Rashida Jones: The only scary thing about Syria’s refugees is that they’re just like us

Rashida Jones writes: Immigration has become an unavoidable part of our global conversation. In part, because since 2011, the war in Syria has perpetuated a devastating refugee crisis, many fleeing the country by any means possible, putting a strain on many countries all over the world. We’ve all seen the pictures: a child trying to flee war, washing ashore in Turkey, dead. Rescued children who survived an air strike in Aleppo, covered in ash and blood. Babies rescued from the rubble. Unfortunately, as long as the war continues, heartbreaking photos of people enduring and escaping war will permeate our media.

Like a lot of us, I have been confused but concerned by the present discussion surrounding refugees. Here’s what I knew, probably similar to what you all know: we are witnessing the largest global refugee crisis in history. There is an ongoing civil war in Syria that has displaced 13.5 million people. All over the world, there is philosophical and practical conflict over borders: Do we close them, do we open them, how much, how many, etc.? And the U.S. has recently welcomed the last of its promised 10,000 Syrian refugees to our soil. Oh, yeah, and there is pretty dangerous propaganda floating around that all refugees are terrorists. Perpetuated by many unnamed international politicians, including a presidential candidate whose name rhymes with Cronald Blump.

What else did I know? I knew that the passing of the Brexit was partially inspired by the false promise of blocking entry for refugees, immigrants, and anyone who falls into the “other” category. I knew that the European countries that opened their borders have struggled with the influx of refugees. I knew that the European countries that closed their borders have struggled with bad international P.R. for being inhumane.

As a descendant of black slaves and Jewish immigrants, it’s inherently hard for me to understand why it’s acceptable for a closed-borders, anti-foreigners viewpoint to be influencing policy and popular opinion. But I try to understand. If I’m being generous, I guess I could speculate that people worldwide are scared? Scared of what they don’t know, scared of what’s next, scared of losing their comfortable lives, of having to find a way to cohabit with people whose culture, language, and religious orientation is unfamiliar. And, yes, they are irrationally scared of inviting in violent extremism. Of course we all understand the instinct to protect what is ours, but at what cost to our humanity? [Continue reading…]



UN hires Assad’s friends and relatives for Syria relief operation

The Guardian reports: The UN has hired scores of friends and political associates of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, as part of its relief operation in the country, according to documents leaked to the Guardian.

The staff lists show that relatives of high-ranking ministers have been on the Damascus payroll of UN agencies, including the refugee agency UNHCR and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

One former UN manager told the Guardian that every UN agency had at least “one person who is a direct relative of a Syrian official”.

The UN asked the Guardian not to identify any individuals on the staff lists to protect their safety.

A spokesman said “family connections are not taken into consideration nor investigated” when hiring staff, and the UN did not question prospective workers about their political affiliations. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s ‘voice of conscience’ has a message for the West

Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham report: Yassin Al-Haj Saleh has lived a life of struggle for his country. Under the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, he was a student activist organizing against the government. In 1980, Saleh and hundreds of others were arrested and accused of membership in a left-wing political group. He was just 19 years old when a closed court found him guilty of crimes against the state. Saleh spent the next 16 years of his life behind bars.

“I have a degree in medicine, but I am a graduate of prison, and I am indebted to this experience,” Saleh said, sitting with us in a restaurant near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Now in his 50s, with white hair and a dignified, somewhat world-weary demeanor, Saleh, called Syria’s “voice of conscience” by many, has the appearance and bearing of a university professor. But he speaks with passionate indignation about what he calls the Assad dynasty’s “enslavement” of the Syrian people.

Saleh was living in Damascus in 2011 when Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.

From painful firsthand experience, Saleh knew the cost of challenging the Assad regime. But when the uprising started, he did not hesitate to join it. He left home and spent the next two years in hiding, helping Syrian activists organize their struggle.

By late 2013, Syria had descended into anarchy. The conflict between the government and a range of opposition forces had become increasingly militarized. Like many other activists for the revolution, Saleh was forced to flee across the border to Turkey. That same year, armed groups in the Damascus suburbs kidnapped his wife, along with three other activists. ISIS kidnapped his brother in 2013. Neither has been heard from since. [Continue reading…]


UN chief calls security council’s failure on Aleppo ‘our generation’s shame’

The Guardian reports: In a blistering indictment, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien called the failure of the UN security council, and Russia in particular, to stop the bombing of eastern Aleppo as “our generation’s shame”.

The Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, reacted by denouncing O’Brien’s vivid account of the humanitarian toll in the besieged city as “unfair and dishonest”. In one of the most pointed attacks against a top UN official by a permanent council member in recent times, he told O’Brien to leave his comments “for the novel you’re going to write some day”.

Envoys from the US, UK and France came to the UN’s defence and heaped blame for the mass killing of civilians in Aleppo on Russia and its ally, the Syrian regime, as the Syrian conflict drove ever deeper divisions in the paralysed security council, and alienated Russia, currently president of the council, further from the UN relief and human rights agencies.

O’Brien, the under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, invited the envoys at the security council to imagine themselves among the 275,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo and under bombardment by Syrian regime and Russian planes.

“Let me take you to east Aleppo this afternoon,” O’Brien said. “In a deep basement, huddled with your children and elderly parents the stench of urine and the vomit caused by unrelieved fear never leaving your nostrils, waiting for the bunker-busting bomb you know may kill you in this, the only sanctuary left to you but like the one that took your neighbour and their house out last night; or scrabbling with your bare hands in the street above to reach under concrete rubble, lethal steel reinforcing bars jutting at you as you hysterically try to reach your young child screaming unseen in the dust and dirt below your feet, you choking to catch your breath in the toxic dust and the smell of gas ever-ready to ignite and explode over you.”

“These are people just like you and me – not sitting around a table in New York but forced into desperate, pitiless suffering, their future wiped out,” O’Brien said, describing himself as “incandescent with rage” over the security council’s passivity, said. “Peoples’ lives [have been] destroyed and Syria itself destroyed. And it is under our collective watch. And it need not be like this – this is not inevitable; it is not an accident … Never has the phrase by poet Robert Burns, of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ been as apt. It can be stopped but you the security council have to choose to make it stop.” [Continue reading…]


Anger as Spain prepares to let Russian warships refuel on way back to Aleppo bombing

The Guardian reports: Spain is facing criticism for reportedly preparing to allow the refuelling of Russian warships en route to bolstering the bombing campaign against the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Warships led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov are expected to take on fuel and supplies at the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning.

Spanish media reported that two Spanish vessels, the frigate Almirante Juan de Borbón and logistical ship Cantabria, were shadowing the warships as they passed through international waters, and that the Admiral Kuznetsov, along with other Russian vessels and submarines, would dock at Ceuta to restock after 10 days at sea. [Continue reading…]


Mosul battle to extend as far as Syria and Yemen, former Iraqi PM Maliki says

Middle East Eye reports: Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the campaign to liberate Islamic State-occupied Mosul would be only the first step to liberating other cities as far away as Syria and Yemen.

“Today, Iraq has launched an operation to liberate Mosul, but it is also one to liberate other cities,” Maliki said at a conference in Baghdad. “The ‘We are coming Nineveh’ operation also means, ‘We are coming Raqqa’; ‘We are coming Aleppo’; ‘We are coming Yemen’.”

The ex-prime minister was referring to the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh where Mosul is located.

“We are coming to all places where Muslims are being killed, where Islamic thought is being renounced,” he said. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s forgotten revolutionaries

Murtaza Hussain reports: As Naji Jerf stepped out of an office building in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep last December, a man walked up to him and fired two shots from a silenced pistol, striking Jerf in the head and chest and killing him instantly.

Jerf, 38, was a Syrian filmmaker and journalist who had become a popular activist during the revolution. A fierce critic of both the Assad regime and the Islamic State, he had received numerous death threats in the months before he was killed. Shortly after his murder, the Islamic State issued a statement claiming responsibility and Turkish authorities arrested three men in connection with the shooting.

Jerf is only one of the innumerable Syrian revolutionary activists who have lost their lives over the past five years. An editor and documentarian, he helped train a generation of young Syrians to continue the fight for democracy in their country. But his story, and the stories of those like him who continue the spirit of the 2011 uprising, rarely register in broader narratives of the conflict. For all they have sacrificed, their struggles have gone largely ignored, in a framing of the conflict that has been convenient for the Assad government.

Leila Shami, co-author of the book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War,” told me, “The Syrian government has taken huge efforts to frame the conflict as one solely between themselves and extremist groups. People are not aware that there is a third option in Syria, that there are many Syrians from a wide range of backgrounds who are still fighting for the original goals of the revolution.”

Shami added, “Syria has had so many heroes, but people often don’t know who they are.” [Continue reading…]


Aleppo erupts in protests following temporary ceasefire

Riad Alarian reports: After the ceasefire negotiated by the United States and Russia collapsed on September 19, 2016, the Syrian regime and its Russian allies steadily intensified their ongoing bombing campaign against Aleppo. Since then, as many as 740 civilians have been killed, while at least 1900 others have been injured, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On October 20, 2016, the Syrian and Russian governments instituted another (extremely short-lived) ceasefire. According to Reuters, the “unilateral ceasefire backed by Russia had come into force to allow people to leave besieged eastern Aleppo, a move rejected by rebels who say they are preparing a counter-offensive to break the blockade.”

The purpose behind this ostensibly humanitarian gesture is, however, deeply sinister, and will likely end in even more bloodshed. Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based Syria analyst, argues in News Deeply that “as with previous cease-fires, this is an escalation – part of an overall military solution to the conflict – masquerading as diplomacy and humanitarianism.”

In Nashashibi’s view, the ceasefire’s purpose “is to facilitate the capture of eastern Aleppo by encouraging rebels to abandon their positions, before ramping up the previous onslaught under the pretext that those remaining in rebel-held areas are either fighters or sympathizers.” It should come as absolutely no surprise, therefore, that rebels and residents of the city alike are holding their ground and choosing not to leave.

The city’s residents not only refused to evacuate, but also mobilized a series of protests echoing the very same demands that sparked the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad five years ago, namely, for freedom and liberty from the tyranny of the regime and its allies.

While these protests have received little attention, they are hardly new. During periods of calm in besieged areas of Syria, protests usually break out. In March of this year, for example, Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama were engulfed in mass protests calling for the fall of the Assad regime, both in between and during periods of constant shelling. [Continue reading…]



Bring Syria’s Assad and his backers to account now

John Allen and Charles R. Lister* write: For 5½ years, the Syrian government has tortured, shot, bombed and gassed its own people with impunity, with the resulting human cost clear for all to see: nearly 500,000 dead and 11 million displaced. Since Russia’s military intervention began one year ago, conditions have worsened, with more than 1 million people living in 40 besieged communities. Thirty-seven of those are imposed by pro-government forces.

While subjecting his people to unspeakable medieval-style brutality, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has sabotaged diplomatic initiatives aimed at bringing a lasting calm to his country. The most recent such diplomatic scheme was trashed not just by Assad, but also Russia, whose aircraft were accused of subjecting a U.N.-mandated aid convoy to a ferocious two-hour attack in September.

Since then, at least 2,500 people have been killed and wounded in eastern districts of Aleppo, amid horrendous bombardment by Syrian and Russian aircraft, and Russia cynically vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have prohibited further airstrikes in the city.

It is time for the United States to act more assertively on Syria, to further four justifiable objectives: to end mass civilian killing; to protect what remains of the moderate opposition; to undermine extremist narratives of Western indifference to injustice; and to force Assad to the negotiating table. The United States should not be in the business of regime change, but the Assad clique and its backers must be brought to account before it is too late. The world will not forgive us for our inaction.

The consequences of continued inaction are dreadful. U.S. policy has never sought to decisively influence the tactical situation on the ground. Unrealistic limitations on vetting and a policy that prohibited arming groups to fight the regime left us unable to effectively fight the Islamic State or to move Assad toward a transition. U.S. policy and strategy on Syria had a major disconnect, in being focused militarily on a group that was a symptom of the civil war without any means to achieve the stated policy objective: Assad’s departure. [Continue reading…]

*John Allen, a retired U.S. Marine general, led the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 and the international coalition to counter the Islamic State from 2014 to 2015. Charles R. Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.


Senior administration official says Obama is ‘giving the Russians time to finish the job in Aleppo’

Josh Rogin writes: At last Friday’s National Security Council meeting on the Middle East, top Obama administration officials tabled any decisions on whether to increase the U.S. response to the ongoing Syrian and Russian aerial bombardment of civilians in Aleppo, The Post reported earlier this week. The administration prioritized discussing the new Iraqi-led offensive against the Islamic State in Mosul and the future offensive in Raqqa, for which planning is already underway.

But despite what Secretary of State John F. Kerry has called ongoing Syrian and Russian war crimes in Aleppo, there was no action on any of the several options discussed at lower-level administration meetings, including but not limited to limited strikes against the Assad regime’s air force or an increase in the quantity or quality of arms provided to the moderate Syrian rebels in the area.

One senior administration official pointed toward the slow pace of the bureaucracy in responding to the Aleppo crisis as evidence the White House has decided that Aleppo can’t be saved and therefore the United States should not try.

“They are giving the Russians time to finish the job in Aleppo, in part to tie the hands of the next president,” the official told me. [Continue reading…]


Inquiry finds Syrian government forces responsible for third gas attack

Reuters reports: An international inquiry found Syrian government forces responsible for a third toxic gas attack, according to a confidential report submitted to the U.N. Security Council on Friday, setting the stage for a showdown between Russia and western council members over how to respond.

The fourth report from the 13-month-long inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical weapons watchdog, blamed Syrian government forces for a toxic gas attack in Qmenas in Idlib governorate on March 16, 2015, according to a text of the report seen by Reuters.

The third report by the inquiry in August blamed the Syrian government for two chlorine attacks – in Talmenes on April 21, 2014 and Sarmin on March 16, 2015 – and said Islamic State militants had used sulfur mustard gas.

The results set the stage for a Security Council showdown between the five veto-wielding powers, likely pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France over how those responsible should be held accountable. [Continue reading…]


The siege starts without warning

Miljenko Jergovic writes: I woke one morning 24 years ago to find a war all around me. The night before I had been at a concert for the Partybreakers, a punk band from Belgrade. I’d had too much beer and I had a headache. Bursts of gunfire were audible, along with the explosions of the mortar shells that would rain down on Sarajevo for the next three and a half years.

I don’t know what it was like when the war first came to Aleppo, Syria. Only the people still living there do — thousands of men, women and children who have now been under siege for years. From the perspective of an ordinary citizen, let’s say a 25 year old with literary and musical interests, the siege starts without warning and comes out of nowhere.

Yes, the papers and the TV have been reporting for months about how the situation in the country is growing more complicated, how conflict is brewing among political opponents, and how in the provinces there has already been fighting. But as long as a city continues to live its normal, placid life, which is the sort of life it lives up until the very last instant and the final quiet evening, war seems impossible. You look at your dog and your books, the spider in the corner of your room spinning a web that tomorrow will catch its first little fly, and you can’t imagine that the next morning all this, including the dog and the spider, will be caught up in war.

At the beginning of Bosnia’s war, Sarajevo had some 400,000 inhabitants. Aleppo, before its war, was five times larger. Sarajevo was founded about five centuries ago. Aleppo is one of the oldest cities on earth, in the part of the world that brings together Europe and the East, where the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — were born and grew up. It was there at the emergence of our civilization. Not so long ago, just 150 years back, the two cities were under the same monarch. Sarajevo was the last great city at the western boundary of the Ottoman Empire, while Aleppo was the greatest city on its eastern side.

But none of that is important to an ordinary citizen who is just trying to get through another day of a siege. When the war began, that person probably believed that reason would never allow the bombing and destruction of such a place as Aleppo. We in Sarajevo had the same illusion. [Continue reading…]