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Bashar Assad

How The Assad Regime Benefited From Gassing Its Own People

 

Syria Chemical Weapons

REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Victims of the August 21st, 2013 chemical weapons attack

On August 21st, 2013, the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad committed one of the most shocking war crimes of the 21st century, gassing nearly 1,500 people to death in Ghouta, outside of Damascus. Assad’s regime, which faced pockets of significant rebel resistance throughout western Syria and inside the capital, soon faced the prospect of imminent U.S. military strikes: days after the Ghouta attack, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry all but promised swift retribution for the chemical massacre.

Screen Shot 2014 08 21 at 2.01.14 PM

Reuters

Map demarcating control of Syria on August 6, 2013 — two weeks before the Ghouta attack

But Assad’s criminality paid off. Today, regime forces are closing in on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the secular revolutionaries’ last remaining strongholds. Assad warned as early as 2011 that his government was a bulwark against Islamist extremists threatening to unseat him; three years of killing have turned that false choice into a reality.Most importantly, Assad has a level of international respectability today that seemed unthinkable a year ago — and the Ghouta chemical weapons attack and its aftermath are part of the reason why.

Today, it’s clear that Assad gained from the attack, which proved that the international community wasn’t prepared to go after him even after a serious breach in international law, and that their only alternative was to adjust to the reality of his likely long-term survival.

Although the Ghouta attacks seemed to obligate U.S. action under President Barack Obama’s chemical weapons “red line,” there were early signs that Obama did not want to obligate himself to carrying out military strikes.

On August 31, Obama laid out the case that punishing Assad for his violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was a vital national interest — but then left the use of force to a Congressional vote without calling for an emergency session of the body, which was then in an August recess.

On September 9, Kerry suggested that Assad could simply give up his chemical weapons and join the CWC in order to resolve the crisis. This is exactly what ended up happening. With the oversight of Assad’s allies in Moscow — a government with its own patchy record of semi-compliance with the CWC — Assad eventually disposed of 1,200 tons of chemical agents without a single U.S. tomahwak missile being fired.

But there were still costs. Practically, the deal required formal cooperation between the U.S. and the Middle East’s most violent, destabilizing, and isolated regime. The deal had some immediate consequences on the ground as well. As journalist Michael Weiss noted in January of 2014, Assad waged a scorched-earth campaign in order to clear the Damascus-to-Homs highway for the delivery of the weapons for eventual disposal, using the dealas cover for an increasingly brutal campaign against his opponents.

And Assad didn’t get bombed by the most powerful military on earth, or suffer any punishment or loss in status for his criminality.

The consequences of a U.S. attack against Assad is now a matter of speculation. They might have acted as a much-needed force multiplier for the beleaguered Free Syrian Army, which was fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime and was in a much stronger position than it is currently. A blow to a leading Iranian ally like Assad might have forced Tehran to redouble its efforts on propping the regime in Damascus — leaving it less capable of pursuing its disastrous and meddlesome policies in neighboring Iraq.

Airstrikes would have precluded a chemical weapons deal that turned Russia and Assad into the U.S.’s de facto security partners. Without the deal, Assad would never have been congratulated for his good citizenship while bombing his opponents into submission while stillretaining the infrastructure needed to re-start chemical weapons production if the tide of the conflict ever turned.

Nearly all of Assad’s calculations have paid off over the past year. His regime has beat a tactical retreat to Syria’s urban and coastal northwest, home to most of the country’s critical infrastructure and population centers. Jihadist groups oversee the country’s gas and oil fieldsand ensure that the secular rebels — who Assad has always considered his real enemies — are squeezed from both east and west.

International legitimacy

And the chemical weapons deal removed the international community’s main point of contention with Assad’s government, namely his continued violation of the CWC — never mind that there’s credible evidence of regime violations as recently as this past May.

The deal — and the attack that precipitated it — gave Assad the freedom and global legitimacy to win his country’s civil war.

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Reuters

Map of control of Syria from July 3, 2014

A year after one of the ghastliest war crimes in recent decades, Assad is even looking at how to use the ISIS threat to win Western countries back to his side, and may even find willing partners in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.The cost of Assad’s strategy has been high: 9 million refugees, 180,000 dead, repeated uses of chemical weapons, and the creation of a war zone stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

But it’s working.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-assad-benefited-from-ghouta-2014-8#ixzz3B5odYP9R

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Syria Plea: ‘We Are Eating Cat and Donkey Meat, Have Mercy on Us’

Demo today at 1:00 pm Place du Luxembourg
Sam Dagher/The Wall Street Journal
Emergency aid workers tried to evacuate children, women, elderly and sick civilians from the Yarmouk Camp.

DAMASCUS, Syria—As the Syrian regime and opposition prepared to leave the war-torn country last weekend to take part in peace talks in Switzerland, dozens of emergency-aid workers waited hours for government permission to evacuate some of those trapped with little food and medicine in a rebel-held Damascus neighborhood.

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher went to the frontline of the Yarmouk Camp, where tens of thousands of people, mostly Palestinians, have not been allowed to leave the area for about a year. Both sides in the conflict have used access to food and medicine as a weapon, according to human-rights groups and aid workers.

Dagher met those hoping relatives inside the camp would be evacuated. “Let everyone out. We are eating cat and donkey meat, have mercy on us,” 45-year-old Qamar Azeema told Dagher when she was finally allowed to leave on Sunday. Dagher wrote this article, reporting on the desperate conditions inside the camp, and shot video footage on a mobile phone.

While at Yarmouk, Dagher met Eman Kanoun:

Her husband Tayseer Bakeer, son Mohammad, daughters Ghinwa and Hanan Bakeer, her husband and granddaughter Lilas were not among the lucky group to leave on Sunday. Mrs. Kanoun escaped in July to bring her family food, but regime soldiers would not let her back in, she told me.

Dagher asked Mrs. Kanoun what her granddaughter says to her when she speaks to her by phone.

Dagher also met Islam, a 9-year-old girl, whose father and brothers are trapped inside the camp:

He met a woman who had escaped from the camp five months ago.

A woman who gave her name as Umm Mohammad said she escaped from the camp in July with her newborn baby girl Tabarak and other children including daughter Islam. Umm Mohammad told me she could not breastfeed her baby and there was no baby formula. She said they used to crush lentils and rice to make bread out of the mix. “It was bitter whatever we put in it,” she said. Her husband, two stepsons and other relatives remain inside the besieged area. Islam told me she misses them all, especially her father.

Twenty-seven people were evacuated Sunday, including 11-year-old Sultan.

Ameera Kalash, 38, was evacuated with her four children, aged between one and five. This is the first time they have eaten bread and fresh fruit for seven months. Mrs. Kalash told Dagher that supplies are scarce and what little could be found is prohibitively expensive inside the camp.

Mrs. Kalash said that her children used to eat things like dried Tamarind all day. “I have no money, I used to beg to feed them,” she told me. A man interrupted saying, “we are eating cow feed.”

Zamzam Khalil, 95, is a Palestinian refugee who fled to Syria in 1948.

I watched as she was given an emergency nutrition pack to drink by aid workers. She told me how children would pick grass for people to eat. Not even Israel did this to us when we fled Palestine in 1948, she told me. The green pigment on her face is from tattoos commonly worn by Bedouin women across the Middle East.

Dagher also met Sheik Mohammad al-Omari, a cleric who is part of mediation group between regime and rebels inside Yarmouk. He had a message to those meeting in Switzerland.

On the same day Dagher also watched as representatives from UNRWA, a United Nations relief agency, negotiate for hours with a Syrian army general and other security force officials permission to take in 400 parcels of food to those trapped inside Yarmouk.

First they said they would only allow 200. Then they changed their minds and said only 100 and that all food boxes would be searched. I watched as boxes were cut with knives. They found bread and small nylon bags filled with flour. These were tossed out because they were “unauthorized” and could be taken by rebels, army officers said. Two small pickup trucks filled with the food boxes crossed the frontline. Gunfire was heard and the trucks returned with their goods undelivered. Syrian regime forces said the convoy was attacked by rebel snipers and that there would be no more deliveries. I watched as the trucks were turned back.

To highlight the plight of people inside Yarmouk and its lack of access, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)] launched a social-media campaign generating more than 31.6 million “impressions” and reaching tens of millions around the world.

“Millions of people heard our plea, that we have seen enough reports of starving children, infants with rickets and women dying in childbirth for lack of medical care. We urge the parties to listen to the voice of the international humanitarian community,” said UNRWA spokesperson, Chris Gunness. “A small amount of food aid has been allowed into Yarmouk in the last few days, but this is a drop in the ocean.”

– Compiled by Sarah Marshall

source

More on this story: Attempts to Send Food, Medicine to Besieged Homs Quarter Falter

Dubious Wisdom

Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

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monsterI wrote this review of Bente Scheller’s book for al-Jazeera.

Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashaar al-Assad is “not a dictator, just a gangster boss.” But really he’s not even that. What he is, is what his father looked like in all those statues – one element in the managerial class, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.

Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son. Bashaar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.

The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book “The Wisdom of the Waiting Game” is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience,” and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or then on Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold. In his book “The Fall of the House of Assad”, David Lesch points out that Bashaar al-Assad felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syrian file over to Russia, and seemingly coming round to Bashaar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off.

The most interesting parts of Scheller’s book are not actually dedicated to foreign policy, but describe – accurately and with balance – the causes of the revolution and the nature of the regime’s response. The most direct link she’s able to posit between domestic and foreign policy is that, in both, the regime’s only abiding interest has been self-preservation. In Scheller’s words, “regime survival … defines what is perceived as a security threat.” This chimes well with the shabeeha graffiti gracing Syrian walls – “Either Assad or we burn the country.” In regime priorities, Assad always stood far above the people, the economy, the infrastructure, and even the integrity of the national territory.

For both father and son, ‘Arabism’ was never anything other than a propaganda ploy. Notwithstanding its nationalist rhetoric, the regime stymied a Palestinian-leftist victory in Lebanon in 1976, before proceeding to slaughter Palestinians in the Lebanese camps. It supported Iran against Arab Iraq, and joined the US-led coalition to drive Saddam Hussain from Kuwait. All of these decisions were taken in the face of Syrian and Arab public opinion and ran counter to the regime’s own declared aims. In each case, regime-strengthening came first.

To drive home her point, Scheller provides a series of illuminating summaries of relations between Syria and its neighbours since 1990. These have been characterised by Machiavellianism and self-serving relations with non-state actors (such as on-off support for the PKK’s war against Turkey, supposedly to win Kurdish rights, while Syrian Kurds remained oppressed and in many cases stateless).

But despite Scheller’s argument of regime continuity from father to son, something which comes through very strongly is Bashaar al-Assad’s inability (unlike Hafez) to respond flexibly to emergent conditions. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, shortly before Hafez’s death, undermined the legitimacy of Syria’s military presence there and called for a new policy. Bashaar was unable to deviate from his father’s old roadmap, however, despite its obvious irrelevance. As a result, Syria’s influence had shrunk dramatically in Lebanon and the region by 2005. Hizbullah, once a subservient client, grew to fill the vacuum (and now, according to reports from Qusair, Hizbullah even commands Syrian forces inside Syria).

Syrian control of Lebanon provided a safety valve for the regime. Cross-border smuggling boosted the sclerotic economy; Syrian workers found jobs in Lebanon, easing the unemployment crisis; the regime was able to wave the banner of resistance by association with Hizbullah’s struggle against Israeli occupation, while imprisoning teenage girls who dared to blog about Palestine, and without firing a shot across the occupied Golan; even Beirut’s nightclubs offered a release for the frustrated Damascus bourgeoisie.

The Lebanese case seems to prove Scheller’s contention that Syria’s foreign policy is indistinguishable from its domestic policy, that in effect there is no foreign policy, perhaps not even domestic policy, but simply, again, policies aimed at guarding the  throne.

But Scheller fails to highlight the profound discontinuity between Assad père and fils. In retrospect, the stupidest move of Hafez’s career was to hand power to his son, not the first son Basil who had been groomed for the post but then most unfortunately killed himself in a car crash, but the second son, Bashaar, who showed no interest in or aptitude for politics before his brother’s death, and who now, as Scheller herself points out, has “neither the power, nor the strategic mind, to exercise all of the options his father had at his disposal.”

Scheller’s  proclaimed focus on regime rather than personality is therefore very wise. Bashaar is too insubstantial to bear the weight of responsibility for the slaughter in Syria. His name represents the collective decision making of an elite whose relations are governed by mutual fear and distrust. The composition of this elite is obscure; analysts debate the relative influence of Bashaar’s mother, or his brother Maher, or the various heads of the security agencies. What is clear is that no individual is absolutely in charge, and that there is thus no possibility of imaginative thinking breaking a failed mould. As it did in Lebanon, the regime can only follow the dead father’s script. Hafez was able to contain a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982, and by killing somewhere between ten and forty thousand people, to quickly crush it. 2011 was a very different historical moment. Protesters came from every political and religious background, were spread throughout the country, and had access to cameras and the internet. Yet Bashaar still applied the techniques of the eighties, and squandered the considerable reserves of goodwill felt for him personally (if not for the wider system) by the populace. His blundering violence provoked an armed revolution from a peaceful reform movement.

For Hafez al-Assad, the stubborn refusal to compromise was an occasional choice; for Bashaar’s inflexible circle, inertia became fate, a matter of inevitability. Because he was answerable to nobody, Hafez was capable of dramatic shifts. Scheller’s study starts in 1990 because this marks the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time when Assad Senior rapidly and effectively recalibrated his regional and international relationships.

For now, Bashaar may be winning, but not due to his own strength or popularity, and least of all to his wisdom. For his good fortune he should thank the hard work or failures of other actors: the solid support of Russia and Iran (the latter organising his military fight-back); the West’s silent complicity; the incompetence of opposition political elites; and the growth of Salafism and the consequent fears in minority communities. If and when he does finally conquer the revolution (still an unlikely prospect), it will be a pyrrhic victory for two reasons. First, the  monopoly of power and violence established by his father has been irretrievably lost. From now on the regime will be in hoc to the foreign powers and domestic sub-state militias which have rescued it. Second, with the economy, infrastructure and social cohesion of the country entirely destroyed, there will be nothing left to loot.

“The Wisdom of the Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads” by Bente Scheller. Hurst & Co. London. 2013

As If…

November 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment

the people of Kafranbel understand the game far better than most professional analysts

the people of Kafranbel understand the game far better than most professional analysts

In an article for the National, the wonderful Amal Hanano writes against the illusion that perpetuating the Assad regime can lead to anything other than continuing and expanding war.

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.

 

Kafranbel amplifies Amal Hanano's words

Kafranbel amplifies Amal Hanano’s words

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

source

Assad: Nobel Peace prize should have been mine

      bandannie : why not ? after all there was Obama and Begin and a few other deserving criminals….

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks published on Monday by Al-Akhbar newspaper that the Nobel Peace Prize should have been attributed to him.

Commenting on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Assad said “jokingly”: “This prize should have been [given] to me.”

Assad also reiterated that he did not regret handing over his country’s chemical weapons.

“Syria has stopped producing chemical weapons since 1997, and has replaced them with traditional weapons, which are the determining factor in the battlefield,” Assad said.

However, he said that handing over the chemical weapons was a “moral and political loss” for his regime.

Assad also tackled his regime’s alliance with Russia and said that the latter is not defending Syria, but it is rather defending itself.

“With what they are doing, the Russians are not defending Syria, its people, its regime or its president; they are defending themselves. Syria’s stability and security is protected by politics more than it is by a military arsenal,” he said.

The Syrian president also slammed Hamas and accused it of abandoning the resistance.

“Hamas decided to abandon the resistance and become a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not the first time they betrayed us, they did it before in 2007 and 2009,” Assad said.

Asked about the possibility that he would receive Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in his palace in Syria, Assad said jokingly: “Do not be surprised to see [Progressive Socialist Party leader MP] Walid Jumblatt here.”

source

Syrian chemical attack spurs finger-pointing inside Assad regime

Antakya, Turkey // United Nations weapons inspectors will today examine the site of a chemical weapons attack in Damascus that killed hundreds, as the first signs of finger-pointing inside the Assad regime began to emerge.

The Syrian government agreed yesterday to cease hostilities in the area while the team goes in and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said inspectors were “preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities” on the outskirts of the capital.

The attack on Wednesday has galvanised international calls for action against the government of President Bashar Al Assad. Rebels say as many as 1,300 people were killed. One aid agency says thousands were affected and 355 died.

Amid universal acceptance that a chemical nerve agent has been used but disagreement over who used it, there were indications from Damascus that some of the army officers involved had tried to distance themselves from what happened, and insisted they were not told the rockets they were firing were loaded with toxins.

“We have heard from people close to the regime that the chemical missiles were handed out a few hours before the attacks,” said a source from a well-connected family, who has contacts with both the opposition and regime loyalists.

“They didn’t come from the ministry of defence but from air force intelligence, under orders from Hafez Maklouf . The army officers are saying they did not know there were chemical weapons. Even some of the people transporting them are saying they had no idea what was in the rockets – they thought they were conventional explosives.”

Hafez Maklouf, Mr Al Assad’s cousin, commands Syria’s air force intelligence, the most feared of all its secret police branches.

Another account of what may have taken place has been put forward by the opposition Syrian National Coalition, based on a timeline from residents inside the affected areas and information collected from sources inside the regime who leak information to the rebels.

The SNC said rockets loaded with chemicals were delivered to Gen Tahir Hamid Khalil and launched from an army base housing the 155 Brigade, a unit of the 4th Division, in the Qalamoon mountains north of Damascus.

Mahar Al Assad, the Syrian president’s brother, commands the 4th Division, an ultra-loyalist force with a key role in repressing the uprising since it began in March 2011, and, more recently, heavily involved in combat with rebels around Damascus.

After a night of fierce fighting on Tuesday in an area on the edge of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta – once known for its clean natural water and lush orchards – regime troops moved back, leaving only aircraft overhead, the SNC said.

At 2.30am on Wednesday, regime forces under the command of Gen Ghassan Abbas began launching the rockets, 16 of which were aimed at the eastern suburbs of Damascus, and hit Zamalka and Ain Tarma, densely populated areas in the Eastern Ghouta.

As opposition emergency services responded to those initial chemical attacks, rockets armed with high explosive warheads were fired into the same area, hitting ambulance teams as they tried to help victims of the chemical strikes.

At 4.21am, 18 more missiles were fired into eastern Damascus by troops loyal to Mr Al Assad, the SNC said. Another two missiles were aimed at Moadamiya, to the south-west of Damascus, an area known locally as the Western Ghouta.

By 6am, dozens of people from Moadamiya had been taken to a local field hospital suffering from the effects of exposure to a still unidentified poison gas.

At least five poison gas rockets were fired, according to the SNC, four landing in the Eastern Ghouta and one in Moadamiya. Strong winds pushed the gases out from their impact area in Zamalka across to Erbin, a neighbouring district, where more people died.

According to the SNC’s account, loyalist forces close to the attack area were issued orders from a “high level” to wear gas masks in anticipation of the attacks.

Syrian state media and the insurgents have continued to wage a war of words over the chemical attacks.

After initially denying chemical agents had been released by either side, the Syrian authorities are now vigorously blaming rebel forces.

The rebels have posted videos online of hollow rocket tubes found in the eastern suburbs where the attacks took place. The missile casings, about two metres long, appear to match those used in previous strikes by regime forces.

Russia, a close ally of Mr Al Assad, said it welcomed the decision by Damascus to allow the UN inspection. The Russian government, like Syria’s other close ally Iran, does not dispute that chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb. They blame anti-government insurgents for the attacks.

In Washington, a US official said “there is very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians.

The Obama administration earlier accused the Assad government of delaying UN inspectors to allow the evidence to degrade.

The agreement by Syria to permit UN investigators to carry out a first-hand examination of a chemical weapons attack came as international pressure built for a retaliatory strike against the Assad regime. The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said yesterday that the US military, which is repositioning its forces in the eastern Mediterranean to give President Obama the option for an armed strike, was ready to act if asked.

On Saturday, the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières said 3,600 patients displaying “neurotoxic symptoms” had been admitted to Syrian hospitals it supports, and 355 of those patients had died.

psands@thenational.ae

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Voices from Damascus: ‘We Expect Nothing from the United Nations’

The photos and video circulating of yesterday’s alleged chemical gas attack in the east Damascus suburb of Ghouta are haunting. In some, dead bodies, including those of children, are lined up shoulder to shoulder on the floor. In others, volunteers go from victim to victim, pouring water onto the faces of those still alive.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other watchdog groups have claimed the attack was carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime; the Observatory put the number of dead at 1,400 and climbing. If so, it will be the largest recorded chemical attack since a 1988 hit on Iraq’s Kurds by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. The missiles containing the gas are believed to have been launched from areas of Damascus controlled by the regime.

“A huge number of people in Ghouta are dead, doctors and witnesses are describing horrific details that look like a chemical weapons attack, and the government claims it didn’t do it,” Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement. “The only way to find out what really happened in Ghouta is to let United Nations inspectors in.”

At the time of the attack, United Nations inspectors were in central Damascus, but have not been allowed access to the attack site. HRW said that “whether or not chemical weapons were used, the attack left a large number of civilians dead, and those responsible for unlawful killings should be held to account. The government should give the United Nations chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus immediate access.”

Syria Deeply spoke with witnesses in Ghouta about what they saw, and their low hopes that the attack will trigger international intervention in the conflict.

Ghazwan, 28, doctor:

We have previous experience dealing with chemical attacks, but not on this scale. It was shocking to see such a large number of children and women. It was the first time we have seen a chemical attack like this. We couldn’t deal with all these numbers – about 800 injured arrived here in [neighboring] Douma, and we only have a few medical stations and doctors. We gave mechanical ventilation for some who couldn’t breathe, and it is important to give atropine shots, which is the antidote for sarin.

People can help in this situation by washing the injured. We had a lot of volunteers. The situation in Douma was good in in the end, thank God. Only 17 dead from 800.

The main mission was to rescue people. If you want to go there you have to wear masks to protect yourself from chemical weapons, and we only have a few. We get them from the Free Syrian Army.

Yesterday there were a lot of people coming to Douma for treatment. Most have been discharged. A few were suffocating and are getting medical ventilation. The acute state of chemical injuries only lasts 24 hours. That is the critical period. Now most of them are being taken care of back in their homes. A lot of them were scared to go home, but they have no place else to go.

One of the survivors told us that he fainted and then found himself in Douma. They took him to the field hospital. Some survivors told us that they were walking in the streets and seeing bodies everywhere, before they fainted. Some were dead, others were choking.

I’ll be frank with you: Most people I’ve seen today and yesterday don’t expect anything from the international community. They’ve expected too much in the past, so they don’t care too much about this.

Abu Adel, a member of the Information Office in Jobar, the eastern district of Damascus that borders Ghouta:

The atmosphere is incredibly tense. People are wary of a repeat scenario. Now there is heavy shelling with all kinds of weapons, mortar fire and warplanes, and surface-to-surface missiles hit the district in the morning. Now the neighborhood is surrounded by tanks from several directions, and there have been attempts to storm it.

The rebels are doing a major escalation and responding by shelling regime military locations.

We expect nothing from the United Nations.

Abu Ahmed, Moadamiyet al-Sham media center:

Four days ago, the regime [started] to shell Moadamiyet al-Sham with rockets and mortars [launched from] from the Mezzeh military airport. [There were also] tanks and artillery fire [at] the Fourth Division headquarters in the mountains of Moadamiyet.

There was no shelling the night before the attack. Yesterday, when people were leaving the mosque after dawn prayers, they heard seven strange sounds like whistles. The sounds of the explosions were unusually soft.

The rockets had come from the direction of Mezzeh and targeted the area of Zeitouna mosque. Nearby, [there] is a kindergarten.

The worshippers went to the scene to find their families [in a state that looked like] sleeping. People were wounded. Among the wounded were paramedics and doctors. All were passed out.

The ambulance took people to the field hospital. There were 103 people killed, including 17 children, and 305 wounded. Some are still unconscious. One child died today.

People have severed all of their hopes [that] the world [will intervene]. We have nothing but God. But if the inspectors are serious, then they must go to Moadamiyet immediately. They must make serious decisions and not just issue condemnations.

The regime has used every weapon, and now it is [using] chemicals. It is taking its revenge on the cities that have remained steadfast [opposition strongholds] despite all of the bombing and destruction. This is the last resort of Assad, after exhausting every means of suppression. This is vengeance.

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Does Anyone Give a Damn About Syria?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi and Writer

Posted: 01/16/2013 10:51 pm

It’s hard to believe that every day the news reports have Syrians dying like flies and noone seems to give much of a damn. The report yesterday that 80 students were blown to smithereens was particularly galling. They were studying at their University in Aleppo when, apparently, death rained down from the sky, either through a missile or a bomb. One image had a female hand with a pen still in it, dismembered from the rest of her body. She apparently died while doing school work.

I was a Rabbi at a University. If 80 students had died in a military attack it would have shaken the foundations of the academic world. Professors everywhere would have condemned this violation of the sacred halls of academia. But in Syria it’s just another day of indiscriminate slaughter.

The United States is the world’s strongest nation with the loudest voice. Can’t President Obama speak out? I know we’re not ready to invade Syria or impose a no-fly zone. Americans don’t have the stomach for another war, or an invasion. But does that absolve us from simply condemning the slaughter in the strongest possible terms? What would it cost, in blood and treasure, for President Obama to fly up to New York and address the United Nations with a simple declaration: “President Assad, I’m here today to tell you that the long arm of international justice will catch up with you. Today you’re a brutal dictator killing men, women, and children in order to stay in power. But one day, in the not too distant future, we will catch up with you. You will be arrested for crimes against humanity and tried for your butchery and mass murder. It may not happen today or tomorrow. But I assure that you one day, in the not too distance future, in the dead of night when you least expect it, it will happen. Soldiers of civilized nations will apprehend you and take you to the International Court of Justice at The Hague where you will stand trial before the world for your cruelty. And you will be held accountable for your appalling crimes.”

Isn’t that what the UN is for? It’s bad enough that China, and especially Russia, are protecting Assad and refusing to allow international action against him. But the American president is the very symbol of democratic freedoms and human rights to the entire world. He dare not remain silent.

Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg recently reported that President Obama said that Israelis don’t know what’s good for them. Bibi wants to build in Jerusalem but doesn’t realize that he is isolating Israel further in the international community.

I appreciate the president’s concerns. No doubt Israelis are especially grateful for the American president’s ability to divine Israel’s security needs even better than their chosen leaders. But perhaps our president should focus less on construction of apartments and homes and do something instead about the bombs and rockets that are killings tens of thousands of innocent Arabs. Syria is arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis that President Obama has had on his watch and he is, respectfully, failing miserably in doing anything about it.

The Arab leaders have proven even less reliable. While President Morsi of Egypt decries Jews as descendants of apes and pigs, he seems fairly oblivious to the indiscriminate slaughter of his Arab brothers in Syria. But it’s become fairly obvious that it’s not the Jews who are the enemy but brutal Arab dictators who will kill as many Arabs as is necessary to stay in office.

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, seems much more interested in forking over to Al Gore half a billion dollars to buy Current TV for Al Jazeera than taking out full page ads in the worlds’ leading publications alerting them to the Arab children who are dying in Damascus.

In the book of Genesis God asks Cain where his brother Abel is. Cain has just killed him and in effort to protect himself famously asks, “Am I brother’s keeper?” God’s response is ferocious. “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

We who witnessed the repeated genocides of the 20th century — from Armenia and the Holocaust to Cambodia and Rwanda — will one day be called to account for our silence in the face of dead students and children.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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Meet the Assadosphere, the Online Defenders of Syria’s Butcher

That would be a heavenly Bashar Assad, dictator of Syria, arm-wrestling the demonic Uncle Sam. Is that Mount Doom in the background? Photo: Instagram/Bashar4Ever

You might think it’s hard to defend Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator responsible for the murder of 40,000 human beings. You must be new to the internet.

Assad doesn’t have many allies IRL — Iran and Russia are about the only ones remaining. But as the Syrian rebellion stretches into its 20th month, he’s found (and paid for) a whole heap of friends online, who warn of an impending NATO invasion to dominate Syria; secret CIA shipments of weapons to terrorist groups; and, of course, that Assad’s enemies are all really Jews. Welcome to the Assadosphere — on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and the web.

Assad has maintained a robust propaganda presence for years: Remember the infamous Vogue profile of his wife Asma, which praised the “wildly democratic” Assad family right as it began its wave of bloodshed. Assad’s online buddies are the next wave of that propaganda: They’ve taken a defense of his regime viral, to the point where they don’t need to take their marching orders from Damascus. They’re contesting the web and social-media space that would otherwise be filled with recitations of Assad’s war crimes — and flooding the zone.

We’ve seen these characters show up occasionally in our comment threads and Facebook pages. But the most efficient portal into online Assad apologias comes from the Twitter hashtag #RealSyria. There, you’ll learn that the Free Syrian Army, “aka al Qaeda” is “preparing suits etc. for chemical weapons false flag.” You’ll see links to YouTube clips from the “Eretz Zen Channel” to learn how the rebels torture citizens with “flesh burning materials.” (Not that said rebels are in said video.) And you’ll find people skeptical of the “HUUURR DURRRR” that that nice Mr. Assad would ever use his “supposed” chemical weapons. It’s not like an Assad spokesman warned the world last July that “these types of weapons are [under] the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”

According to Bashar Assad’s defenders on Instagram, the U.S. media hides from you how the Jews control the Syrian rebellion, or something. Image: Instagram/Laith Belal
Then there’s the News About Syria-English blog, Facebook page and Google+ account. It invariably describes the Syrian rebels as “terrorists”; takes at face value Assad’s declarations that he’ll “not use chemical weapons, if it possesses any, whatever the circumstances“; and warns that last year’s war in Libya has yet to satisfy NATO’s “thirst for blood.”

And on like that. SyriaTribune maintains a YouTube channel stocked with clips from — surprise — Vladimir Putin’s Russia Today portraying Assad as the victim of a bloody-minded western conspiracy. A self-described French intellectual named Thierry Meyssan — author of 9/11 The Big Lie — reveals that TV images purporting to show Assad’s massacres of civilians were prepared by the CIA, along with White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, and “aims at demoralizing the Syrians in order to pave the way for a coup d’etat.” The #FakeRevolution hashtag on Instagram provides pictorial, meme-filled boosterism for Bashar, like a screengrab from Time’ app kindly telling user mybubb1e to stop voting for Assad for Person of the Year or Hillary Clinton with flames shooting out of her eyes and ear, courtesy of Bashar4Ever.

Now, the Syrian rebellion is eclectic, and it includes some rather extreme elements –including al-Qaida-aligned terrorists. Human Rights Watch has borne witness to its willingness to execute and torture detainees. But human rights abuses can’t be the real issue for these web and social-media accounts: if so, they’d be turning on Assad, who drops cluster bombs on Syrian cities and has killed more civilians over the last 20 months than perhaps any other despot in power. And anyone defending Assad because they hate the idea of another U.S. invasion might consider that the Obama administration evidently wants to stay out of Syria at all costs. Yes, the Syrian rebels might actually acquire chemical weapons in the wake of Assad’s downfall, and that’s legitimately worrisome, but perhaps some ire might be spared for the regime that, you know, created that chemical stockpile.

Of course, the Syrian rebels use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for everything from propaganda to weapons training, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that Assad’s defenders seek to contest that online space. It’s the internet; people say terrible things on it. But the Assadosphere is the sort of thing that Block and Unfollow functions were created for.

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