In Raqqa, the stench of death amid hopes for life

Der Spiegel reports: On Dalla Square, where uniformed teens sit around a chipboard fire at the first checkpoint into the city, Abdullah al-Arian notices that the smell is still there. The smell of the “caliphate.” The smell of the military offensive. The smell of death.

It’s a Tuesday morning in November and Arian, a lawyer, is attempting to navigate his SUV around the piles of rubble and mounds of earth to get into the city he once called home. He is driving into the devastation, into the stench — into Raqqa. The city lies deathly quiet and empty beneath the autumn sun. He is driving slowly into the graveyard that was once the “caliphate’s” Syrian stronghold. Behind the SUV is a gray minibus carrying two pharmacists and a doctor, all of whom are staring silently out the windows.

Arian, a small, 54-year-old man in jeans and a black leather jacket, looks in stunned silence at the ruins. He watched as his city was destroyed, first by the brutality of Islamic State and then by American bombs. Now, he wants to rebuild it. No longer capable of laughing, his face remains marked by shock and fear.

The further into the city they drive, the stronger the sickly-sweet smell of decaying corpses becomes. Raqqa was once a thriving city of 200,000, located in the heart of Syria’s breadbasket. Now, it’s like an intermediate realm where life and death, the past and the future, meet. One is not quite over, and the other cannot really begin.

The men in the bus are members of the health committee set up by the civil council that now controls Raqqa and they are looking for the clinics where IS used to treat its fighters. And they are also looking for any materials they can use to rebuild the old state-run hospitals. Everything is in short supply. Indeed, residents have only been allowed back into two city districts, one in the east and one in the west, while the rest of the city is mined, destroyed or both. [Continue reading…]

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Putin in Syria: Victory and desolation

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Vladimir Putin went on a victory lap of Syria and the Middle East this week, intent on showcasing his ability to secure the upper hand against the US in the region. On a surprise visit to a Russian airbase on the Syrian coast, he demonstratively embraced the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose hold on power Russia’s military intervention has all but saved. “Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” Mr Putin told a detachment of Russian soldiers. “You are coming back home with victory.”

Meanwhile, in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus where Russia had announced earlier this year that a ceasefire would take hold, children living under siege are starving. Despite the “de-escalation” deal, Syrian government forces continue to pound the area, backed by Iranian and Russian allies in an attempt to score a decisive victory. These two scenes spoke volumes about Russia’s calculus, and about the realities it has helped create on the ground. That the Russian president has now announced a substantial troop withdrawal must be taken with a barrel of salt. Similar pledges have been made before and remain unfulfilled. On Tuesday a Kremlin spokesperson said Russia would retain a sizable force in Syria to fight “terrorists”. Russia’s definition of “terrorism” in Syria is like that of the Assad regime, which equates it to political opposition.

Mr Putin is keen to speak of victory. In Moscow he has announced that he will run for re-election next year. Bringing back some of the Russian forces – who are reportedly deployed alongside thousands of Kremlin-connected private contractors – can only be good for his political prospects. Russian casualties in Syria are a closely guarded secret, as are the financial costs of the operation. In geopolitical terms Mr Putin’s war in Syria has been a profitable investment for the Kremlin. He has capitalised on western strategic disarray and America’s reluctance to get drawn deeper into the conflict, an instinct that predated the volatile Donald Trump. After Syria, Mr Putin travelled on to Cairo, where he met Egypt’s president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, demonstrating Russia’s new clout in a country that since the 1970s has had privileged ties with the US. There is now talk of Russian military aircraft being able to use Egyptian bases.

It is no small irony that Mr Putin has claimed victory over Islamic State: the bluster does little to hide the fact that his forces focused much more on targeting the anti-Assad opposition than they did the jihadi insurgency. The retaking of Raqqa was not a Russian accomplishment, but the result of a Kurdish-Arab ground offensive, supported by US-led coalition airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

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Putin makes first visit to Syria, lauds victory over ISIS and announces withdrawals

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday made a surprise visit to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, announcing an imminent drawdown of Russian forces in the wake of his declaration of victory in its intervention in the Syria war.

In his first visit to the air base since Russian warplanes secretly flew to Syria in late 2015, Putin ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to begin the “withdrawal of Russian troop contingents” to their permanent bases.

But Putin left open the door to a continued Russian presence in Syria, saying that both Russia’s air base at Khmeimim and naval base at Tartus would keep operating. He promised further strikes in the future “if terrorists raise their head again” — an apparent reference to forces in Syria’s long civil war that sought to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“We will deliver such strikes on them that they have not seen yet,” he said in remarks to military personnel at the air base.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria bolstered Assad’s government and gave Syrian forces a critical edge against rebel factions backed by the West and its Middle East allies. Iran, another key supporter of Assad, provided military advisers and other aid.

Putin, who declared last week that he would run for a fourth term as president, has largely staked his legacy on Russia’s revival as the dominant military power in its region. [Continue reading…]

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The plea of a Syrian activist: Don’t forget us

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Between 2012 and 2013, Mansour Omari spent a hellish year in a number of underground Syrian prisons. The activist and journalist was blindfolded and crammed into a dark cell with dozens of other detainees. Roaches crawled across the floor. Prisoners itched and scratched with open wounds and sores. Their gums bled because of malnutrition. “The smell,” Omari said, “was unbelievable.”

But even in their depths of despair, they clung to a form of hope. Omari recalls how he and some fellow prisoners sought to keep track of everyone around them: They collected the names of 82 inmates locked in the secret government facility where they were detained. Then they mixed their own blood with rust filings to create ink, used scavenged chicken bones as quills and carefully wrote down all the names and numbers they had gathered on rough strips of fabric. These were hidden inside a shirt that Omari put on the day he was released.

Those five pieces of cloth are now on display in a chilling exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Framed in individual display cases, they look like ancient artifacts, faded canvases etched with runes from a distant past. But they tell a very modern story.

Visitors to the building, which chronicles the horrors of the 20th century’s worst genocide and the context of how it began, are now confronted with a contemporary calamity: The ongoing war in Syria, which has claimed the lives of about a half-million people, forced 11 million people to flee their homes and upended one of the Middle East’s most venerable societies.

“Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us” also is a pointed critique of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is an accomplice to the ravaging of the nation and the disappearance of countless of dissidents and ordinary civilians into a network of clandestine prisons and torture houses. It sits alongside another installation on Syria featuring the photography of a former Syrian military police photographer, whose images show how detainees were maimed, their eyes gouged out and limbs gored.

“So many people go through this museum and wonder, ‘What would I have done if I was living in 1930s Germany,’ ” Cameron Hudson, director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, told Today’s WorldView. “What we want them to think is, ‘I’m living in 2017, and this stuff is going on around me.’ ” [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration pushes back against narrative of imminent Syrian military victory in civil war

The Washington Post reports: The government of Bashar al-Assad, lacking manpower, reliant on allies and almost broke, is no longer capable of a military win in Syria’s civil war, U.S. officials said Monday, pushing back against Russian and Syrian assertions that victory is only a matter of time.

Senior officials described a severely weakened Syrian state, grappling with challenges including loss of oil revenue; severe infrastructure damage; increasing reliance on outside powers for cash, food and fighters; and a military barely able to keep multiple armed groups at bay.

“When we look at what it would take to make a victor’s peace sustainable in any country, the Syrian regime does not have it,” one official said during a briefing for reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Trump administration. “They’re not wealthy, they’re not rich in manpower, they’re not rich in other capabilities, and the grievances, if anything, are sharper now than they were at the beginning of this conflict.”

Describing the Trump administration’s assessment of the Syrian war, officials cited a recent battle to recapture Bukamal, along the Syria-Iraq border, that included almost no Syrian government units.

The Trump administration believes that about 80 percent of the military manpower fighting in support of the Syrian government is made up of foreign forces from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. [Continue reading…]

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Education in fear: Growing up in the Assad regime’s Syria

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Ratko Mladic and the war crimes revisionists

Oz Katerji writes: Twenty two years after the Srebrenica massacre, Ratko Mladic has been convicted of the crime of genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment in the final case of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

Among those in attendance at The Hague was Fikret Alic, survivor of the Serbian-run Trnopolje concentration camp. In 1992 a photograph of Alic’s emaciated figure, published on the front cover of Time magazine, shocked the world, leading to international shock and condemnation of the atrocities unfolding in Bosnia.

Five years after that infamous photograph, a now defunct British far-left magazine known as LM (formerly Living Marxism) ran an article defending the concentration camp by one Thomas Deichmann. The article, headlined “The picture that fooled the world,” claimed that reporters from the British ITN TV news company had deliberately misrepresented the image of Alic, stating that the concentration camp was a “collection center for refugees” who were free to leave “if they wished.”

Not only was this an outrageous, unsubstantiated lie (and has echoes of the claims the Nazis made about the show camp of Theresienstadt) but it was a direct attack on the survivors of Serbian crimes against humanity.

ITN successfully sued LM for libel and were awarded £375,000 in damages, which bankrupted the publication and put it out of business.

However this was not the end of the story. The reporters involved in the fraudulent LM article refused to back down, and they were defended by high profile individuals such as celebrated left-wing academic Noam Chomsky.

In a 2006 interview, Chomsky reiterated the claim: “It was a refugee camp, I mean, people could leave if they wanted,” and in 2011 condemned the libel case against LM, in an email exchange in which he also said that referring to Srebrenica as an act of genocide “cheapens the word.”

A book published by Edward Herman and David Peterson called The Politics of Genocide, which claims Serb forces “incontestably had not killed any but ‘Bosnian Muslim men of military age’” carries a foreword by Chomsky and an endorsement by Australian journalist John Pilger.

Wednesday, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia concluded that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, and that it had been orchestrated by Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general.

But nobody should be expecting any retractions or apologies from Chomsky or Pilger, men for whom genocide denial has become a point of pride.

Today, Chomsky, Pilger and a slew of other notable left-wing academics, journalists and bloggers are applying this same war-crimes revisionism to the war in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s bombing campaign targeting Syrian hospitals

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Trump tells Turkish president U.S. will stop arming Kurds in Syria

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration is preparing to stop supplying weapons to ethnic Kurdish fighters in Syria, the White House acknowledged Friday, a move reflecting renewed focus on furthering a political settlement to the civil war there and countering Iranian influence now that the Islamic State caliphate is largely vanquished.

Word of the policy change long sought by neighboring Turkey came Friday, not from Washington but from Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a news conference that President Trump had pledged to stop arming the fighters, known as the YPG, during a phone call between Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions, and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago,” the Associated Press quoted Cavusoglu as saying to reporters following the call.

Initially, the administration’s national security team appeared surprised by the Turks’ announcement and uncertain what to say about it. The State Department referred questions to the White House, and hours passed with no confirmation from the National Security Council.

In late afternoon, the White House confirmed the weapons cutoff would happen, though it provided no details on timing.

“Consistent with our previous policy, President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return,” the White House statement said, referring to the recent liberation of the Syrian city that had served as the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

The decision to stop arming the Kurds will remove a major source of tension between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally. But it is likely to further anger the Kurds, who already feel betrayed since the United States told them to hand over hard-won territory to the Syrian government. [Continue reading…]

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Male rape and sexual torture in the Syrian war: ‘It is everywhere’

Sarah Chynoweth writes: Last year I agreed to undertake a fact-finding mission for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on sexual violence against men and boys in the Syrian crisis. We knew that many women and girls were being targeted for rape and other sexualised violence, but we didn’t know much about what was happening to men and boys. Drawing on a few existing reports, I assumed some boys were being victimised, as well as some men in detention centres, but that sexual violence against males was not common. I worried that few refugees would have heard of any accounts and that they wouldn’t talk to me about such a taboo topic anyway. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In October 2016, I landed in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had fled. The UNHCR arranged for a translator and discussions with refugees at a nearby camp. I met with the first group, eight Syrian men who had fled the war. I asked them about their lives in the camp, how they were getting by, and what their main concerns were. Once we had established some rapport, I tentatively probed whether they had heard of any reports of sexual violence against men or boys in Syria. They looked at me incredulously, as if they couldn’t believe that I was asking such a basic question, saying: “Yes, of course. It is everywhere. It is happening [from] all sides.”

I was surprised at their response and their candour. I was also sceptical: rumours are rampant in war zones. Had they heard any accounts from someone they knew personally? Again, resounding replies of “yes” from the men. As I met with more and more refugees – almost 200 across Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan and Lebanon [Continue reading…]

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Marked for ‘de-escalation,’ Syrian towns endure surge of attacks

The New York Times reports: A resurgence of deadly attacks by pro-government forces in so-called de-escalation zones in Syria, including a triple airstrike on a busy marketplace that killed more than 50 people, is undermining an agreement portrayed by its sponsors as a crucial step toward ending the six-and-a-half-year civil war.

The accord — reached this year between Russia and Iran, which are allied with Syria’s government, and Turkey, which backs some rebel groups — established four de-escalation zones where attacks were supposed to decrease and so help pave the way for a peace settlement.

The de-escalation zones encompass most of the remaining areas of Syria still held by insurgent groups, not including the Islamic State. Under the agreement, the combatants are to refrain from new attacks, except against hard-line groups that have not signed on to the pact. Longstanding sieges are to be lifted to allow free movement of goods and people.

But siege and bombardment tactics, mostly by the Syrian government against rebel-held areas, have continued despite the Astana accord, named for the Kazakh capital, where it was struck. The recent uptick in attacks — and the lack of any outcry from international sponsors of the Astana deal — has bolstered skepticism from opponents of the Syrian government who doubted the deal’s good faith from the start. [Continue reading…]

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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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