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August 25, 2013

Airstrikes on Syria

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Let’s get one thing clear. Nobody is coming to help Syrians because they are getting killed. They are coming to help Syrians because nobody wants chemical warfare to become a norm and especially for countries like North Korea and Iran to start using them “because somebody else did it too”. In essence the behaviour of states in the international system is primitive and infantile, however thick the books on international relations may get. The basic rules of international relations are about as complex as the politics of siblings fighting over their toys. Possession is nine-tenths of ownership, what happens when the parents aren’t looking never happened, and the strongest will get to impose their will on the weakest unless they meet somebody stronger.

If we use this model to understand the behaviour of actors like the Syrian regime, we start to make much more sense of how they are reacting to the international community. Russia is not an innocent arbiter in this conflict, but the estranged parent who lets the errant brat do what they want to annoy the other parent. One parent cannot overstep the mark without risking an all out escalation with the other, and so a state of limbo lets the spoilt brat, Assad, throw his toys out of the cot and break everything. Yes it is probably too simplistic an analogy, but we need something, anything, to make sense of the stupid drama that has been unfolding in front of our eyes for the past two and a half years.

The Kosovo model for intervention is not perfect, but it stopped the bloodshed and today Kosovo is limping along and people are rebuilding their lives at least. Of course it is still not a recognised state thanks to Russia blocking its recognition, but the important thing is that militias are not slaughtering whole families and villages. The same thing needs to happen in Syria and the country must be given as much support as possible to get back on its own two feet. This is not because Syrians need the world’s charity, but because if that does not happen then Syria will become a Somalia on the Mediterranean and bordering Europe. It is in the world’s interest to stop this wound from festering, and it is in Syria’s neighbour’s interests – all of them – that this country not implode. Because when it implodes all of Assad’s toys are going to end up in the wrong hands, however “careful” the West is and however pervasive Israel’s intelligence tries to be. A poisoned atmosphere and water table is not something anybody in the region can afford. Syria is a big puddle that can splash a lot of people, Assad knows this and he has been using this to stay in power, but it does not mean he cannot be toppled.

This regime is powerful not inherently but in the positions it controls, like a spider in a web, and by hitting it strategically and in the places where it is most vulnerable, the various remnants of the Free Syrian Army might just be able to shred what’s left of it. I say might because at this stage there are only probabilities and worst case scenarios. It is not, for example, a question anymore of how many people might be killed accidentally in strikes against Assad but how many deaths can be avoided by crippling his ability to wage war. This kind of intervention should have happened a long time ago, and many more people would still be alive today if Assad was made to understand that mass murder is not acceptable, with chemical weapons or not. This is the real precedent that should have been set for all other tinpot dictators around the world.

Posted by Maysaloon at 7:44 pm  

Seven Minutes and Nineteen Seconds in Aleppo

    Amal Hanano  –  August 24, 2013

It’s August 16. A man holding a camera runs between tall concrete buildings. A dark gray cloud breaks the blue summer sky of Aleppo. He moves towards the smoke while men run in the opposite direction. A man carries an injured man on his shoulder. A horse pulling a cart trots by. A man leans on a comrade, cradling his injured arm.

Signs of normalcy are scattered among gorier scenes: a voice reciting the Friday prayer, a cart piled with yellow cantaloupes, a scale and a tray of green cactus fruit, a red umbrella covering street fare for sale. These are signs of lives interrupted.

The man with the camera gets closer to the scene, and the screams grow louder. A man is dragged by five others. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. Another holds a child to his chest. Bodies are scattered on the street. Watermelons are scattered on the street. The honking of cars merges with the collective wailing. Bodies are covered with colorful woven tarps. The dusty street now has crimson stains.

Three minutes and 25 seconds in, the man holding the camera finally arrives at the source of the chaos. He calls it a Scud attack. Others think it was a surface-to-surface missile attack. Still others claim it was an air strike. There is no argument, however, about what it has done.

There is a gap between the multistory apartment buildings in the rebel-controlled area between the two neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and al-Kallaseh. Bustan al-Qasr is the center of regime resistance in Aleppo, and home to peaceful protests against both the regime and the extremist militia groups. A space that was just occupied by residential buildings is now reduced to two massive hills of rubble, dust and stacked concrete floors.

Men scale the mountains of debris. They try to rescue victims trapped underneath. Who are these buried people? Families who’d simply been preparing Friday lunch? Perhaps they felt lucky that they were still safe. That they were not refugees. That they still had roofs over their heads – until those roofs crushed them on a sunny afternoon.

Now the camera focuses on a group of bare-handed men lifting stones and clearing pieces of concrete. Something white appears in the gap they’ve opened. It’s a body. I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman, dead or alive. The shirt has been stained dark pink. The body is dragged away.

Children cry. Men hold their heads in despair. “Climb to the top.,” a man screams, referring to the rubble. “Climb to the top.” A man’s silhouette appears in the dust, carrying a body on his own. I think that person is still alive.

A man addresses President Bashar al-Assad. “Is this bravery?” he yells, “to strike civilians?”

In a shorter 20-second video from the same day, a father holds his head and cries for his lost children. “The children are gone,” he wails, “the children are gone. They are under the earth. What can get them out now?”


Syrians attempt to analyze the attack on social media. Most agree that it is the regime’s retaliation for a deadly car bombing in southern Beirut the day before, widely thought to have been carried out by rebels. But after many months of the same attacks on Syrian towns and cities, does Assad’s scorched earth policy have a rational explanation?

Over 30 dead have been counted on this day in Aleppo. The rest are still buried in the concrete rubble.

By nightfall, civilian rescuers were still digging with their bare hands. In any other country, these men would have been treated like heroes. But here, they aren’t even noticed. No one watches these videos from Syria anymore. They have become the norm.

Heartbreaking pleas for machinery, ropes, floodlights and first aid kits saturated online platforms after the attack shown in the video. They didn’t ask for weapons or food; they begged for ropes to pull out their dead. Activists shared plans to train civilians on rescue missions to prepare for the aftermath of the next attack. They know there will be a next time.

One week later, rebels claim that over 1300 are dead from a chemical weapon attack on the eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus. The media is moved once more to share the images of our dead children. And the men in Bustan al-Qasr still dig in the rubble, unnoticed. Twelve more bodies are excavated, only to be buried again. There are still more to be retrieved. The men continue to dig.

Remember three years ago, when we watched the fate of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground? Remember how the world united in that moment? We rooted for survival, for humanity, for an ending that somehow proves our collective resilience. For an ending that somehow defies all odds. In Syria, such an ending was written off long ago.

There is nothing left to prove in Syria anymore. Nothing to offer but cowardly ambivalence and cold political calculations. World leaders know that the words “never again” are mere words, empty promises reserved for the sanitized spaces of memorial dedications or an exhibition on genocide years after it comes to an end.

Maybe one day, decades from now, an American politician will stand on the ruins of Aleppo, at the opening of a museum dedicated to the bloody memory of the Syrian revolution. Maybe this seven-minute video will be playing in black and white on a screen behind him as he looks straight into the cameras and solemnly swears: “Never again.”


You’ve Forgotten About Syria Again, Haven’t You?

Human memory is short and terribly fickle. In the immediate aftermath of a genocide, ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, or brutal civil war, there is a period when the public will say: never again will we let such tragedies pass.

Courtesy Janine di Giovanni

Courtesy Janine di Giovanni

France Syria Journalists
Guests speak during a service in Paris, France on July 9, 2013 for reporter Didier Francois and freelance photographer Edouard Elias, pictured in banners, who have been missing in Syria since June 6. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

Then there is a slow dying down. Then resounding silence. Guilt lasts for a few moments, then it is forgotten, and news moves on.

Plus jamais (“never again”), the battle call following the Holocaust, no longer has any resonance. Because it did happen again. After World War II, there was genocide in Bosnia. After Bosnia, there was Rwanda. After Rwanda, Somalia. Darfur. Congo. Sierra Leone. And more.

For these reasons, the war in Syria is one that must be covered. There are 1.4 million refugees and 100,000 people dead in a conflict that is limping into its third year. The U.N. just released a paper on child soldiers and mafia-like rings within refugee camps. Inside the country, there is abuse from both sides, government and rebels: war crimes, civilian slaying, children dying, lives destroyed.

Usually, journalists are the eyes and ears of such a conflict, documenting abuse, keeping tally of the dead, and watching the pitch of the war rise and fall.

But not this time.

And the reason is simple: Syria is simply too dangerous. Not just the sniping, the shelling, and the minefields that war reporters can handle. Now there is kidnapping. Sometimes opportunistic, sometimes economical, sometimes simply random and seemingly for no reason at all.

One thing is sure. With the rise of more and more radical groups entering and working inside Syria, Western journalists (and aid workers, doctors…anyone who remotely signals money) are walking ATM machines.

The essence of reporting war is to be spontaneous. A clash breaks out, a commander grants an interview, and a mass grave is shockingly discovered. A reporter must be able to leap into a car, and to trust the driver and the translator with her life.

Now, some of those drivers, fixers, and soldiers who are supposed to be helping us are selling or turning us over to kidnappers.

It is believed, at this writing, there are 15 journalists missing in Syria. According to a story in this week’s New York Times, that number appears on a trajectory to surpass the 25 cases in Iraq in 2007—the height of the conflict.

One French-American journalist who was recently released after three months in captivity in Syria (after paying, he claims, $450,000) said: “The rebels are so desperate, they don’t care about their reputation abroad. They see us an opportunity.”

Once Iraq became a hot bed for kidnapping, reporters had to use every kind of trick they could manage to avoid it. This included chase cars, security men for more prosperous agencies and networks, and GPS signals on satellite phones that could pinpoint the journalist’s locations.

But all this requires money—and so it meant that the people who could not afford such luxuries either did not report, or did so leaving themselves hugely vulnerable.

What has changed so radically? Reporting the war in Bosnia meant running a zigzag pattern through city streets so you did not get sniped; Liberia meant negotiating with stoned 9-year-olds holding RPGs and wearing wedding dresses and fright wigs. All this was terrifying.

Experience in the field is not going to protect you from getting sold like a piece of meat to a jihadist group.
But Chechnya was the beginning of the end. French, American, and British passport holders all were high risks to be snatched by the mercenary Chechen commanders (soldiers we paid to protect us).

Militant groups like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines were also early warning signals that journalists would soon be used as cash points. While governments like the U.K. and U.S. warned they would never negotiate with kidnappers, France Television paid a million dollars for each of their reporters to be released in 2000, setting a dangerous precedent.

The sad result was that reporters then avoided those countries like the plague. And the human toll of war got ignored.

But Syria must be reported. It is the lynchpin on which the region’s security lies. A larger, proxy war is at stake. Human-rights abuses are happening everywhere inside, and every day.

And the end result is that because editors don’t want to pay to send experienced reporters, the bulk of the press corps are brave freelancers.

I say brave because they often work for peanuts as in the case of one Italian journalist who recently wrote that she got paid $70 per piece. Even while she risked getting shot, raped, kidnapped, and riddled with typhoid.

But not just young freelancers are at risk. In June, two French journalists disappeared. One of them was Didier Francois, a journalist who has reported war for decades. Experience in the field might hone your instincts as to when a firefight is going to erupt, but it is not going to protect you from getting sold like a piece of meat to a jihadist group.

But the question of how we continue reporting this war cannot be answered by me or my fellow reporters. It must be answered by with a public that insists on knowing more of what is happening inside Syria. Rather than catching up with the Kardashians or Honey Boo Boo. Because it is what matters.

Syria is dangerous, but some of us will continue to work there anyway.

The reason is that we are witnesses. Without sounding grandiose, many of us believe we have a calling to report the truth from the ground, not from a desk in a Washington think tank.

Because the blood of the 100,000 Syria dead covers our hands, as well as the international communities. We cannot, we must not, give up—not now, just when the appetite for news from that haunted place is at its all time low—on Syria.

This piece originally appeared at The Daily Beast.


Obama Killed Hope For Young People

Sorry,  cannot embed the video

Voices from Damascus: ‘We Expect Nothing from the United Nations’

The photos and video circulating of yesterday’s alleged chemical gas attack in the east Damascus suburb of Ghouta are haunting. In some, dead bodies, including those of children, are lined up shoulder to shoulder on the floor. In others, volunteers go from victim to victim, pouring water onto the faces of those still alive.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other watchdog groups have claimed the attack was carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime; the Observatory put the number of dead at 1,400 and climbing. If so, it will be the largest recorded chemical attack since a 1988 hit on Iraq’s Kurds by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. The missiles containing the gas are believed to have been launched from areas of Damascus controlled by the regime.

“A huge number of people in Ghouta are dead, doctors and witnesses are describing horrific details that look like a chemical weapons attack, and the government claims it didn’t do it,” Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement. “The only way to find out what really happened in Ghouta is to let United Nations inspectors in.”

At the time of the attack, United Nations inspectors were in central Damascus, but have not been allowed access to the attack site. HRW said that “whether or not chemical weapons were used, the attack left a large number of civilians dead, and those responsible for unlawful killings should be held to account. The government should give the United Nations chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus immediate access.”

Syria Deeply spoke with witnesses in Ghouta about what they saw, and their low hopes that the attack will trigger international intervention in the conflict.

Ghazwan, 28, doctor:

We have previous experience dealing with chemical attacks, but not on this scale. It was shocking to see such a large number of children and women. It was the first time we have seen a chemical attack like this. We couldn’t deal with all these numbers – about 800 injured arrived here in [neighboring] Douma, and we only have a few medical stations and doctors. We gave mechanical ventilation for some who couldn’t breathe, and it is important to give atropine shots, which is the antidote for sarin.

People can help in this situation by washing the injured. We had a lot of volunteers. The situation in Douma was good in in the end, thank God. Only 17 dead from 800.

The main mission was to rescue people. If you want to go there you have to wear masks to protect yourself from chemical weapons, and we only have a few. We get them from the Free Syrian Army.

Yesterday there were a lot of people coming to Douma for treatment. Most have been discharged. A few were suffocating and are getting medical ventilation. The acute state of chemical injuries only lasts 24 hours. That is the critical period. Now most of them are being taken care of back in their homes. A lot of them were scared to go home, but they have no place else to go.

One of the survivors told us that he fainted and then found himself in Douma. They took him to the field hospital. Some survivors told us that they were walking in the streets and seeing bodies everywhere, before they fainted. Some were dead, others were choking.

I’ll be frank with you: Most people I’ve seen today and yesterday don’t expect anything from the international community. They’ve expected too much in the past, so they don’t care too much about this.

Abu Adel, a member of the Information Office in Jobar, the eastern district of Damascus that borders Ghouta:

The atmosphere is incredibly tense. People are wary of a repeat scenario. Now there is heavy shelling with all kinds of weapons, mortar fire and warplanes, and surface-to-surface missiles hit the district in the morning. Now the neighborhood is surrounded by tanks from several directions, and there have been attempts to storm it.

The rebels are doing a major escalation and responding by shelling regime military locations.

We expect nothing from the United Nations.

Abu Ahmed, Moadamiyet al-Sham media center:

Four days ago, the regime [started] to shell Moadamiyet al-Sham with rockets and mortars [launched from] from the Mezzeh military airport. [There were also] tanks and artillery fire [at] the Fourth Division headquarters in the mountains of Moadamiyet.

There was no shelling the night before the attack. Yesterday, when people were leaving the mosque after dawn prayers, they heard seven strange sounds like whistles. The sounds of the explosions were unusually soft.

The rockets had come from the direction of Mezzeh and targeted the area of Zeitouna mosque. Nearby, [there] is a kindergarten.

The worshippers went to the scene to find their families [in a state that looked like] sleeping. People were wounded. Among the wounded were paramedics and doctors. All were passed out.

The ambulance took people to the field hospital. There were 103 people killed, including 17 children, and 305 wounded. Some are still unconscious. One child died today.

People have severed all of their hopes [that] the world [will intervene]. We have nothing but God. But if the inspectors are serious, then they must go to Moadamiyet immediately. They must make serious decisions and not just issue condemnations.

The regime has used every weapon, and now it is [using] chemicals. It is taking its revenge on the cities that have remained steadfast [opposition strongholds] despite all of the bombing and destruction. This is the last resort of Assad, after exhausting every means of suppression. This is vengeance.


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