Category Archives: syria

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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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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World War Two’s Covert Ops Are Failing in the Post-War World

Before President Barack Obama authorized clandestine operations to defeat Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2013, he asked the CIA to write the history of its secret wars. The classified document, say those who have read it, is a record of failure from Albania to Cuba to Angola to Nicaragua. Yet Obama went ahead with the covert program for Syria, which the CIA ran from Turkey and Jordan. Like its predecessors, Operation Timber Sycamore failed. It neither toppled Assad nor prevented Salafi jihadi fanatics from dominating the Syrian opposition. President Trump cancelled the program in July last year, but he is not immune to the siren call of another secret war – in his case, against Iran with as much chance of a positive outcome as Syria.

Why the fascination with arming foreign insurgents and proxy armies to fight wars that the US won’t fight itself? “We’re busily training, you know, local troops to fight local militants, why do we think we have this aptitude for creating armies?” Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, once told me. “I don’t know. It sure as hell didn’t work in Vietnam.” Two reasons stand out. One is that, as Bacevich explained, insurgencies are wars “on the cheap,” not only in dollars but in assuring the public that American soldiers’ lives are not in danger. It is also a midway point between invasion and doing nothing. And most American presidents, faced with an opportunity to undermine rival states, want to do something.

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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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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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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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