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January 2013

Why the Killing in Syria Is Just the Beginning

The international community’s failure on Syria limits its power to act against the even bigger bloodletting that’s likely to happen down the road.


Earlier this month, the United Nations announced its assessment that 59,648 people have died in Syria’s two-year-old civil war. That headline figure is grim, but U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay made a point of noting that the real number is almost certainly higher. The overwhelming majority of those people were civilians. Far too many of them were children.

Why do I say that? Because the fateful wheel of atrocity and reprisal, so familiar from past civil wars, is gathering momentum. It could hardly be any different, considering the scale of the killing so far. The Assad regime bears full responsibility for launching the carnage. But it does not bear sole responsibility for all the crimes that have been committed, and it will not bear sole responsibility for the crimes that are yet to come.

There can be little question that the complex ethnic and sectarian makeup of Syria is exacerbating the situation as the bloodshed goes on. Assad family rule in Syria over the past 40 years has rested primarily on the country’s ethnic and religious minorities: above all the Alawites (adherents of an offshoot of Shiite Islam), as well as some Kurds and Christians. Members of the Sunni majority have been largely excluded from power. As those who have borne the brunt of the regime’s injustices, they now form the largest force in the opposition.

Divides are deepening. Though it’s understandably hard to get precise reports, Human Rights Watch has recently documented attacks by opposition forces on a Shiite place of worship and two churches on the outskirts of the city of Latakia, the stronghold of Syria’s Alawite population. The rebels have been criticized in the past for committing abuses against prisoners taken from the pro-Assad armed forces or militias (the notorious shabiha). The growing prominence of jihadist groups among the rebel Free Syrian Army is another source of concern. The worry is that radicals in the opposition are now actively targeting civilians from the groups that have been allied with the government.

Let’s consider the potential scale of the problem: There are some two million Kurds in Syria, plus roughly the same number of Christians. There are two and a half million Alawites. They have been schooled by regime propaganda to believe that they will become the victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing should their side lose the war. That probably wasn’t true back when their fellow Syrians were peacefully demonstrating for change, but now it’s on the way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sunnis account for at least 12.6 million of the population. (They actually make up the bulk of the Syrian regular army’s soldiers, who are right now held at bay by Alawite officers and the shabiha.) As soon as the Assad regime loses the advantages of its air power and its heavy weapons, the Sunnis will be able to make their superior numbers count. Their enemies won’t stand a chance.

The desire for revenge is understandable: the instinct to repay killing with more killing is deeply embedded in the human psyche. But that doesn’t make it right. Retribution and justice are two different things. The first perpetuates the cycle of violence; the second offers at least the hope of wrongs righted in a way that benefits society. And the logic of collective punishment is always fatally flawed. Not everyone in a group behaves according to the instincts of the majority.

But that’s easy for me to say, right? My family hasn’t been shredded by a cluster bomb before my eyes. And you could hardly blame Syrian oppositionists for rolling their eyes when they hear a well-meaning Westerner plead the virtues of non-violence. After all, my government has done virtually nothing to help restrain Assad’s attack dogs. Where do I get off lecturing the Free Syrian Army about right and wrong?

This is, in some ways, just the problem. If the international community had found some way to undertake meaningful action against the Assad regime from early on, we would have far greater credibility with the opposition today, and we would be in a much better position to argue for de-escalation. As things stand now, indications are that the fighters of the Free Syrian Army and their supporters increasingly regard Western governments with contempt. Many see us as de facto allies of the Damascus regime. We should hardly be surprised.

I decided to ask Simon Adams about this. He’s the director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a New York-based organization founded in 2008 to combat genocide and mass human rights abuses around the world. Last year, he published a commentary in the New York Times arguing that the international community should bring constructive pressure to bear on the Syrian opposition to ensure that atrocities are not committed against groups or populations allied with the regime.

Some critics, as Adams puts it, “raised an eyebrow” at his article, suggesting that he was implying a false equivalence between aggressor and victim. He rejects this, insisting that his group has consistently regarded the Syrian government as the main perpetrator in the conflict, and has assailed its crimes accordingly. “But let’s be clear,” he says. “We’re not on the side of Assad and we’re not on the side of the rebels. We’re against mass atrocities.” And the past inaction of the U.N. Security Council — thanks above all to Russian and Chinese intransigence in opposing any efforts to sanction or condemn Assad’s regime — cannot serve as an excuse for continuing passivity on this score in the months to come.

Adams is not a supporter of military intervention, the consequences of which, he believes, could well end up outweighing the evil it is intended to cure. But he believes that there’s a great deal that can yet be done besides stepping into the fight. Above all else, the Americans, the Europeans, and their allies should start concerted action to establish a mechanism for investigating and punishing abuses once the war is over — applicable to everyone. “You can’t say, ‘War crimes are really bad when committed by our enemies.’ You have to say that they’re bad when committed by anyone. All perpetrators will be held accountable.”

Moreover, the Friends of Syria Group, as well as the countries that are directly aiding the rebels, should make a point of urging the opposition and its fighters toward full compliance with international humanitarian law (not least as a way of distinguishing the rebels favorably from the government). Adams notes that the Free Syrian Army has already created its own unit for war crimes investigations. So far the group has focused on abuses committed by the government, of course, but it could be expanded to provide accountability for the FSA’s own forces as well. Western countries, says Adams, should offer full assistance and support to such efforts, even while pushing for them to be broadened.

I really do wish him the best of luck with that. But it’s hard to be optimistic. As Adams himself points out, the original architects of the expanded international anti-genocide principles back in 2001 — known as the “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P — foresaw that it would be extremely hard to against mass atrocities in cases where U.N. Security Council members were opposed to acting. That, of course, is exactly what’s now come to pass in the case of Syria.

In any case, it’s time to acknowledge that one consequence of the international community’s failure to press for stronger action in the past is that it leaves us ill-equipped to make the case for preventing the revenge killings that are likely to come. Let’s hope that the Syrian rebels have the wisdom to see the rationale for restraint as the war enters its next phase. They certainly have little cause to listen to our advice.


Obama’s torture policy

January 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment

Al Jazeera’s excellent Fault Lines returns:

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama promised a new direction. Just days after taking office, the new US president issued a series of executive orders banning all acts of torture, discontinuing the use of CIA black sites, and calling for the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay to be closed.

But what will it really take to dismantle the Bush administration’s legacy of torture when there is the same leadership at the Pentagon, the same rhetoric about protecting “state secrets”, and the same refusal to allow victims of rendition to file lawsuits in US courts – not to mention a fully functional US military prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan?

Among other things, since taking office, the Obama administration has asserted in court that prisoners held at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan have no right to challenge their detentions in US courts, pre-empted a supreme court ruling on whether a legal US resident can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial, and argued to dismiss cases brought by alleged victims of rendition on the grounds that they might pose a threat to US “national security”.

The litany of disappointing actions on human rights and civil liberties seems to be growing longer every day.

This week on Fault Lines, we talk to people on all sides of the so-called “war on terror” – from human rights lawyers to former Bush administration officials; from a former US detainee who was rendered to torture to the CIA analyst who helped author his fate.

Where at first glance the US appears to be heading in a new direction, to what extent has the Obama administration turned its back on the abusive


Dirty Wars: Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley’s New Film Exposes Hidden Truths of Covert U.S. Warfare

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

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amyg   Premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the new documentary “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield” follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen as he chases down the hidden truths behind America’s expanding covert wars. We’re joined by Scahill and the film’s director, Rick Rowley, an independent journalist with Big Noise Films. “We’re looking right now at a reality that President Obama has essentially extended the very policies that many of his supporters once opposed under President Bush,” says Scahill, author of the bestseller “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” and a forthcoming book named after his film. “One of the things that humbles both of us is that when you arrive in a village in Afghanistan and knock on someone’s door, you’re the first American they’ve seen since the Americans that kicked that door in and killed half their family,” Rowley says. “We promised them that we would do everything we could to make their stories be heard in the U.S. … Finally we’re able to keep those promises.” [includes rush transcript]

Jeremy Scahill, producer and writer of the documentary film Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, which just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. He is national security correspondent for The Nation, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

Richard Rowley, director of the documentary film Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, which just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. He is an independent journalist with Big Noise Films.

Iran Shoots Itself in the Foot

By Robin Yassin-Kassab

In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.

Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.

Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.

In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.

Iran’s backing for al-Assad is ironic because at a certain point the Syrian revolution was the one that most resembled 1979 in Iran – the violent repression of demonstrations leading to angry funerals leading to still more in a constantly expanding circle of anger and defiance; the people chanting allahu akbar from their balconies at night; women in hijabs joining women with bouffant hair to protest against regime brutality.

It was also a massive miscalculation, a lesser cousin to the miscalculations made by Bashaar al-Assad, and one which stripped the Islamic Republic of the last shreds of its revolutionary legitimacy. Like the Syrian president, Iran was popular among Syrians until twenty two months ago, even among many sectarian-minded Sunnis. (So too was Hizbullah, now widely reviled. In 2006, the Syrian people – not the regime – welcomed into their homes a million south Lebanese refugees from Israeli bombing.) It now seems very unlikely that any post-Assad dispensation in Syria will want to preserve Iranian influence. The Free Syrian Army, the anti-Assad Islamist militias, and the Syrian National Coalition all see Iran as an enemy of Syria, not as an honest broker that could help negotiate a transition.

Iranian popularity has also collapsed in the wider Arab world, where its pro-Assad policy has undercut its position more effectively than American or Israeli messaging could ever have done. (James Zogby’s poll was conducted in June 2011, too early for revulsion over Syria to have fully developed, but it nevertheless shows a dramatic decrease in favourable attitudes to Iran.)

Back in August, President Morsi (whose foreign policy has been much more intelligent than his domestic governance) chastised his hosts on the Syrian issue. “We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria,” he said, “and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer to a democratic system.” The Iranian leadership was embarrassed enough to censor this part of Morsi’s speech from its state TV broadcasts.

Morsi also offered the Iranians the following deal: Egypt would develop a warm economic and political relationship with Iran to the extent of championing Iran’s nuclear energy program and opposing sanctions in the international fora. In return, Iran would pull back from its support of the Assad regime.

By its continued support for Assad, Iran in effect rejected the deal. Nevertheless, Morsi set up a four nation contact group – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – which has foundered not only on Iranian intransigence but also on Saudi absences from meetings. (Saudi Arabia has offered rhetorical support and some light weapons to the Syrian resistance; it also sent troops to Bahrain to help put down the democratic uprising there.) Egyptian-Iranian consultations on Syria continue.

Morsi was actually offering something substantial to the Iranians. It’s difficult to see how negotiations involving the Americans could produce better results so long as the US, bound up as it is with Israel’s self-perceived interests in the region, insists on sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program.

This is a great shame. Alongside Russia, Iran is the only power to exert any real influence on Bashaar al-Assad. It is to be hoped that, as the fall of the Assad regime becomes more apparent, wisdom will eventually prevail in Tehran. A volte face even at this late stage would strengthen Iran in its battles with the West and would temper rising anti-Shia sentiment in Syria and the wider Arab World.

– Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel, co-editor of the Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal which looks like a book, and of He blogs at


Syria : an urgent appeal

‎| An important and urgent appeal from the field hospital district Babaamr | Brothers in coordinating Doctors Homs In the medical committee and health office and all of whom they work in medical and relief sector .We write to you this letter at the time the regime sectarian troops of the alawite sectarian pro-regime villages in Homs have started their barbarian brutal attacks on Baba Amr .The Baba Amr field hospital can’t bear with number and kind of cases flooding to hospital.It has yesterday more than 150 cases with ( 3 patients need respiratory apparatus which is not available, 8 cases require a vascular surgery and are in danger of losing their extremeties as vascular surgeons are not available,5 cases require surgeries in abdomen however we could manage to conduct it for only 3 of them due to big number of cases requiring surgery,8 cases of sever facial disfigurement , one case of a fracture in vertebral column of an old man ,5 cases of comminuted fracture ( fragmented bone fracture) in upper and lower limbs, 2 cases with injuries in eyes and requi urgent surgery.
We appeal to you to help us with saving lives of many wounded innocents specially tha more than 23 people have been killed so far and number is expected to rise.
We have used all what we have of medical supplies here and we are running out of it and you must know how hard is to bring medical supplies into this hospital. Since 2 months we have only received 20 bags of drugs from The Coordination of Doctors in Homs.
Help us that the massacre of Deir Balba doesn’t happen again here in Baba Amr.
remember , we don’t have surgeons here , we don’t have surgical teams. We have called on many surgeons to come over but no one responded. We call you again and again , we need surgical teams here in Baba Amr field hospital in Homs.
By Director of field hospital in Baba Amr.

Republicans Praise Obama for Offering Bold Vision to Thwart

The Borowitz Report

January 21, 2013
obama-inauguration-borowitz-465.jpgWASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Congressional Republicans heaped fulsome praise on President Obama’s second Inaugural Address today, saying that it had given them a detailed list of things to thwart over the next four years.“My big fear was that the speech would be full of vague platitudes that wouldn’t be helpful to us in plotting against him,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Once he started offering details of what he actually hoped to accomplish, though, I realized we had hit the mother lode.”

Speaker Boehner praised the President for citing such specifics as hiring math and science teachers, building roads, and reducing health-care costs: “Now that we know that’s what he’s got in mind for his second term, we can hit the ground running to stop him.”

“My takeaway from the speech was, if we work hard enough, there’s nothing we can’t keep him from doing,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) praised Mr. Obama for injecting humor into a usually somber address: “I loved that joke about ending political name-calling.”

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Photograph: Anthony Behar/AP

ouna diikum


Conversations: The Architecture Student from Aleppo

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and an architecture student from the University of Aleppo. She is in her final year and working on her graduation project. This conversation predates the latest blast at the university’s architecture school. Luckily, she was absent on Tuesday, January 15, the day of the tragic incident. At her request, we are not disclosing her name. The text has been edited for clarity.Yesterday, I saw four different traumatic scenes on my way to the university. These four scenes have shaken me deeply.

The first scene was when I was passing near a neighborhood, which is inside the area that sees heavy clashes. It is considered to be a hot spot. There were over one hundred people gathered in one corner, waiting for the right moment to cross the area. A woman watching the crowd told me that residents just evacuated their homes, but they want to go back to bring some of their essential belongings.

There were old men, women, and children waiting in the crowd. It looked like a border checkpoint…

Credit: Syrian Revolutionary Memory Project

The second scene still troubles me. There was an old and powerless man sitting on the sidewalk, putting his arms around himself, crying continuously. He was not a beggar. He didn’t open his hand and he didn’t accept any money. Only God knows what was his suffering or his loss!

People were passing by him, ignoring him. I curse the day an old man under the sky of my country would come to this miserable situation…

Then, on my way back home with my friend, I saw tens of children, women, and men carrying bottles and gallons of water. The children were laughing; the women were depressed, while the men looked broken.

The forth scene was a man and woman in their fifties walking hand in hand beside me on the same sidewalk. They looked very worried and sad. I heard them speaking about their children living abroad for work, or to escape military service, or just for safety. Meanwhile, the couple were staying alone watching over their home. That was the moment I felt guilty for thinking to leave the country and continue my studies abroad.

Four scenes made me pale like a wall, and I still bear that defeated spirit till this moment. How worse can it get than what we are suffering now?

The answer to her question didn’t wait too long. The latest blast in her faculty claimed the lives of more than 80 students and wounded hundreds. The conflict in Syria proves each day, that there is always worse than bad.


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