets of Beirut. Over ten thousand Icelanders took to Facebook to volunteer to host Syrian refugees (after their government announced it would take 50).

If you are an American, you can sign this petition to resettle more Syrian refugees in our country (we have taken less than 1,000 so far). The suffering of these people is a historic calamity, and a shame on us all. 

What Happened in Homs

The New York Review of Books publishes an excerpt of Jonathan Littel's Syrian Notebooks:

Ever since the beheading of the journalist James Foley, Da‘esh has become the overwhelming obsession of Western governments, clouding all other issues. The regime and its Russian friends can be proud: their goal of, if not quite rehabilitating, at least bringing al-Assad back into the game as a key player, is now within reach. Even more than the fate of the broader Middle East, it is the fear, even to the point of psychosis, of another jihadi backlash against Western interests—of another September 11 or July 7 or January 7—that is driving European and US decision making. From there to working with al-Assad is only a step, no matter how much our leaders deny it. Sadly, this won’t benefit the Syrian people much.
A recent set of statistics published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, usually considered one of the most reliable independent observer of the conflict, might serve as a useful reminder even if the figures are probably underestimated: as of March 2015, the regime had killed 176,678 Syrian civilians, including 18,242 children, as opposed to 1,054 civilians (of which 145 were children) killed by Da‘esh. Our new enemy should not make us forget who is at the root of the disaster; the Syrians certainly haven’t. The French journalist Sofia Amara cites, in her recent book, the new slogan chanted, with their eternal dark humor, by Syrian activists seen in a video marching through devastated streets: “What is left of the Syrian people wants the fall of the regime.”


You probably won’t read this piece about Syria - Al Jazeera English

AJE's online editor, Barry Malone, on how few read about Syria's humanitarian disaster anymore:

We have seen a stagnation in traffic to our Syria conflict stories since 2012 with intermittent peaks when it makes headlines - Assad says something unusual, the possibility of Western missiles.

Recently, though there have been occasional spikes, they appear mostly related to ISIL. The taking of Fallujah, the fall of Mosul, the detestable beheadings, and the sledgehammering of history.

The twisted steal the attention. And the people we should pay attention to fade into the background, bit players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.

We find that stories about the suffocating grind and everyday hardship of war don't do as well. Stories about the almost four million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country, the same.

AsidesThe Editorssyria
Weekend read: Yarmouk miniatures

Do sit down with this enlightening, thoughtful, of course heartbreaking essay by a former English teacher -- and Arabic student -- in Damascus. It brought back memories of my own extraordinary tutor in Cairo, a similarly cultured and impassioned and generous man who know a language class could be so much more. 

It was the surreal highlight of a happy day. Looking back, the whole day seems like a scaled-down model of the three years to come: a charmed wandering across the surface of Syrian life, nourished by great food and chance encounters, tutored by countless small embarrassments, cushioned by the privilege of a British passport and an expat salary. The signs of a dictatorship—the presidential portraits, the leather-jacketed security men, the off-limits areas of conversation—were impossible to ignore. But my Syrian friends seemed bright, open-minded, and irreverent. None of them resembled cowed, brainwashed subjects of a totalitarian state. “The regime can be cruel,” a Syrian colleague once told me, “but as long as people stay out of politics, they are left to get on with their lives.” Most days this line was not difficult to believe.
Watching the referendum debke, though, was one of the moments when I realized how little I understood. I could comprehend people voting “Yes,” grudgingly or even wholeheartedly: the president was, on the face of it, widely admired. But this dance of gratitude seemed so undignified. Not even the most devoted supporter could have been in any doubt that the referendum was a farce: the maniacal repetition of the theme song, the ridiculous slogans, the conspicuous absence of a “No” campaign. What led intelligent men and women to dance debke in honor of a president who forced such absurdities on his people?

A video from the Radd Fa'al Crew in Yarmouk camp

Syria and the Western left

From an interview with Yassin Al-Haq Saleh, a prominent Syrian dissident who fled the country after participating in the uprising and living in hiding for several years:

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate. So they do not really need to know about us. For them the country is only a black box about which you do not have to learn its internal structure and dynamics; actually it has no internal structure and dynamics according to their approach, one that is at the same time Western-centered and high-politics centered.
...
In the last two months the Americans have openly appended our cause to their war-on-terrorism agenda. Their war on ISIS is saying that the regime that killed or caused the killing of more than 200 thousand people is only a detail; the thuggish entity of ISIS is the real danger. And of course American military training will follow the American political priorities, using Syrians as tools in their (the Americans’) war, not for concluding our struggle for change in Syria. 
In short, I think that the outcome of the American program of training Syrians will be to completely destroy the weakened FSA, converting it into cheap local mercenaries without a cause, confronting the fascists of ISIS for years for the Americans’ sake, and giving their backs to the fascists of Assad.
In sum, I am among those who adamantly oppose the American military training of Syrians. 
...
I do not have any essentialist grudge towards the United States, but the superpower was extremely inhumane towards my country, and its present war is extremely selfish. It is quite feasible in my opinion to conclude from American policy in Syria that Washington is radically antagonistic to democracy and the rights of the underprivileged. I suppose this means that its war in Syria is reactionary, and that it will make everything worse for the majority in the country and the region. 
My people, under the bombs

From a blog by Abd Doumany, a Syrian AP photographer:

I see it as my duty to document people’s suffering. I also think it hurts much more, every detail, every story, because this is my home and these are my people. There are also a lot of scenes that you don’t document out of respect.

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.