Kurds carve out a home in Syria, testing U.S. ties with Turkey

The Wall Street Journal reports: Amid the chaos of Syria’s war, the Kurds have carved out a semiautonomous region called Rojava that is home to about four million people, is as big as Belgium and stretches nearly the full length of the 565-mile border between Syria and Turkey.

The emergence of Rojava also has added complexity to a region in turmoil, bringing resistance from outside and dissent from within.

Rojava’s continuing territorial expansion has alarmed Turkey, which is battling Kurdish separatists within its own borders and has pushed deeper into Syria to attack Islamic State forces and rein in the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. is stuck uncomfortably in the middle because it relies on Syrian Kurds to fight Islamic State yet considers Turkey a crucial ally.

And as Rojava gets mightier and realizes long-held ambitions of self-rule for Kurds, some of its own people feel alienated by what they claim are heavy-handed tactics that feel reminiscent of the Syrian regime.

Instead of helping Jude Hamo finish his junior year of college, his parents sold the family car and borrowed money to smuggle the 23-year-old to Germany so he wouldn’t be drafted into the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State. “We chose the lesser of two evils,” says Jude’s father, Radwan.

Since late 2014, at least 6,000 young Syrian Kurds have been compelled to serve in the military, according to the regional administration’s military ministry. More than two dozen died in battle. [Continue reading…]

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The disastrous nonintervention in Syria

Three years after President Obama erased his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Anne Applebaum writes: Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too. Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced:

Deaths. Estimates of war casualties range from about 155,000 to 400,000, depending on who is counted. This month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had registered a total of 14,711 dead children. Since the Islamic State created its caliphate in Syria, an estimated 2,350 civilians have been executed by the group. Life expectancy in Syria has dropped from almost 80 to 55.

Refugees. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees as of Aug. 16. There are thought to be an additional 2 million refugees who remain inside Syria but are displaced from their homes. Three-quarters of those who have fled their homes are women and children. Most own nothing except what they are wearing. To give some perspective, the refugee crisis caused by the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s produced 2.3 million refugees, a number then considered to be the worst refugee crisis since the 1940s. The Syrian crisis is three times larger. [Continue reading…]

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Why I go to Aleppo

Samer Attar writes: The hospital where I work in Aleppo, Syria, is in a basement. The building above has been bombarded so many times that the top floors are too dangerous to use. Barrels and sandbags line the entrance to fortify it as a bunker.

Aleppo is a long way from my home in Chicago. That city, too, has its share of human suffering. Any Chicago surgeon who takes emergency duty can attest to the gun violence that plagues local communities. But the hospital where I work has state-of-the-art resources and some of the best doctors and nurses in the world. Scalpels are sharp, operating rooms are sterile, and specialists are abundant.

Aleppo, too, has some of the best doctors and nurses in the world, but there are so few left. They are exhausted, endangered, and they need help. That is why I volunteer for medical work in Syria; even the few weeks a year that I can offer provide some respite for the handful of surgeons who serve a population of 300,000 in a war zone. It is a heavy responsibility, but I feel I cannot ask world leaders to risk their citizens’ lives to save people there if I myself am unwilling to take such risks. [Continue reading…]

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Fight for Syria’s Aleppo exposes limits of Russian air power

Reuters reports: Russia’s politically-sensitive and ultimately fruitless decision to launch bombing missions on Syria from Iranian soil has exposed the limits to its air power, leaving Moscow in need of a new strategy to advance its aims.

People familiar with Russia’s military said Moscow opted for the sorties from Iran – and Tehran agreed to allow them – because they were struggling to achieve their aim of crushing rebels in the city of Aleppo.

The gamble failed and rebels fighting their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Aasad, remain ensconced in parts of Aleppo.

Russia began air strikes on Syria in support of Assad on Sept. 30 last year, launched from bases in government-held territory and from warships. Then this month, facing logistical problems in mounting an expensive campaign at a time of tight state finances, it intensified the bombing of Aleppo in what turned out to be a brief series of raids from Iran.

The strikes on the Aleppo rebels seem to have achieved little beyond stirring a political row in Iran, whose constitution forbids the establishment of any kind of foreign military base.

The fact that Russia went to such lengths to achieve its aims in Aleppo and still failed could strengthen the hand of those in Moscow who believe the operation in Syria has reached a watershed, and that it is time to seek a negotiated solution. [Continue reading…]

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‘Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s’

The New York Times reports: The rebel fighter, a former major in the Syrian Army, thought he had finally found what he was looking for: a group with strong international backing that was gearing up for an offensive against his two most hated enemies, the Syrian government and the Islamic State militant group.

But within days of crossing into Syria, backed by Turkish planes, tanks and special forces troops and American warplanes, the fighter, Saadeddine Somaa, found himself fighting Kurdish militias that, like him, counted the Islamic State and the government of President Bashar al-Assad among their foes.

That was because the Turks, who supplied the weapons and the cash, were calling the shots, and they considered the Kurds enemy No. 1. The Kurds, for their part, consider Turkey an enemy, and so as the Turkish-led troops advanced, the Kurdish militias attacked.

For all the hope the new offensive had inspired in Mr. Somaa and other Syrian insurgents, it showed once again how even rebels fighting against the Islamic State and Mr. Assad — both targets for defeat under stated American policy — remain dependent on backers who only partly share their goals.

“Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s,” he said in a long telephone interview from Jarabulus, the border town the Turkish-led force took from Islamic State, known also as ISIS or ISIL, on the first day of the offensive. “The problem is the same everywhere in Syria.” [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The U.S. on Monday urged Turkish troops and Kurdish forces in northern Syria to halt their fighting, saying it hinders efforts to defeat the Islamic State group. But Turkey’s president vowed to press ahead with the military operation until the IS and Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer pose a security threat to Ankara.

It was the first U.S. criticism of its NATO ally since it launched a U.S.-backed incursion into northern Syria to help Syrian rebels seize the town of Jarablus from the Islamic State group. They have been clashing with Kurdish Syrian forces around the town to try to halt their advance.

The battle now pits Turkey against the Kurdish-led force known as the Syria Democratic Forces— a U.S.-backed proxy that is the most effective ground force battling IS militants in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war. It puts Washington in the difficult spot of having to choose between two allies, and it is likely to divert resources from the fight against IS. [Continue reading…]

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UN pays tens of millions to Assad regime under Syria aid programme

The Guardian reports: The UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, as part of an aid programme that critics fear is increasingly at the whim of the government in Damascus, a Guardian investigation has found.

Businessmen whose companies are under US and EU sanctions have been paid substantial sums by the UN mission, as have government departments and charities – including one set up by the president’s wife, Asma al-Assad, and another by his closest associate, Rami Makhlouf.

The UN says it can only work with a small number of partners approved by President Assad and that it does all it can to ensure the money is spent properly.

“Of paramount importance is reaching as many vulnerable civilians as possible,” a spokesman said. “Our choices in Syria are limited by a highly insecure context where finding companies and partners who operate in besieged and hard to reach areas is extremely challenging.”

However, critics believe the UN mission is in danger of being compromised.

They believe aid is being prioritised in government-held areas and argue UN money is effectively helping to prop up a regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. [Continue reading…]

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UN’s $4bn aid effort in Syria is morally bankrupt

Reinoud Leenders writes: When confronted with criticism of their failure to address Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, UN officials routinely blame a lack of resources. As Stephen O’Brien, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, put it, the UN system is broke, not broken.

Yet UN aid agencies, since stepping up operations in Syria in 2012, have handed lucrative procurement contracts to regime cronies who are known to have bankrolled the very repression and brutality that helped cause the crisis in the first place.

The revelation is as perverse as it is unsurprising, and points to the moral bankruptcy of the UN’s $4bn (£3bn) Syria aid effort to date. It is perverse that UN agencies, which are mandated to reach out to the most vulnerable in Syria’s vicious and protracted civil war, are throwing a lifeline to a regime that has no qualms about burning the entire country just to stay in power.

The UN may not be legally bound to the sanctions imposed on Syrian regime incumbents by the EU or US; it may even argue that such unilateral sanctions are illegal. Yet when several Syrian suppliers of humanitarian goods and services are blacklisted for “aiding the regime’s repression” or for “being close to key figures of the Syrian regime”, UN procurement officials must have known whom they were dealing with. Genuine Syrian businessmen could have told them that some of the UN’s key business partners were, in fact, the regime. [Continue reading…]

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The tragedy of Daraya

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: Daraya is – or used to be – a sizeable town in the Damascus countryside. A working and middle-class suburb of the capital, it was also an agricultural centre, famed in particular for its delicious grapes. In recent years the town has become a symbol of the Syrian revolution, and of revolutionary resilience in the most terrible conditions. And now – after its 25 August surrender to the Assad regime – it becomes symbolic of an even larger disaster.

Daraya’s courageous social and political activism stretches back long before the eruption of the revolution in 2011. Its residents protested against Israeli oppression in Palestine during the Second Intifada, and then against the US invasion of Iraq. Those who believe that Assad’s regime represents popular anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism won’t realise how brave these actions were. Independent demonstrations were completely illegal in Syria, punishable by torture and imprisonment, even if the protests were directed against the state’s supposed enemies. And Daraya’s activism focused on domestic issues too, in the form of local anti-corruption and neighbourhood beautification campaigns.

This legacy of civic engagement owes a great deal to the Daraya-based religious scholar Abd al-Akram al-Saqqa, who introduced his students to the work of “liberal Islamist” and apostle of non-violence Jawdat Said, and was twice arrested as a result. Jawdat Said emphasised, amongst other things, rights for women, the importance of pluralism, and the need to defend minority groups.

In 2011, Daraya became one of the most important laboratories for exploring the possibilities of non-violent resistance. Ghiath Matar – known as “little Gandhi” – put al-Saqqa and Said’s principles into practice by encouraging protestors to present flowers and bottles of water to the soldiers bussed in to shoot them. The regime responded, as usual, with staggering violence. Matar, a 26-year-old tailor, was arrested in September 2011. Four days later his mutilated corpse was returned to his parents and pregnant wife. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s secret library

Mike Thomson wrote in July: When a place has been besieged for years and hunger stalks the streets, you might have thought people would have little interest in books. But enthusiasts have stocked an underground library in Syria with volumes rescued from bombed buildings – and users dodge shells and bullets to reach it.

Down a flight of steep steps, as far as it’s possible to go from the flying shrapnel, shelling and snipers’ bullets above, is a large dimly lit room. Buried beneath a bomb-damaged building, it’s home to a secret library that provides learning, hope and inspiration to many in the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya.

“We saw that it was vital to create a new library so that we could continue our education. We put it in the basement to help stop it being destroyed by shells and bombs like so many other buildings here,” says Anas Ahmad, a former civil engineering student who was one of the founders.

The siege of Darayya by government and pro-Assad forces began nearly four years ago. Since then Anas and other volunteers, many of them also former students whose studies were brought to a halt by the war, have collected more than 14,000 books on just about every subject imaginable.

Over the same period more than 2,000 people – many of them civilians – have been killed. But that has not stopped Anas and his friends scouring the devastated streets for more material to fill the library’s shelves.

“In many cases we get books from bomb or shell-damaged homes. The majority of these places are near the front line, so collecting them is very dangerous,” he says.

“We have to go through bombed-out buildings to hide ourselves from snipers. We have to be extremely careful because snipers sometimes follow us in their sights, anticipating the next step we’ll take.”

At first glance the idea of people risking life and limb to collect books for a library seems bizarre. But Anas says it helps the community in all sorts of ways. Volunteers working at the hospital use the library’s books to advise them on how to treat patients; untrained teachers use them to help them prepare classes; and aspiring dentists raid the shelves for advice on doing fillings and extracting teeth.

About 8,000 of Darayya’s population of 80,000 have fled. But nobody can leave now. [Continue reading…]

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Syria à la carte: Turkish invasion highlights rapidly shifting alliances

Der Spiegel reports: One common description of chaos theory holds that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can trigger a tornado. And it could very well be that the theory is the best tool we currently have available to describe the complex situation in Syria. The butterfly wings in this case was the late July decision by the Syrian regime to recruit new tribal militia fighters in a remote northeastern province. The tornado it triggered four weeks later was threefold: the invasion of northern Syria by the Turkish army; the sudden expulsion of Islamic State from the border town of Jarabulus; and the US military suddenly finding itself on both sides of a new front in Syria — that between the Turks and the Kurds.

“It is 3:30 p.m. and we have almost reached the center of Jarabulus and have suffered almost no casualties. But we only just crossed the border this morning!” Saif Abu Bakr, a defected lieutenant and commander with the rebel group Hamza Division, sounded on Wednesday as though he couldn’t believe what had just happened. “We set off with 20 Turkish tanks and 100 Turkish troops from Karkamis” — the border town in Turkey — “and headed through the villages west of the city and then on to Jarabulus.”

More than two-and-a-half years after Islamic State (IS) conquered the border city, displaying the heads of its adversaries on fence posts in the process, the jihadist tumor was removed in mere hours. Jarabulus was one of the last IS bastions on the Turkish border and the group had long been able to use the border crossing there unchallenged, allowing them to funnel both men and materiel into the parts of Syria under their control. “Almost all of them fled three days ago, except for a few local followers and a couple of foreigners,” Umm Chalid, a widow from the city, said of the IS fighters. “All the residents left too. We knew that something would happen.”

The invasion in the north is a turning point in the Syrian war, marking the first time that Turkey has become directly involved in the conflict. At the same time, many of the complicated alliances in the region are suddenly shifting, with some allies becoming estranged and some enemies discovering common interests. [Continue reading…]

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Kayla Mueller: The ISIS hostage’s parents speak out

Carl Mueller, expressing a view of Syria held by a large proportion (probably the majority) of Americans, told his daughter, “this is not our war; these are not our people.”

His daughter, Kayla, however, clearly had a view of humanity unfractured by the divisions of “us” and “them.”

As Duke Ellington once responded when asked about his music in relation to “his people”: “the people — that’s the better word — the people rather than my people, because the people are my people.”

There is a sense in which the view that we need to take care of our own people seems like an issue of simple practicality and yet this practicality is almost always built on false constructions of inclusion. Within each boundary of exclusion yet more forms of exclusion are to be found.

If Kayla Mueller had put America first, she would never have entered Syria. Instead, she put others first and lived her faith.

 

If/when this video gets removed from YouTube, it can still be viewed at ABC News in parts one, two, three, four, five, and six.

Immediately prior to the broadcast of ABC’s 20/20 report, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières issued a statement which says in part:

After seeing reports saying that Kayla was an MSF employee, we released a statement that said she was not. It was a terse statement that was insensitive given the gravity of the events, the lives involved, and the family’s grief. For that, too, MSF has apologized to the Muellers in person, at their home in Arizona, an apology which we repeated in interviews with ABC and repeat again here.

Apologies have their limitations, however, particularly in the face of such anguish and considerations of what might have been. As an organization that works in conflict zones and has had several of our colleagues and friends killed while trying to provide emergency assistance, we know this all too well.

In this instance, the Muellers asked MSF to actively intervene to help achieve Kayla’s release and we did not do so. There are several reasons for this:

The risks go beyond any one location. If MSF were generally considered by would-be abductors to be a negotiator of release for non-MSF staff, there is no doubt that this would increase the risk levels in many locations, put our field staff, medical projects, and patients in danger, and possibly force us to close projects where needs are often acute. It would limit MSF’s ability to provide life-saving care to people caught in dangerous conflicts.

Furthermore, MSF is an emergency medical organization. We are not hostage negotiators. If staff members get abducted, we deputize senior MSF staff members to concentrate fully on working towards their release. This comes with significant concerns for the people involved; some of the people who worked to secure the release of the MSF staff members in Syria put themselves at great risk in so doing.

There is risk inherent in humanitarian work in conflict, but we rely on people who are willing to take those risks to help us reach people in need around the world. It’s awful to know that people like Kayla Mueller, who carried a very similar spirit into the world, died during efforts to reach some of those same people.

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Airstrike in east Aleppo apparently targets funeral procession

The Washington Post reports: Syrian warplanes appeared to target a funeral Saturday morning in east Aleppo, killing dozens of civilians who had come to mourn the deaths of at least 13 people days earlier.

The attack on Bab al-Nairab, a Syrian suburb named after one of the city’s ancient gates, took place in waves, activists said. The first barrel bomb hit a funeral procession, the second landed as rescue workers arrived. Doctors said the preliminary death count was 25.

Aleppo is one of the Syrian war’s most important battlegrounds, divided by government forces in the west and armed opposition groups in the east. According to monitoring groups, more than 300 civilians have been killed in fighting there this month.

The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has urged warring parties to state by Sunday whether they will commit to a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire across the city. [Continue reading…]

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