‘Assad or we burn the country’: Misreading sectarianism and the regime in Syria

Emile Hokayem writes: Prior to the uprising that ignited in Syria in 2011, whenever I discussed politics with my urbanite Syrian interlocutors, they would often tell me: “You, the Lebanese, you are violent, corrupt, sectarian, with no sense of a nation or a state.” (I also noted that Iraqis would endure similar lecturing). Frankly, they were largely right, but their real point lay somewhere else.

The smug implication, of course, was that Syria under the Assad regime was different: Contrary to the fractured polities of Lebanon and Iraq, it had achieved a superior sense of national belonging and purpose, a genuine supra-confessional identity. Sectarianism was not an issue, I was told. Syria was no democracy, to be sure, but Bashar Al-Assad had married a Sunni woman who wore stylish Western clothes, women could walk around unveiled, and alcohol was available (that’s a lifestyle liberalism of the kind that appeals to Western audiences but actually obscures more than it reveals). Many Sunnis populated the high spheres of business, politics, and the military, and minorities could worship at will as long as they remained loyal to the Assads. No wonder that this image of Syria, marketed ad nauseam, partially hid the country’s unraveling during the previous 15 years. While admitting it was not perfect, many of those who bemoan the Syria of yesterday cannot seem to find the link between this romanticized narrative and the current catastrophe.

In fact, in Syria, like in Lebanon and Iraq, all the ingredients for cataclysmic upheaval were already there. The explosion, crystallization, and weaponization of sectarian passions owe much to circumstances, local agency, political structure, and leadership choices.

War of the Rocks published two revisionist articles by an author writing under a pseudonym that brought back to mind all these conversations and many more since the uprising-cum-civil war engulfed Syria and civil war recurred in Iraq. Here, I respond to the author’s account of Syria. I am not qualified to discuss Iraq, so I will refrain from addressing this angle.

The author makes some important points. These include that fact that Sunni disfranchisement in Syria and Iraq is often exaggerated, that it alone does not explain and fuel the rise of Sunni extremism, that Salafism (and takfirism) pose a threat to diverse societies but also to Sunnis themselves, that viewing the Syrian conflict primarily through the Sunni-Shia prism is simplistic, and that Sunni identity is fluid. Fine and fair, though contrary to what the author boldly asserts, none of these findings are particularly new or even controversial.

The argumentation goes downhill from there. The piece sets out to prove that Washington has fallen victim to a wrong and purposely manipulative Gulf-fueled sectarian narrative about the Middle East. It argues that because of these sectarian narratives, Western states broke with and then supported the fight against Assad. [Continue reading…]


U.S. joins Turkish forces to launch push against ISIS in Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: Turkish and American military forces launched a major offensive in northwestern Syria against Islamic State militants early Wednesday as they try to sever the extremist group’s vital supply routes and deter Kurdish fighters from seizing a key border town, according to officials from both countries.

Turkish special forces, aided by American military advisers, U.S. drones and Turkish artillery units, moved into northern Syria before dawn as part of the coordinated campaign to push Islamic State out of a strategic town on the Euphrates River, officials said.

Turkish jets bombed Islamic State forces inside Syria, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, in what are believed to be the first airstrikes by Turkey inside Syria since November, when Turkish pilots shot down a Russian warplane that briefly strayed into Turkish airspace. Turkish tanks also moved into Syria as the offensive gathered momentum early Wednesday, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were massed at the border, poised to retake Jarabulus, one of Islamic State’s last remaining gateways used by the group to ferry reinforcements and supplies from Turkey into its de facto capital in Raqqa.

Turkish artillery units had been pounding Islamic State forces holding the Syrian town for two days as the military — shaken by last month’s thwarted coup attempt — looks to re-establish its role as a key player in the fight on its doorstep.

U.S. drones based at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey are carrying out surveillance missions over Jarabulus, and American special operations forces are working with Turkish military officers on the Turkish side of the border to plan the offensive, officials said. [Continue reading…]


UN relief official calls crisis in Aleppo the ‘apex of horror’

The New York Times reports: The top aid official at the United Nations gave a gloomy assessment of the Syria relief effort on Monday, saying no convoy deliveries had been made to besieged areas this month and that the suffering in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial epicenter, was the “apex of horror.”

In a briefing to the Security Council, the official, Stephen O’Brien, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said that while he welcomed Russia’s support last week for a 48-hour cease-fire in Aleppo — as he had proposed earlier in the month — there had been no assurances from other combatants.

“This cannot be a one-sided offer,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Plans are in place, but we need the agreement of all parties to let us do our job.”

United Nations officials have said that the fighting in Aleppo — pitting Syrian government forces and their Russian backers against an array of insurgents, including Islamist militants — has left 275,000 people in rebel-held eastern Aleppo completely cut off from food, water and medicine, and has severely limited aid deliveries to 1.5 million people in government-held western Aleppo. [Continue reading…]


Turkey’s migrant deal with Europe may collapse under post-coup attempt crackdown

The Washington Post reports: The landmark agreement that halted a torrent of migrants flowing from Turkey into Europe is nearing collapse in the wake of the failed Turkish coup and the subsequent nationwide crackdown.

Turkish and European leaders are threatening to abandon the deal — the Europeans because they say they are worried about widespread human rights abuses, the Turks because of European reluctance to fulfill a promise to drop visa restrictions for Turkish nationals.

Now, even as it detains tens of thousands of people in response to the coup attempt, Turkey has given the European Union an October deadline over the visa pledge — or it will walk away from its commitment to stem the flow.

An end to the agreement, which came after more than a million migrants and refugees entered in Europe in 2015, would mark another blow to the contentious relationship between the E.U. and Turkey, which is petitioning to join the bloc. It could also result in a fresh surge of asylum seekers traveling from Turkey, which would confront E.U. leaders with a new humanitarian and political dilemma after a relatively quiet spring and summer. [Continue reading…]


ISIS, losing fighters and territory, increasingly turns to child bombers

The Washington Post reports: The boy burst into tears as police apprehended him after he was spotted nervously pacing up and down a street in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. When they cut open the Barcelona soccer shirt he was wearing, they found a suicide belt.

He was just 15, according to local officials.

Footage broadcast Monday on Kurdish television stations showed the dramatic moments as security forces gingerly stripped him of his explosives-laden belt. Tragedy was averted Sunday evening, but numerous young bombers have carried out attacks in recent months, as the Islamic State militant group has enlisted children in suicide missions.

The same evening that police foiled the Kirkuk attack, a suicide bomber of about the same age struck outside a Shiite mosque in the city, killing six people, security forces said.

The devastating bombing at a wedding in southeastern Turkey that killed at least 50 people late Saturday was also initially thought to have been carried out by a child. [Continue reading…]


Iran rebukes Russia for showing ‘ungentlemanly’ attitude by publicizing use of air base for bombing Syria

The Associated Press reports: Russia has stopped using an Iranian air base for launching airstrikes on Syria for the time being, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday, just hours after the Iranian defense minister criticized Moscow for having “kind of show-off and ungentlemanly” attitude by publicizing their actions.

There was no immediate response from Moscow, which had used the Shahid Nojeh Air Base to refuel its bombers striking Syria at least three times last week.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters in Tehran that the Russian airstrikes on militants in Syria were “temporary, based on a Russian request.”

“It is finished, for now,” Ghasemi said, without elaborating. [Continue reading…]


More than a third of all casualties in Aleppo are now children

Robin Wright writes: Last month, four newborns in incubators fought for their lives in a small hospital in Aleppo, the besieged Syrian city. Then a bomb hit the hospital and cut off power — and oxygen to the incubators. The babies suffocated. In a joint letter to President Obama this month, fifteen doctors described the infants’ deaths: “Gasping for air, their lives ended before they had really begun.” The doctors are among the last few in the eastern part of Aleppo, the historic former commercial center where a hundred thousand children are now trapped.

“Young children are sometimes brought into our emergency rooms so badly injured that we have to prioritize those with better chances, or simply don’t have the equipment to help them,” the doctors wrote. Only a trickle of food is making it through a land blockade imposed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Whether we live or die seems to be dependent on the ebbs and flows of the battlefield,” the doctors said. “For five years, we have faced death from above” — bombs — “on a daily basis. But we now face death from all around.”

More than a third of all casualties in Aleppo are now kids, according to Save the Children. Among them is Omran Daqneesh, the toddler with the moppish Beatles haircut whose picture captivated the world this week. He was shown covered with blood and dust after being dug from the debris of a bombing in Syria on Thursday. Rescuers placed him, alone, on an orange seat in an ambulance. His stunned, dazed expression mirrored the trauma of a war-ravaged generation. (On Saturday, we learned that Omran’s older brother Ali, who was ten, had died from wounds sustained in the attack.)[Continue reading…]


Aleppo’s underground orphanage offers a haven for children bereaved by war

The Guardian reports: Two floors underground, Aleppo’s luckier orphans sleep as safely as anyone can in a city at war, though they are jolted awake regularly by bombs ripping apart the streets above them.

Watching over them are Asmar Halabi and his wife, who knows in intimate, painful detail the damage explosives can do, because she still carries injuries picked up in an airstrike on a school two years ago.

The suffering of the Syrian city’s children, who have lived through years of bombing, was thrust back into the headlines this week by a photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, bereft and bloodied in the back of an ambulance.

His parents were also pulled alive from the rubble of their home, and the family have since been reunited. But as Russian airstrikes and government barrel bombs tear apart rebel-held east Aleppo street by street, many children endure even greater shock and loss.

Halabi’s 50 charges at the Moumayazoun (Outstanding Guys) orphanage are some of the most vulnerable individuals left in the city. The orphanage moved below ground when relentless bombardment became too much for normal life to continue, and it now provides a subterranean haven.

The children range in age from two to 14. Their parents have been killed or become mentally ill, or have been snatched away in some other cruel fashion by a conflict now moving towards its sixth year. [Continue reading…]


Syrian government and Russia are accused of using napalm-like incendiary bombs

The New York Times reports: Syrian government aircraft hit the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Daraya with incendiary bombs for the third straight day on Wednesday, according to local council members, who said the weapons were packed with substances akin to napalm.

Incendiary bombs emit bright light that resembles fireworks and ignite persistent fires, heating to temperatures up to 10 times the boiling point of water.

Usually armed with thermite or phosphorus, which can cause horrific burns like those inflicted by napalm in American bombardments during the Vietnam War, the weapons are increasingly being used in attacks on rebel-held areas, especially in the contested northern city of Aleppo, according to Syrian opposition activists and human rights groups that are calling for an end to the practice.

And the Syrian government’s most powerful ally, Russia, may also be using the weapons in its own airstrikes, Human Rights Watch contends, citing footage from Russian state-run television that showed the bombs clearly labeled on an attack aircraft in Syria, and similar casings found at attack sites.

Incendiary weapons have been used at least 18 times in the past nine weeks, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued this week, mostly in and around Aleppo, as well as in Idlib Province. The group said that activists and residents had reported at least 40 other cases, but that it had confirmed only 18 through video footage and other evidence. [Continue reading…]


Continued inaction in the face of an abomination shaped by Assad, Iran, and Russia is exacting too high a price

Fred Hof writes: No one in the history of the Syrian conflict has counseled Mr. Obama to invade and occupy Syria, fighting Iranian forces in the process. Fifty-one conscience-stricken State Department officers recently pressed upon him a variation of what others, in and out of government, have urged him for years to do: use limited military means to exact a price for mass homicide in an effort to deter it. For years the president has said no. The consequences for Syrians, their neighbors, and European allies have been staggering, as a country that began the war with 23 million people gradually empties itself. And ISIS — the author of heinous atrocities abroad — is in large measure a consequence of Assad regime mass homicide unchecked by the civilized world.

Yet whenever presented with modest proposals for measured pushback, Mr. Obama and his communications mavens deploy an army of straw men to counterattack. They have exploited the understandable, if misguided reluctance of Americans to do anything at all of a military nature in the Middle East after the experience of Iraq.

ISIS — partly the result of Assad-induced state failure in Syria — is the exception. But Assad himself — a protégé and employee of Iran — has been spared entirely, even though a straight line runs from his practice of mass homicide in Syria to the ‘Brexit’ vote in the United Kingdom and the rise of Vladimir Putin lookalikes in the politics of the West. Iran is the key to understanding why the Obama administration immolated its own reputation in the 2013 ‘red line’ fiasco, and why it continues to look the other way while Assad and his enablers enjoy an unrestrained crime spree. [Continue reading…]


Fighting rages in Aleppo despite global anger at image of injured child

The Guardian reports: Fighting raged across the embattled city of Aleppo on Friday, a day after the harrowing image of a child rescued from the rubble of his house in an opposition-held district sparked global condemnation and outrage over the plight of civilians there.

The renewed violence continued despite assurances from Russia, the primary ally of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, that it was ready to observe 48-hour humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow aid to trickle into the besieged city.

Moscow said it could begin testing the pauses as early as next week as a “pilot project”.

“More precise date and time will be determined after receiving information about the readiness of the convoys from the UN representatives and receiving confirmation of the security guarantees of their safe travel from our American partners,” a Russian defence ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the Tass news agency.

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, proposed the idea of humanitarian pauses last week in an effort to allow aid into Aleppo, which is divided into two halves – an eastern portion controlled by the rebels and a western side held by the Assad government. [Continue reading…]


U.S. scrambled jets to protect its ‘advisers’ in Syria

AFP reports: The US-led coalition scrambled fighters to protect US advisers working with Kurdish forces after Syrian regime jets bombed the area, in the latest escalation of Syria’s bloody conflict, the Pentagon said.

The air strikes took place on Thursday, conducted by two Syrian SU-24 attack planes targeting Kurdish forces undergoing training with US special operations advisers around the northeastern city of Hasakeh, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.

The coalition scrambled its own jets to the area in a bid to intercept the Syrian jets, but the regime planes had left by the time they arrived. [Continue reading…]