Category Archives: syria

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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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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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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Afrin

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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