Birth of a second Hezbollah? Where Iran stands in a post-war Syria

Shahir Shahidsaless writes: Iran’s doctrine in Syria and Iraq is that “if we don’t defend our strongholds outside of our borders we will have to fight our enemies inside our borders”. Accordingly, Iran heavily invested in Syria. Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, has previously estimated that Iran spends $6bn annually in the Syrian war.

According to IRGC officials, the largest Iranian contribution has been the organising of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia. According to several independent reports, at any given time, there are an estimated 50,000 National Defence Force fighters under arms in Syria.

In May 2014, Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who had reportedly supervised the funding for the NDF, said that Iran had organised roughly 70,000 pro-Assad NDF fighters into 42 groups and 128 battalions. Hamedani was killed near Aleppo in 2015.

In addition, numerous reports confirm that the Fatemiyoun Brigade – composed of thousands of Afghan Shias who fight under the auspices of Hezbollah Afghanistan, the Zaynabiyoun Brigade (the Pakistani version of Fatemiyoun), Hezbollah of Lebanon, and the militia group Kataib Hezbollah of Iraq – are actively involved in the Syrian war under the Iranian IRGC’s direct control.

Modelled after the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the experience of coordinating with proxy militias in Iraq, this large, battle-hardened paramilitary base in Syria will provide assurance to Iran by emerging as a decisive political force in Syria once the war is settled, no matter which government is in power as it happened in Lebanon and Iraq.

This simply means the birth of a second Hezbollah and an Iranian foothold right in Israel’s backyard with Syria. [Continue reading…]

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How far could the dangerous endgame in eastern Syria go?

The Washington Post reports: The war against the Islamic State always promised to get messy in its final stages, as the militants retreat and rival forces converge from different directions. That moment has arrived.

World powers and their local allies are scrambling to control the remote desert province of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, in an accelerating race that is being compared to the fall of Berlin in 1945.

Under Islamic State control since 2014, the province is three times the size of Lebanon and consists mostly of empty desert. It also happens to contain most of Syria’s oil resources. But much more is at stake: the future contours of postwar Syria; Kurdish aspirations to some form of autonomy; and the competition for influence in the Middle East among the United States, Iran and Russia.

On the ground the combatants fall into two camps: one backed by Russia and Iran, the other by the United States and its allies.

Advancing from the north are the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a Kurdish-led coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces that is expanding the boundaries of the autonomous area they have carved out farther north. They are accompanied by American Special Operations troops and backed by U.S. airstrikes.

Making rapid progress from the east are the Syrian government and its allies, accompanied by Russian and Iranian advisers and backed by Russian airstrikes. They’re fulfilling President Bashar al-Assad’s goal of reasserting Syrian sovereignty over every inch of Syria — and also making sure the United States stays out. [Continue reading…]

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With Assad’s fate secure, Russia sets its sights on ISIS fighters in Syria

The Guardian reports: The head of the Russian army in Syria has said the defeat of Islamic State in the country is imminent during a visit to a strategically located town recently recaptured from Isis by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

“All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating Isis in Syria,” said Lt Gen Alexander Lapin, standing amid heavy security outside the building of a former Isis sharia court, adorned with the extremist group’s black-and-white logo. “I can promise you that no Isis terrorist will ever set foot in this town again.”

Okeirbat was regained by forces loyal to the Syrian government on 2 September after a three-month assault amid intensive Russian airstrikes. Recapturing the town enabled government-backed forces to push forward towards breaking the long-standing siege on Deir ez-Zor, in the east of the country.

Russia entered the conflict on the side of Assad’s government in September 2015 at a time when the regime looked close to falling. Although Moscow’s stated goal has always been to defeat Isis, during the first year of engagement the majority of Russian airstrikes targeted other opposition groups, including those supported by western countries.

Russia’s long-standing policy in the Middle East has been that retaining the status quo, however unpleasant the regime may be, is always better than revolution, and the Russian intervention appeared designed to shore up the Assad regime at any cost. [Continue reading…]

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Moscow flaunts might against fading ISIS as it alters balance of power in Syria

The Guardian reports: “I recommend you to look in that direction,” said Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov with a smile, gesturing at the Mediterranean waters from aboard the Admiral Essen naval frigate.

Moments later, two whooshes of noise and smoke heralded the launch of seven cruise missiles by two submarines from Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

The Kalibr missiles, each with a half-tonne payload, hit Islamic State targets to the south-east of Deir ez-Zor around midday on Thursday, roughly an hour after launch, Konashenkov said. The town is a key strategic outpost in eastern Syria, where the Islamist fighters are in retreat. Opposition activists later said that at least 39 civilians were killed in airstrikes by Russian and US-backed coalition forces across the country.

Viewing the missile launch was the latest element of a tour for a group of Russian and foreign journalists, including the Guardian, of Russian activities in Syria, designed to show that Moscow is in control of both war and the peace in the country. [Continue reading…]

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Protecting civilians critical to Syria talks’ success

Sara Kayyali writes: “They will kill us all,” Ahmad, a Syrian aid worker, told me last month, referring to the many armed parties to the Syrian conflict.

We were talking about Idlib, a province in northwest Syria that is home to around 2 million people, about half of whom are displaced, and is mostly under the control of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), widely acknowledged to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. Ahmad is from Idlib and had seen the province go through everything from airstrikes, to chemical attacks, to suicide bombers – a microcosm of the violence that is the Syrian conflict. Still, he believed the worst was yet to come.

There have been announcements that Russia, Iran, and Turkey will be making progress on a de-escalation zone in Idlib as part of the Syria negotiations taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan this week. But Ahmad’s concerns about the area where he is operating highlight the fear that over the past six years of the Syrian conflict, the urgent need to protect civilians has been sidelined in most of the international negotiations. The series of de-escalation agreements aimed at securing peace have unfortunately been no exception.

The talks in Astana have been the most ambitious to date. Russia has brought on board two of the key outside military actors in Syria – Turkey and Iran – to participate. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah declares Syria victory

Reuters reports: The Syrian government’s powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah has declared victory in the Syrian war, dismissing remaining fighting as “scattered battles”, a pro-Hezbollah newspaper reported on Tuesday.

The comments by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah mark one of the most confident assessments yet by the government side as it regains swathes of territory in eastern Syria in a rapid advance against Islamic State.

Referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, Nasrallah said “the path of the other project has failed and wants to negotiate for some gains”, the al-Akhbar newspaper cited him saying at a religious gathering.

“We have won in the war (in Syria)…and what remains are scattered battles,” said Nasrallah, whose Iran-backed group has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to support Assad. [Continue reading…]

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After Russia, Iran seeks deal for long-term Syria garrison, says Israel

Reuters reports: The Israeli intelligence minister said on Monday that President Bashar al-Assad was ready to permit Iran to set up military bases in Syria that would pose a long-term threat to neighbouring Israel.

While formally neutral on the six-year-old Syrian civil war, Israel worries that Assad’s recent gains have given his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies a foothold on its northern front.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lobbied Russia, Assad’s most powerful backer, and the United States to curb the Iranian presence in Syria — as well as hinting that Israel could launch preemptive strikes against its arch-foe there.

In July, Moscow ratified a deal under which Damascus allowed the Russian air base in Syria’s Latakia Province to remain for almost half a century. Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said Iran could soon gain similar rights. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed forces announce anti-ISIS push in Syria’s oil-rich east

The Washington Post reports: U.S.-backed forces in Syria announced a fresh offensive around the Islamic State’s most important remaining stronghold Saturday, accelerating a global scramble for control of the country’s oil-rich east.

Islamic State militants are under pressure from all sides in the border province of Deir al-Zour, facing down competing offensives involving almost all of the six-year war’s major players, as the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate crumbles across Syria and Iraq.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated militia supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, said Saturday that they would clear the Islamist militants from territory east of the Euphrates River. [Continue reading…]

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Why white nationalists love Bashar al-Assad

Mariam Elba writes: It shouldn’t be surprising that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has become an idol among white nationalists in the United States.

During the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally several weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, Baked Alaska, an infamous far-right YouTuber, livestreamed an encounter with a demonstrator wearing a T-shirt that read “Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.” The shirt alluded to the Assad regime’s frequent, horrific use of barrel bombs — weapons employed to indiscriminately target rebel-held areas of Syria.

That rally-goer shouted, “Support the Syrian Arab Army!” and “Assad did nothing wrong!” They gloated over how Assad can “solve this whole ISIS problem” with just two chemical bombs. James Fields, the 20-year-old white supremacist who allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, posted a portrait of Assad, in military regalia and aviator sunglasses to Facebook. A superimposed caption read: “UNDEFEATED.”

There’s a simple explanation for how the American far-right became curiously infatuated with the Arab totalitarian leader: Their hearts were won over by the Assad family’s years-old propaganda campaign at home in Syria. Assad’s authoritarianism uses the same buzzwords as the far-right to describe the society he’s trying to build in his own country — a pure, monolithic society of devotees to his own power. American neo-Nazis see Assad as a hero.

As the chaos of Charlottesville and its aftermath was unfolding, Assad addressed a group of diplomats in Damascus about the ongoing war in Syria. “We lost many of our youth and infrastructure,” he said, “but we gained a healthier and more homogenous society.”

Whereas white nationalists aim to create a healthy and homogeneous society through racial purity, for Assad it means a society free of any kind of political dissent, excluding any Syrian living outside the territory his regime controls. Anyone who does not fit Assad’s specific definition of what it means to be Syrian is up for execution.

Alexander Reid Ross, a lecturer of geography at Portland State University and author of the new book, “Against the Fascist Creep,” said Assad is a figure that is central to a realization of “Eurasianism.” The notion “holds that Russia will lead the world out of a dark age of materialism and toward an ultranationalist rebirth of homogenous ethno-states federated under a heterogeneous spiritual empire,” Reid Ross said. [Continue reading…]

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Israel hits Syrian site said to be linked to chemical weapons

Reuters reports: Israel attacked a military site in Syria’s Hama province early on Thursday, the Syrian army said, and a war monitoring group said the target could be linked to chemical weapons production.

The air strike killed two soldiers and caused damage near the town of Masyaf, an army statement said. It warned of the “dangerous repercussions of this aggressive action to the security and stability of the region”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said the attack was on a facility of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, an agency which the United States describes as Syria’s chemical weapons manufacturer.

It came the morning after U.N. investigators said the Syrian government was responsible for a sarin poison gas attack in April. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. role in the fight to oust ISIS from Raqqa raises questions about what will follow victory

Borzou Daragahi reports: The Trump administration has dramatically increased US military and political involvement in northern Syria, providing air and ground support to local forces camped out in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Raqqa as they seek to oust ISIS from the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Under President Donald Trump, the US-led coalition has developed closer coordination with a collection of militias and tribes called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), directing air and ground assaults. Senior State Department and USAID officials have visited Raqqa’s outskirts to coordinate efforts to help displaced civilians and secure the city’s future once ISIS is driven out. US officials have also carved out a semipermanent diplomatic presence close to the northern Syrian city of Kobane.

US and other Western security officials grill captured ISIS fighters, most of them held at a prison near Kobane, to glean intelligence on the jihadis, their future plans, and their ties to other fighters in the Middle East and the West, according to SDF fighters and Kurdish intelligence officials, as well as a former US military official. The efforts have made Trump popular among many of Syria’s autonomy-minded Kurds, with some praising him as a patron of their project to build a self-ruled enclave.

The ground war, launched late last year with skirmishes on the outskirts of Raqqa before reaching the city in early June, has become a grueling street battle, with tens of thousands of Syrian militiamen approaching from the east, west, and south. Each day, the SDF — a multiethnic, multireligious collection force mostly led by Kurdish commanders — struggles to force its way into the city, while US-led coalition planes circle overhead and laser-guided howitzer artillery guns manned by Marines stand ready. The SDF is strongly under the sway of the YPG, a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a fact that creates huge tensions with the US’s NATO partner Turkey and may precipitate a raft of political problems once ISIS is defeated. But for now the SDF’s fighters are Washington’s best allies in northern Syria, risking their lives under extreme conditions in the slow, brutal effort to take Raqqa.

ISIS has controlled Raqqa for more than three years, building a network of tunnels, secret passages, and fortified positions. Field commanders say the fight isn’t just house to house, it’s often room to room. There is Raqqa, and then a second Raqqa hidden underground and in the cracks, said one commander who described a 14-hour battle just to get to the second floor of a building after taking control of the first floor. Unlike Iraqi troops operating in the recently liberated city of Mosul, few if any of the SDF fighters have body armor. [Continue reading…]

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UN report: Syrian government forces used chemical weapons more than two dozen times

Reuters reports: Government forces have used chemical weapons more than two dozen times during Syria’s civil war, including in April’s deadly attack on Khan Sheikhoun, U.N. war crimes investigators said on Wednesday.

A government warplane dropped sarin on the town in Idlib province, killing more than 80 civilians, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said, in the most conclusive findings to date from investigations into that chemical weapon attack.

The panel also said U.S. air strikes on a mosque in Al-Jina in rural Aleppo in March that killed 38 people, including children, failed to take precautions in violation of international law, but did not constitute a war crime.

The weapons used on Khan Sheikhoun were previously identified as containing sarin, an odourless nerve agent. But that conclusion, reached by a fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), did not say who was responsible.

“Government forces continued the pattern of using chemical weapons against civilians in opposition-held areas. In the gravest incident, the Syrian air force used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, killing dozens, the majority of whom were women and children,” the U.N. report said, declaring the attack a war crime. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: ‘Deadly labyrinth’ traps civilians trying to flee Raqqa battle against ISIS

Amnesty International reports: Thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa, northern Syria, are coming under fire from all sides as the battle for control of the city enters its final stage, Amnesty International said following an in-depth investigation on the ground. The warring parties must prioritize protecting them from hostilities and creating safe ways for them to flee the frontline.

In a report released today, the organization documents how hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since an offensive began in June to recapture the “capital” and main stronghold of the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS).

Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty International that they faced IS booby traps and snipers targeting anyone trying to flee, as well as a constant barrage of artillery strikes and airstrikes by the US-led coalition forces fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armed group. At the same time, survivors recounted how Russian-backed Syrian government forces also bombarded civilians in villages and camps south of the river, including with internationally banned cluster bombs.

“As the battle to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State intensifies, thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides. Knowing that IS use civilians as human shields, SDF and US forces must redouble efforts to protect civilians, notably by avoiding disproportionate or indiscriminate strikes and creating safe exit routes,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who led the on-the-ground investigation. [Continue reading…]

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Living in a void: life in Damascus after the exodus

Khaled Khalifa writes: My sister, whom I haven’t seen for more than two years, told me she was going to cross the sea in a rubber dinghy. She hung up, not wanting to hear what I thought. She merely said something profound and sentimental and entrusted her three children to my care in the event that she drowned. A few minutes later I tried to call the unfamiliar Turkish number back, but the phone had been turned off. Hundreds of images from our childhood flooded my memory. It’s not easy to say goodbye to half a century of your life and wait for someone you love to drown. My fingers and toes felt cold and my head empty, and I didn’t feel able to argue anyway. What can one offer a woman who has lost her home and everything she owns and, not wanting to lose her children too, carried them off into exile to seek a safe haven in Turkey? Things are not easy for a woman like her there. She looks like millions of other Syrian women and does not have any special skills. All that’s left is the hope of asylum, even if it requires crossing the sea in a rubber dinghy. It’s as if she’s trying to tell me something I know already – that the sea is Syrians’ only hope.

Maybe it was luck that saved my sister. She didn’t drown, and she found friends to help her in Greece and in the other countries she passed through. She certainly didn’t talk about unpleasant experiences with traffickers fleecing her out of what little money she had or leaving her destitute in an airport waiting room. In any case, she eventually reached her destination, and in Denmark found another group of friends who could provide support. Some of her fellow adventurers had drowned in scenes of unimaginable horror. Death may take many forms, but the bleakest and blackest of them all is death by drowning, which is a complete denial of everything the human body stands for. The drowned body becomes food for the fishes of the sea, and dissolves like salt in a bowl of water.

In the days that followed, I received similar messages from my younger brother, who had left his home in Aleppo and gone to Mersin in southern Turkey. From there, he left his family and sailed alone, embarking on an arduous journey that took him from Greece to Italy and finally to Sweden. Then came an endless stream of phone calls from friends and close relatives, such as my cousins, all telling me they were about to set sail. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led airstrikes are killing hundreds of civilians in the battle for ISIS-held Raqqa

The Washington Post reports: U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria are killing hundreds of civilians each month, according to monitoring groups, deepening already grave concerns for thousands of families trapped inside the city.

At least 725 civilians have been killed in coalition airstrikes since the offensive to retake Raqqa began June 6, according to Airwars, a London-based monitoring organization that works with local activists, human rights groups and the Pentagon.

“We had been flagging for months prior to the offensive that far more civilians were dying around Raqqa than we would have expected even a few months earlier,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars.

“Since the assault began, we have seen a casualty count that is relatively high compared to the rest of the coalition’s war against ISIS,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. “In Raqqa, this means high numbers of identifiable civilians, many of them women and children.” [Continue reading…]

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North Korea shipments to Syria chemical arms agency intercepted

Reuters reports: Two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country’s chemical weapons programme were intercepted in the past six months, according to a confidential United Nations report on North Korea sanctions violations.

The report by a panel of independent U.N. experts, which was submitted to the U.N. Security Council earlier this month and seen by Reuters on Monday, gave no details on when or where the interdictions occurred or what the shipments contained.

“The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK (North Korea),” the experts wrote in the 37-page report. [Continue reading…]

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Small wonder: The global fascist love affair with the Assad regime

Alex Rowell writes: When the neo-Nazi who smashed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia – killing a woman and injuring many others – was found to have posted a Facebook photo supportive of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, more than a few lay observers were left scratching their heads.

Adding to the confusion were videos from the scene showing fellow white supremacists in Charlottesville voicing sympathies for Assad (‘Assad’s the man, brother! Assad’s the man!’); one even wearing a t-shirt depicting a helicopter next to the words, ‘Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.’.

That the fascist mob should be enamoured of President Trump seemed comprehensible enough. But why should they be keen on a non-Aryan, non-Christian – indeed, Arab and Muslim, no less – leader with ties to such notorious Islamist entities as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

‘Syria’s Assad has become an unexpected icon of the far right in America’, declared a Washington Post headline, in a nod at the general puzzlement. This was a fine article but an unfortunate title, for it was only ‘unexpected’ for those unaware of Damascus’ open courtship of the global far-right stretching back many years now (the headline was later amended to remove the word ‘unexpected’). [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s Assad has become an icon of the far right in America

The Washington Post reports: Among the postings on what might have been the Facebook page of James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car that killed a counterprotester at the right-wing demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. on Saturday, were images of far-right favorite Pepe the Frog, swastikas and a baby portrait of Adolf Hitler, according to BuzzFeed.

Perhaps more surprisingly, there was also reportedly a picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in full military uniform, inscribed underneath with the word “undefeated.”

Screenshots of the now-inaccessible profile were widely circulated on social media on Saturday and Sunday, although the account’s authenticity could not be confirmed. But the apparent fascination with Assad would fit a more general link between the far right and the Syrian regime that has grown increasingly pronounced in recent months and played a role throughout this weekend’s white nationalist rally in Virginia.

Assad’s politics — and those of his father before him — have historically been associated more with the left than the right. His late father, President Hafez al-Assad, was the closest Middle East ally of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. The son has enjoyed the stalwart support of international leftists throughout his attempt to crush the six-year-old rebellion against his rule.

In recent months, however, Assad has become an icon also for the far right, whose leaders and spokesman have heaped praise on the ferocity with which he has prosecuted the war, his role in fighting the Islamic State and his perceived stance against Muslims and Jews. [Continue reading…]

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Talking to Syrian refugees

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: Everyone talks about Syrians, but very few actually talk to them. Perhaps that’s why Syria’s revolution and war have been so badly misunderstood in the west – variously as a US-led regime-change plot, an ancient Sunni-Shia conflict or a struggle between secularism and jihadism.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled bucks the trend. Here the story is told entirely through the mouths of Wendy Pearlman’s Syrian interviewees, hundreds of them, from all social backgrounds, Christians and Muslims, Ismailis and Druze, rural and urban, middle class and poor. These best of all possible informants – the people who made the events, and who suffer the consequences – provide not only gripping eyewitness accounts but erudite analysis and sober reflection.

The introduction, alongside a concise overview of developments from 1970 to the present, describes Pearlman’s method. She interviewed refugees (who are therefore overwhelmingly anti-regime) in locations ranging from Jordan to Germany. And she interviewed them in Arabic, enabling “a connection that would have been impossible had I relied on an interpreter”. The result is testament both to Syrian expressive powers and the translation’s high literary standard.

These heart-stopping tales of torment and triumph are perfectly enchained, chronologically and thematically, to reflect the course of the crisis. They begin with life under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, “not a government but a mafia”, when children were trained to lie for their family’s security. “It was a state of terror,” says Ilyas, a dentist. “Every citizen was terrified. The regime was also terrified.” [Continue reading…]

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