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Can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

It took a dead baby for the world to notice. Wait, I thought it took seventy refugees suffocating in a refrigerator with wheels for the world to notice? Or was it the pictures of babies floating face down in the water that did it? I thought we were at the tipping point when chemical weapons were dropped on the Damascus Ghouta in 2013, and politicians in the Western world wobbled their lower lips as they made their speeches denouncing Assad and calling for accountability. I don’t buy it, and I’m not getting swept away with the optimism and emotion. A few thousand refugees let in through the net aren’t going to fix this problem or make it go away. The refugee problem is mainly a Syrian refugee problem, and it stems from a dictator who continues to use barrel bomb attacks to depopulate towns and villages. Syrians aren’t fleeing because of Jabhat al Nusra or even ISIS. They’re fleeing because they can’t live safely in their towns and villages when there is a constant fear of airstrikes and barrel bombs – the most barbaric of indiscriminate weapons.

I’ve spoken to people in Syria, and they’ve told me they could put up with the odd mortar shell, sniper or tank fire. They could even put up with living in IS areas or living with Jabhat al Nusra, just about, but not a weapon that can flatten an entire building, turning it into a tomb for those unlucky enough to be trapped alive beneath it. Those who come to rescue any survivors become themselves victims with the regime’s “double tap” method, where a second barrel bomb is thrown down to get rid of the survivors. It’s diabolical, it’s perverse, and it is contrary to all morality and logic. This is what’s driving people to risk their lives and everything they have for a better one abroad.

The West lacks the political will to do anything while Assad’s allies back him to the hilt. Yes, foreign fighters have done a lot to undermine the Syrian revolution, but that pales in comparison to the material support given to Assad by Iran and Russia. It took two years for the Assad regime to realise that President Obama is actually doing everything he could *not* to touch Syria, and after that the Russians threw him a lifeline, a way out, from the corner of red lines that he’d talked himself into. The disarmament deal that was supposed to “punish” the Assad regime really just gave him a green light to use all other weapons to brutalise the Syrian people, including his airforce, which is nowhere to be seen whenever Israel conducts its airstrikes inside Syria.

Today Prime Minister Cameron might grudgingly agree to allow a few thousand more Syrian refugees into the United Kingdom, as will Europe, but what will the world do in six months? In a year? How long will these band-aid fixes continue to be applied while everybody shirks their international obligations and does nothing to stop the slaughter in Syria? By doing something, I’m not talking about the meaningless term “political solution”, but taking hard action to stop a dictator’s regime from tearing the entire Mediterranean apart so that he can stay on his throne. Sorry, the picture of a dead baby, however heart breaking, is not enough to sway the world’s conscience into action. People will keep risking their lives in the hope of safety and a better life, it’s human nature.

Made up of bloated corpses, blood, guts, stale semen, decayed food, sweat and petrol fumes, there is a stink rising from our Arab countries, and the world just wants to pinch its nose. The only thing this poor baby might have done is to awaken the fetid consciences of the Arab bourgeoisies, as they tweet their heartbreak over social media from across the Arab world’s glittering capitals. To them, I say shukran for your condolences and your Arabian hospitality. Oh, and can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?

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‘No Camp, No Camp’: Migrants Forced Off Train

Desperate migrants lie on train tracks in protest at being taken to a camp, as one family is wrestled off the ground by police.

14:49, UK, Thursday 03 September 2015

Video: Refugee Family Wrestled To Ground

Desperate migrants hoping to reach western Europe have been forced off a train by riot police in Hungary, as authorities try to take them to a holding camp instead.

Sky’s Europe Correspondent Mark Stone, who was on the train originally bound for the Austrian border and was earlier on the platform at Bicske, said: “We have just witnessed the most awful, awful sight.”

He described seeing a crying mother holding a baby and pleading with police on the platform in the town 22 miles (35km) outside Budapest.

The father, clearly overcome with emotion, then pulled his wife and child onto the tracks, before he was handcuffed and taken away.

The train, which earlier left Budapest’s main railway station, was halted in Bicske, where there is a migrant reception centre.

Migrants, most of them from Syria, banged on train windows from the outside and shouted “No camp, no camp”, while dozens of riot police looked on.

Dozens more lay on the tracks in protest against being taken to the camp, while others caught in the underpass pushed back dozens of riot police blocking the stairs to fight their way back to the train.

Those still in the carriages are demanding water as they sit at the station in the heat.

Hungarian police have declared the area an “operation zone” and have told all media there to leave. They are using batons to push reporters out of the station.

Video: Sky Reporter On Station Platform

Earlier on Thursday, thousands of desperate migrants poured into Keleti railway station after it was reopened, forcing their way onto a train despite announcements that there was no service to western Europe.

The migrants pushed into the carriages and tried to cram their children through open windows.

The train that left Keleti, the first in two days after authorities closed the terminal on Tuesday, was initially thought to be heading to Sopron, a town near the Austrian border.

Hundreds more migrants remain at Keleti, and are waiting on crowded platforms for the next available trains.

Video: Station: Cops Out, Migrants In

An Austrian police spokesman said there are no services running from Budapest to Vienna, while the Hungarian government told Sky News no international trains will be leaving Keleti for “safety reasons”.

Keleti had been closed for two days, but migrants poured into the terminal on Thursday as police withdrew. Thousands had slept outside waiting for the station to reopen.

Amid the chaos, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country had done everything to stick to EU rules on border protection, and revealed the army will be deployed to defend Hungary’s border with Serbia.

More than 150,000 migrants have travelled this year to Hungary, a gateway to the EU for those crossing by land from nations including Syria and Afghanistan, across Macedonia and Serbia.

Video: ‘This Is Germany’s Problem’

Mr Orban, meeting European Union leaders in Brussels to discuss the crisis, said other politicians should not criticise his country for “doing what is compulsory to be done”.

He said: “The problem is not a European problem. The problem is a German problem.

“Nobody would like to stay in Hungary… all of them would like to go to Germany.

“So if the German Chancellor insists on it, Hungary must register them.”

Video: Refugee Baby Born In An Underpass

Berlin has agreed to take in some 800,000 migrants from Syria and the Middle East.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said the influx of migrants “is a problem that concerns us all in Europe” and added her country is doing what is morally necessary.

French President Francois Hollande said he and Ms Merkel are putting forward a series of measures to deal with the migration crisis.

Mr Hollande said this would include a “permanent and obligatory mechanism” by which refugees, “notably Syrian”, would be distributed among the 28 countries in the EU.

These will be submitted to a meeting of European interior ministers on 14 September.

Last weekend, Hungary had allowed migrants to travel by train to western Europe without going through asylum procedures.

Trainloads of migrants arrived in Austria and Germany from Hungary on Monday as asylum rules collapsed under the strain of a wave of migration unprecedented in the EU.

However, Budapest’s stance has since hardened, as demonstrated by the Keleti closure and plans to deploy the military to the border.

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Glavin: This is what it’s come to: Letting Syria die, watching Syrians drown

Hundreds of mostly Syrian families walk the final few kilometers through fields towards the Macedonian border to have their papers processed before crossing on September 2, 2015 in Idomeni Greece. Several thousand migrant people are expected to arrive at the border today hoping to head North through Macedonia, after arriving in Athens in the previous few days. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called 'Balkans route' has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II.
Hundreds of mostly Syrian families walk the final few kilometers through fields towards the Macedonian border to have their papers processed before crossing on September 2, 2015 in Idomeni Greece. Several thousand migrant people are expected to arrive at the border today hoping to head North through Macedonia, after arriving in Athens in the previous few days. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called ‘Balkans route’ has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (PHOTO BY DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES)

“The worst part of it is the feeling that we don’t have any allies,” Montreal’s Faisal Alazem, the tireless 32-year-old campaigner for the Syrian-Canadian Council, told me the other day. “That is what people in the Syrian community are feeling.”

There are feelings of deep gratitude for having been welcomed into Canada, Alazem said. But with their homeland being reduced to an apocalyptic nightmare – the barrel-bombing of Aleppo and Homs, the beheadings of university professors, the demolition of Palmyra’s ancient temples – among Syrian Canadians there is also an unquenchable sorrow.

Bashar Assad’s genocidal regime clings to power in Damascus and the jihadist psychopaths of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are ascendant almost everywhere else. The one thing the democratic opposition wanted from the world was a no-fly zone and air-patrolled humanitarian corridors. Even that was too much to ask. There is no going home now.

But among Syrian-Canadians, the worst thing of all, Alazem said, is a suffocating feeling of solitude and betrayal. “In the western countries, the civil society groups – it’s not just their inaction, they fight you as well,” he said. “They are crying crocodile tears about refugees now, but they have played the biggest role in throwing lifelines to the regime. And so I have to say to them, this is the reality, this is the result of all your anti-war activism, and now the people are drowning in the sea.”

Drowning in the sea: a little boy in a red t-shirt and shorts, found face-down in the surf. The boy was among 11 corpses that washed up on a Turkish beach Tuesday. Last Friday, as many as 200 refugees drowned when the fishing boat they were being smuggled in capsized off the Libyan coast. At least 2,500 people, most of them Syrians, have drowned in this way in the Mediterranean already this year.

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A year ago this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emerged from a gathering on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales with commitments from nine NATO countries, including Canada, to join in a military effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL. A few days after that Sept. 4 2014 huddle, a half-dozen Arab states signed up. At least a dozen other countries are now also contributing in one way or another.

To say the American-led coalition effort has failed to stop the war in Syria would be true enough. It would also be disingenuous, for two reasons. The first is that to have allowed ISIL to expand the scope of its rampages would have meant war without precedent in 1,000 years of the Middle East’s bloody history. The second and most important is that the Obama administration never had any intention of stopping the war in the first place.

Bashar Assad, the Iranian ayatollahs’ Syrian proxy, has been allowed to persist in his relentless bombing of Syria’s cities and his dispatching of Shabiha and Hezbollah death squads. Assad has been allowed to violate Obama’s allegedly genius chemical-weapons pact as well, dozens of times. It is the toll from Assad’s war, not ISIL’s atrocities, that is the thing to notice: perhaps seven of every eight Syrian deaths (at least a quarter of a million people so far), almost all of Syria’s seven million “internally displaced” innocents, and the overwhelming majority of the four million Syrian refugees who have fled the country.

The enormity of the Syrian catastrophe is at least partly what makes the tragedy so difficult to comprehend, but in Canada there is an added encumbrance. It is the delicate sensibilities of established opinion that require diplomacy to be privileged as an unimpeachable virtue, and further require the United Nations to be understood as the sole means by which disasters of the Syrian kind are prevented, or at least resolved.

It makes no difference that no less an authority than António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, attributes Syria’s agonies primarily to a failure of diplomacy, or that the UN’s governing Security Council is a hostage of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, or that the UN’s refugee budget is running well below the half-way mark – $5.6 billion – for Syrian refugees. Funding is already two-thirds shy of anticipated refugee costs for 2015. The World Food Program has been rolling back its refugee food allowances year after year, and in the coming weeks more than 200,000 of the most desperate Syrian refugees are having their aid cut off entirely.

In Geneva, the International Organization for Migration reckons that about 237,000 people have set out across the Mediterranean in rickety ships headed for Europe this year, a number already exceeding last year’s total figure of 219,000. The main cohort consists of Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population on earth. Europe is now facing a refugee crisis unlike anything since the Second World War.

In a Canadian context, the only comparable event is Black September, 1847, the darkest hour of the Irish famine, when roughly 100,000 mostly Irish refugees arrived in the Saint Lawrence River in dozens of coffin ships. Roughly 17,500 Irish drowned that year, or died on board ship or in the fever sheds on the quarantine island of Gross Isle. The Syrians are the Famine Irish of 21st century.

There’s another illustrative comparison worth making. Canada has settled roughly 20,000 Iraqi refugees since 2009, and last January the Conservative government committed to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees on top of 1,300 welcomed in 2014. Last month Stephen Harper promised that another 10,000 Syrians and Iraqis would be added to the mix. Here’s the contrast: the kinder, gentler Barack Obama administration has allowed only about 1,500 Syrian refugees to settle in the United States over the past four years.

Stephen Harper is right when he says the New Democratic Party’s approach to the Syrian catastrophe amounts to little more than “dropping aid on dead people.” The NDP is right when it points out the inordinately obtuse and incoherent accounting of just how many Syrian refugees have actually arrived in Canada. The Liberals are right, too, in their call to expedite family reunification visas, show more generosity and cooperation in private-sponsorship efforts, reduce processing times, and allow Syrians on temporary visas to extend their stays in Canada and acquire citizenship.

But what we are all doing – Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, Americans, Canadians, and all the dominant elites of the United Nations and the NATO countries that cleave to that sophisticated indifference known in polite company as anti-interventionism – is a very straightforward thing. We are watching Syria die. We are allowing it to happen. And if you can comprehend that, you will know something of the sorrow that afflicts Faisal Alazem and all those other Syrian-Canadians these days.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

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Syria’s new atrocities

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By Editorial Board April 18

TWICE SINCE 2011, President Obama has delivered major speeches citing the free flow of oil as a U.S. “core interest” in the Middle East. The prevention of mass atrocities has been a lower priority; in a 2013 address Mr. Obama said that it should be pursued only in conjunction with allies and without the use of U.S. military force.

It was therefore surprising to hear an apparent reversal by the president in an interview this month. “At this point, the U.S.’s core interests in the region are not oil,” he told the New York Times. “Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace . . . that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.”

In making this rare reference to the ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria, Mr. Obama could have been referring to something very specific. On March 16, according to the State Department, the regime of Bashar al-Assad dropped barrel bombs on the town of Sarmin that reportedly contained chlorine. Six people, including three children, were killed. According to a report released Monday by Human Rights Watch, this was one of six barrel bomb attacks involving the suspected use of chlorine or other chemicals around the northern city of Idlib between March 16 and March 31.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry reacted strongly to the first strike, issuing a statement saying that the regime’s use of chlorine would violate the Chemical Weapons Convention. “The international community cannot turn a blind eye to such barbarism,” Mr. Kerry said. “We are looking very closely into this matter and considering next steps.”

We’d like to hope that the words of the president and secretary of state suggest that the administration is reconsidering its refusal to take consequential action against the Assad regime, which continues to cross the red line once established by Mr. Obama by using chemical agents against civilians — and is the root source of the turmoil destroying both Syria and Iraq.

So far, unfortunately, turning “a blind eye” remains the best description of U.S. behavior. The administration is nominally pursuing a weak initiative to train 15,000 Syrian fighters over three years, with the help of regional allies. But the effort has been excruciatingly slow to get off the ground, in part because of the administration’s insistence that the sole mission of the force must to fight the Islamic State.

A report issued last week by the Atlantic Council offered one way forward: converting the underpowered training mission into a project to build a 50,000-member “Syrian national stabilization force” capable of imposing order across the country. As Frederic Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria, noted in presenting the study, just the announcement that the United States intended to build such a force could soften the diplomatic impasse that now makes a negotiated end to the Syrian war impossible.

Without question this would be a major undertaking: As a starting point it would require the creation of the northern Syrian safe zone that Mr. Obama has resisted for years. But it would offer a path to ending the Assad regime and its crimes. That makes it a more realistic course than the president’s refusal to act — which won’t protect core U.S. interests, or save a single child from a barrel bombing.

Read more on this issue:

Valerie Amos: Who cares about Syria?

 

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A Critical Exchange with Reese Erlich on Syria, ISIS & the Left

March 8, 2015

Reese Erlich is a foreign correspondent with GlobalPost and reports regularly for National Public Radio (NPR), the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), and Radio Deutsche Welle. His reporting has earned him multiple awards over the years. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared September 14, 2010, “Reese Erlich Day” in honor of his investigative work. “Mr. Erlich,” the resolution read, “exhibits the finest qualities of…reporters willing to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

He is also a friend of mine. We met in the home of our mutual friend Stephen Kinzer in 2009. Kinzer wrote the Foreword to Erlich’s book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba and hosted a gathering in his home in Oak Park (just outside of Chicago) in Erlich’s honor. It was a fabulous evening, and Erlich and I stayed in touch. A few months later he was in Iran, reporting on the historic protests that convulsed the Islamic Republic following its June presidential election. He wrote some of the very smartest stuff about those dramatic events. Erlich is a dyed–in–the–wool New Leftist who cut his teeth at Ramparts, the iconic magazine of1960s radicalism, took many of his fellow leftists to task for the utter myopia they displayed amidst the events in Iran that summer. His essay “Iran and Leftist Confusion” was bang-on and desperately-needed. He also provided a healthy corrective to the pervasive narcissistic blather about Iran’s Green movement being a Twitter revolution.

A couple years on, when his book Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire came out, I set up an event for Erlich at Chicago’s No Exit Cafe. And in 2013, when Erlich and Norman Solomon (his co-author on the 2003 book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You) did a speaking tour to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, I set up an them for them in Denver.

In Erlich’s latest book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect​, he is critical of me and my colleague Nader Hashemi for advocating humanitarian intervention to end the criminal starvation sieges in Syria. He reached out to me before the book went to print, asking me to read this section and send him feedback. We had sharp disagreements about Syria, but I appreciated his spirit of generosity and friendship. In this same spirit, I was happy to host him once again in Denver for a talk on his new book. But I was also keen to sit him down for a critical exchange about his book for the video series that our Center for Middle East Studies produces.

Our conversation reflects both my deep respect for Reese’s work and also my serious disagreements with him. It is a spirited and critical (in the best sense) exchange between two leftists with different perspectives on one of key issues of our time.

The Abdication of Moral Responsibility

ARGUMENT

United Nations’ Food Program Halts Aid to Syrian Refugees

World Food Programme Cites Lack of Funding

A Syrian Kurdish woman walks in a refugee camp in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province in Turkey, in October.
A Syrian Kurdish woman walks in a refugee camp in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province in Turkey, in October. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The United Nations World Food Programme on Monday said it would halt its aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees on the cusp of winter due to lack of funding.

In a statement on their website, the WFP said the consequences of the decision will be “devastating” for the refugees and their host countries.

“A suspension of WFP food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries,” WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said in the statement.

The decision will impact refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, and comes at a time when temperatures have begun to drop in the region, raising concerns around how refugees will be able to endure the potentially harsh winter.

Many Syrian refugees, especially in Lebanon, where the majority of refugees reside, live in makeshift tents and camps and suffer from a lack of fuel, clean water, proper sanitation and warm clothing.

The U.N. agency warned in September it was running out of funds and that cutbacks were inevitable if additional support wasn’t received.

The inability to secure the $64 million needed for the program to continue also ends the WFP’s electronic voucher program. The e-vouchers allowed refugee families access to a prepaid credit card that could be used in participating local stores. The program had contributed $800 million to the economies of the host countries, the statement said.

If sufficient financial support is secured, the program will resume immediately, the statement said.

As the Syrian crisis nears the end of its fourth year, the WFP isn’t the only U.N. agency struggling to meet its funding appeals, said Lama Fakih, Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Of the $3.7 billion request made in June 2014 by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Syria’s neighboring countries and other humanitarian agencies, only 51% of the funds have been received thus far.

“As the number of Syrian refugees increases, 3.2 million now, the needs increase, and despite international attention diverted to other crises, Syrians are still very much in need,” said Lama Fakih, Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

There are several reasons contributing to the lack of sufficient aid to Syrian refugees, most notably the various humanitarian emergencies happening simultaneously around the world that have diverted the world’s attention and wallets away from Syria.

According to Joelle Eid, the WFP’s communication officer stationed in Amman, Jordan, the need for humanitarian aid has skyrocketed this year. The WFP is currently dealing with five high priority emergencies around the world, including the Ebola crisis, Eid said.

“If we don’t urgently get this assistance, get the $64 million for December alone, people will simply go hungry,” she added.

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Black Holes and Media Missionaries

A boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at rightA boy walking in a street in Bab Amr, Homs. Daniels and 3 other journalists were holed up for days is behind the building at right. Photo: Freedom House. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

The lights are going off in Syria. Peter Kassig is only the most recent witness that succumbed to the darkness. David Haines, Steve Satloff and James Foley went before him. They had all gone there to assist and bear witness. A measure of the Islamic State’s (IS) monstrosity is the nobility of the people it has killed. International media has rightly condemned these horrific murders.

For IS murder is a political act. But is also a performance–a spectacle as a means to amplify its message. The ritual act of murder, especially of a westerner, is certain to receive media coverage. IS uses this to rudely force attention.

The emergence of IS has been a godsend for the regime. IS is the monster that the regime always claimed it was fighting. Ideologues who echoed and amplified this regime line over the years have proclaimed IS the true face of the opposition.  Left unmentioned is the fact that until recently IS fought its biggest battles against the Syrian opposition. Indeed, earlier in the year, rebels had driven it out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, much of Aleppo and areas around Damascus. It was only after its successes in Iraq and its newly acquired arsenal that it returned to Syria in triumph. But for many western ideologues, IS is part of an undifferentiated radical opposition to the secular regime of Bashar al Assad.

In fact, IS has a lot more in common with the regime. It is a totalitarian force that uses terror as a means of control. The regime kills but is loath to take responsibility; IS revels in murder. The regime kills more, but IS better amplifies its acts. The regime’s audience is domestic; IS has transnational ambitions. Significantly, where IS proudly rejects the international order, the regime presents itself as its indispensable, if ruthless guardian. For the media, IS is a more exciting story.

The media is selective elsewhere too. Foley and Satloff aren’t the only journalists IS has killed: there have been many more—Iraqis and Syrians—whose names remain unknown to the world. And IS isn’t the only force in Syria killing journalists and aid workers: Bashar al Assad’s regime has been doing it far longer.

The Syrian nightmare has unfolded with such pace and intensity that each day’s horror displaces the one preceding it. With IS dominating the news it might be hard for audiences to remember that the killing of western journalists in Syria is as old as the conflict itself. It began long before any jihadi had alighted on Syrian soil.

Years before anyone had heard the name IS, the regime killed Marie Colvin of theSunday Times along with the French photographer Rémi Ochlik when, in the first major escalation of the war, it used artillery on the Baba Amr district of Homs. A month before that it had killed Gilles Jacquier of France 2.

Since the beginning, Damascus has tried to control the narrative by making it too dangerous for journalists to report from Syria—unless they embedded with the regime. Some have embraced this arrangement; unwilling to compromise their objectivity, others have accepted the perils of independent reporting. But most have stayed clear, relying instead on stringers, activists, or citizen journalists.

Leaving aside the courage of the few who have risked much to report from outside regime-controlled Syria, reporting on the conflict has been gernally dismal. While some have used new technologies, including Skype, Youtube, Twitter, to gather material for reportage; others have forgone such exertions to deduce reality from pre-existing notions, ignoring the specificities of the situation in favour of ideological formulas that are impervious to time and place.

With multiplying dangers and fewer reporters willing to enter the killing fields of Syria, it is the ideological types that have come to dominate reporting. This type has also found it easier to embed with the regime. They visit Syria not in search of stories but bring stories to Syria in search of validation.

Beyond the ideological type, however, there is also the hack. If the ideological types are defined by their dogmas, the hacks are defined by procedures. All journalists aspire to be objective; and objectivity for most journalists is encoded in certain practices. To be objective is to be fair, impartial and balanced. But fairness and impartiality are harder to demonstrate; balance is measurable. For this reason, hack reporters use balance as an indicator of their objectivity. Balance is useful in many cases. But where there is a severe imbalance in the underlying situation, imposing balance distorts the picture.

In Syria, the hack reporter’s need for balance has created a misleading picture of the conflict. One often hears the bien pensant liberal lament how “both sides” in the conflict are just as bad as the other. But “both sides” in the conflict are not equal. One side is a state with its hierarchies, chains of command and coercive apparatus intact; the other side is a diffuse, uncoordinated and disorganized opposition. The crimes of the former reflect policy; those of the latter only reflect on the group or individual perpetrating them. The regime’s crimes have been sustained and wholesale; the crimes of the opposition are retail and sporadic.

That is not to excuse any crime. All criminals—rebel or regime—must face justice. But one must be wary of false notions of balance that undermine a sense of proportion.

On September 11, 2013, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, concluded that before the August 2013 chemical massacre, the Assad regime had perpetrated at least eight major massacres while the rebels had been responsible for one. The rise and extreme brutality of IS hasn’t changed this equation. In a report concluded a year later, Pineheiro noted that the despite IS’s extreme violence, the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”.

This isn’t all that surprising if one considers that the Assad regime has a monopoly on airpower, armour, heavy artillery, ballistic missiles, and unconventional weapons—and it hasn’t hesitated to use them against civilians.

But monstrous as the regime’s actions are, it has always managed to find people willing to give it the benefit of doubts. Refracted through ideology, each of the regime’s ruthless acts of repression becomes a strike against western imperialism or Islamic fundamentalism (the contradictions between the two notwithstanding). This is achieved by zooming out from actual events to an imagined context: Assad is not at war with his own people, we are made to understand, but against the proxies of an imperial force trying to undermine the “axis of resistance” of which he is a part.

Only such creative reimagining could allow a veteran journalist like Charles Glass to present Assad as the underdog and his most heinous crime—last year’s chemical attack on Ghouta—as something positive. Consider these words:

“The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side”

After using the benign “introduction” to describe a major escalation, Glass immediately retreats into the passive voice with “alleged to have been used” which doesn’t require him to identify the alleger. The UN and OPCW have alleged no such thing. The regime perhaps?

But things get worse: Glass next tells us that the attack “unexpectedly led to hope for a way out”, because the Russians compelled Assad to give up his chemical arsenal. Glass then goes on to laud Russian which “delivered President Assad” at Geneva, but condemns the US for being “slow to persuade the militias it funds” along with its allies.

By this reckoning when the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons against its people, it is delivering hope; the real aggressor, it turns out, is the US.

Glass is not even the worst of them. The Independent’s celebrated foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who has also chosen to embed with the regime,reported shortly after the chemical attack, that “information is now circulating in the city”—furnished by the Russians and corroborated by “a former Special Forces officer” operating with the Syrian Army’s 4th Division, who is “considered a reliable source” (by whom?)—that Assad wasn’t responsible for the attack. Fisk’s reliable source—the regime—tells him that it was indeed the rebels that were responsible for the attack.

Fisk’s credulity is matched by his ethics. In August 2012, after a massacre in Daraya had left between 400-500 people, Fisk rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier into the city to interview survivors and concluded that it was “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” that were responsible for the massacre. It somehow did not occur to this veteran journalist that people might not be very forthcoming being interviewed by a journalist “in the company of armed Syrian forces”. Indeed, Human Rights Watch came to very different conclusions after its investigation into the massacre. And when the veteran war correspondentJanine di Giovanni visited the town unaccompanied by regime troops, she received detailed testimony on how the Syrian military had carried out the massacre.

Patrick Cockburn, Fisk’s colleague at The Independent, is another veteran correspondent, a winner of many awards. His book, The Jihadi’s Return, is enjoying great success. For Cockburn, IS  has little to do with the Syrian regime; it is a by-product of the West and its Gulf allies’s decision to support an uprising against Assad. Cockburn finds it absurd that the West should try to strengthen the Iraqi government against IS while simultaneously trying to weaken the Syrian one. For Cockburn the Syrian regime is the only force capable of confronting IS. More controversially, he has portrayed the Free Syria Army as being in cahoots with IS, attributing this incendiary claim to an “intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighbouring Syria”. (Note that this is the only instance in which Cockburn doesn’t reveal the name of the country. His most frequent source is the intelligence service of Iraq—Assad’s closest ally).

Cockburn’s problems go beyond sourcing. Like Fisk, he also takes liberties with facts.

On page 76 of his book, he writes: “I witnessed JAN forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.”

If he witnessed this, then it would be major scoop. Since other than the regime, the only source to make this claim was the Russian state broadcaster RT. However, RT had used fake pictures to support its claim. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found no evidence of this alleged massacre.

However, when one looks at Cockburn’s original report on the incident in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, he attributes the story about rebels arriving through drainage pipes to “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”. In that version, Cockburn wasn’t a witness.

By far the most egregious incident of journalistic malpractice comes from one of the most celebrated names in journalism: the Pulitzer Prize-winner . In two frontpage articles for the venerable London Review of Books, he claimed that it was the rebels rather than regime that carried out August 2013’s chemical massacre. Hersh attributed this claim to an unnamed “former intelligence official”. Hersh’s theory was contradicted by extant data collected by the UN and OPCW (as I have shown in an extended investigation for the Los Angeles Review of Books). But the story that Hersh was retailing had already been circulating on the internet. It’s authors were a group of former intelligence officials, some of whom are Hersh’s frequent sources. Their main claims were attributed thus:

There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters — providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters.

The date was September 6. But on September 1, the Canadian conspiracy site Globalresearch.ca published an article by one Yossef Bodansky implicating the Obama administration in the chemical attack. It began thus:

There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters — which makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.

The intelligence officials had plagiarized. Their claim was the figment of a conspiracist’s imagination.

Syria has been a deadly conflict for journalists – it has claimed the lives of 70 so far. Few journalists are willing to venture there any longer—except as guests of the regime.  Those who have made this compromise in turn have acquired influence despite the compromised nature of the journalism that they are producing.  In turn they are shaping public opinion and even policy. We have to be wary of those who see Syria as an opportunity to settle old ideological scores.

An abridged version was first published in “die tageszeitung” on November 25, 2014

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Syria’s chemical weapons

Brian Whitaker continues to follow the strange case of a widely circulated article alleging chemical weapons were used by Syrian rebels — one of whose alleged authors has been vainly trying to remove her byline.

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments “in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications”).

The story got more attention than it might otherwise have deserved because Gavlak’s relationship with the Associated Press gave it an air of credibility. Ababneh, on the other hand, is virtually unknown and Google searches for examples of his previous journalistic work drew a blank.

Yesterday, however, Gavlak issued a statement denying that she was an “author” or “reporter” for the article. “Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author,” she said. It was a carefully-worded statement which did not specifically exclude the possibility that Gavlak had been involved in some other capacity in helping to produce the story.

Meanwhile the Sunday Telegraph publishes an interview with a former chemical weapons chief in the Syrian army:

Gen Sakat says he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.

He also insists that all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.

Now he also claims to have his own intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy his chemical weapons by transferring some of his stocks to his allies – Hizbollah, in Lebanon, and Iran.

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