At 15 I was tortured in Assad’s prisons. I escaped, but thousands still suffer

An anonymous Syrian torture victim writes: For the 10 months I spent as a detainee in the prisons of Bashar al-Assad, I only saw my family in my dreams. At night, the screams would stop for an hour or two, and I could close my eyes and remember what it was like to be human. When I slept, I would return to my life.

Today is the UN’s International Day for Support of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately in Syria, there is no shortage of victims of torture. Tens of thousands of us have been thrown in Assad’s prisons and tortured beyond what our bodies and minds can take. Many of us die there. Those of us who have survived will spend the rest of our lives being reminded of just how evil humanity is capable of being.

I was only 15 when I was arrested and subjected to months of physical and psychological torture.

I am lucky to have survived. There were times I wished for death. As happy as I am to return to life again, I am equally gripped by sadness and pain knowing more than 200,000 prisoners are still there. My freedom feels incomplete as long as my Syrian brothers and sisters suffer behind those high walls. I am a hostage of my memory.

Aleppo is my home. I was forced to leave there in 2013 to try to escape the barrel bombs and besiegement of the city by Assad and his allies. My mother, siblings and I fled to Lebanon. At the age of 14, I had to leave school and begin working to try to sustain our family. At the end of 2014, we were forced to return to Syria because we could not afford Lebanese residence and working permits.

On the way home, I was arrested by members of a political security branch in Damascus. They accused me of taking part in the peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the popular Syrian revolution against Assad.

This is a regime known for its oppression, its tyranny, and its corruption. But it is also a regime that stands against humanity. It is a regime that could arrest a 15-year-old, a kid, and subject him to months of torture and starvation and psychological trauma. And I am not by any means a unique story in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Contradictory U.S. policies upend a Syrian asylum seeker’s life

The New York Times reports: A prominent Syrian dissident has been told he cannot get political asylum in the United States because he organized a conference with Syrian opposition groups — even though the American government has supported members of those same groups in the Syrian civil war.

The case of the dissident, Radwan Ziadeh, 41, who lives in a suburb of Washington, reveals a stark gap between American immigration law and foreign policy.

Ever since counterterrorism provisions were expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States government has considered many armed opposition groups around the world, including some that it backs diplomatically or financially, to be “undesignated terrorist organizations.” Anyone who provides “material support” to those groups can be disqualified from receiving immigration papers.

Mr. Ziadeh is a prominent political opponent of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has received fellowships at Harvard, Georgetown and the United States Institute of Peace, which is funded by Congress. He has testified in Congress, written books and served briefly as a spokesman for the Syrian opposition umbrella group that the American government supported.

But early this month, Mr. Ziadeh was informed that he would be denied political asylum in the United States. In a 12-page letter laying out the government’s “intent to deny” his asylum claim, Citizenship and Immigration Services explained that he had provided “material support” to Syrian groups that the government considered undesignated terrorist organizations.

Mr. Ziadeh said he was shocked. He and his wife have lived in the United States for 10 years on a series of temporary permits, the latest of which expires next spring. Their children were born here.

“Right now, I can’t even plan for the future,” he said. “What will happen? I have three American kids. I love, actually, the U.S. I visited all 50 states, even U.S. territories. I visited all the presidential libraries.”

Going back to Syria is not an option. The government there has a warrant out for his arrest; the Islamic State has him on a list of Syrians it wants dead.

At issue, specifically, is that Mr. Ziadeh organized a series of conferences from November 2012 to May 2013 to discuss a democratic transition in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Rival groups vie for supremacy as fight against ISIS reaches tipping point

The Guardian reports: Iraqi forces have advanced to the base of the toppled minaret of Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, hours after it was destroyed by Islamic State militants, as the bitter eight-month battle to recapture the city reached a tipping point.

The destruction of the mosque marked a pivotal moment in the war against Isis, which declared its now withered caliphate from there three years ago. The terror group’s wanton act of sabotage was widely seen as a harbinger of its imminent defeat.

Across northern Iraq, only a portion of Mosul’s old city and a small adjoining neighbourhood remain under Isis control. The nearby towns of Tel Afar and Hweija, both of which are surrounded, make up the remainder of the group’s territory, a mere sliver of the lands over which it had lorded at the height of its power in mid-2014.

As its fortunes have turned, the group’s remaining members have fled Iraq for the deserts of Syria. So rapid has been their capitulation that plans are now being drafted for a decisive battle later this year, somewhere between the Syrian and Jordanian borders, areas far from those that Isis had coveted.

Lined up in pursuit are a range of players who had have staked claims throughout the fight with Isis, as well as parallel regional conflicts, and have waited for the time to consolidate. As the organisation crumbles, all sides have now started competing for an edge, who gets to define what emerges from the collapse of Isis is a prize bigger than winning the war itself. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. is destroying whole neighborhoods in Raqqa

The Daily Beast reports: The U.S.-led bombing and shelling of Raqqa, the city claimed by the so-called Islamic State as its capital in eastern Syria, is destroying entire neighborhoods but doing nothing for desperate residents and those trying to flee for their lives, according to a well-known human rights group that reports on the situation there.

The assault began June 6 with the U.S. declaring its goal as the annihilation of ISIS extremists there. As of Tuesday, the U.S.-led Coalition had carried out 262 airstrikes against the city, with that onslaught augmented by heavy artillery barrages.

“The people of the city describe the situation as Doomsday,” the group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, reported on its web blog. The organization sometimes known by its initials, RIBSS or RBSS, has won worldwide renown for surreptitiously gathering reports on the plight of the mostly Arab civilian population suffering under the rule of the self-proclaimed “Caliphate.” ISIS has responded by hunting down and murdering RIBSS members, and today the group operates under cover.

“The population are in a state of chaos and don’t know which neighborhoods to go to for better protection,” it said in the posting one week ago. “Hundreds of shells and bombs fall on the city arbitrarily every day,” and heavy machine fire “reaches most of the neighborhoods” in the ISIS-held parts of the city. [Continue reading…]

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France’s Macron says sees no legitimate successor to Syria’s Assad

Reuters reports: President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he saw no legitimate successor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and France no longer considered his departure a pre-condition to resolving the six-year-old conflict.

He said Assad was an enemy of the Syrian people, but not of France and that Paris’ priority was fighting terrorist groups and ensuring Syria did not become a failed state.

His comments were in stark contrast to those of the previous French administration and echo Moscow’s stance that there is no viable alternative to Assad.

“The new perspective that I have had on this subject is that I have not stated that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a pre-condition for everything because nobody has shown me a legitimate successor,” Macron said in an interview with eight European newspapers.

“My lines are clear: Firstly, a complete fight against all the terrorist groups. They are our enemies,” he said, adding attacks that killed 230 people in France had come from the region. “We need everybody’s cooperation, especially Russia, to eradicate them.” [Continue reading…]

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Forced displacement worldwide at its highest in decades

UNHCR reports: War, violence and persecution have uprooted more men, women and children around the world than at any time in the seven-decade history of UNHCR according to a report published today.

The UN Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends study found that 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016 – a total bigger than the population of the United Kingdom and about 300,000 more than last year.

It noted that the pace at which people are becoming displaced remains very high. On average, 20 people were driven from their homes every minute last year, or one every three seconds – less than the time it takes to read this sentence. [Continue reading…]

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The growing U.S.-Iran proxy fight in Syria

Mohamad Bazzi writes: On Sunday evening, a U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian jet after it bombed American-backed rebels in northern Syria. This marked the first time the United States has downed a Syrian warplane since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that the United States had shot down an Iranian-made drone in the country’s southeast, where American personnel have been training anti-Islamic State fighters.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has struck the Syrian regime or its allies at least five times, in most cases to protect U.S.-backed rebels and their American advisers. Even if the Pentagon may not want to directly engage Syrian forces or their Russian and Iranian-backed allies, there’s a danger of accidental escalation, especially as various forces continue to converge on eastern and southern Syria to reclaim strategic territory from ISIS. Russia, for its part, angrily condemned the U.S. action and threatened on Monday to treat all coalition planes in Syria as potential targets.

But the dangers are perhaps particularly acute when it comes to Iran, which made dramatic battlefield moves of its own on Sunday, when it launched several missiles from inside Iran against ISIS targets in eastern Syria. Officially, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the volley of missiles fired at Deir Ezzor province was a response to a pair of attacks by ISIS in Tehran on June 7, which killed 18 people and wounded dozens; the attacks marked the first time that ISIS had struck inside Iran. But the Iranian regime had several less-dramatic means to exact revenge against ISIS targets in Syria—after all, there’s no shortage of Iranian allies operating in the war-ravaged country.

Instead, Iran’s fiery act of vengeance seemed to be a message aimed at both the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia. (The six ballistic missiles used by Tehran against ISIS, with a range of 700 kilometers, could reach major Saudi cities.) The kingdom has become emboldened regionally and escalated its anti-Iran rhetoric thanks, in part, to Trump’s message of seemingly unconditional support. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: An American F-15E fighter jet shot down an Iranian-made armed drone over southeast Syria on Tuesday that was flying toward American-backed Syrian fighters and their advisers, Pentagon officials said.

The episode was a fresh indication that the air war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the American military is likely to continue, and perhaps even escalate, even as the United States has sought to keep its focus on defeating the Islamic State militants operating in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Syria troops position themselves at heart of war on ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Syrian government troops and their allies have steadily positioned themselves in key areas on the flanks of the U.S.-led coalition battle for the Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

They are attempting to become an indispensable player in uprooting the extremists from Syria entirely.

That presents a major challenge for the coalition, which so far has shunned any cooperation with President Bashar Assad and has partnered instead with local Kurdish-led forces.

As the U.S. has intensified its fight against IS in Syria, Assad and his trusted allies of Russia and Iran are increasingly asserting themselves. A Syrian military offensive has unfolded on several fronts, coupled with Russian airstrikes and a show of force by Iran, which fired ballistic missiles on an IS stronghold this week and pushed militias that it sponsors deeper into the battlefield.

Damascus and its allies have long argued that they are the essential partner to any international effort in Syria, portraying all opposition forces as terrorist groups.

A close look at the map shows that pro-Assad troops have placed themselves in key locations in the anti-IS battle, while staying close to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who lead the ground offensive. The Syrian government forces and their allies have placed themselves south of Raqqa and on the outskirts of Deir el-Zour, the IS militants’ last refuge.

While government troops may be far from in control of that area and are unlikely to go after the city of Raqqa, Syria expert Sam Heller of the Century Foundation said the forces “have done enough to insert themselves that they’re now a fact on the ground.” [Continue reading…]

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Russia warns U.S. after downing of Syrian warplane

The New York Times reports: Russia on Monday condemned the American military’s downing of a Syrian warplane, suspending the use of a military hotline that Washington and Moscow have used to avoid collisions in Syrian airspace and threatening to target aircraft flown by the United States and its allies over Syria.

The moves were the most recent example of an intensifying clash of words and interests between the two powers, which support different sides in Syria’s civil war.

The Russian military has halted cooperation in the past — notably after President Trump ordered the launch of missiles against a Syrian air base in April — and it was not clear whether the latest action would be lasting.

Its announcement came in response to an American F/A-18 jet’s shooting down a Syrian government warplane south of the town of Tabqah on Sunday, after the Syrian aircraft dropped bombs near local ground forces supported by the United States. It was the first time the American military had downed a Syrian plane since the civil war began in the country in 2011.

The Russian Defense Ministry called American attacks against the Syrian forces “military aggression” and announced that it would suspend cooperation with the United States intended to prevent airborne accidents over Syria. [Continue reading…]

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A U.S. aircraft has shot down a Syrian government jet over northern Syria, Pentagon says

The Washington Post reports: A U.S. strike aircraft shot down a Syrian government fighter jet shortly after it bombed U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in North Syria, the Pentagon said in a statement Sunday.

The Pentagon said the shoot-down came hours after Syrian government-backed forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the village of Ja’Din. As the attack unfolded, the U.S. military used a deconfliction channel to communicate with the Syrian government to stop the skirmish, according to the Pentagon statement.

U.S.-led jets stopped the fighting by flying close to the ground and at low-speed in what is called a “show of force,” the Pentagon said.

Roughly two hours later, despite the called-for stand down and the U.S. presence overhead, a Syrian Su-22 jet attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces, dropping an unknown number of munitions on the U.S.-backed force. A U.S. F/A-18 promptly shot the Syrian aircraft down “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition partnered forces,” the Pentagon statement said. [Continue reading…]

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Money stolen by Russian mob linked to man sanctioned for supporting Syria’s chemical weapons program

Michael Weiss writes: An investment group that U.S. authorities say is run by Russian mobsters and linked to the Russian government sent at least $900,000 to a company owned by a businessman tied to Syria’s chemical weapons program, according to financial documents obtained by CNN.

According to a contract and bank records from late 2007 and early 2008, a company tied to a state-backed Russian mafia group, according to U.S. officials, agreed to pay more than $3 million to a company called Balec Trading Ventures, Ltd — supposedly for high-end “furniture.”

Wire transaction records seen by CNN confirm that at least $900,000 was transferred.

Both businesses are registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The company allegedly tied to Russian mafia was called Quartell Trading Ltd., and the U.S. Department of Justice claims it is one of the many vehicles into which millions of dollars of stolen Russian taxpayer money was laundered a decade ago in connection with the so-called “Magnitsky affair,” perhaps the most notorious corruption case in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. [Continue reading…]

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White House officials want to expand war in Syria by pushing U.S. troops to confront Iranian-backed forces

Foreign Policy reports: A pair of top White House officials is pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there, according to two sources familiar with the debate inside the Donald Trump administration.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said.

The situation in southern Syria has escalated in recent weeks, after a U.S. warplane shot down an Iranian-made drone that had attacked U.S. forces on patrol with Syrian allies near an American outpost at al-Tanf. The drone attack came after two U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which had moved too close to the Americans’ garrison.

Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders, and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said. Such a clash could trigger retaliation against U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters and deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guard officers.

Mattis, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Brett McGurk, the U.S. diplomat overseeing the anti-Islamic State coalition, all favor keeping the focus on pushing the Islamic State out of its remaining strongholds, including the southern Syrian city of Raqqa, officials said. “That’s the strategy they’ve signed off on and that’s where the effort is,” said one defense official.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The Pentagon has publicly asserted it has no intention to fight forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, unless provoked.

“The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces but remains ready to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the de-confliction zone,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a June 6 statement.

It’s not the first time Mattis and Dunford have found themselves having to push back against White House proposals for aggressive action they consider ill-conceived and even reckless. Earlier, the two opposed a tentative idea that would have sent a large U.S. ground force into Syria to oust the Islamic State instead of relying on local Syrian Kurd and Arab fighters backed by U.S. commandos. [Continue reading…]

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France’s new president won’t be shy about using military power

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes: Macron has given many more signals that he intends to be a hawkish commander-in-chief, and one that will act first and seek alliances later. Alongside trade, the first item on the agenda of his first bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was strengthened defense and nuclear cooperation, a move that reflects France’s strategic ambitions in the Pacific (where it has a significant presence through its overseas territories) rather than its NATO or EU commitments.

But the most telling sign came in a little-noticed moment during his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their first meeting. Asked about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Macron responded, “there is a very clear red line on our side,” a blatant dig at Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce that red line. What’s more, he added, “any use of chemical weapons will be met with reprisals and a counterstrike, at least from the French.”

The message wasn’t just intended for Moscow and Damascus, but for Washington, Brussels and Berlin as well: France will act when it must, alone if it must. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East’s dictatorships produce nothing but endless conflict and brutal repression

Iyad el-Baghdadi and Maryam Nayeb Yazdi write: Like Europe in 1914, the Middle East stands precariously at the edge of conflict. The history of the dictatorship-plagued region has shown that there is no such thing as a short and decisive war. The Yemeni and Syrian conflicts adequately demonstrate that, though both conflicts have been more or less geographically contained. If the current posturing transforms into an open regional war, the conflict will be neither brief nor conclusive. And the explosion of instability in the heart of the world’s most energy-rich region will send global economies into shock, create more opportunities for terrorists, necessitate further foreign interventions, spark new waves of refugees, and make the entire world less safe, less stable, and less prosperous.

The origins of the current round of chaos can be found in former President Barack Obama’s decision to disengage the United States from the Middle East — just as the region was undergoing a wave of pro-democracy mass protests. In the power vacuum created by the U.S. disengagement, various players saw both the space and the necessity to pursue their own independent, competing agendas — and in the ensuing melee, the voices of the Middle East’s people were brutally suppressed.

Obama’s push for a deal with Iran’s regime threw further confusion into the mix — leading to more destruction in Syria and ultimately opening the door to an overwhelming and brutal Russian intervention. Furthermore, to balance American alliances, Obama supported the Saudi leadership’s war on Yemen, adding more fuel to an already burning region.

Despite this, it is wrong to assume that Obama’s policies were the root cause of this mess. If anything, the U.S. decision to no longer police the region only exposed a deep-seated instability that has always existed. What we are witnessing is the consequence of a regional order dominated by dictatorships, coupled with outside powers’ reliance on an expired foreign-policy paradigm that focuses on short-term gain rather than long-term stability. It is time to realize that partnering with dictatorships for the sake of stability and security is unsustainable, myopic, and potentially disastrous. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s newest flashpoint is bringing U.S. and Iran face to face

The Wall Street Journal reports: Southern Syria, once the quietest corner of the country’s multisided conflict, has unexpectedly become the most volatile flashpoint between America and Iran as the two countries vie for control.

The U.S. military has moved mobile artillery-rocket launchers into southern Syria for the first time, as American troops in the area face increasing dangers from Iran-backed forces. Iran’s best-known military commander, meanwhile, was photographed praying with allied fighters in Syria, a visit seen by some U.S. officials as a public taunt by Tehran. Worried that the situation may spiral out of control, top U.S. military commanders are pressing Moscow to step in.

“This is rapidly developing, it’s not settled at all and I don’t even know that there’s a good direction determined yet,” one U.S. official said. “Everybody’s trying to figure out what to do here. It’s in nobody’s interest for us to get into an active fight with these pro-regime forces.”

For years, the U.S. military has focused its firepower in Syria on defeating Islamic State and largely avoided direct confrontations with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Iranian allies. But the risks of a combustive confrontation in southern Syria have unexpectedly increased as the U.S. has ramped up its operations against Islamic State.

The jostling is partly driven by a view among some U.S. officials that the vast desert could become a staging ground for Mr. Trump’s nascent efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, including Tehran’s efforts to establish firm control over weapons supply routes running through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon.

Elite U.S. special operations forces have stepped up training and brought in more firepower to a small garrison known as al Tanf, near a key border crossing with Iraq. About 150 U.S. special operations forces are rotating in-and-out of the training base, U.S. officials said. In Syria’s north, more than 750 U.S. Marines and soldiers are using helicopters, artillery and airstrikes to help Syrian fighters push Islamic State from Raqqa, the extremist group’s largest remaining stronghold in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Senate overwhelmingly votes to curtail Trump’s power to ease Russia sanctions

The Washington Post reports: The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to allow Congress to block any efforts by the president to scale back sanctions against Russia, and to strengthen those sanctions in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and its actions in Syria.

The vote of 97 to 2 is a sharp rebuke to President Trump’s posture on Russia and his resistance to the intelligence community’s assessment that the country was behind efforts to influence the election he won.

The two senators who voted against the measure were Republicans Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah).

Trump has repeatedly and openly doubted the intelligence community’s finding that Russia meddled in the presidential election. While his administration has not ordered a rollback of any existing sanctions, lawmakers have been concerned about his conciliatory, and at times even forgiving, rhetoric about Russia, as well as recent moves to give Moscow back control over two diplomatic compounds that the Obama administration reclaimed in late December. [Continue reading…]

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