Category Archives: syria

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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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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The Syrian Civil War Is Decided

Syrian President Bashar al Assad must have taken a lesson or two from the master American politician, late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. When Chicago police beat and abused young anti-war demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the party establishment turned against the Windy City’s leading official, just as in 2011 much of the world condemned al Assad’s treatment of anti-government protesters. Liberals called Daley a fascist then; later, U.S. politicians labeled al Assad a tyrant.

Many Democrats called for Daley’s resignation in 1968, but Chicago voters gave “Hizzoner” an unprecedented fifth term in April 1971 by a majority of 70 percent. At a press conference the next day, one journalist reminded Daley about the leading Democrats who had condemned him in 1968 — Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, among others. The reporter then asked, as legendary Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko wrote in his biography of Daley, “Have any of them telephoned with congratulations?”

Daley smiled and answered, “All of them did.”

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The Voices of Syria Have Always Been Ignored by the West

The Syrian story is a tapestry of tales, woven together from pain and courage, love and hate, innocence suffocated, and cruelty ascendant, that remains undeciphered by those who are determining the fate of that ancient land. Wendy Pearlman writes in We Cross a Bridge and It Trembled, her book of interviews with exiles from Syria’s six-year war, “One wonders what might have been different had we listened to Syrian voices earlier.”

Disregarding Syria’s people has been a constant theme since the creation of modern Syria in 1920. Had anyone listened to them, the multiple tragedies of the past century might have been avoided. France and Britain, after expelling the Ottomans from their Arab empire during World War I, excelled at denying Syrians a voice in their destiny. With the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, they severed what became Syria from its historic peripheries in Lebanon and Palestine. Ghayth Armanazi, in The Story of Syria, a sympathetic history of his homeland, called the Anglo-French accord “an iconic example of imperial deceit and duplicity.” After dividing Syria, the British and French imposed colonial rule on inhabitants, who had made clear their unanimous desire for independence in multiple petitions to the King-Crane Commission, sent by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to gauge public opinion. The British and French armed forces crushed rebellions and uprisings to enforce their rule throughout their tenure in the Levant.

When independence came in the aftermath of World War II, the CIA took no more account of Syria’s “voices” than the British and French had. It engineered a military coup that overthrew the parliamentary government in 1949, setting a precedent for the army, a construct of French rule, to govern without consulting the populace any more than the imperialists had. Repeated wars with Israel led to a loss of face and territory, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, as well as Syrians, who were driven from their villages in the Golan Heights. An experiment in Arab unity — the United Arab Republic that cleaved Syria to Egypt from 1958 to 1961— was another failure of governance. The Syrian military occupation of Lebanon that began in 1976 ended in ignominy in 2005, with a forced withdrawal amid sharp hostility from the Sunni Muslim community that had once seen their country as part of historic Syria…

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Syria: The Road to Nowhere

When I lived in rural Ireland years ago, a favorite joke started with an American tourist stopping a local farmer and asking for directions to Cork. The farmer pondered a moment before answering, “Well, if I was you, I wouldn’t be going there from here.” Anyone advising Washington on where to go in Syria has little choice but to admit that he’s as bewildered as that tourist in the Emerald Isle.

One place to start, though, is Lebanon. For the past week, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has been fighting to remove jihadists belonging to the Islamic State and the former Jabhat al-Nusra from the Syrian side of the border. Within Lebanon, the army, with British assistance, has sealed the border against incursions of the kind witnessed in 2014 when the Islamic State captured the largely Sunni village of Arsal and kidnapped more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen. This month, the Lebanese army and, over the border, the allied forces of Hezbollah and the Syrian military have caught the jihadists in a pincer. Whether or not the Lebanese and Syrian armies colluded in the venture, it appears to be removing the jihadists from the region…

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In the Horrorscape of Aleppo

Dawn breaks to a daily chorus of artillery and mortar fire in two of humanity’s most ancient settlements that today are Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Projectiles rain on their rural peripheries, where opposition groups still fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad shelter in tunnels below mountains of rubble. Muezzins wake the faithful to prayer, and warplanes deliver the day’s first payloads just after 5:00 AM. The rebels respond with desultory mortar rounds fired at cities they once dreamed of ruling. In Damascus, their shells explode in the Christian neighborhoods closest to the eastern front lines. In Aleppo, artillery batters opposition bases along the western frontier with Idlib province. Both cities’ exhausted citizens have cause to fear for their country’s uncertain future.

I happened to arrive in Damascus, after an interval of four months, on March 19—a few hours after insurgents launched a large-scale assault to break into the city from the eastern suburbs. They emerged from underground caves, smashed through army checkpoints with suicide bomb vehicles, and seized buildings between two besieged districts, Jobar and Qaboun. This happened within sight of the Christian neighborhoods surrounding Abaseen Square. It took the army more than a day to drive them back. Some Damascenes doubted their government’s ability to defend them, and many feared a massacre of minorities. When the battle ended, the lines were back where they had been. The regular pattern of artillery exchanges and aerial sorties resumed. Citizens continued what passed for normal life in wartime, going to work and school to the sounds of violence on the outskirts.

Inside the walls of the old city, the narrow streets around my Ottoman-era hotel sounded like a steel mill. First came the heavy presses, pounding up and down, metal smashing metal, shaking the ground: outgoing artillery from the border separating the old city from Jobar. Then the rumble of turbines, furnace doors screeching open, and flames gushing forth: Syrian air force planes soaring low over the no-man’s-land between the old city and Jobar to strike tunnels and mortar launchers. Finally the staccato of jackhammers breaking ground with relentless fury: jeep-mounted .45-caliber heavy machine guns and old Dushka 12.7- millimeter antiaircraft weapons. Occasionally, something like a compressor rumbled the houses of the old city and splattered shards into the walls: mortar rounds from Jobar, the response of weakened warriors repaying their enemies for keeping them down.

At breakfast one morning, the hotel roof rattled as if a ton of lead had fallen on it. I was about to seek cover, when I looked up. Two cats were fighting on the roof, whose clear plastic sheeting amplified their footsteps. The war seemed to affect even the animal population.

A friend of mine, who has longed for a change of regime since the March 2011 protests in Daraa sparked the conflict, has abandoned hope. “I don’t care how they end it,” he said, “just so they end it.” Ending it was already difficult, but the early April chemical attack that killed more than eighty civilians in Khan Shaykhun, a rebel-held village in Idlib province in the country’s northwest, and the American missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield in retaliation are rendering the difficult impossible.

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