Children in Tal Serdam camp, Fafin, northern rural Aleppo.

The Syrian Civil War Grinds On, Largely Forgotten

While the United States and Iran risk all-out war with their game of chicken in the Persian Gulf, their proxy war is still playing out in Syria. Iranian ally and Syrian President Bashar al Assad won the war two years ago, but his victory was incomplete. Al Assad secured his throne, but two large swaths of the country remain beyond his reach. The Turkish army and rebel militants control the northwest. The mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by a small but unspecified number of U.S., British and French special forces, hold the area northeast of the Euphrates River near the Syria-Turkey-Iraq border triangle. Al Assad has said he will not give up the struggle until both areas revert to his dominion. The only other part of the country under foreign occupation is the Golan Heights, but al Assad is in no position to expel the Israelis.

Combat rages on the periphery of Idlib province in Syria’s northwest, where hundreds of civilians have lost their lives and as many as 300,000 have fled to relative, if uncomfortable, safety since the Syrian army launched its latest offensive two months ago. Rebel leaders told Reuters that Russian special forces were fighting alongside Syrian troops, although Russia has yet to comment on the allegation. What is known is that Russian warplanes from the Hmeimim air base have bombed towns in the rebel-held areas. On the rebel side, dependence on Turkish army protection, logistics, communications, ammunition and other supplies balances Russian help to al Assad. The Turks expelled the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units and Kurdish civilians from Afrin province near Idlib last year. That left a large zone abutting government-held areas around Aleppo, Hama and Latakia under Turkish occupation with local and foreign fighters to sustain pressure on al Assad’s forces…

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Why Good Reporting Isn’t Dead

Sometimes old journalists like myself feel for the Roman captives who called out to Emperor Claudius, “Ave Imperator, morituri te salutamus — Hail, Emperor, we who are about to die salute you.” Sometimes, though, a great scoop comes along to give our profession a stay of execution. It has just happened in Brazil, where disclosures published by The Intercept Brasil have severely wounded the country’s new political establishment. In case you missed it, reporting by Intercept journalists Andrew Fishman, Rafael Moro Martins, Leandro Demori, Glenn Greenwald and Amanda Audi has exposed Brazil’s much-vaunted anti-corruption investigation, “Operation Car Wash,” to accusations that it was, in large measure, a political tool used to rig last year’s presidential elections. For Brazil, it is Watergate times 10.

Internal documents and Telegram text messages acquired by The Intercept appear to demonstrate collusion among prosecutors to prevent former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from running in the election against Jair Bolsonaro and then to damage the campaign of his successor as Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad. This scoop came courtesy of a whistleblower who has put himself at risk in a country whose National Federation of Journalists recorded 135 acts of violence against journalists, including the murder of four, in 2018. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented the murders of 42 Brazilian journalists since 1992 and reports that Brazil’s Intercept staff “have received threats on email and social media following their publication of politically sensitive stories this month.” It takes a brave soul to provide evidence of official criminality to journalists not only in Brazil but in most of the world. The risks are murder, torture and imprisonment for the leaker as well as the journalist…

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From the Somme to the Persian Gulf, Lessons on Shows of Force

When farmers in this part of Northern France plow their fields, they unearth relics of the war that ended here just over a century ago: shell casings, gas masks, skulls. The tranquil landscape, as flat as the plains of Kansas, belies the memory of the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, when 21,000 British soldiers died charging across a few hundred yards of shell craters, weeds and barbed wire into German machine guns. That futile offensive raged until the following November, when death had claimed 1.5 million lives on both sides of the trenches. The war’s architects had not envisioned such slaughter when they mobilized young recruits in August 1914 on promises of an easy victory.

The historian Christopher Clark depicted the statesmen who led Europe into the Great War as men walking blind in their sleep through an open window. In his magnificent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Clark wrote, “The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded.” That had not been the intention, any more than the treaty ending the war was supposed to produce another cataclysm 20 years later that would claim a further 60 million lives…

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Julian Assange

Julian Assange Languishes in Prison as His Journalistic Collaborators Brandish Their Prizes

While Julian Assange languishes in south London’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison, a British court is weighing his fate. The 48-year-old Australian founder of Wikileaks is serving time for the minor crime of jumping bail by taking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. His fear at the time was that the Swedes, with a track record of assisting rendition of suspects sought by the U.S., would send him straight across the Atlantic. Now that he has lost his diplomatic refuge, 70 British members of Parliament have petitioned to dispatch Assange to Sweden if prosecutors there reopen the case they closed in 2017. The greater threat to his liberty is the United States Department of Justice’s extradition demand for him to stand trial in the U.S. for conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack a government computer.

The U.S. insists Assange will not face the death penalty. If he did, Britain, in common with other European states, would not be able to send him there. The maximum sentence for the hacking offense is five years, but there is no guarantee that, once he arrives in the U.S., he will not face additional charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 that President Barack Obama used against nine individuals for allegedly leaking secret information to the public. The sentence for that offense could be death or life in prison. If Assange ends up in the U.S. federal judicial system, he may never been seen again.

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The Danger of Judging by Appearance and the Power of Reaching Out

They call themselves the OWGs, Old White Guys. The oldest is 78, the youngest 65. Their profile fits the pundits’ picture of Trump voters: white, Christian and born before the Vietnam War. Their home is Raleigh, North Carolina, in the old Confederacy, which allegedly breeds bigots. But these white senior citizens are doing more than the police or social services to oppose the bigotry that breeds violence between races and religions. It started with three murders on their doorstep.

It was just after 5 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2015, prosecutors allege, when a 46-year-old white male named Craig Stephen Hicks entered his neighbors’ apartment in Chapel Hill, about 30 miles from Raleigh, and shot dead three unarmed university students. The victims were sisters Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha and Yusor’s husband, Deah Barakat. The women were 21 and 19. Deah, a lanky 6-foot-3-inch basketball lover, was 23. Photographs taken while they were alive portray three healthy, smiling young Americans who happened to be Muslim. Before Deah and Yusor had completed their dental studies at the University of North Carolina or Razan could earn her architecture degree, they were dead. Hicks is expected to face trial on murder charges this summer.

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

Tell me how this ends

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Rob Malley, President Barack Obama’s senior Middle East adviser and Harvard Law School classmate, denied the charge. “That can’t be true,” the fifty-­five-­year-­old scholar insisted when we met in his office at the International Crisis Group in Washington. “We provided comprehensive memoranda to the incoming team, though we can’t know if they read them. We definitely had a long one on Syria, on all aspects of the conflict.”

I have observed the Syrian conflict off and on since it began, in 2011, filing stories from Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra, the Turkish border, and other zones of contention. But the story as seen from inside Syria seemed as incomplete as the Trojan War without the gods. In the conflagration’s eighth year, I flew to the Olympian heights of Washington to ask the immortals what they were doing while an estimated half million of Syria’s twenty-­three million inhabitants were dying, millions more fled the country, and some of civilization’s most precious monuments were destroyed…

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Destruction in Homs

Syria: A Savage Peace

Workmen throughout Syria are erecting bronze, stone, and concrete statues in what the government calls “liberated areas.” Some of the monuments are newly cast, while others have been in storage since the conflict began in 2011. At that time, protesters in rebellious cities like Dera’a and Homs were desecrating the sculptures of longtime president Hafez al-Assad, his successor Bashar, and Bashar’s older brother, Bassel, the designated heir who died before ascending the throne. It was perhaps an omen of the rebellion’s destiny that popular legend had a massive bust of Hafez in Idlib killing two demonstrators as it crashed to earth. Seven years on, the effigies, like the regime they embody, are back. The war isn’t over, but the postwar era has begun.

Outright victory remains elusive. The Syrian army controls about 60 percent of the land and 80 percent of the resident population of about 16.5 million people, leaving three sectors of the country yet to be “liberated”…

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Brexit, Brexit Everywhere

I’ve just returned to Britain after many months away, and it’s as if I never left. When Rip Van Winkle woke up from his 20-year slumber, he encountered a world altered beyond recognition. The United Kingdom, however, is mired in the same debate that has raged for years over how and whether to sever its ties to the European Union. The fracas that dominated the airwaves, newspapers and public discussion a year, even two years, ago has not budged. The crisis is no nearer resolution than it was when a slim majority voted to leave the European Union in the referendum of June 2016. Spokespeople for the Brexit faction are still demanding that Parliament implement the people’s will, while their opponents warn that departure on any terms harms the country more than staying in. Both have a case, but nothing is moving.

The discussion should be reasoned and thoughtful, but it isn’t. Instead, Parliament is staging a show, asserting its authority over the executive as it hasn’t done since Tony Blair turned the House of Commons into a rubber stamp for his Labour government’s policies. The House of Commons has become a circus with Speaker John Bercow playing ringmaster to unruly clowns, wild beasts and high-wire acts. Only the Liberal Democrats are united on the issue, standing firmly to Remain, but they have only 11 seats in Parliament. Within the two major parties, loyalties have evaporated. Brexiteers and Remainers sit on both Labour and Conservative benches. Moreover, extreme Brexiteers are voting with extreme Remainers to block the terms for withdrawal that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the other 27 members of the European Union. They don’t want to keep Britain in a European customs union, especially when it will have no say on its rules. The Remainers who voted against May don’t like her deal for the opposite reason: Its rejection, they believe, will force either a general election or a second referendum to reverse the outcome of the first. Add to that the confusion over whether the physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be restored and jeopardize peace in the north, and you have a free-for-all that no one predicted during the 2016 referendum campaign.

The bloodshed has spread from Parliament to the pubs and the peaceful homes that Englishmen ostensibly regard as their castles. My own family, which is fairly evenly divided, allowed passions to rise so high over Christmas that we banned the topic from the dinner table. The irrepressible Stanley Johnson, father of two Conservative members of parliament famed for their conflicting stances, told me his Christmas was more fraught. Son Jo had resigned as a government minister because he favors Europe, and older son Boris quit as foreign secretary to lead the Brexiteers against May. Each boy is adamant that his way is the only way. Stanley, as he was about to carve the turkey, asked his offspring, “Which is it to be, boys, breast or thigh?”…

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Too late to be lucky

December 7 was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and of the birth thirteen years earlier of Noam Chomsky. Pearl Harbor led to American global dominance at the same time as Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language were beginning to have an impact on linguistic theory, philosophy and psychology. Chomsky is also an outspoken critic of his country’s foreign policy. Expanding his critique of B. F. Skinner’s and W. V. O. Quine’s behaviourist determinism to the political realm, he has developed a libertarian and socialist vision of free will, opposition to concentrations of private and state power, and resistance to the abuse of power at home and abroad.

Throughout his adult life, from his moral opposition to America’s invasion of Vietnam to his country’s more recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chomsky has argued that the US behaves much as its Spanish, British and French imperial predecessors once did. Moreover, he notes, the US has employed the same moral language to cover what appear to be global atrocities. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he believes, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Those Chomsky has consistently condemned must feel that he has looked into it too damned much…

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Free Austin Tice

The Enduring Search for a Missing American Journalist in Syria

Debra and Marc Tice left Beirut last week without their son. It was a disappointing, if unsurprising, end to their eighth trip to the Lebanese capital in the six years since Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and law student, vanished while covering the war in Syria. The Tices knocked on doors, hosted a press conference and applied for Syrian visas to plead for the Syrian government’s assistance in freeing their captive son. Their meetings in Beirut produced little more than sympathy, their dignified presentation to the press corps received minimal coverage and the Syrian government did not grant them visas.

Now, they anticipate their sixth Christmas at home in Houston without the eldest of their seven children. Austin Tice’s disappearance and prolonged captivity constitute a mystery that cries out for a solution. It began with his decision in 2012, just before the summer vacation preceding his final year at Georgetown University’s law school, to publicize the suffering of the Syrian people…

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