Ghouta under fire, February 2018

The Result of a Loyalist Victory in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta? More Violence

The jihadist revolution is dying in the eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Syrian government forces, supported by aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, have split the opposition-held territory of eastern Ghouta into two bastions and are eating away at both. The farmlands on which civilians and fighters in the besieged zones depended for food have fallen to the Syrian army and its related militias. Threatened with starvation and braving the government onslaught, some residents have defied army bombardment and rebel ire with public protests calling on the insurgents to leave. They claim that is the only way to end the hunger, privation, casualties, shelling and chaotic jihadist governance they have endured for years.

The major jihadist groups remaining in eastern Ghouta are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the Levant Liberation Committee, an insurgent coalition that includes the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Faylaq al-Rahman (Legion of Mercy). An aid worker who has dealt with them says many rebels want to depart under security guarantees similar to those that permitted the evacuation of Homs and eastern Aleppo. “Jaish al-Islam wants to go to Daraa,” the worker says. “Faylaq wants to go to north Aleppo (province).” Other jihadists, however, are choosing to stay and fight at whatever cost to the area’s civilians. Russian-sponsored discussions on “reconciliation,” the government’s term for rebel surrender, continue against the background of the loyalists’ offensive and the insurgents’ mortar shelling of central Damascus.

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Ruins at Zamalka, Ghouta, Syria, 22nd Feb 2018

Think the War in Syria Is Winding Down? Think Again.

A country house in the hills west of Damascus symbolizes for me the futility of Syria’s war, seven years old this spring. A friend had saved for years to build the chalet, where he and his wife and children enjoyed weekends and holidays. Rebels broke into the empty house at the war’s outset to fire from the roof at Syrian soldiers. The troops responded with automatic weapons and mortar rounds that set the house ablaze. The rebels fled, the house burned, and neither side offered compensation.

I noticed on regular visits to Damascus the evolution of my friend’s perspective. He directed his anger first at the soldiers for overreacting, then at the rebels for invading his house without permission or the possibility of defending it. As the war progressed, he chose to forget the house, just as he tried to ignore the war. That house represents Syria, its inhabitants at the mercy of forces they cannot control. My friend lingers on in Damascus to run the family business, but his wife and children have joined the mass exodus of Syrians overseas.

Many Syrians among the 5 million or so who escaped hope to return when the war ends. It should be over, but it isn’t. Instead, Syria’s skies have become a shooting gallery for Kurds hitting Turkish helicopters, Israelis downing Iranian drones, a Russian Su-25 succumbing to jihadi surface-to-air missiles. On the ground, Syria has long since slipped into the Lebanese trap of shifting shapes, altering alliances, and outside interference.

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“Rise and Kill First” Explores the Corrupting Effects of Israel’s Assassination Program

In the mid-1960s, television comedy writer Sol Weinstein produced a series of satirical novels about agent Israel Bond of M 33 and 1/3, a barely disguised Mossad.

As Ronen Bergman makes clear in his penetrating exposé of Israel’s mostly secret assassination program, “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” the agents who Israel sent out to murder its enemies were never very funny. Israel is a rarity among nations: Rather than confine its assassins to the shadows, it promotes them to prime minister. Bergman’s history records extra-judicial, face-to-face murders by Menachem Begin, Yitzak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak, all of whom rose to head the Israeli government. This meticulously researched book, written over seven and a half years, exposes a state apparatus that blurs distinctions between intelligence-gathering and operations, soldiers and assassins, politicians and killers, yet claims more triumphs than defeats.

Bergman, an Israeli former lawyer and investigative journalist, charts not only the details of assassinations over the past century, but also the corrupting effect of relying on the black to the exclusion of diplomacy and compromise. Why negotiate with your enemies when it’s so easy to kill them?

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Bashar al Assad with moustache

War grinds on in Syria. Getting closer to US troops?

War is so much easier to start than to stop. Especially today when almost all wars are essentially local and it’s so easy for small forces of local ambition to arm themselves sufficiently to bully their way to local dominance. You can see this in Afghanistan, and in Syria.

In Syria, the ready supply of outside sponsors has up-armed once-local militias and encouraged them to escalate their ambitions — to control not just towns, but counties, or regions. In Syria, the regions are small and closely packed, so expanding ambitions frequently overlap and clashes multiply.

Foreign money has fueled the fighting in Syria, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, from Qatar and Turkey, Iran, Russia and the US. The funding has been so generous, has spilled so many weapons across so many local organizations, that they have felt licensed to to follow their own particular agendas as far as their arms will take them. They settle their own local scores whether their attacks serve the interests of their sponsors or conflict with them.

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Anti-government protest in Assi square of Hama

Syria’s New Normal

Mount Qasioun soars above the Damascus plain to a height of four thousand feet, a sheer escarpment that for millennia has borne witness to insurrection, invasion, siege, and annihilation. Mankind’s first, albeit legendary, murder occurred in Qasioun’s Cave of Blood, where Cain crushed his brother Abel’s skull with a stone. For many Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abel became the original martyr, the prototype for millions who followed him into blameless death.

Cafés on the summit used to afford a vista of the sprawling metropolis below, until the government banned visitors lest they act as artillery spotters for the rebels. Damascus divided in 2011 into hostile strongholds of the state and its armed opponents. Six and a half years later, the government has restored its rule to all the areas visible from Qasioun, apart from two besieged, nearly leveled, corners, one along the city’s eastern fringe and the other in a tiny pocket to the south. Occasional artillery and mortar rounds testify to the insurgents’ stubborn survival, but the rebellion no longer threatens the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The postwar era has begun.

“The regime stays,” one diplomat in Damascus told me. “That’s it. The time of regime change is over.” Terms such as “regime change” and “transition” have for the most part disappeared from political discourse. The government is establishing a new normal. Electricity has been restored from a few hours to twenty-four most days. Water flows from the taps, the garbage is collected, and taxi drivers moan about traffic. Brides in white chiffon sway and ululate as they ride in open convertibles to their wedding parties. Far from Damascus, only a few zones of rural Syria elude the government’s grasp: Idlib in the northwest, two areas adjoining the Jordanian and Israeli borders in the south, the Kurdish-held desert beside Iraq in the east, and a small enclave between Idlib and the Turkish border.

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Another Long War Unfolds in Syria

The war in Syria should be ending. The Islamic State has lost all the territory it seized in 2014. The Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, has confined other anti-government rebels to besieged pockets in the south, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus and in the northwest. Opposition hopes of removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad have vanished. But the war refuses to die. It just takes new forms.

The latest phase has little to do with Syria, apart from the fact that it’s taking place there. The antagonists are Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the United States, which has declared a post-Islamic State mission that will keep American advisers and their local surrogates in Syria for years to come. The mission calls for the United States to train, arm and advise a 30,000-strong, mostly Kurdish border security force. Following the announcement of the project Jan. 14, Erdogan pledged “to strangle it before it’s even born.” He has moved Turkish military units to the border and launched artillery shells at Kurdish positions in their western enclave of Afrin.

Aware that his opposition to the U.S.-backed Kurdish force pits him against his largest NATO ally, Erdogan told members of parliament from his Justice and Development Party, “Hey, NATO! You are obliged to take a stance against those who harass and violate the borders of your members.” The mission threatens to tear the military bloc apart and to commit the United States to a long-term presence in a country where it has no strategic interest…

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Kohat valley by Fidakhan 1

Pakistan: Treating Terrorism Like Any Other Crime

Salahuddin Khan Mehsud is one tough cop. He has to be, working in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, a tribal region that the U.S. government calls a lawless hotbed of jihadist terrorism. Yet he assured me when we met recently in the town of Kohat that the province had “not had one major incident of terrorism” this year. That was no small achievement, but Mehsud spoke too soon. On the night of Dec. 1, just a week after our meeting, Pakistani Taliban militants staged a massive terrorist attack in the provincial capital, Peshawar. Assailants disguised as women in face-covering burkas broke into the Agricultural Training Institute. By the time police and army commandos gunned the terrorists down, nine students were dead and 18 had suffered bullet wounds. Only the fact that most undergraduates were away celebrating Eid-e-Milad, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, prevented a higher death toll.

The attack was the area’s worst terrorist incident since 2014, when militants killed 132 children and nine adults at a primary school in Peshawar. Outrage over the children’s deaths proved to be, in the words of Pakistani BBC analyst Aamer Ahmed Khan, “a watershed for a country long accused by the world of treating terrorists as assets.” The newly elected provincial government, under a reformist party called Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or “Movement for Justice,” struck back. It did not use drones or massive assaults to deal with the crime. Instead, it used old-fashioned police work.

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In Myanmar, a Genocide by Any Other Name

Once upon a time here in Dhaka, Bangladesh, this teeming city on the Buriganga River, the bells of the Holy Resurrection Church echoed for miles. Armenians built their house of Orthodox Christian worship amid the palm groves in 1781, almost two centuries after Persian Shah Abbas the Great conquered eastern Armenia and thousands of them migrated to Bengal. They and their progeny prospered as traders in jute, silk and leather. In 1880, the church clock stopped ticking, perhaps because of rust from the tropical damp, and the bells rang no more. Despite that ill omen, the Armenians of Dhaka were among the lucky few of their compatriots spared the Ottoman Turks’ genocide during World War I.

Yet genocide is no stranger to Bangladesh, known from 1947 to 1971 as East Pakistan. More than a million Bangladeshis died during the India-Pakistan War of 1971, when West Pakistani soldiers raped tens of thousands of Bangladeshi women and sent millions of refugees fleeing to India for safety. After Pakistan conceded Bangladesh’s independence, the Bangladeshis themselves proved susceptible to the genocidal urge, slaughtering Muslim Biharis and Buddhist Chakmas.

Now, nearly 50 years later, genocide haunts the country again. This time, the Bangladeshis are neither victims nor perpetrators. They are witnesses who have provided haven to more than 620,000 survivors of the mass executions, expulsions and rapes that Myanmar’s army and Buddhist paramilitaries have committed since last August. What baffles people here in Dhaka is that the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and other preachers of international morality refrain from labeling the killings and expulsions as genocide. Important visitors to Myanmar, including Pope Francis just this week, shy away from so much as referring to the victims by the name they use to describe themselves — Rohingyas — lest they upset the country’s military and jeopardize its fragile transition to democracy. The Burmese ruling class denies the Rohingyas’ existence as a people.

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The Syrian Civil War Is Decided

Syrian President Bashar al Assad must have taken a lesson or two from the master American politician, late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. When Chicago police beat and abused young anti-war demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the party establishment turned against the Windy City’s leading official, just as in 2011 much of the world condemned al Assad’s treatment of anti-government protesters. Liberals called Daley a fascist then; later, U.S. politicians labeled al Assad a tyrant.

Many Democrats called for Daley’s resignation in 1968, but Chicago voters gave “Hizzoner” an unprecedented fifth term in April 1971 by a majority of 70 percent. At a press conference the next day, one journalist reminded Daley about the leading Democrats who had condemned him in 1968 — Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, among others. The reporter then asked, as legendary Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko wrote in his biography of Daley, “Have any of them telephoned with congratulations?”

Daley smiled and answered, “All of them did.”

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