Archives for October 2012

Netanyahu: Israeli strike on Iran nuclear plants will only serve to calm Mideast

Haaretz reports: An Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t destabilize the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview to a French magazine on Tuesday, adding, moreover, that such a move would only serve to restore security in the region.

“Five minutes after [an attack], contrary to what the skeptics say, I think a feeling of relief will spread across the region,” Netanyahu told Paris Match, adding: “Iran isn’t popular in the Arab world, far from it. Some governments in the region, as well as their citizens, have understood that a nuclear-armed Iran would be dangerous for them, not just for Israel.”

The premier’s interview, one to which he gave much importance, was geared at influencing public opinion in France ahead of his visit to the country on Wednesday.


Iran taps diplomat to field U.S. non-official contacts

Laura Rozen writes: In a sign of Iranian interest in streamlining back channel contacts and reducing mixed messages ahead of anticipated, resumed nuclear negotiations next month, Iran was said to appoint a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government Americans, two Iran nuclear experts told Al-Monitor this week.

Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), which has close ties to Iran’s foreign ministry, was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise, the analysts told Al-Monitor in interviews this week. The IPIS channel is for coordinating non-official US contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each others’ policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

“I was told … that Iran had appointed one person to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans,” specifically for former officials and non-governmental experts, Fitzpatrick continued. “And Iran wants to structure that so that Iran is speaking from one voice.” [Continue reading…]


Chris Christie, Democratic hero

Steve Kornacki writes: That Chris Christie is providing a serious political assist to President Obama less than a week before the election is indisputable. The question is why he’s doing it.

Christie, who was the keynote speaker at the Republican convention and has been one of Mitt Romney’s top campaign surrogates, will survey the post-Sandy wreckage in New Jersey with the president today. This comes after Christie went out of his way to praise Obama at the height of the storm and after Christie angrily shot down a Fox News host’s query about whether Romney might tour New Jersey with him too.

“I have a job to do,” he said. “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”

Needless to say, this is all music to the ears of Democrats. Christie is one of the most prominent Republicans in the country, and one of the better-liked ones too. This is exactly the sort of cross-partisan boost that candidates dream of receiving in a race’s final days, especially a race as close as this one. So what’s Christie up to?

The simplest explanation is that this is just Christie being Christie. [Continue reading…]


Pro-Assad page claims Syria and Iran engineered Hurricane Sandy

The Washington Post reports: Among the many global reactions to Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the U.S. East Coast, this one might be the most amusing. Syrian Army News, a pro-regime Facebook page, announced that anti-Western “resistance” forces working under President Bashar al-Assad and under the Iranian government secretly engineered the natural disaster using “highly advanced technology.” It describes the hurricane as a punishment for threatening Assad’s Syria.

Here’s the English translation:

Sources confirm that hurricane Sandy, now buffeting the U.S., was carried out by highly advanced technology developed by the heroic Iranian regime, in coordination with our resistant regime. These sources have also confirmed that experts from Syria have contributed in carrying out this work. This is the consequence of attacking Assad’s Syria and threatening its security.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports: Iranian rescuers and aid workers are on standby to fly to New York City to provide assistance to those affected by Hurricane Sandy, the head of Iran’s Red Crescent Organization said on Wednesday.

“We are ready to help the flood-stricken people of America,” Mahmud Mozaffar, who leads the organization, told the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

His men stand ready to board planes and fly to the United States to help out, assuming the American government accepts Iran’s offer, he said.

“If American authorities agree, we can send our rescuers with equipment and tools to American cities in the shortest period of time,” Mr. Mozaffar said.

Dealing regularly with floods and earthquakes, Iran’s Red Crescent Organization is experienced in providing immediate assistance following disasters.


Libya defence minister says army chief has ‘no control’ over Bani Walid

The Libya Herald reports: The head of the Libyan armed forces, General Yousef Mangoush, has no control over Bani Walid and civilians are being prevented from returning home by vigilante “gunmen”, Defence Minister Osama Juwaili has said.

In a scathing broadside, almost certain to be his last as defence minister ahead of Prime Minister-elect Ali Zidan’s expected announcement of a new government later today, Juwaili said the hilltop town was near-deserted as a result of the fighting and that the small number of people who remain are living in terrible conditions.

“The chief of staff has no control over the town and therefore armed men are able to prevent families from coming back”, the minister was quoted as saying by AFP, following a televised speech on Monday.

“The town is completely empty except for a small number of people who are living in tragic conditions; there is no activity; the impact of shelling is visible everywhere”.

He went on to describe soldiers controlling the checkpoint leading into the town as “gunmen”.

In his first public statement on Bani Walid, Juwaili claimed that as many as 40,000 people had been displaced by the conflict out of a town reckoned to be home to some 80,000 residents. As at 22 October, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that some 25,000 people had fled into the Urban area, to the northwest of Bani Walid, alone. The Libya Herald saw little sign of life on the morning of 25 October during a visit.

The remarks are deeply at odds with the statement made last Friday by army spokesman Ali Al-Sheikhi, who said that refugees were being allowed to return to the town and that no reports of any “violations” against them had been received. He added that should any such incidents take place, then an immediate investigation into them would be launched. [Continue reading…]


Video: ‘We have a planetary emergency’ — NASA’s James Hansen addressing union leaders

School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University: The world’s most well-known climate scientist, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute, addressed 75 union leaders and allies at a global trade union roundtable in New York City this month.

Entitled “Energy Emergency, Energy Transition,” the event was convened by ILR’s Global Labor Institute (GLI), part of the new Worker Institute at Cornell. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York City office partnered with GLI in organizing the Oct. 10-12 event.

“The truth is, we have a planetary emergency,” Hansen said. Union representatives from 18 countries listened in silence as Hansen described what is happening to the earth’s climate, ice sheets, oceans and weather patterns.

“The volume of Arctic sea ice has been reduced by 75 percent in just 30 years. Greenland’s ice sheet is losing mass at about 300 cubic kilometers per year. Sea levels are going up, and there is a danger that the ice sheets will begin to collapse and we could get several meters (of rising sea levels) in one year – which would be disastrous,” Hansen said.

“The frequency of extreme weather events is changing because the planet is getting warmer. It was exceedingly hot this past summer, and the frequency and area covered by these events are both increasing.”

“We have only burned a small fraction of the fossil fuels, but we can not burn all of them. And yet the governments are going right ahead, encouraging even more use of fossil fuels through mountain top removal, tar sands, tar shale, drilling in the Arctic. We can’t do that if we want to be fair to our children.”

Solutions for the climate problem and for our children’s futures are really going to depend on workers understanding the situation, he said.

“It’s hard to communicate with people if they feel their job is threatened, but the jobs associated with clean energy technologies would be good jobs. Workers will get much better opportunities. We need to have cooperation and understanding between labor and environmental organizations and people who are concerned about the future of their children.”

In an interview following the presentation, Hansen said, “Unions are an important force globally. They represent hundreds of millions of workers and their families. The thought of having them joining in the effort to bring about an energy revolution to fight climate change is very exciting. Stabilizing the climate is a battle for survival that needs everyone involved.”

More information about the roundtable, including participants, presentations and trade union statements on climate change and energy, is available at


New York City: For years, warnings that it would happen here

The New York Times reports: The warnings came, again and again.

For nearly a decade, scientists have told city and state officials that New York faces certain peril: rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns. The alarm bells grew louder after Tropical Storm Irene last year, when the city shut down its subway system and water rushed into the Rockaways and Lower Manhattan.

On Tuesday, as New Yorkers woke up to submerged neighborhoods and water-soaked electrical equipment, officials took their first tentative steps toward considering major infrastructure changes that could protect the city’s fragile shores and eight million residents from repeated disastrous damage.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state should consider a levee system or storm surge barriers and face up to the inadequacy of the existing protections.

“The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level,” Mr. Cuomo said during a radio interview. “As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills — the subway system, the foundations for buildings,” and the World Trade Center site.

The Cuomo administration plans talks with city and federal officials about how to proceed. The task could be daunting, given fiscal realities: storm surge barriers, the huge sea gates that some scientists say would be the best protection against floods, could cost as much as $10 billion.

But many experts say, given what happened with the latest storm, that inertia could be more expensive.

After rising roughly an inch per decade in the last century, coastal waters in New York are expected to climb as fast as six inches per decade, or two feet by midcentury, according to a city-appointed scientific panel. That much more water means the city’s flood risk zones could expand in size.

“Look, the city is extremely vulnerable to damaging storm surges just for its geography, and climate change is increasing that risk,” said Ben Strauss, director of the sea level rise program at the research group Climate Central in Princeton, N.J. “Three of the top 10 highest floods at the Battery since 1900 happened in the last two and a half years. If that’s not a wake-up call to take this seriously, I don’t know what is.” [Continue reading…]


Video: U.S. 2012 climate dialogue runs aground


The creation of a U.S.-approved Syrian government in exile

Is American diplomacy an oxymoron?

The Syrian opposition has been notoriously fractured, so the goal of forging unity among what have hitherto been disparate groups clearly makes sense. What makes no sense but should be no surprise is Washington’s typical heavy-handedness in trying to achieve this goal.

An upcoming Qatar meeting “will include dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria, including from the provincial revolutionary councils, the local ‘coordination committees’ of activists, and select people from the newly established local administrative councils.” So far so good. But then comes this message from a senior Obama administration official:

“We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you’re going to do this now,” the official said. “We aren’t going to waste anymore time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now.”

Stand to attention and follow our instructions because America is running out of patience.

Is that the kind of admonition that’s going to smooth out all the discord? I don’t think so. What it is, is the imperial American way.
Foreign Policy‘s blog, The Cable, reports: Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.

The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.

During the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama’s Syria policy as a failure to show “leadership” in laying the groundwork for the post-Assad era and called for “a form of council that can take the lead in Syria.”

In fact, over the last several months, according to U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures, the State Department has worked to broaden its contacts inside the country, meeting with military commanders and representatives of local governance councils in a bid to bypass the fractious SNC.

Many in the SNC are accordingly frustrated with the level of support they’ve gotten in Washington. “The Obama administration is trying to systematically undermine the SNC. It’s very unfortunate,” one SNC leader said told The Cable.

But U.S. officials are equally frustrated with an SNC they say has failed to attract broad support, particularly from the Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The new council is an attempt to change that dynamic. Dozens of Syrian leaders will meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Nov. 3 and hope to announce the new council as the legitimate representative of all the major Syrian opposition factions on Nov. 7, one day after the U.S. presidential election.

The Obama administration sees the new council as a potential interim government that could negotiate with both the international community and – down the line – perhaps also the Syrian regime. The SNC will have a minority stake in the new body, but some opposition leaders are still skeptical that the effort will succeed.


Video: An MI5 whistle-blower’s story


A trip through hell: Daily life in Islamist northern Mali

Paul Hyacinthe Mben reports for Der Spiegel: Gao, a city of 100,000 people, has become a lifeless place since the Islamists took over. It was once a stopping point for tourists traveling to Timbuktu, but now the roadside stands have disappeared, bars and restaurants are boarded up and music is banned. The new strongmen proclaim their creed on signs posted at street corners, written in white Arabic lettering on a black background, that read: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”

To make matters worse, garbage collection has been suspended, leaving waste to rot in the streets at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 400,000 people have already fled the Islamists. Most who have left represent the better-educated parts of the work force, like the engineers who kept the power plant and waterworks in operation. Foreign aid organizations are gone, as are government officials who were in the process of implementing a new road construction program.

“Gao is a dead city,” says Allassane Amadou Touré, a mechanic, as he drinks tea in the shade. He is unemployed, like many in the city, and says that Gao’s economic output has “declined by 85 percent” since the spring.

The Islamic police have become the city’s biggest employers. Ironically, their headquarters are on Washington Street in downtown Gao. From there, the armed police officers, most of them young men who are little more than children, are sent out into the neighborhoods to drum into residents what is considered “haram” and “halal,” or pure.

Grisly Punishments

Until recently, the Sharia courts’ sentences were also carried out on Washington Street, but now the Islamic police have become more cautious. Since an angry crowd managed to rescue people who had been convicted of crimes from the executioner, hands and feet are now being severed in secret.

The Sharia court uses a former military base outside the city to carry out its grisly punishments. One of its victims is Alhassane Boncana Maiga, who was found guilty of stealing cattle. Four guards drag Maiga, wearing a white robe, into a dark room and tie him to a chair, leaving only one hand free. A doctor gives the victim an injection for the pain.

Then Omar Ben Saïd, the senior executioner, pulls a knife out of its sheath. “In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” he calls out, takes the convicted man’s hand and begins to slice into it, as blood squirts out. It becomes more difficult when Saïd reaches the bone, and it’s a full three minutes before the hand drops into a bucket. The executioner reaches for his mobile phone, calls his superior and says: “The man has been punished.”

Maiga had kept his eyes shut the entire time, not even screaming. The men lead him into another room, where his arm is bandaged, and after 15 minutes he is released and stumbles into the street. “I’m innocent,” he says. “What am I supposed to do now? I can’t work anymore.”

A few days later, Maiga is dead, probably as a result of blood loss or an infection. [Continue reading…]


Music: Esbjörn Svensson Trio — ‘Eighty-Eight Days In My Veins’

For more music see individual artists A-F, G-K, L-S, T-Z, and the complete playlist.


Twelve terrifying tales from the nuclear crypt

Jeffrey Lewis writes: October is a scary month. And it’s not just Halloween. October also happens to be the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if the ghosts and goblins don’t make you wet your pants, the thought of Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro dancing on the edge of nuclear war should.

During the Cold War, the United States twice more raised the alert status of its nuclear forces — in October 1969 and October 1973. And one of the worst reactor accidents at a military program — the fire at Britain’s Windscale reactor — also happened in October.

You might start to think there is something particularly dangerous about October. But the reality is that there have been so many accidents, false alarms, and other mishaps involving nuclear weapons that you haven’t heard about — and every month contains at least one seriously scary incident. The Department of Defense has released narrative summaries for 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980, many of which involve aircraft bearing bombs. False alarms? Please. The Department of Defense admitted 1,152 “moderately serious” false alarms between 1977 and 1984 — roughly three a week. (I love the phrase “moderately serious.” I wonder how many “seriously serious” false alarms they had?) I kind of get the feeling that if NORAD went more than a week without a serious false alarm, they would start to wonder if the computers were ok.

The hard part was choosing the most frightening moments. There is no reason to believe the apocryphal story about the British Army choosing red uniforms because they do not show blood. But after 60-odd years of nuclear accidents, incidents, and whatnot, I can recommend that the STRATCOM commander consider brown pants.

So, here’s my list of 12 seriously scary events, one for each month. This list is not comprehensive, nor is it intended to be the worst events. [Continue reading…]


Get ready for 10 more years of drones

Micah Zenko writes: Nov. 3 marks the tenth anniversary of America’s Third War — the campaign of targeted killings in non-battlefield settings that has been a defining feature of post-9/11 American military policy as much as the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unlike other wars, there won’t be any ceremonies at the White House or Pentagon, parades down Main Streets, or town square rallies to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the countless civilian and military personnel involved. There won’t even be a presidential statement since targeted killings cannot and will not be recognized by the U.S. government. The war is conducted by both the CIA — covert and totally unacknowledged — and by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — described without any specificity as “direct action” by the White House. Whether the CIA or JSOC is the lead executive agency, the Third War is marked by the limited transparency and accountability of U.S. officials.

The Third War, which began with a drone strike in Yemen, had two simple goals: preventing another attack on the U.S. homeland and capturing or killing those al Qaeda operatives responsible. Bush administration officials warned ominously that its forward-leaning counterterrorism approach mandated preventive attacks against terrorist safe havens. Five days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney stated that the United States would have to work “the dark side,” and an anonymous senior official declared: “The gloves are off. The president has given the [CIA] the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.”

On September 17, 2001, President Bush signed a memorandum of notification that authorized the CIA to kill, without further presidential approval, “two or three dozen” high-value targets. A former CIA official estimated: “There are five hundred guys out there you have to kill. There’s no way to sugarcoat it — you just have to kill them.” (In a quaint historical footnote, on October 15, 2001, the Bush administration rebuked Israel for killing the suspected plotter of a Tel Aviv terror attack: “It’s the same position that we’ve said over and over again, and that is that we oppose the policy of targeted killings.”) [Continue reading…]


Gaza: A way out?

Nicolas Pelham writes: This week’s arrival in Gaza of the Emir of Qatar and his entourage of fifty Mercedes revived the frenetic pace of activity in the coastal enclave, which has been uncommonly quiet in recent months. On his day-trip spent laying foundation stones for cities, hospitals, and schools all bearing his name, the Emir, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, came pledging gifts of $400 million in reconstruction, and promised to end the political and economic isolation Gaza has endured since the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas took power six years ago.

For Hamas leaders the trip, the first by a head of state since the siege on Gaza began, heralds their latest attempt to escape political pariahdom, after their hopes of deliverance by the new Muslim Brotherhood–led Egypt ran aground this summer. On August 5, sixteen Egyptian soldiers were gunned down by militants just across Gaza’s borders from Egypt; Egypt suspected the killers had crossed over from Gaza. Fearing the ire of its powerful neighbor, Hamas temporarily barred access to the border, including the vast tunnel complex connecting Gaza with Egypt that serves as Gaza’s economic lifeline. The trucks that cart thousands of tons of raw materials and fuel every day lay silent, and a few of the Gazan government officials and 9,000 tunnel workers who had bothered to make an appearance sat on stools disconsolately counting the lost revenue, which they estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.

The tunnels symbolize Hamas’s paradox: on the one hand, they have enabled Palestine’s main Islamist movement to thrive amid an external siege, and despite a Western boycott to take their place amongst the Islamist parties that have gained or strengthened their hold on power in many parts of the Middle East. Thanks to Gaza’s supply lines to Egypt, its GDP outpaced by a factor of five that of Hamas’s Western-funded rival, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. Further propelling Gaza’s economy, Arab governments across the region, like Qatar’s, have been shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money from the PA to Hamas, signaling what may be a historic shift in Palestinian politics.

Yet the tunnels are also a reminder of just how much of a clandestine underground authority Hamas still is, and how fragile the territory’s recovery may be. Gaza continues to rely on smuggling for even basic goods, and the underground trade can be turned on and off as easily as a tap. The current restrictions, if they continue, could have devastating effects not only on the economy, but on Hamas’s own longevity. “We can’t keep ourselves imprisoned much longer,” a Hamas commander tells me as he and his patrol slouch bootless on mattresses under a makeshift tent erected between the tunnel mouths. [Continue reading…]


Climate change and climate silence: ‘I’m surprised it didn’t come up in one of the debates’

‘I’m surprised it didn’t come up in one of the debates,’ said many Americans in response to the fact that President Obama and Mitt Romney didn’t have a single word to say about climate change.

But Obama claims he was surprised too — the quotation above actually comes from him.

Surprised that it got left out of the talking points he had to memorize?

84% of Democrats regard global warming as a serious issue and yet Obama didn’t use any of many easy opportunities to weave this into the debates, even though it has been discussed in every presidential debate for over three decades. Not only has climate change been largely left out of both Obama and Romney’s campaigns but each candidate has championed the accelerated development of fossil fuels.

In presidential politics, it’s not that the issue of climate change has failed to be advanced — it is not even being addressed as seriously as it was 24 years ago!

As David Roberts noted: The questioner doesn’t mamby-pamby around with he-said she-said, he states flatly that “most scientists” agree and that future generations are at risk.

And neither candidate bothers with dissembling or dodging. Both acknowledge the problem and promise to address it.

In 1988! In the ensuing 24 years, U.S. politics has moved backward on this issue.

There’s lots being written these days about “climate silence.” There’s a grassroots protest underway. Coral Davenport has a piece on it at National Journal. Mike Grunwald touches on it at Time. Eugene Robinson has editorialized on it at The Washington Post. Tom Zeller Jr. has covered it, and so have ClimateWire and the L.A. Times. But by far the smartest take I’ve seen yet is from the only person in the cable news universe who takes this issue seriously, Chris Hayes:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


Superstorm Sandy estimated to cause $20 billion or more in damage in U.S.

Time reports: Even before Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the East Coast of the U.S., economists were predicting that the historic storm would cause billions of dollars in damage across more than a dozen states where planes were grounded, stock exchanges were closed, public transportation was halted and homes began to get pounded by devastating wind and torrential rain.

By Monday, disaster-modeling company Eqecat estimated that Sandy would cause $5 billion to $10 billion in insured losses and $10 billion to $20 billion in economic damages. (In 2008, Hurricane Ike had similar economic damages at $20 billion.) Others have estimated as much as $100 billion in damages. The real cost is probably somewhere in the middle. For example, Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, is estimating up to $45 billion in losses by comparing Sandy with Hurricane Irene when it hit the Northeast in 2011.

The initial estimates last year for Irene were around $7 billion, but it eventually caused about $10 billion to $15 billion worth of damage. Morici says he’s predicting a similar increase from the estimate to the actual damages for Sandy considering the size of the storm, the number of Americans who will be affected (estimated around 60 million) and the possibility that metropolitan areas like New York City and Washington, D.C., could essentially be shut down for several days. [Continue reading…]


Residents of Syria’s capital stare into the abyss

John Pedro Schwartz writes: If you go to Damascus and ask a taxi driver to take you to the suburb of Harasta, you will not find it. Nor will you find Jobar. You will not find al-Hajar al-Aswad, either. Nor Qaddam. You will find half of Douma, three quarters of Daraya. Zamalka you will not find.

What you will find in place of these villages in the Damascus countryside, which the Syrian army reclaimed from the rebels in August and September, is the rubble of war. Rows of four- and five- and six-story buildings razed to their foundations. Symmetrical heaps of broken masonry, neatly setting off the original real estate lots — and then whole oceans of stone, with jagged waves. Electricity poles shattered at the trunk like felled trees, their tangle of wires branching in the dirt. Cars flattened as at the junk yard. Buses riddled with bullets. Apartment buildings with their fronts sheared off, so that you get an axial view of the floors, furniture and tenants gone missing.

The Damascus outskirts are not entirely unpeopled, however. I’m in the cab with Khalid, driving from Douma, the half-destroyed district northeast of the capital city, south along the smooth, deserted Hafez al-Assad highway. “Jobar,” Khalid points left across the highway to hulks of buildings heavily shelled yet erect amid the ruins. “We cannot go in. If we go in, they will kill us.”


“Both sides, the jaysh al-suri and the jaysh al-hur,” the Syrian government army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of anti-government fighters and army defectors. “They are in there” — I peer down the narrow, empty streets as we drive slowly past — “but they fight at night.”

Night-fighting goes on among the alleyways and rooftops and oblique angles of Zamalka and Ain Terma, too. But not in Jaramana, a town southeast of Damascus that appears entirely unscathed, where people fill the streets and merchants hawk their wares. Even the drabness remains undisturbed. The only sign that something is rotten is the garbage that remains uncollected by the curbs. “Why no damages?” I ask.

“They support Assad.”

“Why do they support Assad and their neighbors don’t?”

Bee-khafuu,” They are scared. That they are mostly Christian and Druze might also have something to do with it. The Assads are Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, and the minorities have largely stuck together, fearful of a takeover by the Sunni majority.

Returning north, we see a white-haired man trudging across the grassless median. He tells us he is going home. Where is home? “Zamalka.” How are you? “Mneeh,” fine. How is everything? “Kil shee mneeh,” everything is fine. Are they any problems? “Maa fee mashakil,” there are no problems. We say our goodbyes.

Kil shee mneeh,” Khalid repeats, as we drive off. He points to one of Zamalka’s leveled buildings, lifts his hands, palms to the ground, and brings them down. “Bee-khaf,” He is afraid.

He has good reason to be afraid. Within minutes, we see a security officer leading a man in handcuffs across the highway. The officer turns to us with the snarl of a carnivore who has caught his prey. The detained has the look of one upon whom the reason why his wrists are hurting is slowly dawning. “Harasta,” Khalid points to the ghost town — once the scene of thousands-strong protests — on the right. “Jaysh,” he looks out the window at the army quarters on our left. A giant billboard image of President Bashar al-Assad looms over the sandbagged gate.

Passing a row of flattened structures, Khalid says, “kanabil foraghieh.” He sucks in and brings his palms together. “Suction bombs?” He nods his head. It is difficult to verify the claim, and I know of no reports that make the allegation. But implosive or explosive, the weapons — including aerial and artillery fire — have done their job well.

Khalid is young, short, dark, bearded, Sunni, illiterate, and fearless. “B-khaaf aleik,” I am afraid for you, he tells me.

Do you support Assad? “No.” Why not? “He killed 10 of my friends.” Do you know the rebels? “They are my friends.” Before the war started, did you like Assad? “Yes. Very much.” Why did you change? “He killed my friends.” Why don’t you join the rebels? “Maa bhebb el asliha,” I don’t like weapons. What kind of government do you want? “Muslim.” [Continue reading…]