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Exclusive Photos: Syria’s Oldest Synagogue, Destroyed by Assad


The Jobar Synagogue was one of the holiest Jewish sites in Syria and contained priceless historical artifacts. Now it’s destroyed—and the opposition says Assad is to blame.

Syrian Arab Army forces flattened the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus over the weekend. The attack not only wrecked a site that’s at least 400 years old. It may have destroyed thousands of irreplaceable Jewish artifacts contained inside the synagogue, according to opposition leaders and photos obtained at the site.

The area where the synagogue once stood has been under bombardment by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for months. The Syrian regime is laying siege to the town, one of the few rebel strongholds in the area. It’s all part of what the opposition calls Assad’s “scorched earth” policy, which includes random and violent attacks on civilian populations.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the destruction of Jobar Synagogue, which was a treasure of Jewish and Syrian cultural heritage,” said Shlomo Bolts, an official at the Syrian American Council, an American charity connected to the Syrian opposition.

Jobar Synagogue
The Jobar Synagogue in Damascus lay in ruins Monday after being shelled by Syrian government forces. All photos provided exclusively to The Daily Beast by witnesses on the ground. ()

Bolts, a Jew of Syrian ancestry, said that the Syrian Jewish community is only the latest victim of Assad’s strategy to target religious and cultural institutions.

“Yet this is hardly the only place of worship to be destroyed by the Assad regime. The Umm al-Zinar Church [a house of worship in Homs that locals say dates back to the first centuries of Christianity], the [1,400 year-old] Khalid Ibn Walid Mosque, and countless other irreplaceable cultural sites are now lost to history due to a dictator’s manic desire to keep power at all costs,” he said.

Jobar Synagogue

The Syrian American Council is part of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an umbrella organization that says it represents over 100,000 Syrian-Americans. The group’s contacts inside Syria shot photos of the rubble where the Jobar Synagogue stood until days ago. Those photos were provided to The Daily Beast.

This week’s attack, though the final blow, was not the first time the Syrian regime had bombarded the Jobar Synagogue. An Israeli news report from April 2013 noted that the synagogue had been “looted and destroyed,” although later photos proved that the synagogue had taken only moderate damage from a mortar shell.

Activists estimate that at least 33 churches and hundreds of mosques have been destroyed by the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian civil war. Six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been destroyed in Syria since the fighting began.

Last December, photos emerged in another Israeli news report showing that many of the synagogue’s most precious artifacts were intact. The report stated that the bulk of the synagogue’s artifact collection was being held safely in the hands of local leaders.

Before the conflict, the synagogue held thousands of religious and cultural treasures, including hundreds-years-old Torah scrolls, historical texts, precious dining ware, and ancient Judaica of all sorts. Some of the items were reportedly looted in the early days of the war. Some were reportedly placed in safekeeping. Many remained in the building until its destruction.

Jobar Synagogue

Opposition sources told The Daily Beast that the damage assessment following this week’s devastating attack on the Jobar synagogue was ongoing but all of the Jewish heritage items that remained inside the synagogue are feared lost.

The Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue, built to honor the prophet Elijah, had existed at least since medieval times. The site has been a destination for Jewish pilgrimage for centuries. It was said to have been built atop the cave where Elijah hid from his persecutors. The Prophet Elisha, who allegedly built the synagogue, was said to have anointed King Hazael on its steps, now gone.

The town of Jobar was home to a significant Jewish population throughout the medieval period, although the community was eventually driven out of Syria and the synagogue was taken over in the 19th century by local Arab leaders. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, the synagogue was used as a school for displaced Palestinians.

Activists estimate that at least 33 churches and hundreds of mosques have been destroyed by the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian civil war. Six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been destroyed in Syria since the fighting began.

As early as March 2012, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova was publicly warning about damage to precious sites and calling on both sides to protect Syria’s cultural legacy.

“Damage to the heritage of the country is damage to the soul of its people and its identity,” she said.



Assad: Nobel Peace prize should have been mine

      bandannie : why not ? after all there was Obama and Begin and a few other deserving criminals….

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks published on Monday by Al-Akhbar newspaper that the Nobel Peace Prize should have been attributed to him.

Commenting on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Assad said “jokingly”: “This prize should have been [given] to me.”

Assad also reiterated that he did not regret handing over his country’s chemical weapons.

“Syria has stopped producing chemical weapons since 1997, and has replaced them with traditional weapons, which are the determining factor in the battlefield,” Assad said.

However, he said that handing over the chemical weapons was a “moral and political loss” for his regime.

Assad also tackled his regime’s alliance with Russia and said that the latter is not defending Syria, but it is rather defending itself.

“With what they are doing, the Russians are not defending Syria, its people, its regime or its president; they are defending themselves. Syria’s stability and security is protected by politics more than it is by a military arsenal,” he said.

The Syrian president also slammed Hamas and accused it of abandoning the resistance.

“Hamas decided to abandon the resistance and become a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not the first time they betrayed us, they did it before in 2007 and 2009,” Assad said.

Asked about the possibility that he would receive Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in his palace in Syria, Assad said jokingly: “Do not be surprised to see [Progressive Socialist Party leader MP] Walid Jumblatt here.”


Syrian chemical attack spurs finger-pointing inside Assad regime

Antakya, Turkey // United Nations weapons inspectors will today examine the site of a chemical weapons attack in Damascus that killed hundreds, as the first signs of finger-pointing inside the Assad regime began to emerge.

The Syrian government agreed yesterday to cease hostilities in the area while the team goes in and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said inspectors were “preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities” on the outskirts of the capital.

The attack on Wednesday has galvanised international calls for action against the government of President Bashar Al Assad. Rebels say as many as 1,300 people were killed. One aid agency says thousands were affected and 355 died.

Amid universal acceptance that a chemical nerve agent has been used but disagreement over who used it, there were indications from Damascus that some of the army officers involved had tried to distance themselves from what happened, and insisted they were not told the rockets they were firing were loaded with toxins.

“We have heard from people close to the regime that the chemical missiles were handed out a few hours before the attacks,” said a source from a well-connected family, who has contacts with both the opposition and regime loyalists.

“They didn’t come from the ministry of defence but from air force intelligence, under orders from Hafez Maklouf . The army officers are saying they did not know there were chemical weapons. Even some of the people transporting them are saying they had no idea what was in the rockets – they thought they were conventional explosives.”

Hafez Maklouf, Mr Al Assad’s cousin, commands Syria’s air force intelligence, the most feared of all its secret police branches.

Another account of what may have taken place has been put forward by the opposition Syrian National Coalition, based on a timeline from residents inside the affected areas and information collected from sources inside the regime who leak information to the rebels.

The SNC said rockets loaded with chemicals were delivered to Gen Tahir Hamid Khalil and launched from an army base housing the 155 Brigade, a unit of the 4th Division, in the Qalamoon mountains north of Damascus.

Mahar Al Assad, the Syrian president’s brother, commands the 4th Division, an ultra-loyalist force with a key role in repressing the uprising since it began in March 2011, and, more recently, heavily involved in combat with rebels around Damascus.

After a night of fierce fighting on Tuesday in an area on the edge of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta – once known for its clean natural water and lush orchards – regime troops moved back, leaving only aircraft overhead, the SNC said.

At 2.30am on Wednesday, regime forces under the command of Gen Ghassan Abbas began launching the rockets, 16 of which were aimed at the eastern suburbs of Damascus, and hit Zamalka and Ain Tarma, densely populated areas in the Eastern Ghouta.

As opposition emergency services responded to those initial chemical attacks, rockets armed with high explosive warheads were fired into the same area, hitting ambulance teams as they tried to help victims of the chemical strikes.

At 4.21am, 18 more missiles were fired into eastern Damascus by troops loyal to Mr Al Assad, the SNC said. Another two missiles were aimed at Moadamiya, to the south-west of Damascus, an area known locally as the Western Ghouta.

By 6am, dozens of people from Moadamiya had been taken to a local field hospital suffering from the effects of exposure to a still unidentified poison gas.

At least five poison gas rockets were fired, according to the SNC, four landing in the Eastern Ghouta and one in Moadamiya. Strong winds pushed the gases out from their impact area in Zamalka across to Erbin, a neighbouring district, where more people died.

According to the SNC’s account, loyalist forces close to the attack area were issued orders from a “high level” to wear gas masks in anticipation of the attacks.

Syrian state media and the insurgents have continued to wage a war of words over the chemical attacks.

After initially denying chemical agents had been released by either side, the Syrian authorities are now vigorously blaming rebel forces.

The rebels have posted videos online of hollow rocket tubes found in the eastern suburbs where the attacks took place. The missile casings, about two metres long, appear to match those used in previous strikes by regime forces.

Russia, a close ally of Mr Al Assad, said it welcomed the decision by Damascus to allow the UN inspection. The Russian government, like Syria’s other close ally Iran, does not dispute that chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb. They blame anti-government insurgents for the attacks.

In Washington, a US official said “there is very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians.

The Obama administration earlier accused the Assad government of delaying UN inspectors to allow the evidence to degrade.

The agreement by Syria to permit UN investigators to carry out a first-hand examination of a chemical weapons attack came as international pressure built for a retaliatory strike against the Assad regime. The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said yesterday that the US military, which is repositioning its forces in the eastern Mediterranean to give President Obama the option for an armed strike, was ready to act if asked.

On Saturday, the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières said 3,600 patients displaying “neurotoxic symptoms” had been admitted to Syrian hospitals it supports, and 355 of those patients had died.

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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.


Another Halabja?



                            Horrifying reports of Assad’s biggest chemical attack

Bodies pile up following chemical attack.

In the early hours of August 21, a series of alleged chemical attacks struck various suburbs of Damascus, the bulk of them in neighborhoods that together make up an area east of the city center known as Eastern Ghouta. Among the neighborhoods targeted  just after 2 AM were Jobar (the site of a previous chemical disbursal), Zermalka, Ayn Tarma, Douma, Arbeen, Saqba and Harasta. Yet another hit, this one in the southwestern district of Moadamiya, which is close to the elite Fourth Division’s airbase in Mezze, was also reported.

The death toll varies from the high hundreds to over 1,500. But the scores of videos of civilian and rebel victims uploaded to the Internet give a gruesome indicator that the carnage may only increase as more and more sufferers languish without adequate medical care. Some of these videos show young children in a state of total shock, responding listlessly to treatment or marveling at the fact that they are still alive. Others videos show adults foaming at the mouth and convulsing, or corpses lying in neat rows on the ground, wrapped in shrouds.

By early Wednesday evening, a senior Obama administration official told the Wall Street Journal that Washington has “strong indications” that the Assad regime was behind these latest atrocities. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was the first U.S. ally to state unequivocally that Damascus was indeed the culprit. (Israel’s intelligence on Syria is considered the best in the world.)

I spoke with two doctors from Douma yesterday. The first, Dr. Majed Abu Ali, the communications manager of Douma city medical office, which is part of the medical office of Eastern Ghouta, said that in his district alone, about 630 cases of exposed patients had been observed with symptoms including respiratory failure, muscle spasms, confused mental states, and pinpoint pupils. “Thirty-six of these cases needed ventilation and intubation, and 16 also had to be sent to the ICU.”

Because of how ill-equipped his team was for handling so large a casualty figure all at once, Dr. Abu Ali said that his own personnel did not take the necessary precautions before treating those possibly exposed to a deadly agent. For instance, they failed to remove the tainted clothing of patients and some of the medical staff became exposed secondarily and required their own treatment regimens as a result.

The Douma medical office fielded patients from around eight separate attacks. According to Dr. Abu Ali, the attacks were against rebel-held positions in Eastern Ghouta while the last two struck “civilian neighborhoods.” The latter attacks “were ten times more severe in terms of casualties than the previous ones. Injuries from [the rebel-held areas] numbered around 63. From the civilian areas, around 600,” Dr. Abu Ali reported.

More than 50 percent of those affected were women and children. Not all patients responded to atropine, a drug commonly administered to counteract nerve agent exposure, evidently due to the intense concentration of whatever was used. Thousands of atropine injections were given, and supplies of the medicine were running low.

I also spoke with Dr. Khaled Ad’doumi, director of Douma city medical office, and asked if his staff were able to determine the exact substance used. “We already know from [a] medical study we conducted that the symptoms of exposure to organophosphate compounds are similar to the ones we observed yesterday.” These compounds, alleged to have been used in prior chemical attacks in Syria, including the one in Khan al-Assal which the UN is meant to investigate, are the basis for many industrial pesticides. They are also used to make sarin and VX gas. Dr. Ad’doumi believes adamantly that sarin was used by no one other than the regime.

Gwyn Winfield, the editor of CRBNe, a journal which monitors unconventional weaponry, told Foreign Policy “No doubt it’s a chemical release of some variety — and a military release of some variety.” He thinks, though, that whatever substance was deployed was not in a purified form. In a subsequent appearance on CNN, Winfield said: “It may well be that this was some kind of an Assad homebrew where he has managed to get elements of an organophosphate, mix it with other chemicals, and then delivered it onto these people.” Winfield also noted that the perpetrator can only have come from the military. “This isn’t a small rogue element; this isn’t a small group. This is a concentrated, well-organized attack by a significant player.”

A chemical “cocktail” of varying agents might account for the reported contradictions in symptoms exhibited all over Damascus yesterday.

Dr. Ad’doumi said that most fatalities his office saw were caused by suffocation. “We had to make choices of who is going to die and who will survive because of the shortage of medical supplies and medical personnel.” At the time I spoke to him — around 3 PM EST — he estimated the death toll at 1,600 in Eastern Ghouta alone. (These figures cannot be independently verified.) And exact casualties, he said, could not yet be determined. But of the total number of Syrians affected by the attacks, he claimed that his facility only treated about a quarter.

A major factor Dr. Ad’doumi attributed to the high patient rate is that many Syrians in Damascus kept their windows open all night and were exposed while they slept. My colleague James Miller, who has analyzed much of the evidence emerging from these attacks, told me that a source of his in Damascus believes that so many children were affected because Eastern Ghouta is routinely shelled. He said, “a lot of the kids go to basements when the explosions happen, often to sleep. But the gas was heavy, and stayed low to the ground, traveling right into the basements and trapping them there.”

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which reviewed satellite imagery of Eastern Ghouta, “the affected neighborhoods are predominantly residential with some warehouses, markets, and assorted commercial facilities on the periphery, adjacent to the main highways.”

HRW did not have any evidence to suggest that, whatever substance was used, this was the result of a conventional round accidentally striking a chemical or gas facility in the surrounding area. The New York-based NGO also spoke to one doctor working in the medical center at Arbeen who claimed that activists told him 18 missiles were fired “from the direction of the October War Panorama, a military museum in Damascus city, and of Mezzeh military airport, hit Zamalka, Ayn Tarma, Douma, and Moadamiya.”

The Syrian Support Group (SSG), a U.S.-licensed rebel aid provider, cited one very early report that preceded the HRW briefing that was relayed by Mohammed Salaheddine, a journalist with AlanTV and an eyewitness to the early-morning attacks. Salaheddine claimed that four rockets hit Eastern Ghouta, the first striking Zamalka, the second Ayn Tarma, the third Jobar, and the fourth Zamalka again. He said these were all Grad 122-mm rockets and came from the Damascus-Homs highway near the Baghdad Bridge (southern Damascus), and the other two came from Qabun (north of Jobar). (Note that the Baghdad Bridge is near the Nusariyeh chemical research facility, which the regime currently controls.)

These attacks appeared to have preceded a rapid buildup of conventional military forces around Easter Ghouta which, according to Salaheddine, included 30 tanks and “several thousand regime soldiers.” Non-chemical rocket attacks continued from the direction of Mezze Air Base in Moaddamiya, presumably launched by the Fourth Division. “Large explosions could be heard in the background during the call with Mohammad,” the SSG emailed.

Eastern Ghouta is a rebel-held area where the Free Syrian Army-affiliated units, as well as some Salafist-jihadist groups including al-Qaeda, have firmly established themselves to a degree few Syria watchers appreciate. The regime has thrown everything it has against this area, including chemical weapons, because it’s not only a strategic launchpad for further incursions into central Damascus, it is also home to one formidable rebel groups in the south:  Liwa al-Islam.

Last summer, this brigade was responsible for the assassination of several high-ranking members of Assad’s “crisis management cell,” including Bashar’s own brother-in-law and longtime Syrian security chief Assaf Shawkat. Any gains the regime may have made to flush out the rebels from Eastern Ghouta have been swiftly reversed. (One source told me a possible motive the regime may have had to strike so furiously today was that Saudi Arabian-purchased weapons, mainly anti-tank munitions, may have been recently delivered to FSA affiliates in this area. Rebels here have also raided regime stockpiles in recent days.)

Still, many will speculate as to why the regime would launch such a catastrophic chemical attack days after the arrival of a 13-man UN inspection team in Damascus tasked with investigating claims of prior chemical weapons uses. That team had to strenuously negotiate the remit of its mission and agree to only inspect three sites where the alleged attacks took places many months ago and where any soil or blood samples will have long since been degraded. It also agreed not to enter any area in Syria where regime military operations were underway. This of course would include Eastern Ghouta, and that inked stipulation may have been part of the regime’s logic in brazenly gassing so many within a few minutes drive from where the UN inspectors were being hosted. It appears unlikely in the extreme that they will gain access to any of Wednesday’s target sites.

The regime and its main European ally, Russia, also have not coordinated their responses to the latest accusation of war crimes. Damascus denies that any chemical agent was used. “These are lies that serve the propaganda of the terrorists,” one official said. “We would not use such weapons.” The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, first began by calling for a “professional” forensic investigation, then concluded that the rebels were responsible for a “premeditated provocation”. This made any UN Security Council consensus on reaching a resolution obviously impossible.

If these reports are confirmed, they will amount to the single deadliest deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in 1988. They will also undoubtedly embarrass whatever remains of the Obama administration’s policy on Syria. A year ago to the day, the president established his so-called “red line” against the Assad regime’s use or mass mobilization of chemical weapons. But since then, and as more evidence of such use (and such mobilization) has accrued and been corroborated by a host of Western and regional intelligence agencies, Washington’s position has been quietly “revised.” One unnamed U.S. intelligence official put it like this to Foreign Policy earlier in the week: “As long as they keep the body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything.”

Leaving aside what an official in even this White House might imaginatively characterize as the appropriate number of asphyxiated per day, it seems clear that a new benchmark has indeed been reached. The deaths of so many in so little time, whatever caused them, cannot have been faked.

“The White House is going to be hard pressed to construct an answer to this one,” Charles Duelfer, a former U.S. weapons inspector, told the Guardian. “It was easy to waffle a bit so long as alleged use was minor and didn’t happen again, but this is really putting the administration in a corner.”

I wish I shared Duelfer’s expectation of what it now takes to shame the United States into action in the Middle East. But perhaps the least that can be said of this latest dispatch from hell is that yesterday was not the best of all days for Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to write to Congress yet again reaffirming his boss’s opposition to military intervention in Syria.


Regime “chemical strikes” in preparation for Damascus offensive

Jobar smoke. (YouTube)

    The Bashar al-Assad regime conducted its reported chemical weapon strikes Wednesday on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in preparation for a military campaign on the embattled areas, an activist told NOW amid reports of heavy shelling outside the Syrian capital.


    “The regime was unable to get into [Damascus’] eastern Ghouta [areas] for ten months, so it resorted to using chemical weapons as an introduction to a surge in the area,” Mohammad Salaheddine—an activist media figure in the Damascus suburbs—told NOW hours after reports emerged that over 700 civilians had been killed in sarin gas strikes outside Damascus.


    As the death toll for the attacks continued to mount, heavy artillery and missile fire rained downed on the eastern suburbs of Damascus, with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television reporting that regime forces had begun a campaign outside the capital.


    The activist Shaam News Network said in the early afternoon that surface-to-surface missiles were striking the Jobar area of the Syrian capital, while Salaheddine warned that regime “convoys are mobilizing in Zabaltani and [Damascus’ nearby] Abbasid Square [area] to surround Jobar.”


    “Air Force Intelligence units are coming from Harasta to hit Zamalka and Ain Tarma and inner [areas of the eastern] Ghouta [suburbs],” the activist also said.


    However, Salaheddine added that “[regime] tanks have not been able to come into [rebel-held eastern Ghouta] yet. The Free Syrian Army destroyed one of them, and there are very strong clashes now.”


    “Now, Zamalka and Ain Tarma are almost completely empty. The residents have left to Ghouta proper, to Al-Basateen and other [areas]” in order to escape the affected areas, he also said.


    Meanwhile, an activist told NOW via Skype that regime forces were also pressing a military campaign in the Moadamiyeh area southwest of Damascus where he is based, but added that the outcome of the clashes remained unclear as heavy fighting continued to rage.


    Moadamiyeh had also reportedly been hit by chemical strike in the series of alleged pre-dawn regime chemical strikes, with the activist Local Coordination Committees saying over 76 civilians had died from exposure to poison gases in the area.


    According to the LCC, “over 755 martyrs fell due to poison gas [strikes] in the Ain Tarma and Zamalka areas [of the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus] as well as in Moadamiyeh.”


    The Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based organization that advocates for increased support for the Supreme Military Command of the FSA, told NOW that the women and children were sleeping when the attack occurred, and that most of the victims therefore suffocated to death.


    SSG also reported that the concentrated sarin gas was delivered to the suburbs via four Grad missiles.


    Saleheddine told NOW that the series of pre-dawn strikes in eastern Damascus occurred at 2:20 a.m. in the Jobar, Zamalka and Ain Tarma suburbs.


    Read this article in Arabic


    Bashar’s War

    For the Syrian regime’s faithful mouthpieces, victory is always around the corner.

    BY SAM HELLER | APRIL 23, 2013

    In the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet al-Fadl, according to the Syrian regime media, all is well.

    This is the sort of victory that defines the worldview of the Syrian regime media. Television, radio, and print outlets controlled by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad articulate a single vision of the war: that the Syrian Arab Army is waging an unrelenting campaign against terrorists led by Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al Qaeda, who are the vanguard of a “universal” conspiracy against the Syrian people. But Syria will prevail, state media contend, and its people will build a new, better country founded on dialogue and openness — an oasis of religious and ethnic tolerance.

    This is the war Assad chooses to show, and more importantly, it is the war as the regime’s supporters understand it. This narrative has been broadcast to the Syrian public for over two years now by the core of Syrian regime media: SANA; the newspapers al-Baath, Tishreen, and al-Thawra; the official Radio Damascus; the state’s satellite television network and its sister news network, al-Ikhbariya; and the technically privately owned but staunchly loyalist al-Watan daily and Addounia satellite TV network. And in this narrative, the Syrian regime is winning.

    The regime advances its understanding of the war most effectively through its daily battlefield reporting. These reports are nearly identical across all media, and they employ a set, limited vocabulary. The regime’s Syrian Arab Army is “our brave army” or “our brave armed forces.” The enemy consists of “terrorists” and “mercenaries,” and the Syrian military typically “destroys” their “nests,” “eliminates” them, and “leaves [them] dead and wounded.” Often, state media give names for the militants killed in combat, and in keeping with the media’s emphasis on foreign fighters among the rebels, their nationality is provided if they are not Syrian.

    The regime’s narrative robs the anti-Assad forces of any agency. The Syrian military is always “pursuing” or “targeting” terrorists, but it is never ambushed or attacked. The armed forces sometimes “clash with” or “repel” terrorists, but there are never regime casualties. The regime’s enemies only have initiative when they murder and rob civilians due to those civilians’ “rejection of the terrorists’ crimes and refusal to harbor them.” Terrorists’ actions are “desperate” or “attempts to raise [their] morale” after significant losses.

    The pro-regime media acknowledge no divisions among the opposition, painting the many factions as an undifferentiated bloc of militant fanatics. When coverage is more specific than simply “terrorists,” militants are most often identified as belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, though “the terrorist gangs belonging to the so-called ‘Free Army'” make occasional appearances. When Jabhat al-Nusra publicly pledged loyalty to al Qaeda on April 10, regime coverage was not nonplussed: The announcement was “nothing new,” reported regime television; it was only something “the external opposition and their supporters had insisted on denying for appearances’ sake” while secretly arming the group.

    The regime’s media outlets also supply a rationale for why these foreign terrorists have come to Syria. The West and its tame Arab allies, they say, have targeted Syria because it has championed the resistance against colonialist and Zionist plots to dominate the Middle East. In Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi’s words, the terrorists’ goal is to “break apart the countries of the Arab world, loot their resources, and destroy their social fabric.”

    Who are the chief conspirators in this plot? State newspaper al-Thawra identifies them as “Zio-American circles and oil and gas sheikhdoms in the Gulf” — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the NATO countries. The United States and Israel ultimately steer events, the media report, and U.S. President Barack Obama is “the maestro of the war.”

    The United States may publicly disavow terrorists like Jabhat al-Nusra, but according to al-Ikhbariya, Washington quietly pushes its minions in the region to fund and arm them. After all, America and its allies “created these terrorist organizations so that, like a mount, they might ride them into the region, divide its land, and tear apart its people.”

    The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are regularly described as “a’arab” — uncultured Bedouins, it is implied — of whom Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani comes in for the most vitriolic criticism. Syrian television regularly cuts to stock footage of the Qatari ruler when it refers to those who conspire against the Arab people. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the media report, “are blessed with peace and tranquility because they send death abroad and export terrorists.”

    The international media aren’t spared the regime’s criticism. Foreign media engender a sort of free-floating hostility; the state media accuse them of “beat[ing] the drums of terrorism in Syria.” But Al Jazeera, which is financed by Qatar, is singled out for having “long played a role in spilling the blood of Arab peoples.”

    Regime media also attack the Turkish government for openly supporting terrorists in Syria, implying that Ankara is motivated by imperial ambitions. The Turkish government is referred to as “neo-Ottomans,” while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly “dreams of restoring the sultanate of the ‘sick man [of Europe].'” The Turks are also accused on occasion of selling Syrian refugees’ organs before burning their dismembered bodies.

    The Syrian regime, which has long presented itself as “the beating heart of Arabism,” reacted to the Arab League’s recent decision to hand over its seat to the external opposition with contempt. The Baath daily called the Arab League’s March summit “the Summit of Shame.” The event, Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi explained, was “convened in Qatar under the control [of Qatar] and its money, which allowed it to hijack the league and do as it pleased.”

    The political opposition is covered as an afterthought in the regime media — as a front for the terrorist core of the insurgency. The aforementioned Baath report calls opposition leaders the “kumbars of global terror.” “Kumbars” means “film extras”; it doesn’t quite map onto English idiom, but the point should be clear.

    Of course, this array of enemies doesn’t necessarily mean that the Syrian regime portrays itself as confronting “global terror” alone. State media are quick to emphasize anything that runs counter to a narrative of Syria’s international isolation. This ranges from any official support — including statements from Russian and Iranian officials — to popular support, like a “mass” solidarity march in São Paulo or reports that “dozens of Yemeni youths” are ready to head to Syria to support the military. Foreign experts and media reports are also given prominent placement when they reinforce the regime narrative. Some foreign journalism is faithfully reported, but sometimes the source material is made more palatable for the regime narrative. An article on a King’s College London report on Europeans joining the rebels, for example, referred to the Europeans as “mercenaries” — a charge absent in the original study.

    The Syrian state also leans on support from religious leaders as a key source of legitimacy. It promotes calls by Pope Francis for a political solution to the crisis, for example, and highlights a mixed assemblage of Aleppo priests and imams who participated in the lead-up to the country’s national dialogue. While foreign media often emphasize the conflict’s sectarian dimension, the Syrian official media consistently stress what they portray as Syria’s relative religious harmony. Damascus is, in the words of Syria’s satellite station, “the Damascus of Arabism, the city of love, tolerance, and coexistence.” This ecumenical language reinforces the regular portrayal of the terrorist rebels as takfiri — extremists willing to murder the insufficiently pious.

    In contrast to the rebels’ alleged nihilism, regime media consistently advance what they describe as “the only way out of this crisis” — a political solution. Syrian media report daily on meetings held by the “ministerial committee tasked with the implementation of the political program to solve the Syrian crisis” — meetings to which the external opposition is invited, it is emphasized. The process is meant to strengthen respect for a plurality of opinion and ultimately build a “strong, new, united Syria.”

    But this regime-run process of dialogue seems, in practice, to amount to little more than a monologue. While the government and its interlocutors do reportedly engage on concrete issues — including security, housing, and municipal services — participants interviewed stress their total commitment to both Assad’s political program and the ongoing military campaign to purge the country of terrorists. This is a discussion in which participants may differ on the details, but the broad themes are fixed. As al-Ikhbariya puts it, its goal “is to bring everyone together for dialogue under the roof of the nation, with an emphasis on the need to combat alien takfiri thought and to root out the forces of terrorism.”

    The challenges of the moment aren’t necessarily papered over. Regime media acknowledge the economic hardships facing average Syrians but frame such difficulties in terms of their determination to persevere. “The terror of militant groups in Syria hasn’t been able to prevent the student, the employee, the laborer, and the simple shopkeeper from going about their lives and performing their duty for their nation,” SANA reports.

    Prime Minister Halqi, meanwhile, reassures the public: “The Syrian Arab Army is at its strongest and its best, and the Syrian people are behind the state. They believe in it, and their morale is high. If the feeling of concern is legitimate and natural, fear is not.”

    Such sentiments are intended to communicate confidence, but the Syrian regime’s messaging is, at best, primitive. In a conflict where new media — both pro- and anti-regime — have helped shape events on the ground, the traditional Syrian state media feel robotic and derivative. The print media coverage consists largely of rewritten SANA news releases, while Radio Damascus’s call-in shows — and their suspiciously articulate participants — sound like playacting. The one bright spot is Syria’s official television: If you can detach from the content of the coverage, the reports are frequently so acid and sarcastic that they’re hilarious. ((For subtitled translations of Syrian television reports, see here and here.)

    Average Syrians’ views, however, seem to get lost in the mix. State media produces man-on-the-street quotes and interviews, but only with proud citizens who express unflinching support for the regime. In a report about a school for martyrs’ children, for example, a war widow says, “I still have a girl and a boy, and I, all of us, would love to give our blood and our lives in the defense of our mother, Syria.” Now, this sentiment is real. A broad segment of Syrian opinion is committed to the regime’s vision for the country — or terrified enough by the opposition to side with the familiar. But when you see this in the Syrian media, are they showing that genuine commitment to Assad’s Syria — or a sort of facsimile thereof?

    Still, you can be forgiven for occasionally thinking that the regime media’s accounts offer a glimpse of something real — something that taps into the suffering of Syrians, for and against the regime, who are seeing their lives fall away from them. Reporting from Damascus’s Sabaa Bahrat Square after an April 9 car bomb, Addounia narrates that the area “once more polishes its veneer and restores a luster that says, ‘Syria is for us.'”

    As it shows people sweeping dust and debris from their storefronts, the television network assures its viewers: “Not one speck of Syria will ever fall under the control of monstrous takfiri terror or be at the command of bastards coming from the depths of ignorance and its garbage dumps, supported by the sellers of gas and slaves, traders in white flesh, and owners of red rooms.”

    And then the report cuts to locals estimating the cost of rebuilding their livelihoods — figures in the hundreds of thousands or millions of Syrian lira, a lifetime’s savings. And the Syrians just look tired.


    ENG SUB: (Graphic) Aleppo: First images after a missile hit a residential building


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