Fighters with the YPJ

Syria’s Kurds Return to Al Assad’s Fold

The plain of northeastern Syria, where the Trump White House vacillates over whether to dig deeper or pull up stakes, has become an archipelago of mass graves. During the three years that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria dominated the remote landscape, it massacred thousands of civilians and captive Syrian government soldiers without allowing their families to bury them. Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, noted that the former capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, had “at least nine mass graves, each one estimated to have dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making exhumations a monumental task.” Four hundred bodies were unearthed at Raqqa’s municipal zoo, and it will take months for families to identify the decomposed corpses. Other towns and villages in the Kurdish-administered zone are discovering similar grisly mementos of Islamic State rule.

The mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which receives vital support from the United States and an estimated 2,000 special operations forces troops based in the northeast, made the unusual gesture on July 30 of returning to the Syrian army the remains of 44 soldiers who had been executed by the Islamic State in the village of Ain Issa in 2014. Ten days earlier, local officials had uncovered four mass graves near what had been the headquarters of the 93rd Brigade, and the Kurds used the occasion to help mend fences with President Bashar al Assad. The process of reintegrating the largest Kurdish-controlled region into the rest of Syria is underway, and the United States can do little to stop it.

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Magistrates Court of the Australian Capital Territory

Oil, Spies and Audiotape in East Timor

Conference in Algiers in the wake of the October Arab-Israeli War and the Arab oil embargo against Western countries supporting Israel. I remember meeting young men at my hotel from Portugal’s African colonies — Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. They had come to plead with the Arabs to keep withholding oil from Portugal even if they restored supplies to the United States. The conference’s declaration of Nov. 28 included the commitment to “sever all the diplomatic, consular, economic, cultural and other relations with South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia of those Arab States which have not yet done so.” Economic hardship in Portugal produced the Carnation Revolution the next April, which overthrew the dictatorship and led to Portugal’s abrupt withdrawal from its colonial empire after four centuries.

Civil wars ensued in the largest colonies, Angola and Mozambique, while Portuguese East Timor, half of an island between Indonesia and Australia, awaited its fate. Indonesia claimed the territory, though the Timorese favored independence. The United States decided the issue on Dec. 6, 1975, when President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger descended on the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to inform military dictator Suharto that East Timor was his for the taking. A cable from the U.S. Embassy quoted Kissinger on the legality of Indonesia’s use of U.S. weapons in invading East Timor: “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation.” East Timor, which had no army, did not attack Indonesia, but the self-defense ruse was sufficient for Suharto to invade as soon as Ford and Kissinger departed. Indonesian forces killed more than 200,000 people in the operation — one-third of East Timor’s population — suppressed all civil rights, confiscated land and implanted settlers from Java.

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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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