City of Damascus pictured from Mt Qasioun

Trump’s Road to Damascus and a Chance for Conversion

The last U.S. ambassador to serve in Damascus, Robert Ford, testified to Congress earlier this year that the “U.S. military and civilian costs in Syria over the past four years are at least $12 billion.” It is a high price for failure — failure to depose President Bashar al Assad, to break his alliance with Iran, to prevent Salafist jihadism from taking root in Syria for the first time, to maintain the friendship of U.S.-NATO ally Turkey, to save an estimated half-million Syrians from death and to stem the exodus of nearly half the Syrian population from their homes. Most of the dozen or so former officials of the Barack Obama administration to whom I have spoken in Washington over the past three weeks regret what transpired on their watch, but it’s too late for them to do anything about it.

President Donald Trump’s administration inherited the Syria mess when it entered the White House on Jan. 20, 2017. Its policy was anyone’s guess, reminding me of an old joke about an Irish farmer telling a tourist who asked for directions to Dublin, “Well, I wouldn’t be going there from here.” It is unclear how far Trump and his new foreign policy team, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will commit the country’s money, armed forces and intelligence services to Syria. They could, if they dared, learn from the mistakes of Obama’s policies to avoid prolonging the war and deepening the United States’ involvement in it.

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Palmyra by Don McCullin

Palmyra

The young man betrayed no emotion as he told the story: ‘They asked him to kneel. He refused. He said, “If you are going to kill me, it will be while I am standing. I will die like the date palms, upright.” Because he refused to kneel, they hit him behind the knees.’ The man’s legs collapsed, and he fell. A sword swept through his neck, severing his head.

The young man, Tarek Assa’ad, hesitated. This was not a distant memory, and the murdered man was no stranger. It was his father, Khaled Assa’ad. The 81-year-old archaeologist died on 18 August 2015 within sight of the house where he was born on 1 January 1934. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), then at the summit of its conquests, decapitated him with the same destructive fury that characterised its demolition of the Hellenic and Roman treasures that Khaled Assa’ad had dedicated his life to protecting. In the burning summer of 2015, the guardian and his city, called Palmyra for its stately palm trees, were dying together.

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Gaza: an inquest into its martyrdom

As Gaza sinks into desperation, a new book makes the case against Israeli brutality

Israel celebrates a double anniversary on May 15 this year, the founding of the state and the formal establishment of the Israeli Defense Forces, the name the state gave to its combined army, navy, and air force. Armed statehood fulfilled the political Zionists’ dream of gathering Jews from the ancient Diaspora under their own government in what they declared to be their “promised land.” During the battle over the land between 1947 and 1949, the IDF expelled three-quarters of the indigenous population. Of the 750,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled, 250,000 took shelter in Gaza, a tiny pocket of southwest Palestine then occupied by the Egyptian army. The destitute and traumatized refugees were three times more numerous than the 80,000 Gazans who took them in.

The United Nations passed but did not enforce annual resolutions calling for the refugees’ return. Israel invaded the territory in 1956, withdrew under American pressure in 1957, and invaded again in 1967. As its population grew to nearly 2 million souls packed into a pocket five miles wide and 40 miles long, Gaza has become a byword for misery. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, no advocate of the Palestinian cause, called it “an open-air prison.”

In his new book, Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, Norman Finkelstein presents Gaza’s case like a veteran prosecutor at a homicide trial. “This book is not about Gaza,” he writes. “It is about what has been done to Gaza.”

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Lebanese Elections 2018

Lebanon’s Election Ritual Repeats

Despite the topsy-turvy machinations of Lebanon’s elections May 6, the country’s voters awaited a more decisive verdict two days later from U.S. President Donald Trump. The Lebanese had no say in Trump’s election, but his decision to abrogate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran may seal their fate. In a confusing poll with a low turnout, voters gave a whopping number of seats to Iran’s Lebanese surrogate, Hezbollah, and its affiliated parties. To Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States, Lebanon is little more than a venue for larger rivalries.

Lebanon, for all the headlines its troubles have earned it since 1975, is a small country without oil or mineral deposits. The weakness of small states often means that their elections don’t matter until people vote the wrong way and someone steps in, as President Woodrow Wilson did when invading Mexico in 1914 to “teach them to elect good men.” The Palestinians of Gaza learned the same lesson when they and Palestinians in the West Bank voted for Hamas on Jan. 25, 2006. The United States was so enraged that it backed a putsch by Hamas’ rival, Fatah, in Gaza in 2007 and, when that failed, supported Israel’s intensified blockade and several invasions of the territory beginning with Operation Cast Lead in 2008.

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Charles Glass on RT

Strikes on Syria as Yemen atrocities ignored: Journalists discuss the West’s double standards

Airstrikes by the US, France, and the UK over an alleged chemical attack in Syria were a case of “execution before the trial,” author Charles Glass told RT’s Going Underground, citing their refusal to wait for an OPCW probe.

“The British, the French and the Americans have all been involved by proxy, they’ve all been involved in supplying weapons to the opposition groups in Syria, most of whom are Jihadis. They’ve been involved in training them in southeast Turkey and Jordan and in facilitating their passage in and out of Syria. This is indisputable.”

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The Missile Attack and the War in Syria

Because the use by the Syrian Government of President Bashar al-Assad of chemical weapons is among the ugliest aspects of the ongoing Syrian civil war, there may be a tendency to think about them as two parts of the same package.

But for a variety of reasons, the American Government of President Donald Trump is doing its best to keep them separate.

The American-British-French air strikes against 3 targets in Syria have eloquently demonstrated how important it is to those 3 countries to the US, the UK and France to stand against a tyrant’s use of banned chemical weapons to kill dozens of his own civilians. Not very.

It also shows how much it cares about the wider war, except, perhaps, as it involves trying to wipe out the forces of the Islamic State. Even less.

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Druze sheikhs (Al Aqal) with white lap and black dress

Syria’s Druze Maintain a Difficult Neutrality

The most rebellious community in Syria’s modern history is a people called the Druze, most of whom live in a region called the Druze Mountain, Jabal al-Druze, about 70 miles south of Damascus. Members of this syncretic, semi-Shiite Muslim sect battled the country’s successive overlords, notably the Ottoman Turks in World War I and the French mandate authorities in the 1920s and ’30s. Syrian independence in 1946 did not dampen their enthusiasm for revolt, as they rose against nationalist regimes that they felt threatened their traditional ways of living. Yet when the biggest rebellion in the country’s history broke out in March 2011, the Druze stayed out.

The traditional leader of Lebanon’s Druze, Walid Jumblatt, called on his Syrian brethren to “join the Syrian rebels who are marking in blood heroic battles against oppression on a daily basis.” Jumblatt explained to me in 2012, “The Druze don’t live in an Alawite sea. They live in a Sunni sea.” In Jumblatt’s view, Druze survival depended on joining the majority Sunni population in opposition to rule by Alawites, another minority with roots in Shiite Islam. Although some Druze took part in peaceful demonstrations for reform in 2011, they did not turn to violence. Hassan al-Atrash, a biology teacher and former communist, said, “As far as people were concerned, this was not meant to be a war. They made legal demands for their rights.” They thus ignored Jumblatt’s call to join the rebels, but they did not join the Syrian army either.

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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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