A lesson from Syria: It’s crucial not to fuel far-right conspiracy theories

George Monbiot writes: What do we believe? This is the crucial democratic question. Without informed choice, democracy is meaningless. This is why dictators and billionaires invest so heavily in fake news. Our only defence is constant vigilance, rigour and scepticism. But when some of the world’s most famous crusaders against propaganda appear to give credence to conspiracy theories, you wonder where to turn.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month published its investigation into the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, which killed almost 100 people on 4 April and injured around 200. After examining the competing theories and conducting wide-ranging interviews, laboratory tests and forensic analysis of videos and photos, it concluded that the atrocity was caused by a bomb filled with sarin, dropped by the government of Syria.

There is nothing surprising about this. The Syrian government has a long history of chemical weapons use, and the OPCW’s conclusions concur with a wealth of witness testimony. But a major propaganda effort has sought to discredit such testimony, and characterise the atrocity as a “false-flag attack”.

This effort began with an article published on the website Al-Masdar news, run by the Syrian government loyalist Leith Abou Fadel. It suggested that either the attack had been staged by “terrorist forces”, or chemicals stored in a missile factory had inadvertently been released when the Syrian government bombed it.

The story was then embellished on Infowars – the notorious far-right conspiracy forum. The Infowars article claimed that the attack was staged by the Syrian first responder group, the White Helmets. This is a reiteration of a repeatedly discredited conspiracy theory, casting these rescuers in the role of perpetrators. It suggested that the victims were people who had been kidnapped by al-Qaida from a nearby city, brought to Khan Shaykhun and murdered, perhaps with the help of the UK and French governments, “to lay blame on the Syrian government”. The author of this article was Mimi Al-Laham, also known as Maram Susli, PartisanGirl, Syrian Girl and Syrian Sister. She is a loyalist of the Assad government who has appeared on podcasts hosted by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. She has another role: as an “expert” used by a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Theodore Postol. He has produced a wide range of claims casting doubt on the Syrian government’s complicity in chemical weapons attacks. [Continue reading…]

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Under the gaze of the U.S. and British-led coalition, ISIS fighters were provided safe passage out of Raqqa

BBC News reports: Lorry driver Abu Fawzi thought it was going to be just another job.

He drives an 18-wheeler across some of the most dangerous territory in northern Syria. Bombed-out bridges, deep desert sand, even government forces and so-called Islamic State fighters don’t stand in the way of a delivery.

But this time, his load was to be human cargo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters opposed to IS, wanted him to lead a convoy that would take hundreds of families displaced by fighting from the town of Tabqa on the Euphrates river to a camp further north.

The job would take six hours, maximum – or at least that’s what he was told.

But when he and his fellow drivers assembled their convoy early on 12 October, they realised they had been lied to.

Instead, it would take three days of hard driving, carrying a deadly cargo – hundreds of IS fighters, their families and tonnes of weapons and ammunition.

Abu Fawzi and dozens of other drivers were promised thousands of dollars for the task but it had to remain secret.

The deal to let IS fighters escape from Raqqa – de facto capital of their self-declared caliphate – had been arranged by local officials. It came after four months of fighting that left the city obliterated and almost devoid of people. It would spare lives and bring fighting to an end. The lives of the Arab, Kurdish and other fighters opposing IS would be spared.

But it also enabled many hundreds of IS fighters to escape from the city. At the time, neither the US and British-led coalition, nor the SDF, which it backs, wanted to admit their part.

Has the pact, which stood as Raqqa’s dirty secret, unleashed a threat to the outside world – one that has enabled militants to spread far and wide across Syria and beyond?

Great pains were taken to hide it from the world. But the BBC has spoken to dozens of people who were either on the convoy, or observed it, and to the men who negotiated the deal. [Continue reading…]

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Will Israel go to war with Hezbollah and fight a Saudi war to the last Israeli?

The New York Times reports: There are no signs of war preparations in Israel. The country is not mobilizing troops on its northern border or calling up reservists, and Mr. Netanyahu has given no indication that he sees a conflict as imminent.

Moreover, Israel’s war planners predict that the next war with Hezbollah may be catastrophic, particularly if it lasts more than a few days. Hezbollah now has more than 120,000 rockets and missiles, Israel estimates, enough to overwhelm Israeli missile defenses.

Many of them are long-range and accurate enough to bring down Tel Aviv high-rises, sink offshore gas platforms, knock out Ben-Gurion Airport or level landmark buildings across Israel.

Nor is Hezbollah necessarily hankering for battle with Israel, according to analysts who study the militant group closely. It is still fighting in Syria, where it has been backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and it is being drained by medical costs for wounded fighters and survivor benefits for the families of those killed, said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general and former head of the country’s National Security Council.

“Hezbollah as an organization is in a very deep economic crisis today,” Mr. Eiland said. “But at the same time, the weaker they are, the more dependent they are on Iranian assistance — so they might have to comply with Iran’s instructions.”

But there have long been fears that now that the Syrian war — in which Hezbollah played a decisive role, gaining new influence, power and weapons — is almost over, Hezbollah’s enemies might seek to cut it down to size.

Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, implied Friday that its fight in Syria was nearly finished. If Saudi Arabia’s goal was to force Hezbollah to leave Syria, he said: “No problem. Our goal there has been achieved. It’s almost over anyway.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria, Russia slammed at chemical weapons watchdog meeting

The Associated Press reports: Syria and its close ally Russia faced harsh criticism on Thursday at a meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons following an investigation that blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime for a sarin attack that killed about 100 people in April.

At a closed-doors meeting of the chemical weapons watchdog’s executive council, U.S. representative Kenneth D. Ward said that Russia “continues to deny the truth and, instead, collaborates with the Assad regime in a deplorable attempt to discredit” the joint U.N.-OPCW investigation.

The text of Ward’s statement was posted on the OPCW website.

Russia has denounced the results of the investigation into the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. It also vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution to renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, known as the JIM, which expires this month. [Continue reading…]

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Syria declares victory over ISIS

Reuters reports: Syria’s army declared victory over Islamic State on Thursday, saying its capture of the jihadists’ last town in the country marked the collapse of their three-year, hardline reign in the region.

The army and its allies are still fighting Islamic State in desert areas near Albu Kamal, the last town the militant group had held in Syria, near the border with Iraq, the army said.

But the capture of the town ends Islamic State’s era of territorial rule over the so-called caliphate that it proclaimed in 2014 across Iraq and Syria and in which millions suffered under its hardline, repressive strictures.

Yet after ferocious defensive battles in its most important cities this year, where its fighters bled for every house and street, its final collapse has come with lightning speed.

Instead of a battle to the death as they mounted a last stand in the Euphrates valley towns and villages near the border between Iraq and Syria, many fighters surrendered or fled. [Continue reading…]

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War of all against all

Lindsey Hilsum writes: In Arab mythology, the al-Sada bird, or death owl, emerges from the body of a murdered man and shrieks until someone takes revenge. “Today there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of al-Sada birds crying out for revenge all over Syrian skies,” writes Yassin al-Haj Saleh in “The Destiny of the Syrian Revolution,” one of ten essays in his collection The Impossible Revolution. Extreme violence, including the incarceration and torture of teenagers, characterized the Syrian regime’s response to the street protests that erupted in 2011. As the uprising morphed into civil war, rebels also jailed their enemies, adopting methods of abuse and killing they had learned in the regime’s prisons. Malevolent spirits, or jinn, hover. Nearly half a million Syrians are believed to have lost their lives in six years of conflict.

Saleh, one of the country’s best-known dissident intellectuals, now lives in Berlin and has battled to distance himself from the ghouls who haunt Syria’s ruined cities. “Where is cool-headed, clear thinking to be found, in a world of al-Sada, jinn, and ghosts?” he asks. One might say it is to be found in the pages of his book, where he examines the origins of the violence, delves into the ideology of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled the country since 1963, methodically dissects the phases of the revolution, and charts the lurch into sectarianism. Only in the introduction does he write about his own life, which is a shame, because his experience helps us understand why the revolution in Syria failed.

Born in Syria’s sixth-largest city, Raqqa, in 1961, Saleh joined the Syrian Communist Party while studying in Aleppo. Arrested for opposing President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, he spent sixteen years in prison. Four years after his release in 1996, he met and married Samira al-Khalil, another former political prisoner. She shared his passion for political change; the revolution enabled the couple to live out their beliefs.

Saleh wrote the first of these essays in March 2011, while participating in street protests, and later ones while on the run. Saleh and al-Khalil spent several months in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, working with the human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, the founder of the Violations Documentation Center, which chronicled abuses committed by all sides. Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish money started to come in for certain rebel groups, including Salafi jihadists whose violent religiosity had previously been almost unknown in Syria. Saleh thought about a saying attributed to Ho Chi Minh: “If you want to destroy a revolution, shower it with money!” Al-Khalil got on with practical work, founding two women’s centers in the Damascus suburb of Douma. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s Idlib incursion and the HTS question: Understanding the long game in Syria

Charles Lister writes: After several days of speculation surrounding a possible Turkish intervention, on Oct. 8 Turkish reconnaissance troops crossed into Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib to scope out a first phase “de-escalation” deployment. Turkey’s move came within the broader context of a Russian-led initiative to de-escalate the conflict in Syria by focusing on specific geographic zones, of which Idlib was the fourth. In the days that followed the Oct. 8 deployment, limited numbers of Turkish troops used small country roads to establish thin lines of control spanning between the Idlib border town of Atmeh, east through Darat Izza and into Anadan in Aleppo’s western countryside. Two much larger convoys of at least 50-100 armored vehicles crossed at night on Oct. 23 and late on Oct. 24, effectively completing Turkey’s initial objectives.

The loose buffer zone that resulted serves primarily to place Turkish troops in a prime position to monitor and contain the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in their stronghold of Afrin, 30km north of Darat Izza. It was from Afrin that YPG militiamen and women had launched repeated attacks on Syrian opposition positions in northern Idlib, indicating the Kurdish group’s likely intent to expand aggressively southward. The YPG’s stronghold in Afrin also gave it the means to defend against any future attempt by Turkish-backed opposition forces to retake YPG-occupied towns like Tel Rifaat. Turkey saw these strategic realities as security threats, given the YPG’s structural and ideological affinity with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization that has fought a deadly insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 30 years.

Notwithstanding the significance of a Turkish intervention in Idlib, the development raised eyebrows for another reason: Turkey’s soldiers had been provided an armed escort into Idlib by none other than the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Therein followed a flurry of accusations of Turkish collusion with al-Qaeda that although understandable, largely missed the potential significance of developments up to that point. I was in Turkey in the days leading up to the operation and was near the border as it began, meeting with a broad range of Syrian opposition groups and figures. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish revolutionaries defeated ISIS in Raqqa. Will the U.S. soon abandon them?

Luke Mogelson reports: In August, in the living room of an abandoned house on the western outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, I met with Rojda Felat, one of four Kurdish commanders overseeing the campaign to wrest the city from the Islamic State, or isis. Wearing fatigues, a beaded head scarf, and turquoise socks, Felat sat cross-legged on the floor, eating a homemade meal that her mother had sent in a plastic container from Qamishli, four hours away, in the northeast of the country. In the kitchen, two young female fighters washed dishes and glanced surreptitiously at Felat with bright-eyed adoration. At forty years old, she affects a passive, stoic expression that transforms startlingly into one of unguarded felicity when she is amused—something that, while we spoke, happened often. She had reason to be in good spirits. Her forces had recently completed an encirclement of Raqqa, and victory appeared to be imminent.

The Raqqa offensive, which concluded in mid-October, marks the culmination of a dramatic rise both for Felat and for the Kurdish political movement to which she belongs. For decades, the Syrian state—officially, the Syrian Arab Republic—was hostile to Kurds. Tens of thousands were stripped of citizenship or dispossessed of land; cultural and political gatherings were banned; schools were forbidden to teach the Kurdish language.

Qamishli, Felat’s home town, has long been a center of Kurdish political activity. In 2004, during a soccer match, Arab fans of a visiting team threw stones at Kurds, causing a stampede; a riot ensued, during which Kurds toppled a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of Syria’s current President, Bashar. Government security forces subsequently killed more than thirty Kurds. Amid the crackdown, a new Kurdish opposition group, the Democratic Union Party, organized and recruited clandestinely.

In 2011, when anti-government protests began spreading throughout Syria, Felat was studying Arabic literature at Hasakah University. The daughter of a poor farmer, she’d begun her studies late, “for economic reasons,” she told me. Along with several dozen other students, Felat left the university and returned to Qamishli. Within a week, Felat, who’d harbored ambitions of attending Syria’s national military academy and becoming an Army officer, had joined the Democratic Union Party’s militia, the Y.P.G. After a day of training, she was issued a Kalashnikov.

Felat expected to fight the regime. But, as the anti-government demonstrations evolved into an armed rebellion and insurrections broke out in major cities, Assad withdrew nearly all the troops he had stationed in the predominantly Kurdish north. The Democratic Union Party allowed the regime to maintain control of an airport and of administrative offices in downtown Qamishli. Arab opposition groups decried the arrangement as part of a tacit alliance between Assad and the Kurds. Islamist rebels began launching attacks in northern Syria, and the Y.P.G. went to war against them. “Many Kurdish families brought their daughters to join,” Felat told me. “Many women signed up.” She described her female compatriots as “women who had joined to protect other women” from extremists and their sexist ideologies. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s Khan Sheikhoun chemical massacre: Proof beyond doubt who is to blame

Paul McLoughlin reports: United Nations investigators confirmed this week what most of the world already knew – the Syrian regime almost certainly carried out a chemical attack on an opposition village earlier this year.

The report was presented to the United Nations Security Council earlier this week by the OPCW-UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism after months of research by experts.

The 39-page document was leaked on Friday and detailed the compelling facts behind the panel’s conclusion that Damascus carried out April’s chemical attack, which left scores of civilians dead.

It also discredits the various myths peddled by the Syrian regime and Russia who have tried to effectively put the blame on the victims or cast doubts about who was responsible for the killings.

“Based on the foregoing, the Leadership Panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017,” the report confidently concluded.

What Syrians now want to know is what – if anything – will the UN do next with the evidence? [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson says Assad family’s reign ‘is coming to an end’ in Syria

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not remain in power, but that negotiations about the country’s future should continue while Mr. Assad was in charge.

“The United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters, adding, “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. The only issue is how that should that be brought about.”

The comments came after Mr. Tillerson met in Geneva with the United Nations special envoy on the Syrian crisis — the last stop on a weeklong visit to the Middle East and South Asia in which he dashed among capitals in the region, often spending only a few hours on the ground before getting back into his motorcade and heading to the next stop.

While he came home with no major accomplishments, the trip was also not interrupted by tweets from President Trump contradicting his efforts, as happened early this month with the secretary’s efforts on North Korea.

Mr. Tillerson’s visit on Tuesday to Pakistan was perhaps the most interesting of the trip, since Mr. Tillerson had just the week before heaped praise on India, Pakistan’s longtime rival, while bluntly insisting that Pakistan had to do more to fight terrorism.

The Pakistanis nonetheless showered Mr. Tillerson with kindness. When they sat down for talks, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi gave an effusive statement for the gathered reporters that Pakistan was fighting terrorism more than any other country. [Continue reading…]

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Scores of bodies are found in Syrian town after ISIS retreats

The New York Times reports: As pro-government troops drove Islamic State fighters from a central Syrian town over the weekend, the retreating militants killed scores of civilians, dumping some bodies into wells and leaving others in the street, local residents and the Syrian state-run news media said on Monday.

The apparent mass killing is the latest example of the brutal reprisals that have taken place when territory changes hands in Syria’s multisided war, with civilians often bearing the brunt of the pain.

The carnage showed how the Islamic State can still spread havoc even as it loses major parts of its territory that once included large areas of Syria and Iraq.

At least 67 bodies had been identified in the town, Qaryatayn, northeast of Damascus, the capital, by Monday afternoon, according to local activists who posted an online list of the victims’ names. [Continue reading…]

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The tragic legacy of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently

David Remnick writes: Nearly two years ago, I met a group of young Syrian journalists at a dive bar around Times Square. We spoke for hours, and their stories of human cruelty were detailed and beyond appalling. These were all refugees from the city of Raqqa and, in concert with other young men and women who were still living in Syria, they formed the core of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a kind of underground reporting squadron, citizen journalists who, at tremendous risk to their lives, used every possible tool to smuggle out to the world words and images describing life under isis rule. Foreign journalists found that their reports were as reliable as they were sickening. On their Web site, the R.B.S.S. journalists posted reports of mass shootings, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual abuse, and other crimes. These brave reporters, who have been honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and portrayed in Matthew Heineman’s excellent documentary, “City of Ghosts,” worked under constant threat of death; ten of their colleagues, friends and family members, both inside Raqqa and in Turkey, were hunted down by ISIS forces and executed for the crime of committing journalism.

When news came this week that ISIS had been flushed out of Raqqa by coalition air strikes, I called Abdalaziz Alhamza, perhaps the most eloquent of the young men and women I met that night in Times Square. He and I came to know each other at other events, and it was immediately clear to me that he was feeling no sense of relief, gratitude, or liberation.

“How are you?”

“Pretty terrible,” he said. “This is a liberation in the media. Not in Raqqa.” Alhamza felt no immediate sense of relief or happiness. His city was in ruins. He and everyone he knew had lost friends and family. After speaking on the phone, we decided to have a conversation by e-mail and what follows are his responses to my questions, edited for clarity and space, about his life and about Raqqa, its tragedy, and its future. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed force claims capture of ISIS’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa

The Washington Post reports: U.S. backed forces in Syria claimed full control of the Islamic State’s onetime capital of Raqqa on Tuesday, heralding an end to the militants’ presence in their most symbolically important stronghold and bringing closer the likelihood of their complete territorial demise.

Talo Silo, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, said that military operations had halted and that members of the joint Kurdish-Arab force were clearing the city of explosive devices and hunting for sleeping cells.

It was still unclear whether some Islamic State pockets remained, but the SDF portrayed the battle for Raqqa as effectively over.

Besieged and severely weakened, dozens of militants had launched a final stand from inside Raqqa’s main hospital and stadium. But hundreds of others surrendered during the final days of the battle after local officials brokered a controversial deal which could see many escape prosecution. [Continue reading…]

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Syria and beyond: Manufactured doubt and moral atrophy

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Earlier this year when the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif appeared on CNN, host Christiane Amanpour pressed him on his government’s support for the murderous regime in Syria. Zarif’s response was a bravura performance in denial and deflection.

Presented with facts about the regime’s crimes, Zarif was pugnacious. “No. Those are not the facts”, he said. That Assad is a dictator was merely “your impression”; to support Assad was to be “on the right side”; and the problem in Syria was IS, a group that was a “creation of the United States government” and “armed and equipped and financed” by Gulf states.

The man representing a state that supports designated terrorist groups such as Hizballah and whose forces are currently occupying parts of Syria, had advice for the West: “People are making the wrong choices in supporting terrorism”, he said; and they must avoid the folly of basing “foreign troops in an Arab territory”.

Zarif was bludgeoning irony with alternative facts. But his approach is unexceptional. This disdain for truth has become a defining feature of modern politics. The function of lies is no longer to persuade; it is to challenge the primacy of facts. Relativism has been weaponised by the powerful to eliminate the very possibility of justice.

This doubt is distinct from the kind of legitimate scepticism that might check against unqualified belief. It is ersatz and functional, manufactured to thwart action and allay guilty conscience. Politically immobilising and morally liberating, it sustains political inertia among cynical politicians and the will to disbelieve among jaded publics. [Continue reading…]

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What are Turkey’s plans for Syria?

 

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Civilian casualties spiral in Syria as air raids target areas marked for cease-fire

The Washington Post reports: Civilian casualties have spiraled across Syria in recent weeks as pro-government forces launch hundreds of bombing raids across areas marked for international protection.

Groups monitoring the conflict have recorded hundreds of strikes since the end of a sixth round of peace talks among Russia, Iran and Turkey in mid-September. On Friday, the White Helmets rescue group reported that 80 percent of those attacks targeted civilian areas.

September was the deadliest month on record this year in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, with almost 1,000 civilians killed across the country.

“Now the planes are back, there is just terror all the time,” said Tim al-Siyofi, an activist from the besieged Damascus district of Douma. [Continue reading…]

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Russia may have saved the Assad regime. But its real ally has been terrorism

Faisal Al Yafai writes: The double suicide bomb attacks in Damascus on Monday were just the start of a long guerrilla war against the regime. ISIL and its competitors Hayat Tahrir Al Sham sense that the regime could yet crumble from within. The next stage in the war of ISIL and its offshoots will be to weaken Syria and seek to take over Damascus – as they once tried to take over Baghdad.

Terror attacks like the one last week will only increase, and it is there that the regime will face its most severe test. For all its protestations that the uprising was instigated by “terrorists”, the regime has very little experience dealing with the political and social consequences of terrorism. Part of the social contract of the regimes of the Al Assads has been stability; too many attacks will fray that contract.

A weakening of the regime and an emboldening of the terrorists – whichever group manages to win the internecine conflict for supremacy now taking place in Syria’s ungoverned spaces – will frighten neighbouring countries and those further afield, from where many of the recruits will come and in whose cities attacks may be staged. Security cooperation will become the thin end of the wedge that ultimately brings the regime international legitimacy.

At the start of the uprising, the Assad regime, having carefully prepared for just such a challenge to its authority, cleverly empowered the extremists by releasing prisoners and avoiding the areas where ISIL was growing. In that way, their prophecy came true and terrorism really did grow out of the uprising. Now, once again, the fear of terrorism will come to the aid of the regime. [Continue reading…]

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