Syria’s war has deadliest month this year

BBC News reports: September has been the deadliest month in Syria’s civil war so far this year, a monitoring group has said.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said more than 3,300 people had died in September, including 995 civilians.

Of those civilian deaths, it said about 70% were caused by Russian, Syrian government, or coalition air strikes.
The group bases its casualty reports on information provided by a network of activists in Syria.

It counted 207 children among the civilian dead, along with some 790 pro-government fighters, more than 700 from so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliates, and some 550 rebels. [Continue reading…]

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The ‘sectarianization’ of the Middle East

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Is the Middle East destined to fragment?

Robin Wright writes: Pity the Kurds. Theirs is a history of epic betrayals. A century ago, the world reneged on a vow to give them their own state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The rugged mountain people were instead dispersed into the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with another block left in Iran. Since then, all three countries have repressed their Kurds. Saddam Hussein was so intent on Arabizing Iraq’s Kurdistan that he paid Arab families to unearth long-dead relatives and rebury them in Kurdish territory—creating evidence to claim Arab rights to the land. He also razed four thousand Kurdish villages and executed a hundred thousand of the region’s inhabitants, some with chemical weapons. Syria stripped its Kurds of citizenship, making them foreigners in their own lands and depriving them of rights to state education, property ownership, jobs, and even marriage. Turkey repeatedly—sometimes militarily—crushed Kurdish political movements; for decades, the Kurdish language was banned, as was the very word “Kurd” to describe Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. They were instead known as “mountain Turks.”

Iraq’s Kurds got a bit of revenge this week. In a historic but controversial referendum, more than ninety per cent of voters endorsed a proposal to secede and declare their own country. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” the President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, vowed on the eve of the poll. Jubilation erupted. Waving their distinctive flag—three stripes of red, white, and green, with a blazing golden sun in the center—Kurds across northern Iraq took to the streets.

The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East: Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon. Meanwhile, the outside world has invested vast resources, with several countries forking out billions of dollars in military equipment, billions more in aid, and thousands of hours of diplomacy—on the assumption that places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya can still work as currently configured. The list of outside powers that have tried to shape the region’s future is long—from the United States and its European allies to the Russian-Iran axis and many of the Middle East’s oil-rich powers. All have, so far, failed at forging hopeful direction.

They’ve also failed to confront the obvious: Do the people in these countries want to stay together? Do people who identify proudly as Syrians, for example, all define “Syria” the same way? And are they willing to surrender their political, tribal, racial, ethnic, or sectarian identities in order to forge a common good and a stable nation?

The long-term impact of these destructive centrifugal forces is far from clear. But, given the blood spilled over the past six years, primordial forces seem to be prevailing at the moment, and not only among the Kurds. “The only people who want to hold Iraq together,” Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, opined to me recently, “are those who don’t live in Iraq.” That sentiment is echoed, if not as concisely, elsewhere.

The challenge is addressing the flip side: If these countries, most of them modern creations, are dysfunctional or in danger of failing, what then will work to restore some semblance of normalcy to an ever more volatile region? No major player, in the region or the wider world, seems to be exploring solutions. [Continue reading…]

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Inside the ruins of Raqqa

Quentin Sommerville and Riam Dalati report: There is a moment in the journey into Raqqa when you leave the real world behind. After the bombed-out Samra bridge, any signs of normal life vanish.

Turn right at the shop that once sold gravestones – its owner is long gone – and you are inside the city.

Ahead lies nothing but destruction and grey dust and rubble.

This is a place drained of colour, of life, and of people. In six days inside Raqqa, I didn’t see a single civilian.

They are somewhere inside, trapped by the so-called Islamic State and the Western coalition’s bombing campaign.

IS uses them as human shields, and as bait, to lure out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It seems that not a single building has escaped the onslaught. Many have been crushed, flattened, or knocked to one side by the Western coalition’s air strikes and artillery.

It is a barrage that never ceases. More than two dozen air strikes a day, and hundreds of shells fall on the city.

Their target is the last men of the Islamic State. There may be as few as 400 left. [Continue reading…]

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The Syrian war is far from over. But the endgame is already playing out

The Washington Post reports: Six years after the eruption of the armed rebellion aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian war is limping toward a conclusion — one that leaves many questions unanswered and many battles still to be fought, but a resolution of sorts nonetheless.

That Assad would prevail on the battlefield has been evident for years — since at least 2015, when Russia intervened to prop up his flagging army, and probably well before that, after the rebels failed to capitalize on their early momentum.

The absence of resolve on the part of the international community to prevent an Assad victory has also been clear for some time, perhaps as early as the first failed Geneva peace talks in 2014 and certainly since the government’s recapture of Aleppo in December heralded the collapse of the Obama administration’s diplomacy.

Those realities are now in the process of being cemented, bringing the blurred outlines of an endgame into view.

“The war as we knew it is over. What’s left now is dividing the cake,” said Joe Macaron, an analyst at the Arab Policy Center in Washington.

Under the scenario that is emerging, Assad remains in power indefinitely, there is no meaningful political settlement to remove or redeem him, and the war grinds on.

It is a bleak outlook, foreshadowing an unstable Syria mired in at least low-level conflict for years to come, its towns and cities in ruins, its people impoverished, and its economy starved of the funding it needs to rebuild the country. [Continue reading…]

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How fake news turned a small town upside down

Caitlin Dickerson reports: On a Tuesday morning in June 2016, Nathan Brown, a reporter for The Times-News, the local paper in Twin Falls, Idaho, strolled into the office and cleared off a spot for his coffee cup amid the documents and notebooks piled on his desk. Brown, 32, started his career at a paper in upstate New York, where he grew up, and looks the part of a local reporter, clad in a fresh oxford and khakis that tend to become disheveled over the course of his long days. His first order of business was an article about a City Council meeting from the night before, which he hadn’t attended. Brown pulled up a recording of the proceedings and began punching out notes for his weekly article. Because most governing in Twin Falls is done by a city manager, these meetings tend to deal with trivial subjects like lawn-watering and potholes, but Brown could tell immediately that this one was different.

“We have been made aware of a situation,” said the first speaker, an older man with a scraggly white beard who had hobbled up to the lectern. “An alleged assault of a minor child and we can’t get any information on it. Apparently, it’s been indicated that the perpetrators were foreign Muslim youth that conducted this — I guess it was a rape.” Brown recognized the man as Terry Edwards. About a year earlier, after The Times-News reported that Syrian refugees would very likely be resettled in Twin Falls, Edwards joined a movement to shut the resettlement program down. The group circulated a petition to put the proposal before voters. They failed to get enough signatures to force a referendum, but Brown was struck by how much support around town the movement attracted. In bars after work, he began to overhear conversations about the dangers of Islam. One night, he heard a man joke about dousing the entrance to the local mosque with pig’s blood.

After he finished watching the video, Brown called the police chief, Craig Kingsbury, to get more information about the case. Kingsbury said that he couldn’t discuss it and that the police reports were sealed because minors were involved. Brown made a couple phone calls: to the mayor and to his colleague at the paper who covers crime. He pieced together that 12 days earlier, three children had been discovered partly clothed inside a shared laundry room at the apartment complex where they lived. There were two boys, a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old, and a 5-year-old girl. The 7-year-old boy was accused of attempting some kind of sex act with the 5-year-old, and the 10-year-old had used a cellphone borrowed from his older brother to record it. The girl was American and, like most people in Twin Falls, white. The boys were refugees; Brown wasn’t sure from where. In his article about the meeting, Brown seems to anticipate that the police chief’s inability to elaborate was not going to sit well with the people whose testimony he had just watched.

That weekend, Brown was on his way to see a movie when he received a Facebook message from Jim Dalos Jr., a 52-year-old known to Twin Falls journalists and police as Scanner Man. Dalos is disabled; he works six hours a week as a dishwasher at a pizzeria but spends most of his time in his apartment, sitting in a reclining chair and drinking Diet Pepsi out of a 52-ounce plastic mug, voraciously consuming news. He reads the local paper, old issues of which litter his living-room floor, and keeps the television blaring — usually Fox News. He got his nickname because he constantly monitors an old police scanner, a gift he received as a teenager from his father, and often calls in tips to the media based on what he hears. He also happens to live at the apartment complex, Fawnbrook, where the laundry-room incident occurred.

Dalos told Brown that he had seen the police around Fawnbrook and that the victim’s mother told him that the boys had been arrested. He also pointed Brown to a couple of Facebook groups that were created in response to the crime. Brown scrolled through them on his cellphone and saw links flying back and forth with articles that said that the little girl had been gang raped at knife point, that the perpetrators were Syrian refugees and that their fathers had celebrated with them afterward by giving them high fives. The stories also claimed that the City Council and the police department were conspiring to bury the crime.

Over the weekend, Brown plowed through his daily packs of cigarettes as he watched hundreds, then thousands, of people joining the groups. Their panic appeared to be piqued by a mass shooting, the deadliest in American history, that had just occurred at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The perpetrator had declared allegiance to ISIS. The commenters also posted stories that claimed refugees were responsible for a rash of rapes in Europe and that a similar phenomenon in the United States was imminent. “My girl is blond and blue-eyed,” one woman wrote. “I am extremely worried about her safety.”

The details of the Fawnbrook case, as it became known, were still unclear to Brown, but he was skeptical of what he was reading. For one thing, he knew from his own previous reporting that no Syrians had been resettled in Twin Falls after all. He woke up early on Monday to get a head start on clarifying things as much as possible in order to write a follow-up article. Before he got into the office, a friend texted him, telling him to check the Drudge Report. At the top, a headline screamed: “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.” [Continue reading…]

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New order indefinitely bars almost all travel from seven countries

The New York Times reports: President Trump on Sunday issued a new order indefinitely banning almost all travel to the United States from seven countries, including most of the nations covered by his original travel ban, citing threats to national security posed by letting their citizens into the country.

The new order is more far-reaching than the president’s original travel ban, imposing permanent restrictions on travel, rather than the 90-day suspension that Mr. Trump authorized soon after taking office. But officials said his new action was the result of a deliberative, rigorous examination of security risks that was designed to avoid the chaotic rollout of his first ban. And the addition of non-Muslim countries could address the legal attacks on earlier travel restrictions as discrimination based on religion.

Starting next month, most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea will be banned from entering the United States, Mr. Trump said in a proclamation released Sunday night. Citizens of Iraq and some groups of people in Venezuela who seek to visit the United States will face restrictions or heightened scrutiny.

Mr. Trump’s original travel ban caused turmoil at airports in January and set off a furious legal challenge to the president’s authority. It was followed in March by a revised ban, which expired on Sunday even as the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about its constitutionality on Oct. 10. The new order — Chad, North Korea and Venezuela are new to the list of affected countries and Sudan has been dropped — will take effect Oct. 18. [Continue reading…]

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Few ideas, less hope leave Syria crisis on back burner at UN

Reuters reports: At the entrance to the United Nations building in New York a sign advertises an upcoming party to celebrate the end of the annual gathering of world leaders. Next to it a weathered box with crumpled papers urges people to donate for Syrian refugees.

The contrast is striking a year after nations jousted verbally for a week in the same halls attempting to strike a ceasefire deal as Russia and Iran backed Syrian government troops in a brutal advance on the then rebel bastion of Aleppo.

But tensions in the Korean Peninsula and a growing crisis over the fate of a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers has relegated talk of resolving the six-year-old Syrian civil war to back rooms and bilateral chitchat as international diplomacy struggles to find a strategy to end the crisis.

On the ground, violence between government forces and rebels has been drastically reduced after the creation of ‘de-escalation zones’ in the west of the country negotiated between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. A separate effort between Russia, Jordan and the United States has also helped in the south.

Its backers say the zones have restored some security to Syrians and open the way for local reconciliation. Its detractors warn that they will fragment the country and lead to a more radicalised opposition.

“You don’t have the U.S. and the Europeans around the table and that is a huge defeat for all of us. This Astana process is just a military de-escalation process and it must be supplemented with a political process,” French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country supports rebels and urges the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, told reporters this week. [Continue reading…]

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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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