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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UN fears for hundreds of thousands if Syria troops encircle Aleppo

Reuters reports: Hundreds of thousands of civilians could be cut off from food if Syrian government forces encircle rebel-held parts of Aleppo, the United Nations said on Tuesday, warning of a massive new flight of refugees from a Russian-backed assault.

Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, have launched a major offensive in the countryside around Aleppo, which has been divided between government and rebel control for years.

The assault to surround Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city with 2 million people, amounts to one of the most important shifts of momentum in the five year civil war that has killed 250,000 people and already driven 11 million from their homes. [Continue reading…]

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In Madaya residents still face starvation as the only clinic loses its only doctor

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Vice News reports: After three years under siege, mass starvation, and relentless airstrikes, the people of Madaya didn’t think it could get much worse. Then their only doctor disappeared in the middle of the night.

In the besieged Syrian town, which made international headlines in January when photos of its starving residents spread around the world, the only medical care facility, slightly euphemistically called the field hospital, is now run by two dentists, an agricultural engineer and a vet. Sources told VICE News that an anaesthesiology nurse known as Doctor Khaled, who ran the clinic until mid-January, had to pay a smuggler thousands of dollars to get out of the town when he heard a hit man had been hired to kill him for talking to the media.

The tiny clinic lies in one room of a basement, moved there after staff were driven out of the main hospital by shelling. Inside there’s an operating table, a stand for IV drips and some basic medication — mainly boxes of glucose solution. For the 90 patients who seek treatment there every day, mostly for malnutrition or influenza, there are few options for treatment. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: Assad regime kills so many detainees it amounts to ‘extermination’ of civilian population, UN says

The Independent reports: The Assad regime is killing so many detainees in Syria that it now amounts to the crime against humanity of “extermination”, a UN report has found.

In a document published by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, investigators found the Syrian government responsible for “massive and systematised violence”.

The crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime, according to the UN, far outnumber those of Isis militants and other jihadist groups. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s Erdogan reported to have threatened to flood Europe with migrants

Reuters reports: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened in November to flood Europe with migrants if European Union leaders did not offer him a better deal to help manage the Middle East refugee crisis, a Greek news website said on Monday.

Publishing what it said were minutes of a tense meeting last November, the euro2day.gr financial news website revealed deep mutual irritation and distrust in talks between Erdogan and the EU’s two top officials, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk.

The EU officials were trying to enlist Ankara’s help in stemming an influx of Syrian refugees and migrants into Europe. Over a million arrived last year, most crossing the narrow sea gap between Turkey and islands belonging to EU member Greece.

Tusk’s European Council and Juncker’s European Commission declined to confirm or deny the authenticity of the document, and Erdogan’s office in Ankara had no immediate comment.

The account of the meeting, in English, was produced in facsimile on the website. It does not state when or where the meeting took place, but it appears to have been on Nov. 16 in Antalya, Turkey, where the three met after a G20 summit there. [Continue reading…]

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Putin, Assad, and the nexus of torture and terror

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Last October, Patrick Cockburn welcomed the arrival of Russian forces in Syria, suggesting that the “intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war”. He wrote:

Overall, it is better to have Russia fully involved in Syria than on the sidelines so it has the opportunity to help regain control over a situation that long ago spun out of control. It can keep Assad in power in Damascus, but the power to do so means that it can also modify his behaviour and force movement towards reducing violence, local ceasefires and sharing power regionally.

Posturing as a neutral observer, Cockburn no doubt preferred the language of “de-escalation” rather than military solutions, yet having noted that “Russia is at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions,” he could hardly have been surprised by the massive onslaught on Aleppo over the last few days.

After Obama’s hollow demands for Assad’s departure, Washington has now moved towards what almost amounts to a quiet alliance with the regime by shutting down what was left of a meager weapons supply to rebel groups.

As Emile Hokayem writes:

Just as Russia escalates politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S. oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant.

The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups.

Assad is far from being able to declare he has won the war, but he is close to winning the argument about how it gets framed.

He always claimed that he was fighting terrorism — deploying the rhetorical gift which neoconservatism freely bestowed on authoritarian rulers around the globe after 9/11 — and before long, it looks like this is how the war in Syria will neatly be defined: the regime vs ISIS and al Qaeda. And that’s a fight Assad has no interest in winning.

Nevertheless, it’s worth being reminded why the continuation of Assad’s rule should not be mistaken as a harbinger of peace. If a year or two from now, violence no longer rains down from the sky in the form of barrel bombs and Russian airstrikes, it will most likely continue without restraint in the domain where this regime has always exercised its ruthless power: by imprisoning, torturing, and murdering its opponents.

In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic,” a newly released report for the UN Human Rights Council, we learn:

Interrogators and guards employed gruesome methods of torture to kill detainees. In 2014, a detainee held in a centre under the control of the 4th Division of the Syrian army had his genitals mutilated during torture. Bleeding severely and left without treatment, he died three days later. A detainee of a Military Security branch in Homs witnessed an elderly man being severely beaten, and then hung by his wrists from the ceiling. The guards burned his eyes with a cigarette, and pierced his body with a heated, sharp metal object. After hanging in the same position for three hours, the man died.

Other detainees died as a result of injuries and wounds sustained during torture. Victims received little or no medical care to treat the wounds and developed severe infections that eventually led to their demise. In the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Aleppo, a detainee suffered severely from an infected wound in his leg sustained during torture. Unable to stand up, he was eventually placed in the corridor outside the cell, receiving no medical care. After a few days, fellow detainees observed that he was dead. His family was later able to obtain the body through unofficial channels. Due to marks of torture and the severe emaciation of his corpse, his family could first only recognise him by an identifying tag. A 15-year-old boy detained in 2013 by the 4th Division in a detention facility near Yafour (Rif Damascus) reported seeing several male detainees dying due to torture and inhuman prison conditions and denial of medical assistance.

A large number of deaths were caused by the squalid conditions in which detainees were kept. Prison conditions were similar across detention facilities. They included severely overcrowded cells where prisoners were often forced to stand and sleep in shifts, stripped to their underwear. Lack of clean drinking water, sanitation, lice infestations and other unhygienic conditions caused the spread of disease and infections. Many prisoners were forced to use their toilet as a source of drinking water.

Anyone who believes this is “the lesser of two evils” or the kind of toughness required for “stability,” is delusional.

On the contrary, this type of institutionalized violence has long had an instrumental role in fostering terrorism.

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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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Trump to Syrian refugee children: ‘You can’t come here’

The Hill reports: Donald Trump said he’d be able to look into the eyes of Syrian refugee children to tell them they cannot come to schools in America in light of concerns about safely vetting refugees.

“We don’t know where their parents come from, they have no documentation whatsoever,” Trump said Monday during a town hall in New Hampshire.

“I’ve talked to the greatest legal people, spoken to the greatest security people. There’s absolutely no way of saying where these people come from. They may be from Syria, they may be ISIS, they may be ISIS related.”

During the event, a man who said he was from Connecticut told Trump about plans to relocate Syrian families into the community and let their children come to schools. When asked whether he’d be able to “look at these children” to tell them they couldn’t go to school, Trump said: “I can look in their faces and say, ‘You can’t come here.’”

The crowd applauded his answer. [Continue reading…]

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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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Rebel setbacks in Syria have far reaching consequences

Hassan Hassan writes: Is Syrian president Bashar Al Assad finally winning? One can feel a deep sense of grief running through opposition factions whether inside or outside Syria over how events have unfolded over the past two weeks.

Pro-regime forces have made a series of major gains in northern, central and southern Syria over the past week.

More strikingly, they broke a three-year siege imposed by the rebels around the Shia towns of Nubbol and Zahraa, 20 kilometres from Aleppo city, which represents a major setback for the rebels especially as it could disrupt a game of encirclement and counter-encirclement that sustained the rebels’ control of much of Aleppo since 2012.

Five months after the regime’s forces seemed incapable of halting the string of victories achieved by the rebels in northern Syria, which led to the Russian military intervention to prop up their ally, the regime appears to be on the offensive. The offensive is seen n northern Latakia, the western Ghouta near Damascus, Deraa and in the rural areas of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo. The regime appears to have made an impressive comeback.

It is hard to judge how one side is doing through such tactical gains. The rebels were clearly on the winning side just a year ago, while the regime’s army suffered from a shortage in manpower, as admitted by Mr Al Assad himself during his last speech in August.

The breaking of the siege of Nubbol and Zahraa last week, as well as the siege of Kweiris airbase near Raqqa in November and the takeover of Sheikh Maskeen in Deraa last month, were spearheaded by foreign militias beholden to Iran.

The opposition’s real crisis is much deeper, hence the state of grieving widely felt by the rebels. These setbacks come amid profound internal, regional and international challenges that could tip the balance dramatically in favour of the regime. [Continue reading…]

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As Syrians flee anew, neighbors’ altruism hardens into resentment

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The New York Times reports: When the Syrian refugees first started streaming into this bedraggled border town, Gassim al-Moghrebi was their tireless benefactor, distributing donations of food, money and clothes and sheltering as many as possible in two apartments he owned.

“All of Ramtha was just like me,” Mr. Moghrebi said, describing a good will rooted in family ties that spanned the border, and sympathy for the victims of a pitiless war. “One man had 10 apartments. He gave them to the Syrians for free.”

But now, as Syria witnesses a new escalation of violence, including waves of Russian airstrikes, and as Syrians flee for safety again by the tens of thousands, neighboring countries are increasingly overwhelmed and reluctant to let them in. In many places, that early altruism has hardened into resentment — an ominous turn for those fleeing war.

Desperate Syrians are backed up at the borders of Jordan and Turkey, barred from entering or else just allowed to trickle in. Increasingly, they find escape routes closing. [Continue reading…]

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Bombarded Aleppo lives in fear of siege and starvation

The Guardian reports: The bombs are falling so fast in Aleppo now that often rescuers don’t have time to reach victims between blasts. If the deadly explosions that struck on just one day last week had been evenly spaced, they would have struck every other minute around the clock.

“Sometimes there are so many airstrikes, we are just waiting and waiting at our headquarters, and the jets don’t leave the skies,” says Abdulrahman Alhassan, a 29-year-old former bank engineer from the city who coordinates “white helmet” rescue teams in the city.

“When at last we can’t see any more, we have to rush to all the sites to rescue people and evacuate them at once,” he said. On Friday, the group counted 900 airstrikes by government forces and their Russian backers, apparently throwing every weapon they have at the already devastated city.

Aid groups and people still inside the city believe the barrage is preparing the way for a blockade. The main supply line north of Aleppo has already been cut, and it will not take long before shortages bite in a ruined, desperate city.

“The Russian airstrikes are trying to completely destroy the area before they get on the ground and start the siege,” said Saad, a 35-year-old aid worker who chose to stay on and is now trapped inside the city. He says the bombing campaign was hitting both morale and food supplies. [Continue reading…]

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