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Bashar Al-Assad

Syrian Bomb Plot Marked Deadly Turn in Civil War

New Revelations Suggest Killing of Bashar al-Assad’s Brother-in-Law Was Inside Job

A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Homs, where the early confrontations between protesters and regime authorities progressed into civil war.ENLARGE
A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Homs, where the early confrontations between protesters and regime authorities progressed into civil war. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

AL-QARDAHA, Syria—On the fourth day of a rebel assault on President Bashar al-Assad ’s seat of power in Damascus, an explosion tore through offices of the National Security Bureau, killing the president’s brother-in-law and three other senior officials.

Rebel groups claimed credit for the audacious plot, and Syrian opposition groups declared it was the beginning of the end for the regime. In Washington, the Obama administration ordered a task force from the Pentagon, State and Treasury to draw up plans for a post-Assad Syria, said Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time.

The July 2012 bombing indeed marked a turning point in Syria’s conflict. But rather than the downfall of Mr. Assad, it ushered in a new, more deadly phase of Syria’s civil war that allowed him to cling to power. Any regime voices still open to accommodating the opposition went silent, and, within a year, pro-Assad forces deployed chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

Now, new revelations point to a startling theory about the bombing that killed Assef Shawkat, an army general who was Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law and the deputy defense minister: It was an inside job.

Two dozen people, including past and current regime officials, opposition leaders, activists and rebels, and politicians in neighboring countries with ties to Mr. Assad told The Wall Street Journal the bombing grew out of a split between the Assad family and its hard-line allies on one side, and officials seeking negotiations with opposition groups on the other.

Acceptance of the theory by such a broad cross-section of Syrians highlights the ruthless reputation Mr. Assad has cemented since the conflict began more than three years ago. It also shows the dynamic of the president’s inner circle as it struggled to keep a grip on power.

Mr. Assad’s media office rejected requests for an interview with the president. Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk and Maj. Gen. Deeb Zeitoun, two of the regime’s top security officials, declined separate requests for comment.

Former Syrian army general Manaf Tlass believes the regime was connected with the bombing. Mr. Tlass defected two weeks before Mr. Shawkat was killed—after guards found six explosive devices planted outside Mr. Tlass’s office on a military base in Damascus. He accused the regime of wanting to kill him, too.

Mr. Tlass said he and Mr. Shawkat were among those calling for talks with both peaceful and armed regime opponents, a position contrary to Mr. Assad and his intelligence and security agency chiefs, who sought to crush the insurgency.

“Bashar never opted at any time for serious and credible reforms, but instead chose to destroy the country rather than lose power,” said Mr. Tlass, who is living in Paris. “He sold Syria to the Iranians.”

The attack opened the door for Iran, Mr. Assad’s principal regional ally, and Hezbollah, its proxy militia in Lebanon, to play a greater role in defending the regime, according to members of Syria’s security forces and pro-regime militias. Within weeks, foreign Shiite militiamen flocked to Syria. The fighters joined homegrown militias trained by Iran and Hezbollah to help prop up the overstretched Syrian army.

These fighters took the lead in the regime’s recapture of rebel territory, helping push the death toll from less than 20,000 at the time to more than 190,000 as of August, according to the United Nations. Millions more Syrians have fled their homes amid the destruction.

Iran’s embassy in Damascus and a spokesman for Hezbollah in Beirut refused interviews or comment.

Mr. Ford, who now works with the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said top members of the Syrian opposition told him rebels weren’t responsible for the bombing but believed the regime was. “I’ve never seen convincing evidence that it was an inside job,” he said, “but the allegations were widespread.”

A leading Syrian opposition activist, who had direct ties with rebel groups and was in Damascus the day of the bombing, said it would have been impossible for rebels at the time to carry out such an attack.

“If you asked me then, I would have lied to you and told you, ‘Our heroic rebels did it.’ But now I can tell you, ‘No, we were amateurs back then,’ ” said the activist, now based in Turkey. The bombing boosted opposition morale after government reports credited the rebels, he said. It also spurred more Alawites, members of Mr. Assad’s Shiite-linked minority sect who opposed the Sunni-led revolt, to rally around the regime.

Growing involvement by Shiite-dominated Iran and Hezbollah boosted support from Sunni Arab states and private donors to more militant rebel groups, including Islamic State, said Western officials and analysts.

Today, many Syrians—and the U.S. and its allies—face a choice between the Assad regime or the militants of Islamic State, which has turned large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq into a magnet for foreign jihadists.

Long before Syria’s conflict began in the spring of 2011, Mr. Tlass and Mr. Assad—military academy classmates—were seen as a new breed of Syrian leaders: young, modern and open to reforms.

“Bashar started making reformist steps between 1998 and 2000, even before becoming president,” Mr. Tlass said. “I was close to him. People were hopeful and thought he was capable of changing things.”

Even the U.S. thought it could do business with Mr. Assad, reappointing an ambassador in Damascus in 2009.

Assef Shawkat, an army general and the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was killed in a July 2012 explosion in offices of the National Security Bureau in Damascus.
Assef Shawkat, an army general and the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was killed in a July 2012 explosion in offices of the National Security Bureau in Damascus. REUTERS

The killing of two Syrian protesters by regime forces on March 18, 2011, in the city of Deraa, changed everything. It shattered a short period of peaceful marches by mostly Sunni crowds calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Two days later, Mr. Tlass said, he got a call from Mr. Assad asking for advice. Mr. Tlass said he suggested Mr. Assad remove the governor of Deraa, release anyone detained in the demonstrations, arrest the local security chief and make amends for the killings with a visit to the city.

“I told him our society is tribal and will value your conciliatory gesture,” Mr. Tlass recalled. “He told me, ‘OK.’ ”

But as more protesters poured into the streets, more were killed. “It’s no secret that Syria is facing today a grand conspiracy whose threads extend from inside the homeland to far and near countries,” Mr. Assad said in a speech to parliament on March 30, 2011.

At the time, Mr. Tlass commanded a 3,500-strong unit within the Republican Guard that was charged with protecting the president and the capital. Mr. Tlass said about 300 of his men were sent to the city of Douma to help with crowd control as thousands of people took to the streets.

He said they were pushed aside by forces reporting to intelligence chief Hafez Makhlouf —a maternal cousin of Mr. Assad—who shot and killed about a dozen protesters in April 2011. Mr. Makhlouf couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mr. Tlass said some of his men were executed for refusing to shoot protesters. One of his best officers, he said, returned from Douma and pleaded to be relieved of the assignment.

“I told him, ‘Be patient, the president promised that things will be fixed within three weeks,’ ” Mr. Tlass said. “The next day, he committed suicide.”

Syria’s security and intelligence agencies believed they could rely on repressive measures that had worked for decades, according to former regime officials and Western diplomats.

Haytham Manaa, a Syrian opposition leader who has spent much of his life in exile in France, said the regime was surprised when people overcame fears and continued the street protests, which were inspired in part by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Mr. Tlass said he retained his official position but was sidelined by the regime after he raised objections to shooting demonstrators and called for talks with community leaders involved in the protests. That view, he said, put him at odds with hard-liners close to Mr. Assad.

In May 2011, Mr. Tlass said, he had a last meeting with the president. “I told him, ‘I am your friend and I advised you not to choose the military solution,’ ” Mr. Tlass recalled. “ ‘Go for the political one, it’s more inclusive.’ He answered, ‘You are too soft.’ ”

Mr. Assad’s vice president at the time, Farouq al-Sharaa, one of the country’s most seasoned politicians, fell next. He was pushing for dialogue with opposition groups, his relatives said, and was put under house arrest shortly after he chaired a national dialogue conference in Damascus in early July.

Walid Jumblatt, a senior Lebanese political leader, said he last met with Mr. Assad in June 2011: “He told me at the end, ‘I don’t want people to love me, I want people to fear me.’ ”

Regime loyalists, meanwhile, took up the slogan: “Assad or nobody. Assad or we burn the country.”

In June 2011, some activists tried to keep their opposition movement peaceful amid the growing sectarian violence between the mostly Sunni rebels and regime forces, largely Alawite.

Mohammad-Mounir al-Faqir and fellow activists bought 5,000 ping pong balls that they covered with such slogans as, “Assad, we want freedom whether you like it or not,” Mr. Faqir said. They released the balls from a spot uphill from Mr. Assad’s residence and filmed guards scurrying to collect them.

By fall, rebels in Homs took control of neighborhoods by force. For the regime, the rebel advances threatened important roads connecting Damascus with Syria’s only seaports.

The casket bearing the remains of Hafez al-Assad, the founder of the modern Syrian regime and the father of the current president, inside a mausoleum in al-Qardaha, Syria.
The casket bearing the remains of Hafez al-Assad, the founder of the modern Syrian regime and the father of the current president, inside a mausoleum in al-Qardaha, Syria. SAM DAGHER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In December 2011, Mr. Shawkat, the brother-in-law later slain in the bombing, and two security chiefs visited Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, to meet with opposition activists, businessmen and religious and community leaders.

Mr. Shawkat and the others offered a cease-fire plan that would have committed the regime to end opposition arrests and the shelling of neighborhoods in return for a pledge by rebels to halt attacks on regime checkpoints, said people who were there.

One opposition activist said Mr. Shawkat seemed to be the regime representative most interested in the discussion. One of the businessmen there agreed.

“I told them, ‘You are turning people into your enemies, what’s your interest in that?’ ” the businessman said. “I was interrupted by an angry official but Assef [Shawkat] snapped at him and told him, ‘Calm down. Let him finish.’ ”

No deal was reached. Conciliatory gestures approved by Mr. Shawkat, such as allowing ambulances to pick up the dead and wounded, were blocked by regime hard-liners, according to activists and community leaders.

Mr. Tlass, the defected general, said Mr. Shawkat’s power diminished shortly after his return from Homs, as security and intelligence chiefs asserted greater control. “He insisted on retaining his functions and powers,” Mr. Tlass said, “and here the real clash began.”

Mr. Tlass and several people with knowledge of the matter said Mr. Shawkat posed a threat to Mr. Assad’s rule. Mr. Shawkat, who was married to Mr. Assad’s sister, had previously headed Military Intelligence—one of Syria’s most feared institutions—and commanded a loyal group of officers.

Mr. Shawkat moved within the circles of power that surround Mr. Assad. The first circles include Mr. Assad’s wife and mother, his army commander brother, Maher, and maternal cousins, the Makhloufs, Mr. Tlass said. The next circle includes the chiefs of security and intelligence services.

“In my opinion, they got rid of him. They were scared of him,” Mr. Jumblatt, the Lebanese politician, said of Mr. Shawkat. Others, including Mr. Tlass and people who know members of the Assad family, said Mr. Shawkat was seen as a potential threat to Mr. Assad.

Two months before the July 18, 2012, bombing, Mr. Tlass said, there was an unsuccessful plot to kill Mr. Shawkat with a poisoned takeout lunch of kebabs and hummus in Damascus.

The bombing marked a shift by Hezbollah and Iran—when saving the Assad regime became their top priority, according to Iraqi and Lebanese officials close to both sides.

On the day Mr. Shawkat was killed, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force, was in Damascus, Mr. Tlass said. The Qods Force is a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for operations abroad, particularly in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

Also that day, Hassan Nasrallah, commander of Iran’s main regional proxy force Hezbollah, spoke to supporters in a Beirut suburb to mark the anniversary of the 2006 war with Israel.

Mr. Nasrallah said Mr. Assad and his regime were indispensable for the survival of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed movements, including Hamas. Mr. Nasrallah said rockets fired at Israel in the war were Syrian.

A Syrian militia leader said in an interview last year that Syria’s intelligence services worked with Hezbollah and Iran’s Qods Force to raise fears that Sunni militants planned to attack holy Shiite shrines in Syria—an effort to attract more Shiites across the region to fight alongside Assad regime forces.

With the help of foreign fighters, the regime “succeeded in giving the impression of a strong and cohesive army,” said Ezzat al-Shabandar, an Iraqi Shiite politician with close ties to Iranian and Syrian regime officials.

The regime also began using social media to shift popular views toward the idea that opposition groups and rebels had joined savage Islamic extremists. Mr. Assad in speeches and interviews embraced the idea that he was an indispensable leader who must use violence to rescue Syria, a message that has echoed down the chain of command.

“I always tell Sunnis, ‘Your only protector is Bashar al-Assad because he’s restraining us and not letting us do more,’ ” said Col. Jamal Younes, an Alawite army officer.

Militancy on the opposition side also rose dramatically. By the spring of 2013, such extremist groups as Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front were displacing both secular and homegrown Islamist rebel groups in Syria.

Islamic militants in March seized the predominantly Armenian-Christian resort town of Kasab, located in the mountains of Mr. Assad’s home province near the border with Turkey in western Syria.

Regime forces drove them out three months later, leaving homes and churches ransacked.

“We are victims of both sides and this is why I want to leave,” said Armen Georgekian, an Armenian Christian and the town’s only shopkeeper. He recalled visits by Mr. Assad before the conflict and said he and his group bought ice cream cones from his shop.

“He can survive,” Mr. Georgekian said, “but he can’t win.”

Down the coast is Mr. Assad’s hometown of al-Qardaha, which has been largely untouched by the war. A domed mausoleum stands on a hill where a dozen workers in late summer trimmed hedges and pulled weeds in its garden.

Inside, two guards in suits stood motionless next to a casket, covered in a green velvet cloth, that holds the remains of Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian president’s father and the founder of the Assad regime.

Around the casket in the black-marble hall are the tombs of two of Bashar al-Assad’s brothers, Majd and Bassel, who had been groomed by his father to take over power. Bassel al-Assad ’s death in a 1994 car accident opened the way for his younger brother, Bashar.

In Qardaha’s central market, shops were fully stocked and farmers from nearby villages hawked fruits, vegetables and freshly picked tobacco leaves.

A statue of Hafez al-Assad, surrounded by four lions symbolizing his four sons, stands in the main square.

Posters of Bashar al-Assad were plastered on shop windows. One showed him next to his father, who had a halo above his head. “Rest in peace in the heavens above, our master,” the caption said. “You should be proud of Bashar.”

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Asking Assad to stay is asking Syrians to be party to a charade

Article is one year old but still valid

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In Ambiguities of Domination, political science professor Lisa Wedeen examined the Syrian regime’s rule of domination under then-president Hafez Al Assad.

She noted a dual role for Syrians: both propping up the regime’s propaganda and at the same time subverting its power via the symbols and rhetoric of everyday life and popular culture. This seminal work, published in 1999, a year before Al Assad junior took power, explained to outsiders the inner mechanisms of an authoritative regime. Its relevance is significant today under the shadow of Hafez’s son Bashar and with the fate of a blood-soaked Syria, now in ruins.

In a particularly powerful chapter entitled Acting As If, Wedeen writes: “Power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world.” The complicity of the people within this imposition enforces the regime’s power of domination. In other words, the regime’s power is mainly constructed by the people’s enacted participation in that very construction.

According to Wedeen: “The politics of acting ‘as if’ carries important political consequences: it enforces obedience, induces complicity, identifies and ferrets out some disobedient citizens …”

Indeed, one of the fundamental ways the Syrian people functioned in the police state was by “acting as if”. Acting as if nothing was going on as Hama was pummeled in 1982. Acting as if they loved the leader even though they were terrified of him.

The tragedy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule is that his father’s construct of complicity has, over the past 32 months, bled far beyond Syria’s borders to encompass the entire region and international community.

As world leaders discuss the merits of the Syrian opposition attending Geneva 2 peace talks without preconditions, they flip the narrative of the revolution. A narrative in which Mr Al Assad is upgraded from a brutal dictator that deserves no more than a cell at The Hague to a potential “partner” in the transitional peace process.

The latest demeaning analysis offered to Syrians is to act “as if” Mr Al Assad maintaining power would end the brutal war that was unleashed by Mr Al Assad himself. Governments act as if dragging the Syrian opposition to the negotiation table without any preconditions will result in a political solution to a raging war. World leaders act as if Mr Al Assad’s cooperation in dismantling his chemical weapon stockpiles is reducing the amount of bloodshed, even as the cluster bombs and scud missiles continue to fall onto civilian populations.

As the slated 2014 Syrian presidential election approaches, “Syrians will have their voices heard at the ballot box” is the current refrain of Assad loyalists. As if presidential elections can even be a possibility in a country where over seven million people are displaced. And Mr Al Assad himself acts as if his nomination is not even problematic, to say the least.

For what purpose is all of this acting “as if”? To save Syria from the very regime that created this catastrophe in the first place?

The act of “acting as if”, like the fable about the emperor and his non-existent clothes, twists lies into elaborate truths to the point where even well-intentioned people, including Syrians themselves, are left to wonder: “Should Assad stay?”

Faisal Al Yafai, writing in these pages, approaches the “unthinkable question” of Mr Al Assad remaining in power to save Syria, arguing “all of that could be worthwhile if it ends the conflict”. True, but the most important word in that sentence is “if”.

While Al Yafai rightly points out that no one has any good ideas to end the protracted bloody war, the idea of Mr Al Assad staying in power may just be the worst one.

Most Syrians are worn out by the gruelling violence that has taken a toll on all aspects of life. Most Syrians want peace and stability. If faced with a sincere choice – Mr Al Assad remaining in power in exchange for a ceasefire, the release of all political prisoners, opening humanitarian and medical aid corridors into Syria, and beginning the long process of refugee return – most Syrians would swallow the bitter pill and choose Mr Al Assad. This choice is the result of being left alone to fight two enemies armed by foreign forces with virtually no support. It is a choice of despair.

It is also an unfairly framed choice for one simple reason: Mr Al Assad will never uphold his end of the bargain. Syrian history, old and new, is a reminder of how the Assad regime deals with the people’s dissent. Both father and son have displayed their relentless tactics of retribution. (See Hama, 1982. Or Syria, 2011-2013.)

Making a judgement call based on the grim Syrian present – well over 100,000 dead, thousands in torture cells, millions of displaced and refugees, foreign fighters and extremists battling for foreign ideologies and agendas, mass destruction of cities, towns and villages, an out-of-touch political opposition that is corrupt and impotent, and millions of exhausted Syrians who just want it all to end now – is simply a convenient and careless cop-out.

It’s easy to look at this list of tragedies and claim that saving what’s left of Syria should be the only priority and argue that preconditions to the negotiations will only ensure more stalemate and bloodshed.

Merely glancing at the present is not only naive, it’s immoral. History tells a different story. Stories of mass murder and destruction 31 years ago in Hama, stories of thousands of torture and rape cases, stories of boys whose fingernails where ripped out because they wrote “freedom” on their school walls, stories of enforced policies of “Assad or we scorch the country”, and more recently “Kneel or starve”. Those stories document the despicable and undeniable truth of this regime.

We live in dark times when tyrants are hailed as saviours and martyrs are called terrorists.

History repeats itself – as Hama did before Daraa, and Hafez before Bashar. History also bears witness to the simple fact that sooner or later, every tyrant’s rule ends. In fact, tyrants have fallen over the centuries of our collective civilisation, on this very land called Syria.

Perhaps we will not be able to rejoice soon (or not even for decades) that the Assad regime is finally finished. That will not change one fact: asking for him or his regime to stay will not save lives. Instead, this decision will take more Syrian lives. Thousands more lives.

Deceptive options and skewed choices can be framed as powerful persuasions, as the “last hope” and the “moral choice”. These “solutions for the Syrian conflict” mock the Syrian people’s heavy sacrifices, bloody history, and desire for a peaceful future of freedom and dignity.

If the world has now decided to act “as if”, this complicit world should know that the Syrian people ended that charade 30 months ago. That was their unambiguous choice.

Beyond the dead, tortured, and displaced people; beyond the destroyed cities and scorched landscapes; beyond all what we have lost; does the world really expect Syrians to go back to acting “as if”? As if they loved the illegitimate leader in Damascus? As if the tyrant’s clothes were not soaked with the people’s blood? As if the lies had become the truth? As if history had never unfolded in the terrible ways it did?

As if nothing had happened at all?

Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer

On Twitter: @AmalHanano

Read more:http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/asking-assad-to-stay-is-asking-syrians-to-be-party-to-a-charade#full#ixzz3I57fqX44 
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8 reminders of how horrible Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been to his people

(AFP/Getty Images)

In the shadow of the Islamic State, which has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq — and has made beheading a thing it does — the world seems to have forgotten about the evil deeds of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Many Syrians are upset that US President Barack Obama decided to intervene to stop the brutality of the Islamic State, but refrained from using its robust military force to stop the brutality of the Syrian government. Some US allies even believe that it is Assad who is actuallythe root of the problem. It is the terror of the Syrian leader that allowed room for the terror of the Islamic State, the story goes.

“Why now?” one Syrian told a writer for Buzzfeed reporting from Turkey, near the Syrian border. “Is it because of the crime of the beheading of two American journalists? Or is it because this is really a terrorist group that terrorizes people in Syria? If so, then the regime has committed more crimes than ISIS. With much cruelty. People are dead in the prisons by the thousands. What about this?”

There was a time — in 2011 — when Syrians were peacefully calling for simple democratic reforms. Then Assad’s security forces decided they would have none of it and violently cracked down on civilian demonstrators. An armed rebel alliance arose as a result, full-blown civil war erupted, foreign extremists entered the country, religious extremism took hold and all hell broke loose.

Through it all, Assad continued to massacre Syrians. The United Nations says nearly 200,000 have been killed since fighting began. But no matter what Assad did — mass murdering civilians, torturing children, killing American journalist Marie Colvin — the United States refrained from intervening.

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We Can’t Destroy ISIS Without Destroying Bashar al Assad First

 

By Fred Hof

On Wednesday evening, President Obama took 14 minutes to articulate, in clear and persuasive language, a counter-terrorism strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet the problem presented by an ersatz caliph and an amalgam of criminals, terrorists, executioners, and foreign fighters goes far beyond one of counter-terrorism. The Islamic State—just like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraq—cannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president’s strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.

The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy—to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game—the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame—keeping the Islamic State in its grave—is simply incomplete.

Iraq and Syria are extreme examples of the fundamental grievances embodied by the 2011 Arab Spring.  Since the 1920s, much of the Arab World has been struggling to answer one fundamental question: what is it that follows the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy? The answer suggested by protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Deraa, and elsewhere was compellingly correct: the consent of the governed. That autocrats should reject the answer and push back is hardly surprising. Today only Tunisia seems to be on a clear path to legitimacy. Other Arab Spring countries—notably Libya and Yemen—teeter on the brink of state failure. Syria has taken the plunge. Iraq, though not an Arab Spring country per se, is likewise in the pit.

The Obama administration’s strategy, though counter-terrorist in its essence, hints at the broader problem. In a fact sheet issued on September 10, the White House cites “Supporting effective governance in Iraq” as a key pillar of the president’s strategy. It argues, quite correctly, that “only a united Iraq—with a government in Baghdad that has support from all of Iraq’s communities can defeat ISIL.” An important obstacle to legitimate governance in Iraq will be Iran’s arming and financing of Shia militias, which see Iraqi Sunnis—all of them—as supporters of the Islamic State. Interestingly, however, the fact sheet makes no mention of promoting effective, legitimate governance in Syria.

Today’s crisis—that which obligated the President to speak on September 10—has its roots in the March 2011 decision of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to respond with lethal violence to peaceful demonstrators seeking his protection from police brutality. The Assad regime initially escorted Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives from Syria to Iraq between 2003 and 2011, but its violently sectarian response to peaceful protest drew much of what was left of the seemingly beaten Al Qaeda in Iraq back to Syria, where it was joined by foreign fighters and split into two groups: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.  Both groups compete with the nationalist opposition to Assad—indeed, the Islamic State engages in de facto collaboration with the regime in western Syria to erase the nationalists, even as Assad and the caliph clash in eastern Syria over oil fields and air bases. And it was from secure bases in eastern Syria that the Islamic State launched its recent assault into Iraq, taking advantage of the depredations of yet another illegitimate, sectarian leader: Nouri al Maliki.

Indeed, if sidelining Maliki was the essential first step to getting to legitimate governance in Iraq, what about Assad in Syria? He is the face of Islamic State recruitment around the world. He is the author of war crimes and crimes against humanity that are breathtaking in scope and consequences.

President Obama decided, correctly if belatedly, to seek more robust assistance for beleaguered Syrian nationalists fighting in two directions: against the Islamic State and the regime. Will it work? It would have been easier two years ago, but now there is no choice. Airstrikes will not suffice in executing the counter-terrorism strategy. A ground element is essential, as it has been in Iraq. Indeed, airstrikes in Syria should focus first on Islamic State targets in western Syria, where nationalist forces are desperately trying to repulse the caliph and his forces.

Over three years ago, President Obama called on Bashar al Assad to step aside. Moving this murderous regime offstage will be neither easy nor quick. Yet unless it is a major facet of American strategy, the Islamic State will not be killed. It has been a gift to the Assad regime, one that will keep on giving so long as that regime exists. Legitimate governance in Syria will require much more than removing Assad. But regime removal is the first step, and without legitimate governance in Syria (as well as Iraq) the undead Islamic State will continue to march.

Fred Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.

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Stop the crocodile tears. We didn’t care about Syria

By Dan Hodges World Last updated:  January 23rd, 2014

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A Syrian woman cries holding her injured son in a taxi as they arrive at a hospital in northern city of Aleppo

A Syrian woman cries holding her injured son in a taxi as they arrive at a hospital in northern city of Aleppo. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Can we please stop the crocodile tears over Syria? If there’s one thing more nauseating than the Assad torture factories, it’s the synthetic outrage and faux horror that has greeted their discovery.

Last year the world had an opportunity to send a signal to the Assad regime. Actually, the world had the opportunity to send a signal to itself.

Faced with evidence the Syrian government had been using chemical weapons on its own citizens – effectively choking its own children to death in their beds – we had the chance to take a stand. Not a chance to halt the slaughter overnight, or topple the Assad regime. But to put down a marker that said “You are on notice. We will not simply walk by on the other side. Remember, though the mills of justice grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

But we chose not to send that signal, or put down any markers. Instead we thought it would be best if we just put our heads down, and scurried on past.

Of course, it didn’t happen quite like that. We had a debate first. A very thorough debate.

During that debate a number of very sophisticated arguments and questions were put forward by those opposed to military intervention. “If we do go in, what would our exit strategy be?” people asked. And as we now know, as they were doing so, somewhere in the bowels of one of Assad’s human meat-processing plants another victim was having a coil of steel wire slipped around their throat.

“What will the targets be?” was another perceptive question. And as it was asked, the steel wire was being pulled taught.

“We need more time. We need more proof” the wise men and women who stood square against the rush to war argued. And as the words left their lips another of Assad’s victims closed their eyes for the final time.

More on Syria

Assad’s torture camps expose Ban Ki-moon’s naivety
Syria’s horrors are unimaginable – and beyond our control
Turkey’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been heroic

We have no way of knowing what impact, if any, targeted military intervention would have had on Assad’s thinking. It could have cowed him. It could have made him lash out.

But we know for certain what message our failure to act sent. It told him “They don’t care”. They don’t care if you gas your children. They don’t care if you oppress your people. And they certainly don’t care if you snatch some of your opponents off the streets, throw them in some putrid dungeon and “disappear them”.

And Assad is right. We didn’t care. Oh, we professed to care. “There will be those who believe Thursday’s vote in the House of Commons means that Britain cannot make a difference to the innocent civilians of Syria who are suffering such a humanitarian catastrophe,” wrote Ed Miliband the day after he voted down the government’s plans for a military strike. “I don’t agree.” And everybody nodded sagely in agreement. “Oh yes, there’s lots we can still do,” we told ourselves.

But the truth is there wasn’t. And it didn’t really bother us. We preferred to do nothing. We preferred to protect “our boys”. We preferred to protect the Middle East from further Western “adventurism”. Wwe preferred to protect our consciences from another Iraq.

Fine. But please, let’s not now pile hypocrisy on top of our grotesque abdication of responsibility. No more hand-wringing. No further calls for “something to be done”. Nothing is going to be done. Because we don’t actually want it to be done. Yes, we want the horrors of Syria to disappear. We want Assad to disappear. But we want someone else to make them disappear for us, so we can go back to congratulating ourselves about how we stood tall for peace.

Yesterday I saw some people calling for Assad to be tried for war crimes. I also saw John Kerry again insisting Assad steps down and leaves Syria. I may be wrong about this, but it seems unlikely Assad is going to be going anywhere unless he has some pretty solid guarantees about immunity from future prosecution.

In the meantime he’s already in possession of some other important guarantees. Such as if he doesn’t voluntarily deliver himself up to justice, we’re not going to go in and get him. If he doesn’t voluntarily leave Syria, we’re not going to go in and make him. When his henchmen slip a wire cable around the throat of another victim we’ll say how terrible it is. And then we’ll stand back and let them pull the noose tight.

We had the chance to take a stand against Assad last year. His chemical weapons. His torture chambers. We turned our back on it. So please, no more crocodile tears. The steel noose will be in use again tonight. Let’s not demean ourselves further by pretending that really matters to us.

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On Monsterphilia and Assad

October 25, 2013 § Leave a Comment

My latest for Guernica Magazine.

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Earlier this month, the British street artist Banksy produced a video on Syria that attracted over five million viewers in three days. At a time of intensifying state repression, the target of Bansky’s satire was not the regime in Damascus but its opponents.  By contrast, the most watched video from the chemical attack in August, showing a traumatized young survivor, managed only half a million hits in over a month.

Six weeks after the attacks on Ghouta that killed hundreds of civilians, regime forces have choked off food supplies to the targeted neighborhoods. Survivors of the chemical attack are now facing the threat of starvation. Children have been reduced to eating leaves; clerics have issued fatwas allowing people to eat cats and dogs.

The belated discovery of the Syrian conflict by “anti-imperialists” after the US government threatened war inspired impassioned commentary. The strangulation of its vulnerable population has occasioned silence. But dog whistles from issue-surfing provocateurs like Banksy are unexceptional; they merit closer scrutiny when they come from respected essayists like David Bromwich.

In a recent front-page article for the London Review of Books, Bromwich identifies many rogues in the Syrian drama: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, “the jihadists”.  But conspicuously absent is Assad’s Baathist regime. Vladimir Putin is the closest Bromwich admits to a hero. The Syrian people are denied even a cameo.

When the Yale literature professor uses a tautology like  ”anti-government insurgency” to refer to Assad’s opponents, it is reasonable to assume intention. The word “government” conveys a certain benign authority; and when it is also said to be opposed by the universally reviled “jihadists,” then there is only one place a bien pensant reader can invest sympathy—and its not with the opposition.

Bromwich’s elegant prose barely conceals his clunky polemical apparatus. The validity of his claim—that the Obama administration was engaged in illegal aggression against Syria until Putin intervened—hinges entirely on his treatment of the events of August 21.

“Nobody doubts that an attack took place,” writes Bromwich. But “nobody yet knows with reasonable certainty who ordered it.”

The words are carefully chosen. It is true, nobody knew with reasonable certainty who ordered it—but it had been established beyond reasonable doubt who carried it out. One can perhaps dismiss the conclusions of British, French and German intelligence agencies given their earlier record of failure. But by early September even independent munitions experts and Human Rights Watch had ruled out the possibility that anyone other than the regime could have carried out the attacks.

To understand the absurdity of Bromwich’s dodge, consider the napalming of a school in Aleppo a week after the sarin attack. The bomb was dropped from a jet; and since only the regime possesses airpower, the responsibility for the attack was easy to establish. But as in Ghouta, no one could know “with reasonable certainty who ordered it”. Nor was it relevant.

Upholding the fiction that the responsibility for the attack remained in doubt, in a September 9 radio interview, Bromwich chided the US government for assuming Assad’s guilt even though no “international body” had confirmed it. Bromwich was no doubt aware that the Assad regime had agreed to the UN inspections on the strict condition that they would not assign blame. The inspectors’ remit was confined to investigating if CW were used. Days before Bromwich’s LRB article appeared, the inspectors confirmed the use of sarin and, though their remit excluded identifying perpetrators, they also established the make and trajectory of the delivery system. It left no doubt as to the regime’s responsibility.

Facts, however, rarely sway beliefs. Evidence might point to Assad’s responsibility. But for Bromwich, Assad “was winning the war and such a move was plainly suicidal, his arrival at such a decision is hard to make sense of.”

Harder perhaps than the regime’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and ballistic missiles; or the bombing of civilians queuing at breadlines that Human Rights Watch documented on 20 separate occasions; or the case of 13-year-old Hamzah al Khateeb whose body was returned to his family badly bruised, with burn marks, severed genitals, and three gunshot wounds days after he was arrested at an anti-Assad protest.

This incredulity is disingenuous.   “Making sense of” is precisely what Bromwich was doing when in the Huffington Post article he advised Congress to ask Obama:

Whether the entry into Syria on August 17 and 19 of US-trained guerrilla forces of the Free Syrian Army, numbering more than 300 — and the passage of those forces through Ghouta about the time of the chemical attack, as documented in the Jerusalem Post on August 23 — did, or did not, make them targets of the attack; and if not, what information about the activity of the forces leads to this conclusion.

Not only did the regime not use sarin; it used it for a reason. Freud called this the logic of dreams.

But lest anyone doubt Bromwich’s fairness, he also finds it “hard to make sense of” the claim that the rebels carried out the attack. Though, for the sake of balance, he puts them in the “possession of some chemical weapons”—because “there are reports.” The reports in fact originated on an obscure website called Mint Press in a highly implausible story, and had been debunked by this author in the New Republic, by Robert Mackey in the New York Times, and Dan Murphy in the Christian Science Monitor. A week before Bromwich wrote his article, even the report’s own author disavowed it.

Bromwich, however, was not daunted. In a bravura performance, he turned the dubiousness of his source into the measure of its validity. He alleges that the administration’s case blaming Assad “was effectively discredited in less than a week, but only below the radar of the mainstream press and policy establishment.”  It doesn’t occur to Bromwich that the criticism might have been too absurd to receive mainstream traction. So absurd, in fact, that the one source Bromwich does name also belatedly repudiated it. In a Facebook message to his followers, the journalist Gareth Porter, wrote:

in truth I cannot come up with an explanation that I can document. I can talk about seemingly contradictory facts, theories, possibilities, ideas, and I can throw in a lot of interesting observations, but in the end, it is still something I cannot make sense of.

For this reason, Porter was “letting go of this issue” because he “can only write what my conscience and my analytical instincts allow.”

Bromwich’s conscience however is made of sterner stuff. In none of Bromwich’s articles is there a mention of Syrian victims. The man who rightly bristles at the persecution of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is silent on the peaceful political activists, humanitarian workers, journalists, doctors and lawyers tortured or disappeared by the regime; or the tens of thousands of political prisoners rotting in Assad’s jails. No mention of the mutilated dissidents, tortured children, napalmed schools, leveled cities, gassed neighborhoods or bombed breadlines.

Bromwich, who is willing to give Assad the benefit of every doubt, is unforgiving when it comes to his opponents. He invariably paints them in a negative light. “Syria has already largely disintegrated,” says Bromwich.

The government and its Alawite and Christian supporters have secured the west, the Kurds are in the northeast, and the Islamist rebels are in the east (where the al-Nusra Front has already begun to enforce sharia law)

No mention here of the nation-wide Local Coordination Committees, or the vast network of non-violent civil society groups; no word on the head of the Syrian National Council George Sabra, a Christian, or the opposition’s first ambassador to France, an Alawite; omitted too are Christians who support the uprising. Bromwich is unaware that the most eloquent voice of the revolution, the novelist Samar Yabek, is an Alawite.  He wouldn’t tell you that the jihadists have been in open conflict with the nationalist Free Syria Army (FSA) for over a year. Nor would you learn how the conflict assumed its increasingly sectarian character.

Such ignorance would be bad enough. But Bromwich compounds it by reprising tropes from the right’s “war on terror” discourse. In his ecumenical approach to sourcing, he approvingly quotes Tea Partier Rand Paul and the rightwing shock jock Rush Limbaugh. The fact that their opposition to US foreign policy might derive partly from their antipathy toward Muslims and their ideological opposition to the ‘socialist’ president was seemingly no barrier.

Paul is no pacifist; he has suggested that Assad “deserves death” for his use of chemical weapons. And Limbaugh is a cesspool of venomous opinion on everything from migrants, minorities, the disabled, to—of course—Muslims. Why Bromwich would feel that quoting them would strengthen his argument is mystifying. But it might explain where Bromwich picked up his rebels-with-sarin conspiracy theory. After the story debuted on an obscure conspiracy site, it was Limbaugh who first amplified it. (Bromwich also described an attack on a regime checkpoint in the historic Christian town of Maaloula as an “attack on Christians”, a claim rejected by the town’s residents).

The mix of nativist isolationism and Kissingerian realism that Bromwich espouses was perhaps better articulated by Sarah Palin: “Let Allah sort it out”.

Such indifference to massive state repression would sound inhuman if Bromwich weren’t careful to cover it up with the magic phrase “both sides”. It allows him to assert moral superiority while obfuscating context and scale. True, elements of the opposition have committed crimes; some of them horrific. They must be condemned. A just cause does not excuse criminality (though the collapse of law and order does make them inevitable).

Only someone with no moral perspective or sense of proportion would compare the regime’s wholesale criminality with the retail crimes of the opposition. The actions of an individual or a group in a diffuse, uncoordinated and disorganized opposition merely reflect on the perpetrator; the crimes of the regime, with its functioning hierarchies and chains of command, reflect policy.

The Baathist regime has a monopoly on airpower, armor, artillery, ballistic missiles, and unconventional weapons. It is confronted by a diffuse, poorly equipped opposition, whose members were forced by the regime’s brutality into picking up arms. But in Bromwich’s reading this becomes a contest between a beleaguered Assad and “jihadists” backed by the American goliath. And though he has made no reference to the Syrians’ right to self-determination, he generously pronounces the regime in Damascus “sovereign” — a “sovereign government” that is facing the threat of “violent overthrow”. The real victim, it turns out, is Assad.

Bromwich is of course entitled to oppose intervention – it is a perfectly respectable position. Who wouldn’t be leery after the disastrous and unprovoked war in Iraq; or the ongoing bombings of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia? After the lies that led to a war that resulted in at least 461,000 unnecessary deaths (perhaps more), it is natural to feel betrayed. There is good reason also to be skeptical of humanitarian conceits that might be used to justify foreign intervention. It certainly makes sense to be dubious about a media that gave warmongers a pass.

But these lessons could be overlearned. If a boy cries “wolf!” while being set-upon by a wolf pack, then fixating on his propensity for lies will not conjure away the threat. Memory can distort sight; it can’t override it. Where skepticism hardens into cynicism and dogma precludes context, ignorance and apathy parade as virtues. Bromwich and the anti-imperialists forget that in Iraq only the possession of unconventional weapons was being alleged; in Syria they have actually been used. In Iraq pretexts had to be manufactured for intervention; in Syria their abundance has done little to encourage action. It is one thing to distrust the government and quite another to extend this skepticism to the supposed objects of its humanitarian concern.

The threat of a US intervention was momentary; it passed. But the people who had shown little concern for protecting Syrians from Assad went to unusual lengths to protect Assad from the US. Though only a handful openly embraced Assad, many opted for a subtler approach, focusing exclusively on the opposition, caricaturing it, amplifying its failings and erasing its suffering. They manufactured doubt to exculpate the regime. Uri Avnery has derided this tendency as “leftist monsterphilia” – one that in times of crises turns otherwise sensible people into apologists for tyrants.

It is no accident that Syrians have received such little sympathy. Western citizens usually sympathize with perfect victims; moral ambiguity dissuades many. Such ambiguities have been reinforced by the regime’s sophisticated PR campaign and the dog whistles of friendly ideologues. Together they have heaped insult upon injury and drained the reservoirs of potential sympathy.

With over 100,000 killed by conventional weapons, sarin was the least of Syrians’ worries. The international drama over the use of CW has obscured the fact that recent developments have left Assad fully in control of his conventional arsenal with no red lines — real or imagined — constraining him. Syria might see bleaker days yet. But as the abandoned and vulnerable population is subjected to intensified repression, the world will have to worry about protecting them not just from the regime’s killers, but also the calumnies of the monsterphiles.

– Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a political sociologist and the author of the forthcoming The Road to Jerusalem: American Neoconservatism and the Iraq War (Edinburgh University Press). Twitter: @im_pulse

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First Lebanese Battalion in FSA After Hezbollah’s Call

15SaturdayJun 2013

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Lebanese individuals might have been involved in Syria’s war from early days. Sheikh Ahmad Al-Aseer declared Jihad and went himself there couple of months ago with his fighters too for a show-off exercise, but permanent or independent Lebanese fighting battalion are not known to be present as of yet.

Hezbollah has institutionalised the Lebanese involvement in Syria with his recent public involvement in the battle of Qusair. Hassan Nasrallah has publicly called his Lebanese opponents “to meet them in Syria to fight”. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese state and government and obviously has a regional weight – which means Iran.

The lebanese government, which is supposed to be adopting a dissociation policy, is in coma status with no comment whatsoever. Even more, “sovereign” Michel Aoun has defended Hezbollah’s intervention on the basis they are fighting the takfirees (beyond our borders.)

Sadly, some Lebanese will meet Hezbollah’s divisive call and go to Syria. This will expand Syria’s war into a sectarian regional one, and allow the war to spread to Lebanon too without a shadow of a doubt.

Below is the video of the 29 years old Lebanese Fadi AbdulKader declaring the formation of the Free Battalion of “Ikleem el Kharoub” under the Free Syrian Army command to fight Hezbollah. If you don’t know it, Ikleem el Kharoub is a Sunni area in the mostly mixed Druze and Christian Chouf district.

In what could be the first video of its kind for a Lebanese, Fadi AbdulKader shows a copy of his Lebanese passport (which expired last month) confirming his ID and date of birth. The video is done on the style of previous videos for defections from the Syrian army. He declares he wants to defend his religion and land in both Syria and Lebanon. Funnily enough, he gives The Lebanese Republic a new name by calling it the Arab Republic of Lebanon.

Hezbollah, which always prided itself not be part of the Lebanese civil war, is now creating a Lebanese civil war on Syrian land and contributing to the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah has officially turned into a militia, and seeking other Lebanese militias on the opposite side. This can only get worse for everyone.

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