Exodus and betrayal: How a Syrian Nakba was created

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David Hearst writes: US Secretary of State John Kerry came close to revealing his true thoughts when he was accosted by two Syrian aid workers at a reception in London after the collapse of the Geneva talks last week.

The Syrians accused him of doing nothing to protect civilians from the onslaught they are facing in Aleppo. Kerry replied: “Don’t blame me – go and blame your opposition,” laying the fault for the government’s offensive on the opposition walking out of the talks.

Kerry got flustered in the encounter: “What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?” the aid worker said Kerry told her. Kerry then anticipated three months of bombing during which time “the opposition will be decimated”.

Kerry’s off-mic encounter deviated significantly from the official line which was that Russia and Iran had offered Washington a ceasefire. Kerry’s remarks differed also from the State Department mantra that the brutality of Assad against the Syrian people had helped foster the growth of the Islamic State group. Apparently now, Syrians who resisted Assad’s brutality were responsible for the barrel bombs being dropped on them.

After multiple avowals that Assad’s army was on the point of collapse and the ill-fated CIA training programmes, Syrian rebels are being sold down the river by the country that urged them to rise up five years ago.

The Deraa protests started peacefully. To that everyone attests. Four factors turned those protests into an armed uprising: the brutality of the regime’s response, Assad’s decision to release Jihadis from Sednaya Prison, an act which “Islamised” the opposition, the Libyan intervention, and the intervention of foreign powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The scenes today on the Turkish border are a direct consequence of Obama’s “intervention-lite” in Syria – a drip feed of weapons – but only 16 bullets per fighter per month. The Free Syrian Army has reportedly stopped receiving weapons for four months. In Libya, Obama boasted he was leading from behind. In Syria he is now wringing his hands from behind. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. credibility is plummeting among Syrians and across the region

Josh Rogin writes: In the eyes of the Syrian opposition, Russia and Iran are making a mockery of the peace process, and Kerry’s reluctance to acknowledge this is putting them in deadly harm. It also creates more problems for America’s regional allies, aids the Islamic State and dims the prospects for future peace talks. “The failures of the negotiations end up lowering the credibility of the moderate opposition in front of the Syrian people,” said [Riyad] Hijab. [Hijab is leader of the High Negotiating Committee that represented the Syrian opposition at last week’s meetings in Geneva.] “United States credibility is plummeting within the population of Syria but also in the region as a whole.”

This week, it is Syrians near Aleppo who are paying the price. Regime forces, with Russian support, are advancing toward the Turkish border, threatening to cut off opposition groups and civilians from their source of aid. At least 35,000 people have joined the flood of refugees since the collapse of the talks, ahead of what many anticipate will be another in a long line of starvation sieges the regime is perpetrating on cities. Hijab said there are now 18 cities under siege, three more than when the talks began.

Moscow wants the peace talks to fail, Hijab said. He accused the Russian air force of using illegal cluster bombs indiscriminately against civilians. (Human rights groups support those claims.) “The situation has taken a horrible turn, specifically in terms of the scorched earth policy of the Russian aircraft and the way that they are bombing, literally destroying everything,” he said. “The other side has been moving to ensure the failure of any negotiation through horrendous bombardment.”

Hajib said the Obama administration is still pressuring the opposition to return to talks despite the ongoing offensive, but the opposition is insisting that Russia adhere by the UN resolutions first. In a press conference with reporters last week, Kerry said of the Syrian-Russian attacks on civilians, “It’s not going to stop just by whining about it.” He called on rebel leaders to return to the negotiating table. [Continue reading…]

While listening to U.S. State Department spokesmen John Kirby at yesterday’s press briefing, one might not have accused him of whining, but instead adopting President Obama’s standard position: a baseless confidence that whoever can make the most reasonable argument will win the day — as though politics conforms to the rules of a debating society.

Kerry and Obama must be very perplexed about how unreasonable it is that Russia regards bombing as more useful than diplomacy. But what is actually very unreasonable is the notion that anyone would be fooled by Washington’s toothless efforts at peacemaking.

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Syria: Putin policy has become Obama policy because the U.S. has offered no serious alternative

Roger Cohen writes: the Obama administration still pays lip service to the notion that Assad is part of the problem and not the solution, and that if the Syrian leader may survive through some political transition period he cannot remain beyond that. But these are words. It is President Vladimir Putin and Russia who are “making the weather” in Syria absent any corresponding commitment or articulable policy from President Obama.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is now virtually encircled by the Syrian Army. A war that has already produced a quarter of a million dead, more than 4.5 million refugees, some 6.5 million internally displaced, and the destabilization of Europe through a massive influx of terrorized people, is about to see further abominations as Aleppo agonizes.

Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria. It is already the Munich.

By which I mean that the city’s plight today, its exposure to Putin’s whims and a revived Assad’s pitiless designs, is a result of the fecklessness and purposelessness over almost five years of the Obama administration. The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests; that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others; that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy; that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome; that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power; that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century; that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world; and that the only imperative, whatever the scale of the suffering or the complete evisceration of American credibility, must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.

Where such feeble evasions masquerading as strategy lead is to United States policy becoming Putin’s policy in Syria, to awkward acquiescence to Moscow’s end game, and to embarrassed shrugs encapsulating the wish that — perhaps, somehow, with a little luck — Putin may crush ISIS. [Continue reading…]

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Kerry ‘blames opposition’ for continued Syria bombing

Middle East Eye reports: US Secretary of State John Kerry told Syrian aid workers, hours after the Geneva peace talks fell apart, that the country should expect another three months of bombing that would “decimate” the opposition.

During a conversation on the sidelines of this week’s Syria donor conference in London, sources say Kerry blamed the Syrian opposition for leaving the talks and paving the way for a joint offensive by the Syrian government and Russia on Aleppo.

“‘He said, ‘Don’t blame me – go and blame your opposition,’” one of the aid workers, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her organisation, told Middle East Eye.

Kerry told reporters on Friday, as tens of thousands fled the Syrian government and Russian bombardment of Aleppo, that both Russia and Iran, another of Syria’s allies, have told him that they are prepared for a ceasefire in Syria.

He said he would know “whether or not these parties are serious” after a meeting of the International Syria Support Group – 17 nations including the US and Russia – scheduled to be held in Munich next week.

But Kerry left the aid workers with the distinct impression that the US is abandoning efforts to support rebel fighters. [Continue reading…]

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Marwan Bishara: Is America at war with Islam?

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Under the watchful Western eyes, Syria unravels

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Hisham Melhem writes: Once again tens of thousands of Syrians are being uprooted and forced to flee their ancestral lands around the ancient city of Aleppo by the incessant assaults waged against them by the government that claims to represent them in Damascus. The country roads leading to the Turkish borders are being traversed by haggard people carrying with them remnants of shattered lives, dragging little children shivering in February’s cold, wandering under the last skies of Syria, and wondering if they will ever return.

Syria’s northern skies have been given by the Assad regime to Russia’s prowling bombers which have been spewing deadly fires and cluster bombs indiscriminately against areas controlled by the opposition groups. The ground has been given to marauding fighters from neighboring Lebanon and Iraq and from as far away as Afghanistan and other Central Asian states, in what can only be called a new “Shiite Internationale”, to help a minority regime bereft of the manpower needed to retake and subdue the rebellious country.

Those in the West, particularly in the United States, who may have allowed themselves to entertain the scandalous notion that things could not get worse in Syria, should be forced to see the blank and numb faces of people on the move who are already beyond pain and hope, to realize the folly of their wishful thinking. Syria’s new tragic chapter is unfolding under watchful but impotent Western eyes.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has a deep and almost mystical belief in the power of diplomacy to settle violent disputes, a belief based on the naïve assumption that his peers are as rational and as well-meaning like him, found himself doing what he does best with Russia; pleading for cooperation, and reminding Russians of their obligation to enforce the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 that they co-sponsored to provide a roadmap to a political agreement.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was truly earnest when he borrowed one of Kerry’s retorts, reminding the Russians that their “military strategy inside of Syria undermines the goals of their political strategy”. If only those obtuse Russians would listen to us explaining to them how best to reconcile their seemingly contradictory goals. The naiveté of this political position is matched only by the immense self-deception the Obama administration shared with many Syria “hands” in academe claiming that there is no ‘military’ solution to the civil war in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s disastrous betrayal of the Syrian rebels

Emile Hokayem writes: What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower.

Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival.

Fast-forward a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.

In parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the new rules of the game. Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.

Inside Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s lofty plans on gun violence amount to little action

The New York Times reports: The centerpiece of a plan for stemming gun violence that President Obama announced to great fanfare last month largely amounts to this: an updated web page and 10,000 pamphlets that federal agents plan to give out at gun shows.

In a tearful display of anger and sadness in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama ordered a series of steps intended to limit gun violence and vowed to clamp down on what he called widespread evasion of a federal law requiring gun dealers to obtain licenses.

But few concrete actions have been put in motion by law enforcement agencies to aggressively carry out the gun dealer initiative, despite the lofty expectations that Mr. Obama and top aides set.

Obama administration officials said they have no specific plans to boost investigations, arrests or prosecutions of gun sellers who do not comply with the law. No task forces have been assembled. No agents or prosecutors have been specifically reassigned to such cases. And no funding has been reallocated to accelerate gun sale- investigations in Washington or at the offices of the 93 United States attorneys. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. confirms involvement in Syria airfield expansion

VOA reports: At the urging of an American contingent, Syrian Kurds are expanding an airbase on farmland in northeast Syria that could be used for military purposes, according to Kurdish and U.S. officials.

Known as Abu Hajar airport, the airbase is located in the Rmelan area of northern Syria, and is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Defense Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Neither has an air force.

A team of Americans pitched the idea to Syrian Democratic Forces to extend the runway, a defense official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

The official Wednesday said the airfield is being extended from 700 meters to 1,300 meters.

The extension would be long enough to allow C-130 transport planes to land on the strip and potentially supply those fighting Islamic State forces in the area. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. struggling to build anti-ISIS strategy in Libya

The Associated Press reports: The Obama administration is struggling to find the right mix of military and diplomatic moves to stop the Islamic State in Libya, where the extremist group has taken advantage of the political chaos in the country to gain a foothold with worrying implications for the U.S. and Europe — particularly Italy, just 300 miles away.

U.S. officials have publicly warned of the risks of Libya becoming the next Syria, where the Islamic State flourished amid civil war and spread into Iraq.

No large-scale U.S. military action is contemplated in Libya, senior administration officials said, but Obama last week directed his national security team to bolster counterterrorism efforts there while also pursuing diplomatic possibilities for solving Libya’s political crisis and forming a government of national unity. While the Islamic State has emerged in other places, including Afghanistan, Libya is seen as its key focus outside of Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Diplomats say the U.S. has handed over Syria to the Russians for free

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Following the suspension of UN-led peace talks, Lina Sinjab reports: Teams of diplomats representing countries supporting the opposition are pushing behind the scenes in Geneva for concessions from all parties involved in the war.

But almost everyone, whether diplomats or the opposition, says it is the US which is key to success – by using its leverage on Russia.

Russia is the only world power involved in the Syrian conflict with a military base in the country – therefore it could bring exert significant pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad to stop the violence.

But there is a limit to what the US is prepared to do.

A senior US Department of State official told me: “We are not ready to go to World War Three to solve this.”

The US, however, is spending billions of dollars in the battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), which controls large parts of Syria.

Many Syrians feel the selective involvement of the US is hypocritical.

The US official was adamant that Secretary of State John Kerry wants to end the violence, and is determined to succeed.

But everyone here thinks the opposite. Almost at every corner, you hear the same thought: The US has handed over Syria to the Russians for free. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. and allied support for Syrian opposition is dwindling

The New York Times reports: Four Syrian rebel commanders huddled in a knot, all broad shoulders and shiny gray suits, surveying the hotel lounge. Gigantic portraits of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix gazed down at the carpet, a checkerboard of faux zebra-hide in squares of orange and magenta. On a low sofa, a couple snuggled to the sounds of Amy Winehouse.

The fighters decamped to a smokers’ enclosure behind a plate-glass window, its back wall a trompe-l’oeil image of electric-blue waves that made it seem as though they were submerged in a fish tank. It was an effect that fit their mood. They were in Geneva, notionally at least, for peace talks, but back in Syria, the government and its Russian allies were battering insurgents with scores of airstrikes. With their men under fire, the commanders were asking themselves how much longer they could credibly stay.

“Maybe a day,” one, Maj. Hassan Ibrahim, said on Monday night.

By Wednesday, the talks were indeed suspended, as the intense fighting on the ground proved there was as little to talk about as ever.

In an interview earlier, under the watchful eye of an adviser from Saudi Arabia, Major Ibrahim had dutifully projected strength and determination. But when the Saudi man walked away, the Syrian, who had defected from the government army in 2011, leaned forward and confided that the fighters he led in southern Syria were struggling. Supplies of weapons and salaries from the United States and its allies are dwindling. Moving in and out of Jordan is getting harder.

“They are doing it to put pressure on us to accept a political process,” he said, one in which he doubted that the Syrian government — or Russia, a sponsor of the talks — would make any compromise.

Major Ibrahim was reflecting a growing foreboding among the opposition’s fighters and civilians, mirrored by growing hope on the government side, that Washington, interested only in bombing the Islamic State militant group, is ceding the field to Russia and leaving the opposition on its own. [Continue reading…]

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After four months, Russia’s campaign in Syria is proving successful for Moscow

The Washington Post reports: Four months after launching airstrikes in Syria, the Kremlin is confident that Moscow’s largest overseas campaign since the end of the Soviet Union is paying off.

Under the banner of fighting international terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has reversed the fortunes of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which were rapidly losing ground last year to moderate and Islamist rebel forces in the country’s five-year-old crisis. Government forces are now on the offensive, and last week, they scored their most significant victory yet, seizing the strategic town of Sheikh Miskeen from rebels who are backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

According to analysts and officials here, the Russian government believes it has won those dividends at a relatively low cost to the country’s budget, with minimal loss of soldiers’ lives and with largely supportive public opinion.

“The operation is considered here to be quite successful,” said Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired lieutenant general and senior vice president of the Russian Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. It could probably continue for one year or longer, he said, “but it will depend on the success on the ground.”

Whether the benefits of Russia’s gambit to put soldiers on the ground in Syria will continue long term remains to be seen. President Obama warned last year that Russia was entering a “quagmire” reminiscent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and it is unclear when Moscow could declare victory and whether it has an exit strategy.

But as Assad’s forces push forward and as diplomatic talks in Geneva broke off in recriminations Wednesday after just two days, there is little pressure right now on the Kremlin to pull back. [Continue reading…]

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President Obama’s remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore on February 3

President Obama said: This is a moment when, as Americans, we have to truly listen to each other and learn from each other. And I believe it has to begin with a common understanding of some basic facts. And I express these facts, although they’d be obvious to many of the people in this place, because, unfortunately, it’s not facts that are communicated on a regular basis through our media.

So let’s start with this fact: For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace. And the very word itself, Islam, comes from salam — peace. The standard greeting is as-salamu alaykum — peace be upon you. And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity. Whoever wants to enter paradise, the Prophet Muhammad taught, “let him treat people the way he would love to be treated.” (Applause.) For Christians like myself, I’m assuming that sounds familiar. (Laughter.)

The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are as diverse as humanity itself. They are Arabs and Africans. They’re from Latin America to Southeast Asia; Brazilians, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Indonesians. They are white and brown and black. There’s a large African American Muslim community. That diversity is represented here today. A 14-year-old boy in Texas who’s Muslim spoke for many when he wrote to me and said, “We just want to live in peace.”

Here’s another fact: Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)

Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: For Mr. Obama, the remarks were also an admission of how little progress has been made since the speech in Cairo [in 2009], where he called for “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.” In his speech on Wednesday, he suggested that his hopes for a reconciliation had been dashed, but he called on all Americans to stick by the country’s founding ideals.

Muslims in the audience hailed the address.

“I think it was one of the best speeches he’s ever given,” said Representative André Carson, an Indiana Democrat. Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said the speech “hit me in the heart” and was a vital antidote to growing intolerance.

“I have a 19-year-old daughter who is a Muslim and wants to contribute to her nation, and it bugs me that someone who says he wants to be president would want to exclude her,” Mr. Ellison said.

But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the country’s oldest and largest pro-Israel organizations, denounced Mr. Obama for visiting a mosque whose leaders, Mr. Klein said, have among other issues criticized Israeli military actions. “Going to such a mosque only encourages radical Muslims to harm Americans,” Mr. Klein said. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s military momentum

TSG IntelBrief: On February 2, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air support, continued a major push to cut rebel supply lines north of Aleppo. On top of recent successes against the rebels elsewhere, it appears that President Assad is determined to maintain military momentum even while peace talks stutter along in Geneva. In fact, given the opposition demand for a ceasefire against civilians—as called for by Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) adopted in mid-December—Assad’s actions appear calculated to bring the peace talks to a halt.

This is understandable for Assad, but unfortunate for Syria. Opposition groups have come a long way towards agreeing to a common position since the last attempt to hold talks in early 2014, and their representatives are far more likely to be able to implement an agreement now. The previous talks suffered from a disconnect between the political opposition around the table and the fighters on the ground, as well as from disagreements surrounding objectives. Efforts by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—aided by the United States—have brought the majority of rebel groups together as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). And although the alliance is fragile—and the extent to which it also represents Ahrar al-Sham, a key element of the opposition, remains unclear—the HNC has more credibility than any opposition alliance that has emerged previously.

The so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) are expressly excluded from the HNC, as they are from the peace talks. Ahrar al-Sham, though a deeply conservative Islamist group that was originally seen as a sister organization to JaN, has steadily distanced itself from the global aspirations of al-Qaeda towards a strictly nationalist platform with no stated ambition beyond Syria. This has created divisions among its supporters and led to the assassinations of its leaders, but the group has nonetheless survived as a major force. JaN has tried repeatedly to merge with Ahrar al-Sham before it drifts too far away, but recent talks collapsed when JaN agreed to change its name, but not to abandon its affiliation to al-Qaeda. Tensions between the two groups have risen as a result and have led to armed clashes. JaN now faces an impending split as pressure builds to relax its hard line. [Continue reading…]

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